Can Change the World Again.
The Revelation of John - Chapter VI
Commentaries on the Entire Bible
The first six of the seven seals are opened in their order, and the prophet describes what he saw and records what he heard in each case.
1. And 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.
2. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
3. And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
4. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
5. And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
6. And 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 thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
7. And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
8. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
The first four of the seven seals have many points in common; I therefore group them together. As the Lamb opened them one after another, the four living ones successively summoned a symbolic horse to "Come." The best authorities omit from the text "and see."On the opening of each of these four seals, the central figure seen in the picture was a horse, but varying in color: in the first, white; in the second, red; in the third, black; and in the fourth, pale. The rider on the first carried the bowa war-weapon; a crown was given him, and he went forth to conquer. He is a symbol of victory.To the second there was given a great sword, and his power was to take peace from the land, and that men should kill one another. His mission is war.The third rider carries a pair of balances (scales for weighing accurately); and the voice heard in explanation of this symbol said, "A measure of wheat" [proximately, a quart] "for a Penny" [the price of a day's labor]; and a charge "not to hurt the oil and the wine." Scarcity and famine are the meaning of this symbol.The rider on the pale horse had his very name upon his brow: he is Death, and Hades follows in his train. They go forth to killwith sword, hunger, pestilence and wild beaststo the extent of one-fourth part of the people of the land, for in all these cases we are to give the word rendered "earth" its more restricted and yet rather common sense, land; i. e., the country had in view, which in the case of Jewish writers was their own Palestine. This was to them "the land."It admits of no reasonable doubt that these diverse colored horses are imitated from Zech. 1 and 6. The horses of Zech. 1: 8-11 have riders, coming in symbol from the Persian post-horses, and are explorers, scouts (using this military term in none but an honorable sense), for they traverse the earth to observe the state of it. They report every thing quiet and at rest. They represent the exploring agencies of God's providencehis never-ceasing supervision of the affairs of nationsa prerequisite to the administration of justice and retribution.The vision of Zech. 6 presents chariot horses who go forth, not to explore, but to avenge, to punish, to visit retribution upon the guilty nations whose oppressions of God's people had incurred his wrath. So v. 8 signifies. See my notes on the passage.As to the definite significance of the scenes presented on the opening of these first four seals, it would seem that there can be no reason for doubt. Conquest, War, Famine, Death are written on their very face. The things said conspire with the things shown to make this significance so far entirely plain.But in the special application of these symbols to actual history, locating in place and in time the events predicted, commentators have disagreed almost endlessly. I do not propose to distract (or to amuse) the reader with these discordant and most diverse opinions. Suffice it that the majority of English authors have taken their starting pointthe opening of the first sealfar on in time from the date of the writing, two or three centuries, more or less; and then have assumed that each successive seal covered its own section of history to the extent of some two, three, or four centuries, thus spreading the symbols of this chapter (the first six seals) over many hundreds of yearsin some of these schemes of interpretation nearly or quite to the end of the world. The edition of the American Bible Society, now lying before me, said to be "without note or comment," gives the contents of this chapter thus: "The opening of the seals in their order and what followed thereupon, containing a prophecy to the end of the world."It is simply inevitable that commentators who launch off in this way should diverge from each other in their course almost without limit. The landmarks given in this book they chiefly disregard, being careful only to "bring up" at the Millennium and the end of the world either once at the close of the book, or twice, the first being in this case at the end of chap. 11, and then to spread out the prophecy over the intervening ages, touching such events as may best suit their individual preferences, history being explored to find something analogous to these symbols, and each man judging of the importance of historic events, not at all by their relations to John or to his first readers, but by their apparent magnitude as seen from each commentator's own stand-point.I hardly need say to my readers that I have not the least confidence in such methods of interpreting the book of Revelation, nor indeed any other book ever written. Those who have read attentively my general introduction will understand why. At this point I must briefly give my views of the prophetic application of these symbols and the grounds on which they rest.
1. These four sets of symbols (briefly called these four seals) describe, not four different and distant periods of time, but one periodone cluster of events. They combine to represent one historic periodare parts of one whole. It is not war in one age of the world; famine in another; death and carnage in another; but war, famine, and death in dread combination, all conspiring to afflict and plague the men of some one generation. For, these things naturally go together. You can not have the white horse of victory and conquest through the "bow" without war; you can not have the red horse of war without having also the black horse, famine, and the pale horse, death, in his immediate train. Then moreover this view corresponds with the significance of these symbols in the original source from which they came. Zechariah's horses with riders (chap. 1) and his horses with chariots (chap. 6) each in their place are a unit in significance. No sensible man (so far as I know) ever thought of spreading out these symbols to designate each its own long age of historyeach its own distinct and independent set of events. Why then should such a method be adopted in the case of these same symbols when used by John?Moreover I am forbidden to spread out these symbols over ten centuries or even one, by the positive and conclusive limitations fixed by Jesus Christ himselfsaying, "things which must shortly come to pass;" "for the time is at hand." (1: 1, 3; and 22: 6, 10.)Still further, the scenes at the opening of the fifth seal must have been understood by John and his first readers as referring to their own martyred brethren and to the bloody men who had taken their livesscenes therefore of that very age and not of ages a thousand years distant.And yet further, the scenes of the seventh seal developed in chap. 11 are definitely located near yet shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem and of its temple, and therefore these preceding seals must have their historic place in the series of events that shortly preceded that catastrophe of ruin to Judaism and to its great city and nation.
2. As already said, the one cluster of events to which these four seals point and which they symbolize I find in the period immediately preceding the fall of Jerusalem (A. D. 70). To sustain this view I adduce the limitations of time just referred to in the opening of the book and elsewhere; in the scenes of the fifth seal; and in the landmarks which appear in chap. 11. I have also two other considerations of much force. viz.: (1.) The analogous and indeed strikingly similar prophecies of Christ himself as given in Mat. 24; Mark 13; and Luke 21. In Mat. 24: 6-9 we have these words: "And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall he famines and pestilences, and earth quakes in diverse places. All these are the beginning of sorrows." As given by Luke with at least equal strength, we have (21: 9-11): "Ye shall hear of wars and commotions; nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and great earthquakes shall be in diverse places and famines and pestilences, and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven."That all these predicted events come in before the fall of Jerusalem is proved by the fact that they precede the predicted "encompassing" of that city "with armies" (Luke 21: 20, 21), which was to be their signal for flight to the mountains.If any reader should feel the need of more proof, he can find it in the precise limitations of time within which Jesus locates those predicted events: "Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass away till all be fulfilled" (Luke 21: 32, and Mat. 24: 34). Thus the predictions of Jesus himself as given in the first three gospels and these predictions unfolded before John in the first four seals and indeed in the sixth and seventh also as we shall see, are entirely at oneharmonious and coincident. They predict the same calamities; to occur at the same time; among the same people; upon the same great city.(2.) The other fact, which naturally closes my argument, is the precise fulfillment in the history of that period, say during the five years (A. D. 65-70) immediately preceding the final fall of Jerusalem. Josephus has written out this history very minutely, and has shown that this prophecy has its perfect counterpart in the events of that precise period. Yet Josephus probably knew nothing about these predictions, either as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or as shown to John in these symbols. No suspicion of a purpose to make out a fulfillment of prophecy can possibly attach to him or to his history.Drawing mainly from the work of Josephus, yet in part from Roman sources, Jahn in his "History of the Hebrew Commonwealth" has given a more succinct account of these scenes of sedition, civil war, and consequent treachery, corruption, war and carnage. Thus"When Festus became procurator of Judea [A. D. 60] he found it full of robbers who devastated the country with fire and sword." [Jahn, page 447.] From this time until the breaking out of the Jewish war in A. D. 66. civil commotions were constantly occurring; scenes of blood filled the whole country with alarm. In Syria and in Galileepoints sufficiently remote from Jerusalem to account for the precise fact"ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars," these conflicts of armies were fearful. On one day "almost all the Jews of Cesarea were murdered: their countrymen were highly exasperated; they collected in great numbers, plundered and devastated the villages and cities of the Syrians. Philadelphia, Sebonitis, Gerasa, Pella, and Scythopolis suffered the most severely; Gadara, Hippo, Gaulanitis, Kedosa of the Tyrians, Ptolemais, Gaza, and Cesarea were attacked; Sebaste, Askelon, Anthedon, and Gaza were burnt." "On this account the Syrians fell upon the Jews who dwelt in their cities; and the whole country presented a scene of confusion and blood. In every city there were hostile armies, and there was no safety for any one but in the strength of the party to which he belonged. At Askelon, Ptolemais, Tyre, Hippo and Gadara, the Jews were involved in one general massacre," etc. [Jahn 457, and Josephus' Jewish Wars, Book II, chap. 19.] And when in A. D. 67, Vespasian swept through Galilee and Samaria, and city after city fell before him, "the scenes of horror and carnage were fearful; the merciless sword spared neither age nor sex; cities were left without inhabitant," These scenes correspond with but too sad precision to the prophetic portraying which we have in these symbols.I must not pass from these symbols without adverting again to the scenes at the opening of the first sealthe white horse and the crowned rider, going forth conquering and to conquer. I suggest that this group of symbols fitly holds the first place in the foreground, comprehensively forshadowing the grand result of all these judgments and plagues upon the wicked to be victory and glory to the Great Conqueror. This book of prophecy opens as it closes, this first seal being significantly correlated to the last prophetic scene before the binding of Satan. "I saw heaven opened (19: 1116), and behold a while horse, and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness doth he judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire and on his head were many crowns." "The armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean." This scene is the grand, triumphal procession: the first (Rev. 6: 2) is the foreshadowing pledge of this final result.
9. And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
10. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
11. And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
Before the revealing Spirit advances further in these descriptive symbols of judgment and terrible retribution, it is vital to his moral purpose to show the prophet and his readers somewhat more definitely on whom they are to fall and why. They needed to know this for their own consolation and for the confirming of their souls in Christian courage and fortitude to endure the fiery persecutions then before them. Hence the scenes revealed in this fifth section.Here are seen under the altar, i. e., at the foot of it, in imploring attitude, the souls of men already slain for their fidelity to Christ and his gospel. John hears their cry"How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" It seemed to them (why should it not?) that truth was suffering, that Christ's kingdom was going down, that justice was outraged by the longer permission of such horrible persecutions, and even by the delay of righteous retribution upon their murderers. God heard their cry and answered. First, white robes are given to each one of them, signifying that personally they are conquerors and shall have their rewardthat prospectively their cause is certain to conquer, and their Great King to come forth victorious and triumphant.They are also told that there must be yet a short delay of final judgment on their persecutor'sa few more of their fellow-servants and brethren having yet a martyr's death to suffer and a martyr's crown to win.This revelation, made in the opening of the fifth seal, had an obvious and admirable moral purpose. It not only made the previous seals intelligible and the subsequent seals (the sixth and the seventh) as well, showing that they predict God's retributions upon the persecutors of his people; but it revealed an open heaven and a blessed reward for the martyred dead, and gave them assurance of final victory to the cause for which they suffered. These were much needed consolations and they were inexpressibly rich.I have more than once referred to this fifth seal in its bearings upon the time of these predicted events. There being good grounds for assuming that these souls seen under the altar were when John saw this vision but recently slainthat they were the martyred Christians of that very age and perhaps of those very churches (Antipas being a sample, 2: 13), I infer that John and his first readers would feel the full force of such a scene and would find in it, first indeed the fact that they had more persecution yet to suffer; but secondly, that it would be only for a little season, and that reward and triumph were sure to follow.The grounds for assuming that these martyrs and their persecutors were men of that age are in briefthat this is the obvious construction of the words, "on them that dwell [now] on the earth;" that these scenes must certainly be construed in the light of the limitations of time which open and which close the book, and which appear in chap. 11 and elsewhere; that therefore it is simply certain that John and his first readers must have understood the revelations of the fifth seal as applying to their own already martyred brethren, and that therefore this construction must be the true one.To suppose that these were the souls of martyrs, not already slain but to be slain one thousand years thereafter, in the days of the Waldenses and Albigenses, is simply to wrest the words from their obvious sense and application, and force upon them a meaning which could never have entered the mind of John or of those whom he addressed. Such methods of interpretation can not be too severely censured. They practically destroy all confidence in prophecy by ignoring the legitimate principles and laws of prophetic interpretation. Good men, most excellent men, have made this mistake let no word of mine impeach their goodness or their worthiness of aim; but for truth's sake and to preserve prophecy from abuse, I must protest against such interpretation.
12: And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon become as blood;
13. And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
14. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
Here are premonitory indications of coming judgments: All nature is thrilled with terror and awe, and gives tokens of her agony. The heavens above and the earth beneath seem to forecast the fearful doom of guilty man and the awful coming of his righteous Judge for terrible retribution. Every symbol significant of terror, wrath, plague, is tasked to its utmost capacity to set forth the consummation of judgment and fiery indignation upon the guilty."There was a great earthquake." As recorded by Matthew (24: 7) Jesus had said of this very period: "There shall be earthquakes in diverse places." Palestine was somewhat subject to earthquakes. It would be easy to verify this prediction in a literal sense. Yet the genius of prophetic vision by no means requires us to find a precisely literal fulfillment of any one of these descriptive points. John states what he saw when the sixth seal was brokenthings which had significance indeed, but which did not mean that precisely these things, literally, should occur. A great earthquake was a pertinent symbol of social and political convulsionsthe ruin of cities; the fall of kingdoms; the wreck of society.The Old Testament prophets had said, "The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood" (Joel 2: 31 and Isa. 13: 10): "the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light" (Isa. 13:.10); "all their host shall fall down as the leaf falleth off from the vine and as a falling fig from the fig-tree" (Isa. 34: 4); "that the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll" (Isa. 34: 4). As to the removing of mountains and islands, Jeremiah had said (4: 24), "I beheld the mountains and lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly;" and Ezekiel (26: 18), "Now shall the isles tremble in the day of thy fall." As recorded by Matthew (24: 29) Jesus had used the same symbols: "The sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars, shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken." These symbols therefore were not new to prophecy; they might have been familiar to John through the reading of the Old Testament prophets. Their sense here is essentially the same as there.
15. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bond man, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
16. And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne; and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17. For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?
The moral force of this prophecy is signally heightened by showing not only how the material universe quailed and tremble but how the hearts of the mightiest of men quailed also, and how they fled for shelter to the rocks and to the mountains, but too glad if they might be buried beneath their fall rather than meet the face and the frown of Him who sits on the throne and of the Lamb in the great day of his wrath!The Greek has the comprehensive expression"hid themselves into the dens and rocks of the mountain," meaning that they fled into them for a hiding-place.There was a suggested sense of retribution in this which both the persecuted and their persecutors must feelthat whereas the hunted Christians had often and for a long time been compelled to flee to caverns and rocks in the wild mountains, in some periods to the catacombs of the dead for refuge, now this prophecy reverses the two parties: those who had hunted them down to shed their blood are now the fleeing ones, to hide in the same caverns and fastnesses whither they had driven defenseless Christians and where they had perhaps sought and found their victims. Isa. 14: 2, treating of Jews and Chaldeans, predicts the same reversal of their respective destiny.Note also the terrible significance and power of those ideas"hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne"for who can bear to meet his dreadful eye! Who can endure that look of blended dignity and love and yet of justice and righteousness before which no sinner can stand? And who shall measure the force of that marvelous combination of ideas"the wrath of the Lamb!" It is He of Calvary, the Lamb slain there, but here thought of as having been maliciously murdered, yet now meeting his murderers face to face in fiery retribution! They had wildly cried, "His blood be on us and on our children"and now it comes!
Recurring again to the application of this seal to the events shortly preceding the fall of Jerusalem, I am well aware that some of my readers will have the feeling that the prophecy outmeasures the eventis too grand, too vast, too terrible to have had even a primary reference to those events of historyTo such I reply (1.) That history has one way of putting its facts: poetic and symbolic prophecy, another. History might tell us that fifteen strong cities of Galilee were carried by storm and the masses of men, women and children butchered; that about three millions of Jews, convened for their great annual Passover, were crowded within the walls of Jerusalem when the Roman legions invested the city and shut them in: and that when the city fell, scarcely so many thousands escapedfamine, pestilence, conflagration, their own sword and the Roman sword, had combined their powers of torture and death to make this scene a climax of horrors! Somewhat of this sort would be the manner of History in her record of such a scene. But Poetry in prophecy might give you a bird's-eye-view of the convulsions and agonies of the heavens above and the earth beneath, and might paint a picture of terror and dread where you would see kings and princes, chieftains and warriors, in fearful consternation, rushing to the mountains and imploring rocks and hills to fall upon them and hide them from the awful face of God!Now it may not be an easy thing for us to place the two descriptions side by side and say which means the mostwhich outmeasures the other. Men would probably come to different conclusions upon such a question, governed very much by the susceptibility of their minds to the poetic figures.But passing this, I remark (2.) That the most rational way of testing our main questionwhether this prophecy of the sixth seal can be legitimately applied in its primary sense to the fall of Jerusalem, is, to see what is said in other prophecies of the same event. I refer the reader therefore to the words of Moses (Lev. 26: 14-39, and Deut. 28: 15-68)prophecies, it is generally conceded, equally applicable to the fall of Jerusalem before the Romans and to its fall before the Chaldeans. Here we read"The Lord will make thy plagues wonderful," etc.: "He will bring upon thee all the plagues of Egypt which thou wast afraid of, and they shall cleave to thee; and every sickness and every plague which is not written in the book of this law, them will the Lord bring upon thee until thou be destroyed."Moreover, Jesus himself said (Mat. 24: 21), "For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be."How can any symbols of prophecy be thought to outmeasure this?