The Seven Seals

Revelation 6-8:1

Christ has taken the scroll to be opened being the only one worthy to reveal the contents of this book. The book contains some part of God’s message that has been kept secret until this point. But before the contents of the scroll can be revealed, the seals which protect the scroll must be broken. Each seal represents an event.

  • Thus, the seven letters teach.
  • The seven seals reveal.

In the first four seals, each living creature, in turn, says, “Come.” It could be a command to John to come and see what the seal revealed, or it could be a command to each of the horsemen to come forth.

Each of the four horsemen is somewhat like Zechariah’s vision in Zechariah 6:1-8. While elements are similar, many details are different causing the meaning of the vision to be different.

The First Seal

A white horse is seen with a rider carrying a bow. The rider is given a victor’s crown and he goes off conquering.

Horses are related to war and battles (Job 39:19-25; Proverbs 21:31; Zechariah 10:3). But white horses are rarely used in actual battle because it makes the rider stand out. Instead, white horses were usually used for parades and victory celebrations. “A triumph is a solemn and magnificent entrance of a general into Rome after having obtained an important victory The conqueror rode in a chariot drawn by white horses and wore a peculiar dress viz the toga picta and tunica palmata with a wreath of laurel on his head and an ivory wand or sceptre in his hand The senate in procession conducted him into the city and accompanied him to the capitol he was followed by the army the captives and the booty hence triumphum agere to celebrate a triumph country or person over which the conquest had been gained ...” [J. E. Riddle, A Complete Lattin-English Dictionary, 1884].

The bow is a weapon that is used for both hunting and battle. The victor’s crown is the same word used in I Corinthians 9:25.

One popular belief is that the rider is Christ himself, based on Revelation 19:11-15. The problem is that the weapons are different and the crown is different between the two accounts. There is also a problem with matching the other three horsemen.

Rather, what we see here is a representation of an idea: The rider on the white horse represents conquest. After Domitian’s death in A.D. 96, the Roman Empire enjoyed a period of prosperity and military triumphs until A.D. 180. During this period, five good emperors reigned and extended the borders of Rome.

“With the death of Domitian the empire came back into the hands of wise and beneficent rulers. The “five good emperors,” as they are usually called, were Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian (who were related to one another only by adoption), and the two Antonines, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. The period of general prosperity which began under Vespasian continued under these emperors. It is during this time that we are able to see Roman civilization at its best, its highest stage of development. ... But under Trajan the Romans became once more a conquering people. The new emperor carried his conquests across the Danube and acquired the province of Dacia. He then extended his arms into Asia, and brought into subjection Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria, as the result of a short war with the Parthians. Under Trajan the boundaries of the empire reached their greatest extent. ” [William C. Morey, Outlines of Roman History, 1901].

The Second Seal

A red horse is seen with a rider carrying a big sword. His task was to take away peace, and by him, people would kill each other.

Red is a color connected with warfare, being the color of blood. The wars under the white horse continue, but they take on a different aspect. There is much internal conflict. The warfare is no longer outward, in the conquering of new lands, but focused inwardly between striving factions.

From Roman history, the sixth emperor was Commodus “With Commodus' death commenced the third and most calamitous period. It lasted ninety-two years, from 193 to 284. During that time, thirty-two emperors, and twenty-seven pretenders to the empire, alternately hurried each other from the throne, by incessant civil warfare. Ninety-two years of almost incessant civil warfare taught the world on what a frail foundation the virtue of the Antonines had reared the felicity of the empire” [Sismondi, Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I , p. 36].

The Third Seal

John sees a rider on a black horse carrying scales. The scales are the balance scales typically used by merchants in that era.

Black is the color of deep distress and mourning (Jeremiah 14:2). Darkness was concerning the time of trouble (Ezekiel 32:7-9).

A voice is heard from the center of the four living creatures (God?) saying, “a quart of wheat or three quarts of barley for a denarius.” However, oil and wine are untouched. A denarius was the typical daily wage for an unskilled laborer. At these prices, the common person could not afford grain, which is a staple food. However, more luxury items, such as oil and wine remain unaffected. This either reflects a disaster in grain crops or a lopsided distribution of goods that chiefly affected the poor. In times of economic disaster, it isn’t unusual for grain products to be parceled out in small quantities (Leviticus 26:24-26; Ezekiel 4:16).

In the latter part of the Roman civil wars (A.D. 211-217) taxes were increased. “The most wealthy families were ruined by partial fines and confiscations, and the great body of his subjects oppressed by ingenious and aggravated taxes.” [Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Vol. I, p. 160]. Food was distributed first for the rulers and then for the army, which left many basic staples hard to find for the poor. “In the course of this history, we shall be too often summoned to explain the land tax, the capitation, and the heavy contributions of corn, wine, oil, and meat, which were exacted from the provinces for the use of the court, the army, and the capital.” [Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Vol. I, p. 195].

The Fourth Seal

Next, a rider is seen on an ashen or pale horse. The rider’s name is named: it is Death. And following death is the grave. This rider was given the authority to kill a quarter of the world’s population by war, famine, disease, and natural causes. It is similar to Ezekiel 5:16-17, 14:21. The number should not be taken literally. It is to indicate a large portion of the world’s population would be affected; yet, it would not be everyone.

This seems to harmonize with the period from A.D. 260-268, during the reign of Galienus. “The whole period was one uninterrupted series of confusion and calamity ... But a long and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression which extirpated the produce of the present, and the hope of the future harvests ... Other causes must, however, have contributed to the furious plague, which, from the year two hundred and fifty to the year two hundred and sixty-five, raged without interruption to every province, every city, and almost every family, of the Roman Empire. During some time five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns, that had escaped the hands of the barbarians, were entirely depopulated.” [Gibbons, Decline and Fall, Vol. I, p. 299, 329].

The Fifth Seal

With the fifth seal, the nature of visions change. No longer do we see horses of various colors with riders, nor is there a command to “come.” When the fifth seal is opened, John sees the souls of those slain for the word of God (martyrs) under the altar of God cry out. Under the Old Law, the blood of sacrifices was poured out at the base of the altar (Leviticus 4:7). Blood could not be consumed because life is in the blood (Leviticus 17:1). The Hebrew word for “soul” and “life” are the same word. Thus, the image here is of Christians who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of God’s word.

They want to know how long it will be until their deaths will be avenged. They died believing that God’s word was true. They wanted to know that their deaths were not in vain, that the sacrifices served a purpose. This is not a call of private revenge, but a desire for public justice.

Each martyr was given white robes, indicating that they were victorious and righteous (Revelation 7:13-14; 14:3). But they were told to rest and wait until the number killed for God’s word was completed. While many had died under the hands of the Roman government, more will die. Justice would come later.

Historically, under Diocletian (A.D. 303), persecutions against Christians increased once again.

The Sixth Seal

With the opening of the sixth seal came a great earthquake. In prophetic writings, earthquakes represented the overthrow of political order (Isaiah 29:6). The sun is darkened, the moon turns red, and the stars fall. Frequently rules are represented by heavenly light. They are seen as the guiding lights for a nation, so when a nation is overthrown, the lights are removed or dimmed (Isaiah 13:9-10; Joel 2:10). The description here is similar to the one Jesus gave for the destruction of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:29).

The sky is split and the mountains and islands are moved out of place. Mountains are solid, seemingly unmovable, much like governments (Isaiah 2:2). The fall of a great empire is so upsetting that it feels like the very mountains and islands were shifted out of place (Ezekiel 26:15-18; Jeremiah 4:22-27). This is not absolute destruction. The mountains and islands still exist.

The rulers, the common folk, and the slaves all hide and plead to be shielded from the wrath of God and His Son. Again, this is not the final judgment because there is no hiding from God then. Similar descriptions are given regarding the fall of Israel by Assyria (Hosea 10:7-8), Judah’s fall to Babylon (Isaiah 2:19-21), and Jerusalem’s fall (Luke 23:29-31). All people, from the least to the greatest, will be terrified of God’s wrath.

Some see this as being fulfilled when Constantine conquered the Roman Empire, removed pagan idolatry, and moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople.

An Interlude

John’s attention is now drawn to four angels at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds. We know that this is symbolic because the earth is round, it doesn’t have four corners. Thus, this is talking about an event that is happening across the earth.

The wind would be a destructive wind, such as was sent against Elam (Jeremiah 49:36). In Daniel’s vision in chapter 7, Daniel sees the four winds stirring up the sea to bring forth four empires. Thus the winds represent social upheaval in Daniel’s vision.

A fifth angel rises from the east to tell the four angels to continue holding back the winds until the servants of God are sealed. Having God’s seal means that the person belongs to God (Ezekiel 9:1-8; II Timothy 2:19). 144,000 are sealed, 12,000 from each tribe of Israel.

If you note carefully, the list in Revelation is not the usual list of the twelve tribes.


The Twelve Sons

Genesis 35:22-26


The Twelve Tribes

Numbers 1:5-15

Listed by Land

The 144,000

Revelation 7:4-8


Reuben Reuben Reuben
Simeon Simeon Simeon
Levi Levi
Judah Judah Judah
Issachar Issachar Issachar
Zebulun Zebulun Zebulun
Joseph Joseph
Manasseh Manasseh
Benjamin Benjamin Benjamin
Dan Dan
Naphtali Naphtali Naphtali
Gad Gad Gad
Asher Asher Asher

The list of tribes are not the same as the sons of Israel because Levi, being the priestly tribe did not inherit any land (Joshua 13:33). Joseph’s two sons were adopted by Jacob and were each given a portion of land, thus giving Joseph a double portion (Genesis 48:5-6; I Chronicles 5:1).

The list in Revelation leaves out Ephraim and Dan and instead puts Levi and Joseph in their place. Both Ephraim and Dan hosted idolatry in their tribal lands (Judges 18:30-31; I Kings 12:28-30). Thus, we conclude that the list in Revelation is spiritual Israel (Romans 2:28-29).

Take note that the 144,000 who are sealed are on the earth and not in heaven as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are fond of claiming. And the great multitude is in heaven, despite the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that they will remain on the earth

John’s view returns to heaven to see an innumerable host from every nation, arrayed in white and standing before the Lord. This multitude joins with the others in heaven in the worship of God and Jesus. This shows the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be innumerable (Genesis 15:5). All people of faith in God are Abraham’s children (Galatians 3:7,29). These are the saints who endured tribulation (Acts 14:22). They now serve God and dwell with Him.

Their robes were made white by the blood of the Lamb. In other words, Jesus’ sacrifice has cleansed his people from the stain of sin (Hebrews 9:14).

The palm branches were used on festive occasions (John 12:12-13).

Therefore, the faithful of God are seen enjoying their reward and are freed from all the trials of life on earth (Isaiah 4:5-6; 49:10; 25:8). Thus, Isaiah’s prophecies are fulfilled.

The Seventh Seal

When Jesus breaks the last seal, there is silence in heaven for a half-hour. It is a stark contrast to the noise of joy described during the interlude. In a sense, it is a Sabbath rest at the breaking of the seventh seal. A half-hour is a short period of time, but it can seem like a long time for the person who is waiting.

It is also the calm before the storm, like Habakkuk 2:20 which is then followed by the Lord taking vengeance in Habakkuk 3.

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