Revelation 6 – 8:5 – The Seven Seals
Most people’s knowledge of the Book of Revelation is limited to a few phrases and a general impression. Two familiar phrases are: “The Seven Seals” and “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are released when the first four of the Seven Seals are opened. The general impression of the Seven Seals and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is that they symbolize God’s anger and vengeance directed at the world at the apocalyptic end times.
Like so much of people’s “knowledge” of Revelation, this impression is not true. It results from reading Revelation as if it were a newspaper account rather than what it is, namely, a unique literary genre, rooted in ancient Hebrew apocalyptic, a genre that is filled with symbols. A frequent and sad outcome of this misreading is that people reject Revelation in particular and, often, the Bible as well. People close themselves off from God’s life-giving Word because of a misconception.
So, what is John describing in these verses? Let’s begin with the four horsemen. What do the horsemen represent? The text tells us they represent conquest, war, famine, and death. Many people assume that John is describing the end times. But he is not. After the first four seals are opened, the scroll describing God’s intentions for the end times is still held closed by the three remaining seals. The last seal, the seventh seal, is not broken until Revelation 8:1.
So, if the Four Horsemen aren’t about God’s anger, then what are they about? In this text, John is making two affirmations: an affirmation about the world we live in and about God who sits on the throne.
The Four Horsemen affirm that conquest, war, famine and death are present throughout all human history. Certainly, the story of the Roman Empire is the story of the Four Horsemen. According to historian Bettany Hughes, Rome’s massacre of Carthage in 146 BC, becomes one of the defining features of the Roman Empire. Let me remind you what she stated in her BBC series, The Eight Days that Made Rome:
Rome razed Carthage to the ground. The entire population was massacred or enslaved. The suffering must have been hideous. Men and women were strung up, disemboweled, raped, beheaded. Meanwhile the Romans set about rewriting history portraying the civilized Carthaginians as rank barbarians who deserved no mercy in defeat….
In their defeat of Carthage, we also see key features of the Roman Empire starting to emerge. An irrepressible belief in their right to rule, a ruthless determination to win at any cost and a complex identity lionizing honor and decency as well as instigating campaigns of violence and terror. Welcome to the brave new Roman world.
With the Four Horsemen, John is affirming that we see these characteristics throughout history. But in the sequence of the vision of heaven in chapters 4 and 5 followed by the Four Horsemen, John is also making an affirmation about God. Gregory Stevenson observes that the Four Horsemen–conquest, war, famine, and death–immediately follow the description of God and the Lamb seated on the thrones of heaven. That sequence raises the question: what is the relationship between conquest, war, famine, death and God’s sovereignty? Stevenson teases out that relationship. He writes:
This connection between the first four seals and the throne room of God is not a declaration that God is the deliberate source of all war, famine, and death on the earth, though it is certainly suggestive that God assigns the origin of much warfare, violence, and destruction to the dragon and its pawn, the beast (11:7-8; 12:17; 13:7-8; 17:6; 18:24). The theological point of Revelation 6:1-8 is not causality but control. If God is indeed on his throne and sovereign over his creation as Revelation 4-5 assures, then he is sovereign over conquest, ware, famine, and death and can employ even these in service to his divine plan.
Revelation does not allow for any limitation of God’s sovereignty in his dealings with evil and suffering. According to Revelation’s perspective, the reason why God does not do away with suffering and opposition is not because he cannot [author’s italic]. John’s vision of the Almighty ruling from his throne governs all of Revelation. Although John is not specific on exactly why God allows suffering and opposition to seemingly hold sway in this world, he suggests that God does so because it serves his larger purpose for creation.
Despite ambiguity regarding the specific referents for the first four seals, the larger theological message of these seals asserts that the existence of suffering and violence in the world by no means nullifies the sovereignty of God over his creation.
If the Seven Seals are not about the end time, then what are they about? The question the Seven Seals addresses is the question the seven churches are facing. As the seven churches contemplate refusing to participate in the imperial cult, they know they are risking persecution, even death. It’s the question most everyone who faces the Four Horsemen ask at one time or another. The question is: where is God in all of this? The answer is simply this: trust God and follow the Way of the Lamb. We’ll unpack this answer in more detail after we read this text.
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ 2I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.
3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 4And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.
5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, 6and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’
7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 8I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.
The Four Horsemen – 6:1-8
Wes Howard-Brook writes the following about this section:
Readers are often led astray by equating what emerges from the Lamb’s breaking of the seals with divine actions. The images of the “four horsemen” reveal, however, not God’s actions, but the imperial lies that prevent God’s Word from being heard and known by the “inhabitants of the earth” (a term John uses to refer to those enthralled to empire: 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 13; 17:2, 8). The key to the imagery and thus, to understanding the violence portrayed, is to recognize that the seals are not the scroll. The seals express various ways in which empire generally, and the Roman Empire in particular, casts a “shroud” (cf. Isaiah 25:7) over the peoples with its influence. Thus, the violence that is unveiled is the empire’s, not God’s. Jesus’ death and resurrection reveal the lies of imperial propaganda for what they are.
Yet, God does give the scroll to the Lamb to open the seals. And the Lamb does indeed open them and call out “as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’’’ (Rev 6:1). As God does throughout scripture, God enables consequences of injustice to play out (see e.g. Exodus 3:7-10; 22:21-27). Clearly, whether they know it or not, God constitutes a threat to those who assume they can violate others with impunity.
We see this theme of God being actively engaged in allowing consequences of injustice to play out throughout the Bible. Koester points to an example in Zechariah. “When Zechariah heard a divine horseman report that ‘the whole earth remains at peace,’ an angel demanded to know how long God would allow this condition to continue, because ongoing peace simply gave the powerful the luxury of oppressing the people of God (Zech 1:11-12; 6:1-8). For change to come, God would need to disturb the peace.”
The four horsemen represent war, violence, economic oppression and ultimately death. Anyone with eyes to see could see these horsemen riding through the Roman Empire. Rome promised Pax Romana or Roman peace. But there was no lasting peace. There was no guarantee of security that people could build their lives on. Why? Because Rome’s oppressive policies created consequences John represents figuratively with the four horsemen.
In the table below, Howard Brook links the Four Horsemen to specific realities in the Roman Empire. Then he notes the messages these “horsemen” send—messages that undermine the propaganda of Pax Romana.
The Seals on the First Four Scrolls 
|Image||Meaning in the Roman Empire||What is Revealed|
|White horse with mounted archer||Parthian army, outside the eastern imperial boundary||Empire does not control all the earth|
|Red horse with sword destroys peace||
Civil war and capital punishment against those who instigate civil war – the Jewish war is a prime example
|Imperial peace is constantly threatened by violence within society|
|Black horse with measuring scales||
Huge slave driven agricultural estates run by the elite for profit are in competition with Rome’s need to provide basic goods to the hungry masses
Economic exploitation of the poor by those in power
|Pale green horse, ridden by death and Hades, with power of sword, famine and pestilence, and beasts of the earth||The constant state of violence and suffering that makes up daily imperial life for most people||Death from war, violence, disease, famine, and wild animals|
These consequences are nothing new. The prophets saw them in Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and at times in the nation of Israel itself. And we can see them riding through nations from that time until today.
As the prophets told the Hebrew people (Jeremiah 51:45) so John tells the church, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Revelation 18:4-5). Craig Koester writes, “The four horsemen are designed to shatter the illusion that people can find true security in the borders of a nation or empire, in a flourishing economy, or in their own health.”
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ 11They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.14The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’
The Fifth and Sixth Seals – Revelation 6:9-17
With the breaking of the fifth seal, we are transported back to heaven. We see those who have been faithful witnesses against the sins of the empire they lived in. Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther write, “They represent all those prophets and holy women and men throughout history who have suffered empire’s reaction against them for testifying against its falsity, oppression, and injustice (cf. 1 Kings 19/Romans 11:2-3; Matt 23:29-35; Acts 7:51-60).” Their witness—their battle for justice completed, they are resting in the peace and security of heaven.
But they know that the battle continues on earth so they cry out to God, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” This sounds like a selfish cry for God to exact revenge. Stevenson writes that this interpretation, namely, a cry for vengeance, “is really more of a response to Revelation’s troubled history of interpretation than it is to the text itself, for within that history are many who have used Revelation’s language of justice and vengeance to justify their own violent actions or their own selfish desires for revenge.”
These words, “how long,” are, in fact, “a faithful expression of genuine unjust suffering.”The words, “how long,” echo what we hear repeatedly in the Psalms (Ps 6:2-3; 13:1-2; 35:17; 74:10-11; 80:4-7). Stevenson notes, “’How long’ is the question asked by all who look at the world and see the absence of justice, who see violence and oppression holding sway…. They stand in solidarity with all those, both ancient and modern, who have suffered unjustly.”
The martyrs are resting in the peace and security of heaven. But the opposite experience is taking place on earth. When the sixth seal is broken, chaos is unleashed:
A series of cosmic signs… threaten to turn the created order back into primeval chaos (6:12-14) and preparing for the “new heaven and new earth” that will be revealed later (Rev. 21-22). For now, the signs lead “everyone,” from “the kings of the earth” to slaves, to call on the mountains and rocks to shelter them from the direct gaze of God, which has been uncovered by the “rolling up” of the sky like a scroll. This image, befitting the scriptural cosmology that imagined the sky as a kind of tent roof between the earth and God’s abode, is pure apocalyptic: the veil is lifted, revealing God and the Lamb, in whose presence no one “on earth” can “stand” without fear and trembling (6:17).
But, again, we cannot read these verses as a newspaper account. These verses are not describing literal events. Rather this is standard prophetic language from the Hebrew scriptures. Here is an example from the prophet Isaiah. From Isaiah we hear God’s words of judgment directed at the nation of Edom, Judah’s neighbor to the south. Edom helped the Babylonians plunder and murder in Jerusalem. Does this prophetic text sound like Revelation?
4 All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
like a leaf withering on a vine,
or fruit withering on a fig tree.
5 When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,
lo, it will descend upon Edom,
upon the people I have doomed to judgement.
Remember, this is not a news account. Heaven did not rot. The skies did not roll up like a scroll. So what is this prophetic language teaching us?
The breaking of the fifth and sixth seals turns people’s perceptions and expectations upside down. People naturally assume that there’s no future in being a faithful witness—in standing against the oppressive ways of the empire. No one applauds. There is no visible benefit, only ostracism and persecution. Meanwhile, the idolatry of empires – asserting power over others, taking what I want for myself, putting my own happiness first, ignoring the rights and needs of others – appears to work. The idolatry of empires produces results: growth, increased power and wealth.
However, God and the Lamb rule the universe. When the fifth and sixth seals are broken open we see that the ways of empire have no future. They lead to total insecurity as God holds these ways accountable. The ways of faithful witness (“slaughtered” in 6:9 in not literal but a metaphor that stems from Christ’s faithfulness that led ultimately to a Roman cross), that is, the ways of Christ-like “conquering” and “overcoming,” lead to eternal security and peace. In heaven, they wear “white robes” which, as Koester observes, symbolize “purity, victory, and celebration.”
Stevenson writes, “The point of the cosmic disruption in the sixth seal is simply that God will act on behalf of his people in a powerful way….The importance of the fifth and sixth seals, when taken together, lies in what they reveal about God. Though his justice may at times seem slow in coming, God will not abandon his faithful. The one who is ‘holy and true’ will manifest that holiness in wrath.”The question posed at the end of chapter 6 is: when that wrath comes, “who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:17).
Revelation 7 answers that question with two different but interrelated scenes.
Question: Who is Able to Stand? (Revelation 6:17)
Answer: Those who Stand by Grace (Revelation 7:1-17)
7After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, 3saying, ‘Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.’
4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel: 5From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God,12singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ 14I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
The Church is a Multinational Witnessing Community
After the sixth seal is broken and before the seventh seal is broken, we find ourselves in the midst of an interlude. Michael Gorman calls this interlude (Rev 7) “one of the most important texts about the church in the entire New Testament.”Revelation 7 contains two sections. In the first, 7:1-8, we see the church on earth. In the second, 7:9-17, we see the church in heaven.
Four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. They are preventing “the four winds” (perhaps the four horsemen we just met) from doing their destruction until another angel places God’s seal of protection on the foreheads of God’s servants. We see later that the seal is the name of Christ and of God (Rev 14:1). In other words, the authority of Christ and God protects these servants of God. As we know, John’s apocalyptic writing is filled with symbols. This seal is not a visible mark but the presence of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14)—the gift received through faith in Christ and God.
This protection is not physical protection. Over and over in Revelation, we see God’s command to “overcome” in the midst of persecution up to and including martyrdom (2:10; 12:11). The seal protects the faithful from the lies and deception of the Serpent and the two beasts (12:15-17; 13:11-18; 16:13-14). In other words, the seal protects the faithful from being seduced by the idolatry of the empire in which they live. With this seal, that is, with God’s wisdom, Christ’s model of faithfulness, and the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence, they will be enabled to live in such a way that they will stand at the final judgment and join in the victory of God.
But it is important to note that Christians who have suffered for their faithfulness are not given power to oppress their oppressors. They are given shelter and a calling which is the call to serve God. As Stevenson writes,
Chapter seven offers no hint of the type of self-aggrandizing glorification that many critics of Revelation decry whereby Christians trumpet their rise to power and their exaltation over their former oppressors. In this vision their reward for faithfulness is cast in terms of service and shelter. Their fortunes are reversed but it is not the reversal of impoverishment to powers, but the reversal from suffering to shelter. No longer do they hunger, or thirst, or grieve, or wilt under scorching heat; instead the Lamb shepherds them and they serve God day and night in his temple (7:15-17).
Who are the 144,000?
Koester links the two different pictures of the church in these verses. He writes,
The redeemed are identified as an assembly of 144,000 in 7:4-8 and as a great multitude in 7:9-17, but both refer to the same group. On one level, to be sure, the images appear to contrast, since the first refers to a definite number of people who come from the twelve tribes of Israel, while the second refers to a group that cannot be numbered, who come from every tribe and nation…. The community of faith encompasses people from many tribes, nations, and languages, yet this same community represents the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning the preservation of Israel.
Gorman points out the enormous significance of this vision for the mission of the church in every age. He writes,
The beautiful vision of ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands’ (Rev 7:9) is—or should be—at the heart of the church’s self-understanding. This is what God is up to in the world….
If Christians around the globe truly understood themselves as part of this international community, and fully embraced that membership as their primary source of identity, mission and allegiance, it is doubtful that so many Christians could maintain their deep-seated national allegiances, or their suspicions of foreigners. This would require a radical transformation within much of the Christian church, a recapturing of the wisdom of the earliest church.
The second-century writing called the Epistle to Diognetuscaptures the spirit of Revelation 7 (and probably the entire New Testament), offering what is arguably the most appropriate attitude for Christians to have toward the country in which they happen to live:
[Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land (5:5-6)
At some point, most if not all forms of patriotism will, or should, clash with the ethos of Revelation 7, at which point a choice must be made. Unfortunately, for many Christians the choice (between allegiance to the nation or primary allegiance to Christ) is virtually predetermined by virtue of their socialization not only in society but also, and sometimes most especially, in the church.
8When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
3 Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. 4And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
The Seventh Seal – 8:1-5
In Revelation 8:1-5, John interweaves the seven seals with the seven trumpets. The Lamb breaks the seventh seal. Seven angels appear before God. They are given seven trumpets.
But before we hear the seven trumpets. There is an interlude. When the Lamb opens the seventh seal, “there is silence in heaven for about half an hour” (8:1). Richard Bauckham traces “silence in heaven” to Jewish apocalyptic writing where it refers to God listening intently to the prayers of his people. In fact, we see the angel take a golden censer filled with incense. The smoke of the incense and the prayers of the saints are offered up to God (8:3-4). These are the prayers we heard in 6:10 when the souls of those who had died after experiencing injustice and oppression on earth are in heaven and cry out to God, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”
Then the angel fills the censer with fire from the altar and throws it on the earth. “And there were peals of thunder, rumblings flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Rev 8:5). Bauckham explains the background and meaning of the angel’s action. He writes,
To indicate that the prayers of the saints are answered by the eschatological judgment of God on the earth, the angel takes fire, symbolizing judgment, from the altar and throws it on the earth. The image derives from Ezekiel 10:2, 6…. This follows the marking of the righteous on the forehead for protection (Ezek 9:4), just as the judgment in Revelation 8:5 does (7:3).
Scholars are not sure what the duration of “about half an hour” refers to. Bauckham suggests, “It is plausible to suppose the offering of incense in the morning ritual in the temple at Jerusalem took about half an hour. Revelation 8:1 refers to the heavenly equivalent.”
So the saints pray that God would intervene to stop the injustice, oppression, and pain that people experience on earth. God hears their prayers and responds through the angel. The angel throws fire from the altar before God to the earth. Fire is a symbol of God’s judgment, (Luke 3:16-17). What is the judgment God designs for the purpose of removing injustice and oppression?
The judgment is to reveal clearly and powerfully the natural consequences of Roman idolatrous practices. It’s like being a whistle-blower. It’s like pulling back the curtain in the “Wizard of Oz.” Seeing these consequences is to motivate the church to stop assimilating Roman idolatry into their own practices. Then the church can be witnesses for God and the Lamb rather than an expression of Roman civil religion. The church will live out justice, humility, compassion in the midst of the injustice, abusive power and cruelty of the empire.
In 8:6, the angels make ready to blow the trumpets. The Seven Trumpets is the focus of our next study as we work through Revelation chapters 8, 9, 10 and 11. It will be the 7thof our 10 studies.
The Rev. Dr. David Smith and The Rev. Fran Gardner-Smith
Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, Abilene Christian University Press: 2013, 142-143.
Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!”in God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010, 468.
Craig R. Koester,Revelation and the End of All Things Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, 86.
Adapted from Howard-Brook, (2010), 469.
Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1999, 142.
Brook and Gwyther., 143.
Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, London: T&T Clark, 1993, 82.