Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/Revelation/Chapter 6
The seal judgments are the beginning of the Tribulation (sometimes called the Great Tribulation), a time of great suffering which will come upon the earth at the end of this age when, for a brief time, the forces of evil will have power over the entire globe. It is often seen both as a time of punishment and a final opportunity for people to come to God. However, those who submit themselves to God at this time will likely do so in the face of persecution.
In this chapter, we are dealing with the execution of divine judgment. By opening the seals, the Lamb demonstrates his authority to carry out this judgment. It is necessary to take a moment to describe the characteristics of this divine judgment. First, it is not personal vengeance. God is merciful and does not hold grudges; however, God must also be just in order to uphold his promises. This divine justice is also different from the impersonal nature of karma in some Eastern religions. God will personally judge specific sins and the people who committed them. All will be held accountable for their behavior. Finally, these initial judgments are not the end. They function primarily as a call to repentance. 
This chapter begins the first of three sets of seven judgment. Interspersed between the numbered judgments are unnumbered judgments. These are likely closer examination of the larger judgement taking place. Almost all of the imagery used in the judgments can also be found in other Jewish apocalyptic texts, but the way unnumbered judgments judgments are where the author's own Christian thought and theology can be most clearly seen.
The First Seal
- 1And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder -- one of the four beasts saying, “Come and see.” 2And I saw a white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer.
Commentary:This rider does not wear a crown, but rather "a crown was given to him." As one reads further on in this book Jesus already has and wears many crowns on his head ( Rev 19:12). Later on, in Chapter 19, Christ is depicted riding a white horse. For this reason, some have suggested that the rider in this passage represents Christ. However, this rider does not ride alone, but is merely one of four of different colors. Also, the timing of this rider’s appearance does not coincide with our understanding from other passages in the Bible of Christ’s appearance. There may, therefore, be no connection between the two. Another suggestion, quite contrary to the first, is that the rider is the Antichrist, who comes in imitation of Christ, and the horse represents his kingdom. This is a possibility. But beyond what is clear from the passage, that he is a ruler and a conqueror, we cannot say for sure who this person is. Ben Witherington III's commentary suggests that the first horseman generally symbolizes conquest but that the image used is a reference to Parthian archers. White was the sacred color of the Parthians and always had a few sacred white horses in battle, the Parthians were most feared by the Romans, and Jewish writers believed that the Parthian army would play a role in the eschatological fall of Rome. It is important to note that while John's use of white, the bow and arrow, and the mounted warrior may indeed point to the Parthians, this reference may not literally mean that the Parthians would have a role in the end of the world. If one considers that John sent the Book of Revelation to the seven churches in Asia in order to call them to repent, his symbolic references to the Parthians may be John's attempt to draw of common knowledge of the Parthians' historical prowess in conquest, in order to make the imagery more vivid and relevant to the readers.
The Second Seal
- 3And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, “Come and see.” 4And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.
Commentary: This seal gives off a terrible depiction for it is in this seal that war is represented. Man no longer feels the need to hold back from war resulting in the death of many people, warriors and civilians alike. The red horse symbolizes the blood that will be shed by the sword that is given. Some scholars believe the attacks on Israel predicted in Ezekiel 38 and 39 and in Daniel 11:40-44 will occur at this time. It has not taken the Antichrist long to show his true agenda, but by now the world believes and follows him.
The Third Seal
- 5And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, “Come and see.” And I beheld a black horse, and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. 6And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, “A measure of wheat for a penny and three measures of barley for a penny, and see that you hurt not the oil and the wine.”
Commentary: Here, John is signaled by the man-faced cherub. The third seal brings runaway inflation and global famine, symbolized by the black horse. The balances held by the rider are for measuring out food for sale instead of the usual use of the balances to symbolize justice. In John's day, a penny (Roman Denarius) was the typical wage for a day's work. A measure (Greek choinix) was about one quart. Wheat was the desired food, barley was the fare of the poor. This seal tells the reader that a state of famine is to come. It will take planning and conscious awareness to make sure one's income can cover all of the body's needs. Man may be required to buy cheaper barley instead of wheat.
Witherington interprets the strange voice to mean the cost of food in famine. The exception of oil and wine can be seen as an allusion to Domitian's destruction of olive orchards and vineyards, that even God in his wrath will not go so far as to destroy wine and oil. The stubbling of orchards would have been escpecially devastating to the populace due to long nurturing required before a tree bears fruit. (A year's wasted barley crop, on the other hand, will sprout again next spring.) However, in a passage on the horrors of the four horsemen of the apocalyse -- unleashed upon the world by Jesus -- searching for a message of God's mercy seems counterintuitive.
The Fourth Seal
- 7And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, “Come and see.” 8And I looked and saw a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given to them over a quarter of the earth, to kill with sword, hunger, death, and the beasts of the earth.
Commentary: The fourth seal brings about disease and sickness, which historically follow in the wake of famine. The color of this horse is of interest. The Greek word at use here is "chloros," which typically refers to a yellow-green. This can be interpreted as the color of a decaying corpse. This horse can be understood to represent sickness and death. Although this translation states that the rider is Death and Hell is the follower, other translations hold that the rider is Death and the follower is Hades. Hades is the Greek god of the underworld, the land of the dead. Death can be seen as the killer, while Hades is the collector. Power is given to Death to kill off a quarter of the earth. Some commentaries suggest that the previous three horsemen were mere instruments of this fourth one.
Death and Hell in the passage are given power over the earth with sword, which could represent war, disease, or murder, hunger which represents famine, death, which represents a spiritual death and the Heavens being put into trial, and the beasts of the earth. This is not the only place in the Bible that states these powers. Ezekiel 5:17 states, "And along with the famine, wild animals will attack you and rob you of your children. Disease and war will stalk your land, and I will bring the sword of the enemy against you. I, the LORD, have spoken!"
The Fifth Seal
- 9And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held, 10and they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, do you not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? 11And white robes were given to every one of them, and it was said to them that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants and their brethren that should be killed as they were should be fulfilled.
Commentary: The writer had a very intense emotional response to the opening of the fifth seal. At first glance, the fifth seal doesn't seem to be a judgment. He sees the souls of martyrs under the alter at of the Lord. The death as martyrs of those who have come to the Lord during the Tribulation period, and have suffered for their faith. Persecutors of martyrs are only able to kill an earthly body, after death, there is nothing more that they may do. However, a follower of Christ's soul lives for all of eternity. The altar mentioned in this verse could be a symbol of protection. God has created a place in heaven for the souls of the faithful. However, this place in heaven is not from works, but simply from the sacrifice of Christ on the cross that grants entrance into heaven. In heaven they receive their white robes depict the righteous standing they have earned before God. They are told to wait, for there will be many more to join them as the Tribulation continues. The Lord is the comforter of hurt servants, and each of his servants blood is valued in his eyes. It is also possible that they are the Christian martyrs from throughout the Church era. Their persecutors will be judged in due time, but they are told to wait until their number is complete. If, as some interpreters have it, they are the 144,000 of 7:1-8  and 14:1-5 , that number is very specific and possibly preordained.
The Sixth Seal
- 12And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood, 13and the stars of heaven fell to the earth, even as a fig tree casts her untimely figs when she is shaken by a mighty wind.
Commentary: All of the series seem to be a form of judgement before Christ comes with the final judgement. The sixth seal brings a natural disastrous upheaval of nature, or perhaps a series of them. We know that the sun is darkened and the moon turns reddish when there is dust in the air. Obviously the stars cannot fall, but something like meteors or volcanic bombs would fit the description.. Modern science tells us that either a super-volcano or an impact event could produce these conditions. Unless the observer was at ground zero, the earth would be felt to shake first as described. When the disciples asked Jesus, "What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3), Jesus replied, "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven and powers of the heavens will be shaken" (Mt. 24:29). This is a very similar description of the same events that transpired in these verses. Joel 2:30 and 31 predict such disasters as signs of the Day of the Lord.
There are other earthquakes mentioned in the book of Revelation as well--this is the first of five. The next is mentioned in 8:5 "Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake." The third earthquake is in 11:13 and talks more of the reaction that people had after the earthquake: "At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven." The fourth is in 11:19 when God's temple is opened in the heavens and that opening is accompanied by natural disasters, including an earthquake. The last and most powerful occurs in 16:18-21, "And a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth...the cities of the nations fell...every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found." The repetitive use of these earthquakes is vivid--it could literally mean that earthquakes unlike anything the world has ever experience before will plague the world. Another interpretation is that this time will be full of tribulations and trials of faith unlike anything humans have faced before and that many will fall from grace during this time.
- 14And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
Commentary: The description of the sky ("heaven"), sun, and moon may be indicative of a deep haze where normally visible features like mountains and islands cannot be seen. This fits perfectly into the picture of the sun darkening and the moon turning red. Anyone who has experienced a volcanic ash-fall knows that it rolls across the land like a scroll and brings darkness with it. An impact event caused by the "stars" falling to earth (a possible reference to a meteor shower) would do much the same. However, the "great earthquake" of v12 suggests that the mountains and islands might literally be moved out of their places. Such movement is a common aftermath of earthquakes, though this passage suggests something out of the ordinary. This event is coming from the wrath of the lamb. But, this event is not the destruction of all beings. Refugees are told to take cover. This verse continues the theme of natural disaster that comes up repeatedly in Revelation. It is said that natural disaster is related to divine judgement. This particular natural disaster is occurring because the seals are being opened, but not all disasters in revelation are related to the seals. It can be inferred that the storms show God's judgement, or the wrath of the lamb.
- 15And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the chief captains, the mighty men, every bondman, and every free man hid themselves in the dens and rocks of the mountains, 16and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17for the great day of his wrath is come, and who will be able to stand?”
Commentary: Everyone, regardless of their station, will be terrified of these events. Some few will realize what is really happening and may still manage to be saved. Most will just want to hide or die, because the disaster is unbearable. The great day of his wrath is the Day of the Lord (Joel 1:15 and 2:1, 11, 31). "Is come" means it has actually arrived, just as long promised.
This last statement adds weight to the futurist interpretation, because it indicates that God has set aside a specific time for judgment, “the day of his wrath.” Furthermore, we have not yet seen catastrophes of the scale described, so that, according to the futurist, they must be still in the future. It must be remembered, however, that the futurist interpretation (and any interpretation which sees a fulfilment of Revelation's prophecies after the first century) is based on faith. Many scholars reject such a view of Revelation in the belief that it is impossible to foresee future events.It is interesting to remember that Christ is responsible for the seals and the results of opening them, but that the Lamb( possible symbol of Christ) is still so merciful and just.
- Witherington, Ben. Revelation. Cambridge University Press, 2003.