REVELATION - CHAPTER 6
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
6:1. “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.”
6:2. “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.”
As the Lamb opened one of the seals John heard one of the living creatures call with a voice of thunder, Come (the words “and see” of the KJ translation of verses 1,3,5 and 7 are not in the better manuscripts), and in response to the command, a white horse appeared ridden by one wearing a crown, and holding a bow.
This rider is not to be confused with the One presented in chapter 19:11. There the Rider is Christ, but here the rider appears to be “the beast out of the sea (of the nations)” (Re 13:1), the man of sin (2 Th 2:3), the one whose number is 666 (Re 13:8), the final evil world ruler who will hold sway over the earth during the seven-year Tribulation period. (Some insist that these four horsemen represent principles, and have no relationship to a person. Since, however, the Beast out of the sea is the one whose activity eventually brings war, famine, pestilence, and death, there is no reason not to see him as the one portrayed here by the rider on the white horse, while acknowledging that the symbol may also be of the deceit he will practice to consolidate his position).
It is generally agreed that we have here the symbolic presentation of the beginning of the Tribulation age, when the beast ruler will come to power as head of the ten-kingdom coalition mentioned in Daniel chapter seven. His having a bow (symbol of power), rather than a sword (symbol of carnage), appears to confirm what is indicated in Da 8:23-25: his rise to power will be by deceitful diplomacy rather than warfare; the beginning of his reign being marked by virtual world-wide peace. His riding forth upon a horse (the Biblical symbol of strength), declares that his power will be great.
The white color of the horse indicates, not that the rider is righteous, but that he presents himself as a righteous one.
6:3. “And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.”
6:4. “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.”
The opening of the second seal was followed by the command of the second living creature, “Come,” in response to which a red horse appeared carrying a rider to whom was given power “to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.”
While this rider may represent the principle of war, it is clear that he may also portray the Tribulation-age beast ruler, but toward the middle of his short reign, when the fragile peace with which his early rule will begin, will have given place to global warfare more terrible than anything the earth has ever known. The color of the horse is the same as that of the blood that will flow as a result of the world-wide carnage during the Great Tribulation, the final three and a half years of the seven-year Tribulation age.
6:5. “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.”
6:6. “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.”
As the third seal was opened the voice of the third living creature was heard saying, Come, and immediately John beheld a black horse whose rider carried a pair of balances.
While the principle being portrayed is that of famine, the picture continues to be that of the Tribulation age beast ruler, but now ruling over a world experiencing one of the accompaniments of war: famine. Again, the color of the horse is indicative of the state of the world under the rule of the beast, for black is a color associated with famine, e.g., La 5:8, “Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.” Balances too, are connected with famine, e.g., Ez 4:16, “Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care....”
When the Revelation was written a penny was an average day’s wage, and a measure of wheat represented approximately a day’s supply of bread for one person. Famine in the Tribulation age will be so great that all of a working man’s wages will be needed just to buy food for himself. Barley was the food of animals or of the very poor, so that the exorbitant price of the three measures is simply indicative of the fact that in order to feed his family, a working man will have to expend virtually all he earns just to buy the poorest quality food.
“... and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.” While this is generally understood to be the symbolic announcement of the fact, that as is often the case in time of famine, the rich will be able to afford the delicacies or abundance represented by the oil and the wine, the fact is that oil and wine were never considered luxuries. Another interpretation rarely noted, however, is related to what oil and wine represent spiritually, i.e., the Holy Spirit, and joy respectively. The command to “hurt not the oil and the wine,” therefore, may be an intimation of the fact that in the midst of the terrible Tribulation judgments the Gospel will still be preached, and while the Holy Spirit will no longer be restraining sin, as He is today, He will still be active in convicting men of sin, and enlightening them as to their need to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. In the midst of scarcity of natural bread, the Bread of Life will be available to all willing to accept Him; and in the midst of mourning because of physical conditions, there will be joy, independent of earthly circumstances, in the hearts of believers. The divine command therefore not to hurt the oil or wine may be the symbolic declaration that even in the Tribulation era nothing will be able to stop the spread of the Gospel through which the Holy Spirit (the oil) would bring joy (the wine) to believing men and women. God will permit worldwide famine in the Tribulation, but He will not permit the preaching of the Gospel to cease.
6:7. “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth best say, Come and see.”
6:8. “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 opening of the fourth seal was followed by the voice of the fourth living creature crying, Come, and in response to that summons there appeared, “... a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
Death is generally understood to relate to the body; and Hell, to the soul. This continues to portray the reign of the beast, and its disastrous effect upon the earth. What will begin auspiciously with the peace so long sought by a world weary of war, will quickly degenerate into global slaughter such as has never been known. One-fourth of the world’s inhabitants will die by war, famine, disease, and the beasts of the earth. That God will be in control, however, is demonstrated by the assurance of Ez 14:21 that these things are but the agents of the Almighty, “For thus saith the Lord God; How much more when I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast?”
The question has been asked as to what part the beasts of the earth will have in the destruction of men, since in many countries savage animals are few or nonexistent. Account must be taken, however, of the large numbers of dogs and cats kept as pets. With human food at astronomical prices, few will have money to buy food for pets, so that many will be abandoned to forage for themselves, and who can begin to imagine what it will be like in towns and cities infested with thousands of such starving animals, many of them possibly rabid?
In keeping with the Scriptural association of the number four with earth and testing, the opening of the fourth seal concludes the disclosure of the four general phases of judgment that will devastate the Tribulation-age earth.
6:9. “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 had:”
6:10. “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
6:11. “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.”
The opening of the fifth seal introduces us to a scene in heaven in which John saw “... under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” Re 8:3, and 9:13 would indicate that this is the golden altar of incense rather than the brazen altar, so that God obviously views the death of these faithful martyrs as a sacrifice rendered unto Him, that sacrifice being like the fragrant incense which is itself the Biblical symbol of worship, as we read in another Scripture, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps 116:15).
In this connection it is significant that this is associated with the fifth seal, for five is the Scriptural number of responsibility. These were they who had faithfully discharged their responsibility to be faithful even unto death. (We might note in passing that there is reason to believe that the golden altar is the only one in the temple in heaven. Heb 9: 1-9 indicates that it was only the Tabernacle building, and the articles within its two compartments, that were the earthly replicas of the heavenly temple. The courtyard with its brazen altar and laver do not appear to have been replicas of heavenly originals, and for good reason: there is need for neither sacrifice nor cleansing in heaven. Only the redeemed will be there, the sacrifice that redeemed them having been offered on earth, and the need for daily cleansing having existed also only on earth).
A question upon which expositors are divided is whether these souls are of Tribulation-age martyrs only, or whether they include also those of the Old Testament age. Having regard to the fact that the Tirbulation is the end of the Jewish age, and the resurrection of the OT saints won’t be until the end of the Tribulation, it is clear that they are included in this number. Their cry for vengeance identifies them as being other than believers of the Church age, for they are to invoke blessing, not vengeance upon their persecutors. Clearly these are martyrs of a Jewish age (and the seven years of the Tribulation are but the final stage of the total period of four hundred and ninety years in which God will complete His program for the restoration and blessing of Israel - four hundred and eighty-three of those years having been completed on the day Christ presented Himself to Israel as her Messiah; the Church age coming as a parenthesis between that day and the beginning of the Tribulation era).
That they are accounted righteous in God’s sight is declared by their being given white robes. That they are at rest is announced in their being told to “rest yet for a little season,” i.e., they are to continue resting. “... until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled,” reminds us of God’s foreknowledge. Not only is the death of His saints precious in the sight of the Lord (Ps 116:15), it is also foreknown. Nothing happens to His own except what He ordains or permits. Clearly these yet to die are from the final half of the Tribulation era.
6:12. “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 became as blood;”
6:13. “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.”
There are many other Scriptural references declaring that there will be such cosmic disturbances during the Tribulation era, e.g., Joel 2:30-31; 3:15; Mt 24:6-8, and the question arises as to whether this language is literal or symbolic. A fundamental rule of sound exegesis is to accept the language first as being literal, (unless the context clearly indicates otherwise), and then to look also for a spiritual significance above and beyond the literal. That rule therefore requires us first to accept this statement literally since there is nothing contextually against it. There is, however, good reason to believe that the language may be also symbolic, so that the shaking will be not only of the earth literally, but also of the whole social structure.
Since the sun is a symbol of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, the darkening of the sun, then, may have reference not only to the literal darkening of the source of the world’s physical light, but of its spiritual light also. The reign of the beast will be a time of ruthless repression of testimony for Christ, which will produce corresponding spiritual darkness.
Since the moon is the Scriptural symbol of corporate testimony, its becoming like blood would appear to be the symbolic reminder that the Tribulation age will be one in which any corporate testimony for Christ will bring deadly reprisal from the beast. And while the moon is the symbol of corporate witness, the stars are symbolic of individual testimony, so that in the falling of the stars to the earth we are being shown the death of those who will seal their testimony with their blood during the reign of the beast.
As has been noted in other studies, Israel is symbolically portrayed by three plants: the vine represents her past; the fig, her Tribulation-age experience; and the olive, her blessedness in the Millennium. The likeness therefore of the falling of the stars to the falling of unripe figs would indicate that many of the martyrs will be Jewish. These green figs, falling before having had time to ripen, are an apt symbol of those Jewish believers of the Tribulation age, who will die before the Millennium begins. As these untimely (appearing out of season) figs were the forerunners of the ripening fig harvest, so will these Tribulation-age martyrs be the forerunners of the coming great harvest of the redeemed, some others also dying, but others physically surviving the Tribulation judgments, and remaining on the earth to enjoy millennial blessing. And while Israel will be the vortex of those judgments, it is clear that they will encompass the whole earth. Many Gentiles will also seal their testimony with their blood.
“... shaken of a mighty wind.” Having regard to the fact that the wind is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the further lesson to be gleaned here is that God the Holy Spirit will be the power working on earth in the Tribulation, not to restrain sin as He does now, but using the unrestrained rebellion of men and demons to accomplish God’s purposes for the ultimate blessing of the earth and the men upon it.
6:14. “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.”
In addition to the clear literal meaning, this may also indicate the dissolution of all stable government, for in Da 4:26 God’s message to Nebuchadnezzar through Daniel was, “... thy kingdom shall be sure unto thee, after that thou shalt have known that the heavens do rule.” The departure of the heavens, therefore, and the removal of every mountain out of its place, emphasizes the same truth, for as we have noted in other studies, a mountain represents a king or kingdom, see Da 2:34-45.
It has been suggested by some that the islands represent either lesser governmental powers, or centers of commerce. Inasmuch, however, as an island is an area of land standing up out of a body of water (usually the sea), it is much more likely that above and beyond the literal application, these islands may represent the Tribulation-age equivalents of local churches or corporate testimonies, for certainly this is the picture presented by the dry land separated from the sea in Ge 1:9. Isa 57:20 declares that the sea is the symbol of earth’s unbelieving masses, so that what is separated from the sea must of necessity represent the opposite of unbelief, that is, faith. It seems therefore that we may perhaps also view the moving of these islands out of their places, as the symbolic warning that the corporate testimonies for God in the Tribulation will either be removed completely by persecution, or denied any permanence by being forced to flee from place to place to escape the murderous tyranny of the beast.
6:15. “And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;”
6:16. “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:”
6:17. “For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?”
The universality of the misery and fear is declared in that all, from the prince to the pauper, seek to find a refuge from the wrath of a holy God Whose laws have been broken, and His authority mocked. The Tribulation judgments will reveal the folly of rebellion against the God Whose patience may permit insurrection for a little while, but Who, when His patience is exhausted, will call man to account. The rebels may call upon the mountains and rocks to hide them from His wrath, but there is no hiding place for rebel men except Christ. All found outside that “hiding place” must perish in the day of judgment.
It is emphasized that the wrath is that of the Lamb, for while a hiding place is sought from “the face of Him that sitteth on the throne,” i.e., from the face of God the Father, it is from “the wrath of the Lamb” that shelter is sought. Others have drawn attention to the fact that there is no greater anomaly than this: it is virtually impossible to imagine an angry lamb. It is equally difficult to visualize a wrathful Christ, yet the solemn truth is that the very same Christ Who came once as the Lamb, to die for sinners, will return as the mighty Lion of Judah, to dismiss unrepentant sinners into hell; and it is that same Christ Who will sit as Judge at the great white throne, from which He will banish those same unrepentant sinners into the eternal torment of the lake of fire. Well might unrepentant rebels call for the mountains and rocks to fall upon them as they find themselves about to stand in the presence of Him Who died to make possible the remission of their sins, but Who is now become the Executor of judgment. There is no more dreadful prospect than to contemplate standing in the presence of a Christ Who no longer pleads, “Come unto Me, and I will give you rest,” but Who utters instead the awful imperative, “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire....” (Mt 25:41).