The Lamb is the one worthy to open the scroll. The Lamb has gone to the one who sits on the throne and has taken the scroll from his hand. All of creation is praising the Lamb because he is worthy. Now the scroll is about to be opened, one seal at a time. The first five chapters of Revelation have been in preparation for the unveiling of this concealed scroll. Chapter 6 begins to reveal the “things which must soon take place” (1:1).
First Seal (6:1-2)
The Lamb opens the first seal. When the seal is opened, one of the four living creatures said with a voice that sounded like thunder, “Come!” The first seal reveals a white horse. On the white horse was a rider holding a bow. A crown was given to the rider and he came out conquering and to conquer.
These first four seals reveal what has been commonly called, “The four horsemen of the apocalypse.” We read about these horses and riders in Zechariah 1:7-11 and Zechariah 6:1-8. In chapter 1 of Zechariah these horses and riders are shown to be the sent by the Lord to patrol the earth. In chapter 6 of Zechariah we see these horses and riders commanded to patrol the earth. The key to understanding this image is found in Zechariah 6:5. The four horses and riders are going out to the four winds of heaven. What does this mean? What do the four winds of heaven represent?
The scripture use the four winds to refer to a sweeping judgment. Notice a few passages where the four winds are used.
And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come. (Jeremiah 49:36 ESV)
And as soon as he has arisen, his kingdom shall be broken and divided toward the four winds of heaven, but not to his posterity, nor according to the authority with which he ruled, for his kingdom shall be plucked up and go to others besides these. (Daniel 11:4 ESV)
Up! Up! Flee from the land of the north, declares the LORD. For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the LORD. (Zechariah 2:6 ESV)
And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:31 ESV)
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. (Revelation 7:1 ESV)
In Zechariah, the four horsemen are going to the four winds of heaven to unleash this sweeping judgment. In Revelation they are doing the same thing. The image of the four horsemen is repeated to call to the readers’ mind that this is an image of the coming of sweeping judgment. We need this knowledge so that we make the proper interpretation in this chapter. When we learn the role of the four horsemen in the Old Testament we see that we are not compelled to make each individual rider have a particular meaning. For example, many see the first rider on a white referring to Christ and many see the rider as the antichrist. However, this is not the intention of Revelation. In Zechariah there is a white horse with a rider, but it is not referring to Christ. It is just one of four horses that together are unleashing sweeping judgment.
The picture in verse 2 is straight forward and is not intended to be made complicated. The rider of the horse is given a crown, that is, he is given authority. What does the rider have authority to do? He has authority to conquer and continue conquering. Christ has unleashed the power to conquer.
The Second Seal (6:3-4)
The Lamb opens the second seal and the second living creature also says, “Come!” The opened seal reveals a bright red horse. Its rider was given authority to take peace from the earth so that people would kill one another. Christ has unleashed the removal of peace and the bringing of war.
The Third Seal (6:5-6)
The Lamb opens the third seal and the third living creature announces, “Come!” The third seal reveals a black horse and the rider had a pair of scales in his hand. The scales picture of rationing of food. A denarius was a day’s wage. This amount suggests food prices about eight to sixteen times higher than normal because of famine conditions. A quart of wheat was only enough for one person to be sustained for one day. This was not enough food for a family. Barley was a lesser grain used by the poor. Three quarts of barley for a denarius was enough for a typical family for one day. While the other necessity of oil and wine are not affected by pricing, a person would not be able to afford those necessities since one day’s wage would be only enough for a day of food alone. Christ has unleashed famine on the inhabitants.
The Fourth Seal (6:7-8)
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, the fourth living creature also said, “Come!” The opened seal reveals a pale horse whose rider was named Death. Hades followed Death. They were given authority over the fourth of the earth to kill with sword, to kill with famine, to kill with pestilence, and to kill by wild beasts. Death and Hades are given four tools to use to kill. Here is a place that we need to remember that these numbers are symbolic. The prophecy is not that 2 billion people would be killed. The prophecy is showing that never everyone will die in this judgment. Only a smaller fraction of people will be killed, but not all.
These four tools for death are also common tools of God’s judgment. In Ezekiel 14 the word of the Lord declares judgment against Jerusalem. Notice the similar language used in verse 21.
For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! (Ezekiel 14:21 ESV)
Jeremiah prophesies the same concerning Jerusalem: And when they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD: ” ‘Those who are for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are for the sword, to the sword; those who are for famine, to famine, and those who are for captivity, to captivity.’ 3 I will appoint over them four kinds of destroyers, declares the LORD: the sword to kill, the dogs to tear, and the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth to devour and destroy. 4 And I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what Manasseh the son of Hezekiah, king of Judah, did in Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 15:2–4 ESV)
There is a reason that these tools of death were used against Jerusalem. God promised in the early days of the nation of Israel that this would be the way God would destroy Jerusalem. Look at Leviticus 26:18-33.
And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you again sevenfold for your sins, 19 and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. 20 And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. 21 “Then if you walk contrary to me and will not listen to me, I will continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins. 22 And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted.
23 “And if by this discipline you are not turned to me but walk contrary to me, 24 then I also will walk contrary to you, and I myself will strike you sevenfold for your sins. 25 And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall execute vengeance for the covenant. And if you gather within your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. 26 When I break your supply of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven and shall dole out your bread again by weight, and you shall eat and not be satisfied.
27 “But if in spite of this you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, 28 then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 And I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols, and my soul will abhor you. 31 And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. 32 And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. (Leviticus 26:18–33 ESV)
Notice the promise of all four tools used against Jerusalem. Wild beasts (26:22), famine (26:20,26), pestilence (26:25), and sword (26:25,33). This is the way of Jerusalem’s demise. Thus, the imagery is used again in Revelation 6:8. Christ has unleashed death upon the inhabitants.
The First Four Seals and Matthew 24
One point worthy of our consideration is the parallel between Matthew 24 and the events of the first four seals. As Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, notice the parallels between Matthew 24:6-11 and Revelation 6:1-8. Wars are predicted (24:6), kingdoms and nations attacking and conquering (24:7), famines and earthquakes (24:7), and being put to death (24:9). These connections between Matthew 24 and Revelation 6 are also noted by scholars.
“The seals closely parallel the signs of the approaching end times spoken of in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:1-35; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-33).” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)
“The equation of the seals with Matthew 24:6-14 is correct….” (Thomas, Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, 416)
“The similarities are so close that some venture to call that discourse the main source of the seal judgments (Charles; Beasley-Murray).” (Thomas, Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, 416)
“But the content corresponds very closely to the eschatological discourse of Jesus in Luke 21.9-36….” (Smalley, 146)
I will leave you to make your own judgments about the connections between Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 with Revelation 6. Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 are parallel accounts referring to the coming judgment and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (cf. Luke 21:20). Therefore, if Revelation 6 is referring to the same events as Matthew 24, then the first four seals are describing the destruction of Jerusalem. This would fit with what we previously noted, that the prophecy of wild beasts, pestilence, famines, and sword as the causes of death were spoken against Jerusalem in the scriptures.
- The seals are revealing God’s judgments on the earth.
- We have not been explicitly told who the judgments are against.
- These judgments are pictured as affecting many (wars, famine, and death)
- We are given an overview of the coming judgments. Once all the seals are opened, more details about these judgments will be revealed (chapters 8-11).