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The Seven Seals - Part I

Revelation 6:1-17; 8:1-5

There can be no mistake concerning the similarities between the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) and the seal judgments of Rev. 6 and 8. Note the following common themes that are addressed in both:

Wars – Mt. 24:6 / Rev. 6:2 (1st seal)

International strife – Mt. 24:7a / Rev. 6:3-4 (2nd seal)

Famines – Mt. 24:7 / Rev. 6:5-6 (3rd seal)

Pestilence –Lk. 21:11 / Rev. 6:7-8 (4th seal)

Persecution and martyrdom – Mt. 24:9 / Rev. 6:9-11 (5th seal)

Celestial phenomena – Mt. 24:29 / Rev. 6:12-17 (6th seal)

What conclusions do we draw from this? Some have argued this proves that the Olivet Discourse and the Seals of Revelation are describing the same period of time, often thought to be the “tribulation” immediately preceding the second advent of Christ. But I have argued elsewhere that the Olivet Discourse is actually concerned with events that the people of Jesus’ own “generation” would witness, i.e., events characteristic of the first century, specifically the period 33-70 a.d. (see my material on Matthew 24 found in the Eschatology folder of the Theological Studies section of the website).

This leads to one possibility, that Revelation was written before the events of 70 a.d. and is a graphic description, in obviously figurative language, of the fall of the city and destruction of the Temple. I’m more inclined to believe that the solution is found elsewhere. My opinion is that the pattern of events that transpired in the period 33-70 a.d., leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, functions as a local, microcosmic foreshadowing of the global, macrocosmic events associated with the Parousia and the end of history. The period 33-70 a.d. provides in its principles (though not necessarily in all particularities), a template against which we are to interpret the period 70-Parousia (i.e., the period from the destruction of the Temple to the time of the Second Coming).

Then, of course, the reason for the similarity in language may be much simpler than this. It may simply be that such phenomena as we read about in both Mt. 24 and Rev. 6 are characteristic of the inter-advent age in general. In other words, we need not posit a deliberate or conscious parallel between the events of 33-70 and those of 70-parousia. It just so happens that what transpires in one age is what we might expect to transpire in the other.

I believe that the first four seals of Rev. 6:1-8, i.e., the four horsemen and their respective activity, describe “the operation of the destructive forces that were unleashed immediately on the world as a result of Christ’s victorious suffering at the cross, his resurrection, and his ascent to a position of rule at his Father’s right hand” (Beale, 371). Thus, contrary to the futurist interpretation of the book, I do not believe these judgments are reserved exclusively for a period of “tribulation” just preceding the second coming of Christ. They most certainly do apply to that period, but no more than to the entire period that we call the inter-advent age. Wilcock explains:

“The terrifying events of the first four Seals, which those who have to live through them might imagine to be signs of Christ’s return and of the close of the age . . ., are in fact the commonplaces of history. The four horsemen have been riding out over the earth from that day to this, and will continue to do so” (75; emphasis mine).

Introduction to the Seal Judgments – 6:1

There is no mistaking the fact that these judgments proceed from Jesus Christ. Each seal is broken, and thus its judgment unleashed on the earth, by the “Lamb” (v. 1). Furthermore, each of the four horsemen is beckoned forth respectively by one of the four living creatures who surround the Lamb on his throne. Finally, “God’s voice is frequently compared with the sound of thunder (2 Sam. 22:14; Job 37:2-5; Pss. 18:13; 29:3-9; Isa. 29:6; 30:30-31; Jer. 25:30; Amos 1:2), a simile perhaps derived from the theophanic imagery of the Sinai tradition” (Aune, 2:393). The point is that these phenomena are not an accident of nature, nor did they originate with Satan. They are of divine origin and are designed both to punish unbelievers and to purify and refine the faith of God’s people.

The First Seal – 6:2

[Three OT passages sound remarkably similar to Rev. 6:1-8 and its portrayal of the four horsemen of judgment: Lev. 26:18-28, Zech. 6:1-8, and Ezek. 14:12-23. In each of these texts judgment similar to that in Rev. 6 is threatened against either Israel or its pagan neighbors.]

There is considerable debate as to the identity of the first horseman. Some contend that it is symbolic of the successful power of the gospel gone out into all the earth. Others argue that the horseman is the antichrist while others say it is none other than Jesus himself. Those who see Jesus here appeal to the following three arguments.

(1) The text may be an allusion to Ps. 45:3-5 where we read of an Israelite king who defeats his enemies with bow and arrows. He is portrayed as riding forth victoriously “for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness” (45:4). According to Heb. 1:8, this psalm was messianic, pointing to Jesus.

(2) In Rev. 19:11-16, Jesus has crowns on his head and rides a white horse in the defeat of his enemies. However, I should point out that there are also dissimilarities: the rider in Rev. 6 carries a “bow” and wears a wreath (stephanos) of victory, while the rider in Rev. 19 has a sharp two-edged sword in his mouth and wears many diadems (diademata), symbols of sovereignty.

(3) In Rev. 14:14, Jesus is described sitting on a white cloud “having a golden crown on his head.” Elsewhere in Revelation Jesus is often said to “conquer” (nikao; cf. 3:21; 5:5; 17:14). Aside from this text, the color “white” is used 14x times in Revelation and always symbolizes righteousness or is associated with the holiness of God. Advocates of this view also point out that the white horseman, unlike the other three, is not explicitly said to be the means for judgment. “Conquering” could be interpreted positively.

Others contend that the first horseman is a Satanic parody of Jesus and must be interpreted as evil. Here are their four reasons.

(1) The language of “conquering” is also used in Revelation of the beast oppressing and persecuting the people of God (11:7; 13:7). In Revelation 13 we see that one of Satan’s primary tactics is to imitate Christ in appearance and activity.

(2) Beale points out that “the horsemen form a quartet to be distinguished literarily from the remaining three seals, like the first four trumpets and bowls with respect to the remaining trumpets and bowls. Since the first four trumpets and bowls represent parallel judgments, the same parallelism is probably present with the horsemen” (376). There are too many points of identity between the first horseman and the remaining three to make such a radical distinction between their natures. For example, each horseman is called forth by one of the four creatures, each horseman comes forth in response to that command, the color of each horse and the object carried by each rider point to the kind of woe that he brings, and the same statement of authorization (“was given to him”) is used of the first two of the four.

(3) It seems a bit odd that Christ would be both the one who opens the seal and the content of the seal itself. It would seem that the fourth horseman, identified as “death,” is a summary of the previous three. If so, then the first three must be evil. Aune argues slightly differently, suggesting that “the first cavalier [horseman] primarily represents warfare, and each of the three following cavaliers represents one of the stereotypical evils of war: sword, famine, and plague” (2:395).

(4) There is a possible parallel in 9:7 where we read of demonic agents of judgment that are like “horses prepared for battle” with “crowns” on their heads. The same clause of authorization (“was given to them”; 9:3,5) is used.

Although we can’t be dogmatic, it would appear that the first horseman is a Satanic parody of Jesus (19:11-16) sent forth by God (“it was given to him” is a typical way of referring to divine authorization in Revelation [see 6:11; 7:2; 8:2-3; 9:1,3,5; 11:2-3; 12:14; chp. 13; etc.]) to provoke war on the earth. There are also several OT texts in which “bow and arrows” are symbolic of divine chastisement (Deut. 32:42; Isa. 34:6; Hab. 3:9; Lam. 3:12-13; Ps. 7:13-14).

The Second Seal – 6:3-4

If the first rider introduces war into the earth, the remaining three delineate specific consequences of war (or, as Aune noted above, “stereotypical evils of war”). The second horseman has power to take peace from the earth so that people kill one another. This may also include persecution of Christians (cf. Mt. 10:34), for the word translated “slay” in the NASB is literally “slaughter” (sphazo) which is used consistently by John to describe the death of Jesus or the martyrdom of his followers (5:6,9,12; 6:9; 13:8; 18:24).

The Third Seal – 6:5-6

The third horseman is the agent for famine. In the ancient world “scales” were used to ration food for distribution during times of scarcity (cf. Lev. 26:26; 2 Kings 7:1; Ezek. 4:10,16).

A voice (surely that of Christ; note its origin) then issues a command that would indicate a limitation on the severity of the famine. Foods essential for life (“wheat” and “barley”) will still be available. A “denarius” was typically a day’s wage (cf. Mt. 20:2) in those days. A “quart of wheat” would be enough for one person for one day and “three quarts of barley” would last for three days. The prices mentioned here are anywhere from 8 to 16x the average for the Roman empire at that time. That the “oil” and “wine” (metonymy for olive trees and vines) are not affected also indicates a limitation on the intensity of the famine.

The Fourth Seal –6:7-8

Unlike the other horsemen, the fourth is given a name: “Death”. “Hades” (the abode of the dead) is said to follow after him.

This horseman is given authority from God to inflict death by four means: sword (war), famine, pestilence (lit. “death”, but commonly used with reference to pestilence), and wild beasts. Although severe, these judgments are limited in their scope, touching only ¼ of the earth. This preliminary, partial judgment of the earth is designed to prepare us for the final, consummate judgment that will come with the 7th in each of the three series of woes. Wilcock writes:

“The wiping out of a quarter of the human race sounds like a disaster of the first magnitude, until one realizes that nothing has been said to indicate that this is a single catastrophic event [emphasis mine]. After all, every man dies sooner or later, and what is probably meant here is that a sizeable proportion of those deaths are the unnecessary ones caused by war and famine and kindred evils” (72).

To be continued . . .