The first four seals have been opened and what has been revealed is sweeping judgment. Four different colored horses have been unleashed to conquer, wage war, bring famine, and kill with sword, pestilence, famine, and wile beasts. We noted in our last lesson that these seals have parallel to the imagery Jesus reveals in Matthew 24 concerning the destruction of Jerusalem. We also noticed in our last lesson that these four tools of death (sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts) were the tools promised by God to use against Israel if they were disobedient. With these thoughts in our minds, let us continue to read as the seals continue to open.
The Fifth Seal (6:9-11)
The Lamb opens the fifth seal and we have a change of imagery. The four horsemen have been unleashed to conquer, to make war, to send famine, and bring death. Our attention is turned to the souls who have been slain because of the word of God and for their witness. The souls of Christians who died under persecution for Christ are seen under the altar. The altar depicts their sacrificial suffering because of their faith and their witness. This is a sad scene. A picture of the people of God who have been killed for the word of God and for their testimony. Their physical bodies were killed but their souls are seen under the altar crying out in a loud voice. They are crying out these words, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They are crying out for justice. This is an appeal to God’s justice. It is a cry that is similar to the words of the prophet Habakkuk. Look at the wickedness that is going on throughout the earth. How long, Lord, until you judge and bring justice?
The answer given is rather interesting and somewhat depressing. The slain people of God are pictured as being given a white robe. The white robe is a picture of purity and faithfulness. The greater image is that these souls are victorious. The white robe represents they are victorious because of their purity and faithfulness. At a Roman triumph the conquering general would wear a white robe (Osborne, 288). These saints are conquerors because they have been faithful (see the end of each letter to the seven churches of Asia).
The answer continues that these martyred souls were to rest for a little longer. Judgment was not going to happen immediately. They must rest a little long “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” There are more who are going to be slain for Christ before these judgments unfold. The answer seems to be that God is not stopping the death of his people right now. More are going to die for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus before judgment is unleashed on the earth. Before we leave this point we must remember that the scriptures tell us that the persecutor of Christians in the first century is the Jews. The book of Acts reveals that Stephen is killed by the Jewish authorities. Paul is persecuted, stoned, and left for dead by the Jews. The Jews chase Paul and his companions from city to city stirring up the crowds against them. It is the Jews that raid Jason’s house in Thessalonica. Too often we focus on the Roman persecution of Christians and forget that the Jews are also persecutors of the people of God. To wrap this point, go back to the seven churches of Asia and notice who are persecuting the Christians. It is those who say they are Jews but are not. They are a synagogue of Satan. This is stated to the church in Smyrna and the church of Philadelphia. The Jewish people are claiming to be God’s people, but Christ says they are not.
The Sixth Seal (6:12-17)
The sixth seal is opened and devastating things happen. There is a great earthquake. The sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood and the stars fell from the sky like a fig tree losing its fruit in a windstorm. The sky vanished like a scroll being rolled up and every mountain and island was removed from its place. The kings of the earth and all the great one, every single person hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They were calling to the mountains and the rocks to fall on them and hide them from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. This sounds like the end of the world. This sounds like the final judgment and the second coming of Christ. However, we need to observe that this language is used repeatedly in the scriptures and it is not used to describe the end of the world. Consider the following passages that use similar language.
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. 11 I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. 12 I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir. 13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:9–13 ESV)
Was Isaiah prophesying about the end of the world? No, we need to read the beginning of this prophecy which is found in Isaiah 13:1. The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw. (Isaiah 13:1 ESV) Isaiah is speaking about the fall of the nation of Babylon. He using graphic imagery to describe that the fall of Babylon will not be partial or slight. It will be a complete judgment and utter destruction. We learn that when we read this language of the sun becoming black, the moon turning to blood, and the stars falling from the sky, we are reading about God saying that this nation will no longer exist. It will be judged so that it will not see the sun. Its power has fallen like stars falling from the sky. All they will see is blood.
Ezekiel used the same imagery.
I will drench the land even to the mountains with your flowing blood, and the ravines will be full of you. 7 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. 8 All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD. (Ezekiel 32:6–8 ESV)
Once again this sounds like the end of the world. But the prophecy is not about the end of the world, but about a national judgment against Egypt (Ezekiel 32:2).
This imagery is used again by the prophet Joel.
10 The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.
30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Joel 2:10, 30–31 ESV)
Who was God prophesying this doom against? Look at Joel 2:32 and you will see that God is speaking against Jerusalem. God is not describing the end of the world.
Let’s look at one more and this prophecy includes the image of the sky rolling up like a scroll.
Draw near, O nations, to hear, and give attention, O peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that fills it; the world, and all that comes from it. 2 For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter. 3 Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. 4 All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. 5 For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction. (Isaiah 34:1–5 ESV)
Notice a few things about this prophecy. First, we must see that God is declaring judgment against Edom, not the end of the world. Second, please notice that God describes the earth as listening to this and watching this judgment. Verse 2 describes God’s anger against all the nations. The judgment of Edom was to be an example to the rest of the nations that they should turn back. The rest of the world was to learn the lesson from the destruction coming upon Edom. The great day of God’s wrath had come.
Therefore, when we read this same imagery used in Revelation 6:12-17 we must not immediately assume that this prophecy refers to the end of the world. We will need to continue to read the book to determine what nation or people is the object of God’s wrath. Who is God judging? Whoever is being judged, Revelation 6:15 contains a similar point as Isaiah 34. Everyone is supposed to learn by witnessing God’s wrath. The kings of the earth, the great ones, the rich, the generals, the powerful, everyone, even slave and free, were to see and cower in fear at the wrath of God. God judging one nation was to be an object lesson to the rest of the nations of the earth.
The imagery of hiding in the mountains and calling for rocks to fall on them are images used for Jerusalem’s judgment. As Isaiah prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem because of their sins, notice the language Isaiah used.
And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the LORD, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. 20 In that day mankind will cast away their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, to the moles and to the bats, 21 to enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs, from before the terror of the LORD, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. (Isaiah 2:19–21 ESV)
Please notice that even though Jerusalem is the object of God’s wrath, the earth is terrified by the event. All people are to observe and learn from the wrath of God falling upon Jerusalem. Hosea prophesied that the judgment against the northern nation of Israel would be great and used the same language.
Samaria’s king shall perish like a twig on the face of the waters. 8 The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed. Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars, and they shall say to the mountains, “Cover us,” and to the hills, “Fall on us.” (Hosea 10:7–8 ESV)
Jesus also used this same language about the nation of Israel and the coming fall of Jerusalem.
And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. 27 And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. 28 But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26–31 ESV)
As verse 17 concludes the sixth seal, the point is appropriate. The great day of God’s wrath has come and who can stand? This is the main point of the six seals. God’s wrath has come. No one is going to withstand what God is doing. Judgment upon a nation has arrived.
There is nothing special about this judgment. What I mean by this is that this is the judgment that every person and every nation deserves. The great day of God’s wrath will come against all people and we of all people deserve that wrath as much as another. No one can stand before the wrath of God. We should be running to the mountains and hiding in the rocks and calling for these things to fall on us. We need to hide from the face of the one who sits on the throne. It does not matter who you are. Rich and powerful or not, no one can stand before the Almighty God.
Verse 11 shows grace in action. Those who died for the word of God are pictured as receiving white robes. Those who will give their lives to Jesus are shown victorious. This image will be drawn more fully for us in chapter 7. It is enough for this moment to see God’s people in heaven given white robes of victory.