Revelation 6.

OPENING OF THE FIRST SIX SEALS.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SEALS.

The Church period closes with the Lord’s repudiation of that which publicly bears the Christian name (Rom. 11:21, 22; Rev. 3:16), and with the gathering of all saints, the raised dead and changed living, at the Coming of the Lord in Person (1 Thess. 4:15-17; 2 Thess. 2:1). The present position of the Lord walking in the midst of the churches, overseeing all and awarding mingled praise and blame, is the characteristic truth graven on chapters 2 and 3 of the Apocalypse. To us how great the profit! How full and valuable the lessons!

Now a consideration of the formula “after these things” will assist us here. It occurs twice in Rev. 4:1; is also found in Rev. 7:9; Rev. 15:5; Rev. 18:1; Rev. 19:1; see Revised Version; also Genesis 15:1; and Genesis 22:1. The formula seems to form a connecting link between a series of events already past and of others to follow. What then is the obvious inference from its double occurrence in chapter 4:1? Is it not that the history of the Church on earth, chapters 2, 3, as beheld by the Seer in vision, is past, and that consequently a new series of events is to be unfolded?

The twenty-four elders who take an important part in the heavenly actions and scenes described by the Seer are first mentioned in chapter 4. Their representative number and title evidently point them out as signifying the whole company of the redeemed of the past and present age. Now it is frankly conceded that no express apocalyptic statement affirms the translation of the saints to Heaven. Revelation 11:12 refers to a small and special company. Paul is the only one of the New Testament writers who affirms it. John, on the contrary, dwells on the manifestation of the saints with Christ at His appearing. The former shows our gathering together to Him, and our subsequent return with Him. John writes of the latter only. The twenty-four elders signify the redeemed in Heaven (so that their translation had already taken place); the Seer also shows them in vision coming out of Heaven (Rev. 19:11-14; Rev. 21:10). In what part of the book can you put their translation? After chapter 3, which closes the Church period, and before chapter 4, which introduces a new series of events, and in which the elders or redeemed in Heaven are prominent. We look, therefore, for the fulfilment of John 14:3, and 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, between these two chapters of the Apocalypse. The twenty-four elders are seen on high, but the fact of their Rapture is assumed, not stated, and unless this is admitted an intelligent understanding of the book is impossible. It follows, therefore, that the Church is not on earth during the apocalyptic judgments. As we have seen from the first mention of the elders (Rev. 4:4) till the last (Rev. 19:4) Heaven is their home.

We are about to enter on an examination of the strictly prophetic part of the book, and we do so with this fact before us, that the three different series of judgments — Seals, Trumpets, and Vials — have their place in the interval between our gathering to the Lord Himself, and His and our manifestation to the world at the close of Daniel’s last prophetic week.* The translated saints are in Heaven during the 70th week of Daniel, a period of seven years, during the latter half of which “The Great Tribulation” rages fiercely on earth, involving in its unparalleled sorrow a godly Jewish and a godly Gentile company, called out to witness for God after the “partakers of the heavenly calling” have been translated. The Church is expressly promised exemption from the Tribulation (Rev. 3:10). Prophecy relates to the earth, but the Church as Christ’s body and the Lamb’s bride, that which is nearest and dearest to Him, is necessarily associated with Him in the heavens, and consequently outside the sphere of prophetic dealing. Still, while insisting upon the full and precise fulfilment of the prophetic section of the Apocalypse in the brief crisis covered by Daniel’s last week of years, we are far from denying a historical application to the past and present; but analogy is one thing and literal fulfilment another. This latter can only be sought for at the end.**

{*See chapter on “The Celebrated Prophecy of the Seventy Weeks.”

**“The visions of the book may have preliminary applications, because the principles on which they are constructed are eternal ones.” — “New Testament Commentary.”}

THE FIRST SEAL.

PECULIARITIES.

Rev. 6:1, 2. — “And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying, as in a voice of thunder, Come. And I saw, and behold a white horse, and he that sat upon it having a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went forth conquering, and that he might conquer.” The judgments under the Seals and Trumpets are not contemporaneous, but successive. The former cover a larger area than the Trumpets, but these latter, on the other hand, are more severe and searching in character.

Observe, too, that the Lamb is connected with the Seals, the angels with the Trumpets, and God with the Vials or Bowls of wrath.

In this preliminary announcement of coming judgment there is a fulness and precision of statement not found in the opening of the remaining six Seals, or even in the first Trumpet and first Vial. Here the cardinal one is alone used, and not the ordinal first, etc., as in all the others.

“And I saw” is uttered twice. John was an intensely observant eye-witness. He “saw” the act of the Lamb in opening the Seal (v. 1). He also “saw” the minister of judgment (v. 2).

The various coloured horses in the first four Seals represent in symbol the human agencies employed in the execution of these judgments on earth, which are providential in character. But as Christians having the mind of Christ, i.e., the discerning faculty, we look behind the mere historical course of events and trace all to the unseen source, God Himself. So the living creatures, the executive of the throne, successively call on the human instruments of vengeance to execute their divinely-appointed task. They cannot move in judgment till summoned by the throne to do so. What a strength to the heart in days of evil! The first four Seals are characterised by the living creatures and horses. In the remaining three there is no mention made of either.

In the first Seal only a living creature speaks, “as in a voice of thunder,” and at once the first prophetic event foretold in the Apocalypse comes into view. Prophecy opens.

The words in verses 1, 3, 5, 7, “and see,” should be omitted, as in the Revised Version. With this Tregelles, Kelly, and others agree.* The retention of the words would make it a call to John to “come and see,” but why the incongruity of speaking to him in a voice of thunder? Their deletion makes the “Come” a summons to the human instrument employed in these earthly chastisements.

{*Some consider the deletion of the words, especially in verse 1, a doubtful matter, but the question is, we judge, satisfactorily answered by the writer of the exposition of The Revelation in Bishop Ellicott’s “New Testament Commentary”: “The words ‘and see’ are doubtful. They are found in some MSS. and omitted in others; the authority for their omission and for their retention is about equally divided. Under these circumstances we may fairly be guided by the context. To whom is the summons addressed? Who is bidden to come? If it was taken to be addressed to the Seer we can understand why some copyist should add the words ‘and see.’ But are they addressed to the Seer? It seems difficult to see the purpose of such a command. He was near already. He had seen the Lamb opening the Seal. There was no object in his drawing near. Are the words then addressed, as Alford supposes, to Christ? It is difficult to believe that the living creature would thus cry to the Lamb who was opening the scroll. The simplest way of answering the question is to ask another: Who did come in obedience to the voice? There is but one answer: The horseman. The living beings cry, ‘Come,’ and their cry is responded to by the appearance of the several riders.”}

THE LOUD SUMMONS AND ITS IMMEDIATE ANSWER.

The response to the loud and imperative command of the living creature was instantly obeyed. “And behold a white horse, and him that sat upon it.” A war-horse is evidently referred to. Now the horseman cannot, as the mass of expositors allege, signify Christ on a career of conquest. Psalm 45, and especially Revelation 19:11, have been confidently alleged in proof of the application of the first Seal to Christ. But both the Psalmist and the Seer direct us to Christ in that grand moment of His Coming to assume the sovereignty of the world, whereas the first Seal epoch refers to a time some years before the introduction of the kingdom in power. In chapter 19 the rider is named; here he is not named. From what part of the earth the Seal horseman emerges we are not informed. We have here a symbol of conquering power. A white horse denotes victorious power. It points to the advent on the prophetic scene of a power bent on conquest. A career of unchecked, brilliant, yet almost bloodless victory lies before this coming royal warrior of worldwide fame. A Cyrus, an Alexander, or a Napoleon in triumphs and conquests, but without bloodshed and slaughter, is the horse and rider of the first Seal.

“Having a bow.”* The returned Jews from Babylon in the rebuilding of Jerusalem were armed with “swords, their spears, and their bows” (Neh. 4:13). Hand-to-hand conflict demands the use of the sword; a little distance off the spear would be required; while more distant warfare is expressed by the bow. This latter weapon would not do much execution: hence its employment as a symbol of war afar off, and that not of a very deadly character.

{*When active warfare with the bow and arrow is in question, then the latter is specifically mentioned (Num. 24:8; Ps. 45:5: Zech. 9:14, etc.). But here nothing is said as to the bow being strung or ready for action (Lam. 2:4), but simply the white horse rider has it. Bloodless victory is the main idea.}

“A crown was given to him.” This must be more than the chaplet of victory bestowed on the conqueror at the close of a successful campaign, for here the crown is given ere victory is spoken of. Imperial or royal dignity is conferred on this distinguished personage before he enters on his wonderful career of conquest.

“He went forth conquering, and that he might conquer.” Victory after victory, conquest after conquest, without reverse or cessation, marked the royal progress of the hero of the coming day and hour. The symbols under this and the succeeding Seals are simple enough and full of meaning.*

{* In the four horses under the first four Seals there is an evident allusion to the horses of Zechariah 1 and 6. In this latter vision the coloured horses, red, bay, and white, represent the character and energy of the three imperial powers of Persia, Greece, and Rome. The man riding on the red horse sets forth Cyrus, the renowned Persian, the destroyer of Babylon and deliverer of the Jews, prefiguring Christ, Israel’s Saviour in a coming day, and the Judge of the mystic Babylon. In the latter vision (Zech. 6) the character and geographical course of the four Gentile empires are set forth, empires which effected unknowingly the governmental will of God. The black horses (the Persians) go forth into the north country (Babylon) and destroy it while they in turn are destroyed by the white horses (the Grecians); the grizled horses (the Romans) establish themselves in the south (v. 6). God grants universal dominion to Rome (v. 7), and rests in the destruction of Babylon (v. 8). The two Babylons, the literal (Jer. 51) and the mystical (Rev. 18), are doomed to utter destruction. Both have held captive the people of God.}

THE SECOND SEAL

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE SECOND SEAL.

Rev. 6:3, 4. — “And when He opened the second Seal, I heard the second living creature saying, Come. And another, a red horse, went forth; and to him that sat upon it, to him it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slay one another; and there was given to him a great sword.” In all the Seal judgments, save the second, the Seer informs us that he was an eye-witness: “I saw.” Then under the other Seals the word “behold” precedes the description of the horse, whereas it is here omitted. Instead of “behold” the word “another” is added, not found in the other Seals. These may be termed trivial differences, but as we are firm believers in the verbal inspiration of the Holy Scriptures we are satisfied that there is a divine meaning in these seemingly unimportant details. The occurrence of the words “I saw” and “behold” in the first Seal, and their omission in the second, may be accounted for by the fact that the word “another” in the latter connects the two Seals. Thus “I saw,” and “behold……another, a red horse.”

In answer to the summons, “Come,” of the second living creature, a “red horse went forth.” Why “red,”* and what is its special significance? The white horse denotes a series of peaceful victories. The red horse, on the other hand, intimates a period of slaughter and bloodshed (Isa. 63:2; Rev. 12:3). The rider is unnamed. It is the day of the Lord’s vengeance on the guilty scene; hence the repetition of the pronoun “him,” emphasizing the fact that the direct agent of judgment is a man appointed by God for that purpose, “to him it was given.” Whatever motives or political aspirations may actuate this coming man of blood, yet he is God’s scourge for the time being. A brief time of peace immediately succeeds the translation of the saints to Heaven, and even, as we have seen under the first Seal, the rise and progress of a mighty conqueror will not be marked by much bloodshed. His career of unchecked triumph will scarcely break the general peace. But under the second Seal we track the footsteps of one who strides through the earth on a mission of blood. He has a divine mandate “to take peace from the earth,” and “that they should slay one another.” In his progress he everywhere stirs up the angry passions of men. Ah! little do the governments of Europe dream that in the arming and training of their respective populations those murderous weapons perfected by the applied science of the day shall be used not merely in aggressive or defensive wars, but in civil broils and party conflicts. It is not here “nation against nation,” but that “they should slay one another.” The wild passions of men are let loose. A time of mutual slaughter ensues. The authority of the civil power is unavailing to check the riot and bloodshed in cities, towns, and villages, if indeed it does not lend itself to the awful work of destruction. “A great sword” given to the rider intimates that the broils and commotions which he brings about will be marked by great carnage and bloodshed. War, whether aggressive or defensive, is surely at all times deplorable enough, but a state of open, armed, civil rebellion of man against man, of fellow against fellow, glutting their vengeance and spilling blood like water is infinitely worse than any state of war conceivable, and such is the awful scene portrayed under this Seal.

{*“A forfeiture of life is figuratively represented by the several colours of red, scarlet, crimson.” — “Sacred Symbology,” by Mills, p. 160.}

THE THIRD SEAL

A FAMINE.

Rev. 6:5, 6. — “And when He opened the third Seal, I heard the third living creature saying, Come. And I saw and behold a black horse, and he that sat upon it having a balance in his hand. And I heard as a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, A choenix of wheat for a denarius, and three choenixes of barley for a denarius; and do not injure the oil and the wine.” The white horse is the symbol of power in victory. The red horse denotes power in bloodshed. The black horse intimates power in bringing about a time of lamentation and mourning. Here, as in Zechariah 6:2, the black horse follows the red. “Our skin was black,” says the weeping prophet, “like an oven because of the terrible famine” (see Lam. 5:10; Jer. 4:28; Jude 13, etc., for the symbolic force of this colour).

Various things are predicated of each of the other three horsemen under their respective Seals, but here one thing only. The rider holds “a balance in his hand.” The two main cereals which constitute the staff of life are to be doled out by weight and sold at famine prices. Wheat and barley are named. The latter grain was generally eaten by slaves and the poor of the people, being much cheaper than the former, and of a coarser nature. The English penny in the Authorised Version, retained in the Revised Version, is misleading. The Roman denarius was equal to about eight-pence of our money; was the daily pay of a soldier, and the daily wage of a labouring man (Matt. 20 2). Usually eight measures or choenixes of wheat could be bought for a denarius, but here only one, just barely sufficient, and no more, to sustain life.* But what about the numbers of aged people, women and children unable to work? If the denarius can only procure the necessary food for one, what about multitudes who through infirmity or other incapacity are unable to work! Must starvation be their bitter experience, and death anticipated as a happy release from the agonies of hunger?

{* Bread doled out by weight is a marked sign of scarcity (Lev. 26:26; Ezek. 4. 10-17). Under this Seal, however, both weight and measure are recognised, but of such a limited character that large numbers of the populations affected thereby must suffer the misery of an actual want of food.}

But the living creatures are not themselves the source of this providential chastisement. They are vitally connected with the throne (Rev. 4:6), but God is the Sitter thereon, and ever will be. The Seer hears a voice from the very centre and throne of the Eternal, the announcement of a famine. God Himself is the source of these preliminary and providential judgments upon men on earth. They are inflicted by Him whoever He may employ as agents in accomplishing His purpose.

THE RICH SPARED.

The prohibition, “Do not injure the oil and the wine,” is by some supposed to signify a mitigation of the famine as intimated in the preceding declarations. But that can hardly be. People could not subsist on oil and wine. Wheat and barley are essentials. Oil and wine were regarded as luxuries found alone on the tables of the rich (Prov. 21:17; Jer. 31:12; Ps. 104:15). Hence the chastisement under this Seal falls especially on the working classes. The rich, the wealthy, and the governing classes are markedly exempted. But they shall not escape. For under the sixth Seal (vv. 12-17) judgment is impartially meted out to all alike, from the monarch down to the slave.

SOCIALISM.

 Is there not righteous retribution in the fact that the masses of the people of these and other lands are first visited in judgment, and made to suffer in the very circumstances in which they now seem to triumph? An ominous sign of the times is the spread of Socialism, of the gospel of equality amongst the nations of Europe. The time-honoured distinctions of master and servant, of rulers and ruled, are scorned; wealth and social position, with their respective claims, are treated with contempt; and labour and capital are regarded as opposing forces. The working classes are rapidly getting power into their hands, and are not slow in seizing their opportunities, while demanding further rights and privileges. The spirit of insubordination and contempt of authority is abroad. The seed is being sown, the harvest is sure to follow. The masses are here seen suffering from scarcity of the staff of life, while the rich in their affluence and luxuries remain untouched, although doomed to suffer at a later period.

THE FOURTH SEAL.

DEATH AND HADES.

Rev. 6:7, 8. — “And when He opened the fourth Seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and behold a pale horse, and he that sat upon it his name (was) Death, and Hades followed with him; and authority was given to him over the fourth of the earth to slay with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and by the beasts of the earth.” Another power is now summoned. These initial judgments are increasing in severity. The pale horse implying a cadaverous hue is the new harbinger of approaching judgment.

In the three preceding Seals the riders are unnamed. Here the name of the horseman is Death. “The four Seals turn upon living men; and so death, by which they are carried off, is most prominently represented; but Hell (Hades) only in so far as he receives those who have been cut off by death, acting as death’s hearse, on which account no separate horse is assigned him.”* Hades follows not after, but with death. These two are the respective custodians of the bodies and souls of men. At the close of the thousand years’ reign they give up their prisoners, and are themselves destroyed, are personified, and cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Hades refers to that condition immediately following on death, and one which resurrection necessarily closes, the state between death and resurrection. Death and Hades are here used in relation to the ungodly only. The latter word simply means “the unseen,” and therefore the English term “Hell” is no just equivalent for “Hades.” In this vivid description the king of terrors himself appears. The corpse-like colour of the horse is in keeping with the name and character of the rider. Death and Hades are inseparable companions. Together they act in judgment and divide the spoil.

{*Bengel as quoted by Hengstenberg.}

GOD’S FOUR SORE JUDGMENTS.

We are again reminded of the interesting fact that these judgments in their sequence, character, duration, and severity have their source in the throne of God. “Authority, ” we read, “was given to him,” not to “them.” The reading “him” or “them ” is disputed, but internal evidence would decide. Death acts upon living men. Hades claims the souls of the dead. Death necessarily precedes Hades. Death deals with the living, Hades with the dead.

Under the previous Seals one instrument of judgment under each is noted, but here there are four, the four by which Jehovah threatened guilty Jerusalem of old. “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?” (Ezek. 14:21). The only difference between them is that in the apocalyptic judgments the “beasts” are last named; “death,” too, the third in the list, should be understood as “pestilence,” as in the margin of the Revised Version. The sword under the second Seal, and hunger under the third, are here reproduced under the fourth Seal coupled with two others. The unsheathed sword in the hands of the remorseless rider will not be withdrawn till its divinely-appointed task is finished. Hunger also will do its deadly work, a more protracted and painful death than by the sword. Then death or pestilence will ply its sickle with fatal effect and reap a full harvest. Lastly, “the beasts of the earth” will complete the destruction.

Under the previous Seals agricultural pursuits, without which no civilised people can exist, must have been abandoned. The masses under the second Seal were using the sword instead of the ploughshare. The ground would lie untilled, and in the absence of crops starvation would follow as a consequence, and the beasts, leaving their usual haunts, would add to the general misery by preying on men. These “four sore judgments,” the sword, hunger, pestilence, and beasts are to be in active operation at the same time. They are contemporaneous judgments. To spiritualise them, as many do, to make them speak a language foreign to their simple and natural meaning, is to twist Scripture and not interpret. Thank God that the sphere in which these judgments operate is limited to a “fourth of the earth.” The then Roman world is spoken of as a “third” (Rev. 12:4). The extent of the sphere of judgment is a circumscribed one. What an awful future lies before the christless populations of these lands!

THE FIFTH SEAL.

DIVISION OF THE SEALS.

Rev. 6:9-11. — “And when He opened the fifth Seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of them that had been slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held; and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Sovereign Ruler, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell upon the earth? And there was given to them, to each one, a white robe; and it was said to them that they should rest yet a little while until both their fellow-bondmen and their brethren, who were about to be killed as they, should be fulfilled.” The first four Seals are broadly marked off from the remaining three, as in most of the septenary divisions. Each of the four is characterised by a living creature* and a horse, both of which disappear in the Seals to follow. The living creatures are connected with the providential government of the world; they are the unseen powers behind the human actors and instruments. But in the Seals to follow the scene darkens, and the public intervention of God in the affairs of men is more marked. A similar break in the septenary series of Trumpet and Vial judgments occurs (for the former see Rev. 8:13; for the latter see Rev. 16:10). The last three Vials give the full expression of God’s wrath on guilty Christendom.

{* No doubt there is a moral correspondence between the characteristics of the living ones (Rev. 4:7, 8) and the respective Seals with which they are severally connected. The first living creature and the first Seal, the lion and the imperial conqueror, is a correspondence easily seen. So between the fourth living one and the fourth Seal the eagle (see Matt. 24:28. judgment) and the march of Death, is a striking resemblance.}

THE FIRST CONTINGENT OF THE MARTYRED BAND.

9. — “I saw under the altar the souls of them that had been slain.” How changed the scene! Believers now “are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). Their presence in it preserves these lands meanwhile from apostasy, corruption, and consequent judgment. But they are also “the light of the world” (v. 14). Their testimony to the grace of God, however defective in fulness and character, is yet the world’s best and highest blessing. But when the term of God’s patience is run out, and the “salt” and “light” removed, then corruption and moral darkness shall characterise the scene given up in retributive righteousness to judgment (Isa. 60:2). The opening page of judgment is before us in the first four Seals.

When the home of the Spirit on earth, the Church (1 Cor. 3:16), is broken up (for it has to be presented by Christ to Himself in glory, Eph. 5:27), the Spirit will work from Heaven on earth, quickening souls by His divine power. Those first converted and saved, by no known human agency,* will incur the active and cruel hostility of the christless populations of the earth. It is possible, as under the early pagan persecutions, that the future witnessing company of believers will be regarded as the cause of the national calamities, and hence the fierce blast of bitter and cruel persecution. Here, however, the true and real reason of their martyrdom is named, “Slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” The Word of God when faithfully declared in its incisive claims on man’s conscience ever stirs into action the hostility of the world, and its most faithful exponents in life and public testimony must seal that witness with their blood. The Lord at present, by the power of the Holy Spirit on earth, bridles the passions of men, but let the presence and power of the Spirit be withdrawn, and the world’s enmity to Christ and to those who are His shall burst out in fierce and bitter persecution even unto death. “The testimony which they held” is not to the grace of God as now, but to the righteous claims of God in establishing His kingdom on earth. The answer to these claims is the sword of power in the hands of the then apostate, persecuting power. Judgment is let loose on these holy sufferers. The kingdom rights of Christ (Matt. 24:14), then the subject of testimony, will be trampled under foot and the witnesses cruelly slain. The sacrificial word “slain” is used in keeping with the special character of these, probably Jewish, witnesses. The later company under the Beast (Rev. 13:7) are said to be “killed” (v. 11), a more general word than the former. The altar of burnt offering which stood both in the court of the tabernacle and of the temple is here referred to. This altar of brass typifying the endurance of divine judgment is also noticed in Rev. 11:1; Rev. 14:18; Rev. 16:7. The golden altar of intercession twice comes into view in these apocalyptic scenes (Rev. 8, latter part of verse 3; and Rev. 9:13). “The altar” in Rev. 8:3 and 5 refers to the brazen altar.

{*This first company of witnesses on earth after the translation will go through the Roman world preaching the Gospel of the kingdom. The result of their labours is stated in Matthew 25:31-46. We gather that these first preachers will be chiefly converted Jews. “These my brethren,” are the Lord’s Jewish brethren according to the flesh (v. 40).}

Under the altar, on which they had been sacrificed by the ruthless hand of the persecutor, their souls cry aloud for vengeance on their enemies. The imagery is cast in Jewish mould, but is none the less easily read. The cry does not breathe the accents of divine grace, but of righteous judgment. The appeal of the future Jewish remnant to the God of judgment is as much in accord with the divine mind as the touching words of the Lord on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23. 34), or the prayer of the first Christian martyr: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). The change of the dispensation alters the character of God’s dealings with the world. Law was the principle on which God dealt in Old Testament times. Grace is the platform of His present acts and ways. Judgment, in dealing with evil and evil workers, characterises the future brief crisis before glory dawns upon the earth. The cry, therefore, of the slain under the altar is quite in keeping with Psalm 94: “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, show Thyself. Lift up Thyself, Thou Judge of the earth; render a reward to the proud. Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?” (vv. 1-3). The judgment of sin on the cross is the foundation on which securely reposes our glory in Heaven. The judgment of sin on the wicked on earth is needful to clear it from evil and fit it as a dwelling place for God’s earthly people.

Their souls are seen in vision “underneath the altar.” On the altar would express the holocaust being offered, but “underneath” it, where the blood of the sin offering was poured out (Lev. 4:7), signifies the completion of the sacrifice. The martyrdom of the saints was not taking place. The scene was over. There are no details furnished. The cruelty of the oppressor and the sigh of the steadfast witness for Jesus and His royal rights are alike unrecorded. The martyrs are not here seen in life, nor as risen, but in the separate state, “the souls of them that had been slain.”

With a loud voice they cry “How long?” the well-known cry of the suffering Jew in the coming hour of unparalleled sorrow. Anguish and faith are expressed in the cry (Ps. 74:9, 10; Ps. 79:5; Ps. 89:46; Ps. 94:3, 4). The appeal is to God as “Sovereign Ruler.” This is a title implying supreme authority, and is found nowhere else in the Apocalypse. The epithets “holy” and “true” are added. The cry is to One Who has right and power to avenge the blood so wantonly shed; Who is holy in His nature and true to His Word and promise. The circumstances contemplated under this Seal are similar to those noted in Psalm 79, only the Psalmist witnesses to a later moment and to a more circumscribed area. Vengeance is invoked “on them that dwell upon the earth.” A moral class is here indicated, for in Revelation 11:9 the inhabitants of earth are referred to under the well-known enumeration, “people, and kindreds, and tongues, and nations;” then in the next verse a moral class, the guiltiest of all, are spoken of as those “that dwell upon the earth.” The significance of this term is found in Philippians 3:19. The cry for vengeance is heard, but the answer is deferred. In the meantime the Lord gives a token of special approval. Each one of the martyred band is singled out for honour and vindication. “There was given to them, to each one, a white robe.”*

{*Not “Robes,” as in the Authorised Version. See Revised.}

If this verse stood alone it would itself render untenable the historical school of interpretation. Christians are in connection with the Father, not the Sovereign Ruler; they pray for those who despitefully use them; they do not invoke vengeance upon them. To a Christian such an invocation is impossible. To one who had been a martyred Jew this legal call for vengeance was absolutely consistent with the law under which he had lived, and his own Scriptures, and the Lord by giving each one a white robe stamps His approval on their utterance.

How good and gracious of our Lord thus to express with His ready approval the righteous attitude assumed by His martyred saints. But the sword of the Lord was not yet to be drawn. The iniquity of man awaited a fuller development of evil ere the righteous and holy wrath of the Lord bursts forth in its fury on the ungodly. The time of vengeance was measured by a “little while.” Another company here termed “fellow-bondmen” and “brethren” were to swell the ranks of the noble army of martyrs. Two separate companies of martyred saints are evidently referred to in these verses, the earlier company slain under the fifth Seal;* the later killed at a subsequent period, here called “a little while.” There can be no full answer to the cry “underneath the altar” till this second contingent of the martyred band is complete.

{*See Matthew 24:9, which synchronizes with the time and events here referred to.}

It must be distinctly borne in mind that neither the Old Testament martyrs from Abel, nor the Christian martyrs from Stephen, are referred to here. The two companies are those who seal their testimony with their blood after the translation of the saints of past and present ages to Heaven. The coming brief crisis will witness in its earlier and later stage fierce outbursts of cruel persecution against those then witnessing for God.

THE SIXTH SEAL.

COMPLETE SUBVERSION OF ALL GOVERNMENTAL AND CIVIL AUTHORITY.

Rev. 6:12-17. — “And I saw when He opened the sixth Seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as hair sackcloth, and the whole moon became as blood, and the stars of Heaven fell upon the earth as a fig tree, shaken by a great wind, casts its unseasonable figs. And the Heaven was removed as a book rolled up, and all mountains and islands were removed out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great, and the chiliarches, and the rich, and the strong, and every bondman and freeman hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains; and they say to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and have us hidden from (the) face of Him that sits upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; because the great day of His wrath is come, and who is able to stand?” Under the former Seal we witnessed a fierce struggle between light and darkness. The conflict between good and evil knows no cessation. But God shall triumph in the end. The full answer to the appeal of the martyred saints must await the completion of the martyred band. A second outburst of rage against God’s witnesses, directed by the Beast and his satellite, the Antichrist, is there intimated. Then will come the hour of awful tribulation. Then will an angry God deal in judgment with the cruel persecutors of His people. “It is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you” (2 Thess. 1:6). But under this Seal God begins to deal judicially with the world, thus giving an earnest of the full answer yet to be vouchsafed to the cry underneath the altar.

The scene here described is an awful and sublime one. The symbols employed are the powers of nature. The whole fabric of civil and governmental power on earth breaks up. Disorder reigns supreme. It is not simply the collapse of this or that government, but the total subversion of all governing authority, both supreme and dependent. The general idea which the metaphors present is a universal overthrow of all existing authority; a revolutionary crisis of such magnitude that kings and slaves are in abject terror. The coming crash will involve in one general catastrophe everything on earth deemed secure and strong. A vast civil, social, and political chaos will be created. What an awful scene to contemplate! A world without a magistrate! Without even the semblance of rightful power! Without government! Without the authority of repression!

12. — “A great earthquake” denotes a violent disruption of the organised state of things, a complete subversion of all existing authority. Under the seventh Seal, and preparatory to the infliction of yet severer chastisements (Rev. 8:5), an earthquake, along with other signs, is mentioned as a public intimation of coming wrath. But here the earthquake is termed “great,” as its effects upon men amply testify. Under the seventh Vial (Rev. 16:18) there will be another social and political revolution exceeding in its effect what we have in our text, a catastrophe of such an appalling character that history affords no parallel to it. It must be borne in mind that the Seals unfold a series of consecutive and preliminary sorrows. The “great earthquake” does not usher in the day of the Lord. There are two groups of signs mentioned by the Lord in His great prophetic discourse (Matt. 24, 25). The first group applies to the period before the great tribulation (Matt. 24:6-14), the second group has its application after the tribulation, and announces the immediate Return of the Lord in power (v. 29). Now the events under the Seals are prior to the tribulation, and really coalesce with the earlier state of things described in Matthew 24:6-14. The “great earthquake” of our text does not, therefore, announce the final judgment, nor is it the immediate precursor of the Lord’s return, whatever men may say in their fear and terror (Rev. 6:17). The very fact that a yet more awful earthquake succeeds the one of our text should settle the question (Rev. 16:18). The state of things described under the sixth Seal is to be followed by more awful horrors.

12. — “The sun became black as hair sackcloth.”* The sun symbolizes the supreme governing authority (Gen. 37:9; Rev. 12:1). “Black as hair sackcloth” denotes the darkening power of Satan, and points to the supreme authority of earth (on which all were dependent) in a condition of utter collapse (Isa. 50:3; Ezek. 7:18). The darkening of the heavenly bodies is an awful calamity in the physical world, and hence the aptness of the figure here.

{* Hair sackcloth was originally made of camel’s hair (Matt. 3:4), and was the Prophet’s usual garment (Zech. 13:4). But it was pre-eminently the mourning garb (Rev. 11:3; 2 Sam. 3:31. etc.). It is in this latter sense in which it must be viewed here.}

12. — “The whole moon became as blood.” All authority immediately derived from and dependent on the supreme power is here figured by the “whole* moon.” The moon in the material realm is a secondary planet, and symbolizes derivative authority in the moral realm. It is the chosen figure of Israel as dependent upon Christ the Sun of Righteousness (Cant. 6:10; Ps. 81:3). “Became as blood.” The moral death and apostasy of every subordinate authority is intimated. “Blood” is a universal figure of death (Rev.11:6; 19:2, 13).

{*“Whole,” omitted in the Authorised, but inserted in the Revised, as also by Tregelles, Kelly, Darby: is found in the Sinaitic, Alexandrian, and Vatican Codices.}

Rev. 6:13. — “The stars of Heaven fell upon the earth as a fig tree, shaken by a great wind, casts its unseasonable figs.” All lesser authorities, as individual rulers, civil and ecclesiastical, morally fell from their exalted station. God and their relation to Him were morally given up. The unripe or unseasonable figs are those concealed under the leaves which never ripen, and which are cast off in winter by a strong wind. When the wintry winds of God’s wrath sweep across the scene, then those who were never truly His, however exalted their position, shall openly apostatise and abandon all external relation to Him (Isa. 34:4).

Rev. 6:14. — “The Heaven was removed as a book rolled up.” The political, civil, and ecclesiastical systems, the constitution, bonds, and frame work of society, shall as completely disappear as a book or scroll is unreadable when rolled up. The physical removal of the heaven (Rev. 21:1) and of the heavens (2 Peter 3:10), not, of course, the dwelling place of God, of saints, and of angels, is one of the most stupendous events which the Word of God records. But the entire cessation of all governmental order, the moral Heaven, is one of those coming events most awful to contemplate. We have had the ruin of all greater and lesser authorities, but here the whole system in which they were placed itself collapses.

14. — “All mountains and islands were removed out of their places.” A system of settled power is represented by a mountain (Dan. 2:35; Jer. 51:25), a long established, stable, and powerful government. Islands were regarded by the Jews as sources of wealth, as centres of trade and commerce (Isa. 23:2; Ezek. 27:3-15). The removal of all, regarded as enduring and great, as also the sources of wealth and commerce, are here declared.

UNIVERSAL TERROR.

The effect of this mighty and universal revolution in civil and political life will be a scene of awful terror. In keeping with a marked characteristic of the Apocalypse, in which the numeral seven is largely employed, there are enumerated seven classes of men, and, as usual, these again are divided into two groups of three and four. The first consists of those who govern: “kings,” the highest and most exalted; “great,” or princes, see Revised Version; and “chiliarches,” or military tribunes.* The second group includes the non-official class presented in pairs: “the rich” and “strong,” “bondman and freeman.”*

{*In Mark 6:21 we read of Herod making a supper to his nobles and the chiliarches or military officers, and the chief men of Galilee, but these latter would not necessarily be officials; they were probably eminent persons in a private station.

**In Rev. 13:16; Rev. 19:18 the order is reversed as the free and bond.}

Rev. 6:15. — All, high and low, rich and poor, “hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains.” What a vivid emblem of terror! The fear of the Lord and the glory of His majesty in governmental power, as witnessed in the universal disruption of society, will strike men with such awful dread that the caves and rocks of the mountains* shall be eagerly sought as hiding places from His wrath and to screen them from His face. It is an hour of mortal fear. In their terror they appeal not to God, but to the mountains and rocks to fall upon them and hide them from the face “of Him that sits upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” Their guilty fears add, “Because the great day of His wrath is come, and who is able to stand?” It is not so. Heavier judgments are looming, darker clouds are gathering ere the final hour of concentrated agony known as the “wrath of the Lamb” transpires. Under the sixth Seal the first droppings of the coming storm of divine wrath cause universal terror and fear. When the storm actually bursts at the personal return of the Lord, then, instead of dread of His wrath, bold, high-handed contempt of the Lamb will characterise the scene (Rev. 19:17-19) which the warrior king will drench in blood.

{*This second and further reference to the mountains would in itself show that the physical heaven, moon, stars, mountains, etc., are not actually contemplated, but are to be understood symbolically. How could every mountain be removed (v. 14) and yet be sought for subsequently as a hiding place (v. 15)? There will be physical changes in the heavens and earth at the commencement (Zech. 14) and close of the millennial reign (2 Peter 3), but the time under which this Seal has its place would forbid anything but a moral and symbolical signification.}

We have to be exceedingly careful not to allow the consideration of details to weaken in our souls the general effect of this thrilling description of coming events, and the consequent fears of men. Even a cursory reader must feel awed at the “almost unparalleled magnificence and sublimity” of the scene about to be enacted, which is revealed in terms so full and plain that their bearing cannot, save by the wilfully ignorant, be misunderstood. The consideration of the seventh Seal* must be reserved till we enter upon the study of chapter 8.

{*We had thought of presenting a condensed summary of the historical application of the Seals, but on further reflection decided not to do so. We are amazed at the conflict of opinion by the historicalists. Scarcely two are agreed in their interpretations, while their assigned dates to this and that event are in hopeless confusion. Little wonder that the mass of Christians regard the study of the Apocalypse with an amount of suspicion difficult to get rid of. The principle of interpretation is clearly erroneous. If the Revelation is to be interpreted by the light which the facts of history record, it necessarily shuts out by far the greater number of God’s people from the study of the book, for how can they study history? Besides, if those who have done so and seek to interpret the book on this principle differ so widely that scarcely two are agreed, how hopeless the task for others. We are satisfied that the principle on which this book is sought to be interpreted by the historical school is utterly false. God’s Spirit alone is the power by which prophecy is to be understood, and not the facts of history. The Revelation from chapter 4 refers to the future.}