An Exegetical Commentary
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 26 March 2011; Revised 9 January 2016
Scripture: The Scripture text of Revelation used below is prepared by Blaine Robison with consideration given to the American Standard Version (which is in the public domain) and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. The essentially literal translation seeks to reflect the Jewish character of the author and writing. See my web article The Jewish New Testament. Other Bible versions are also quoted. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Most versions can be accessed on the Internet. Messianic Jewish versions are CJB, DHE, GNC, HNV, MW, OJB, & TLV.
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the chapter commentary. Works without page numbers are cited ad loc. The Septuagint (LXX) is the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which was in use by Jews by the mid-2nd century BC. The LXX with English translation may be found here. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations. Works by early church fathers may be found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Syntax: Unless otherwise noted the definitions of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009). See the Greek Guide for the meaning of grammar abbreviations. Definitions of Hebrew words are from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981). The numbering system of the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance is identified with "SH" (Strong's Hebrew number) and "SG" (Strong's Greek number). Strong's Online.
Vocabulary: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Torah (Law), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
The opening of the seven seals begins for John the unveiling of the final events that will herald the return of Yeshua the Messiah. Interpretation is complicated by the fact that the characteristics of the first five seals have existed in various places and in various degrees since the first century and so have served as portents of God's wrath to come. Yet, the seals are presented as events occurring in the very last days of the present age. The effects of the seals should not be viewed as separate and distinct but to some degree cumulative. That is, the content of the second, third, fourth and fifth seals reflect a consequence of the seals that have preceded.
The First Seal Opened (6:1-2)
1― And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, "Come."
And I saw when the Lamb opened: Grk. anoigō, aor., means to open, as to open a closed door or make a room accessible. one of the seven seals: Grk. sphragis. See the note on 5:1. Now that the Lamb has been declared worthy and every created thing has worshipped, the Lamb proceeds to open the seals. The releasing of the seal and opening the book are viewed as one act. Thus, John only knew there were seven seals after all seven were released. Each scroll was in a roll bound by a seal, which was encased by another scroll. and I heard one of the four living creatures: See the note on 4:6. saying as with a voice of thunder: Grk. brontē means thunder or a crash of thunder and refers to the thunder common to storms on earth. A "voice of thunder" would convey authority and power.
Come: Grk. erchomai, pres. mid. imp., to come or arrive with focus on a position from which action or movement takes place or to go with the focus on the goal for movement. The present tense command may intend "start and keep on coming." One of the four living creatures (see note 4:6) then issues a command to "Come," most likely to the rider of the horse, rather than to John (as is indicated by the KJV translation) or to Yeshua. Many copyists of the Greek MSS understood the word "Come" to be a summons to John to come and behold the sequel to the breaking of the seal, and so they added the words "and see." The HNV and KJV follow this inaccurate rendering. However, the best Greek texts contain only the summons, "come." The late variant is also found in verses 3, 5, and 7 (Ladd).
The fact that each rider appears immediately upon hearing the command to come suggests that they have been waiting for this appointed time. Whether the living creatures have names is not revealed to John, so he identifies them simply in the numerical order as they participate in the opening of the seals. Johnson suggests the analogy of a first-century amphitheater with various charioteers being summoned into the arena by the call "Come!" or "Go forth!" In this case the arena is the earth. The volume and intensity of the angelís call echoed across heaven as thunder reverberates across the sky in a passing storm. The thunderclap of the angelís voice immediately grabbed Johnís attention. It is obvious by Johnís reaction that the angelís command was not for him, since John "looked" but did not "come."
2― And I looked, and behold, a white horse, and the one sitting on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him; and he went out overcoming, and to overcome.
And I looked, and behold: The opening testimony "I looked" repeats the same verb that begins the first verse. Such repetition no doubt serves as Johnís insistence that the scene he witnessed actually happened. a white: The sixteen other uses of "white" in Revelation are associated with Yeshua and the saints. In addition, the only other ones riding white horses in Scripture are Yeshua (19:11) and the armies of heaven (19:14). In rabbinic teaching a white horse in a dream was considered to be a favorable omen (Sanhedrin 93a). Conversely, the color white is used in Scripture with a negative sense. White may represent the uncleanness of leprosy (2Kgs 5:27). Ezekiel accused false prophets of "whitewash" with their false visions (Ezek 22:18). Yeshua accused certain Pharisees of being whitewashed tombs (Matt 23:27). Evil may masquerades as good and may appear to be white (cf. Matt 23:27; Acts 23:3; 2Cor 11:14-15). Of course, to make use of any of these facts one must make an assumption about whether the color of the horses actually means anything.
horse: Grk. hippos means horse or steed and occurs 17 times in the Besekh, all but one in Revelation. As he gazes intently John sees a single white horse with a rider. Zechariah saw two visions involving horses sent to patrol the earth (Zech 1:8-10; 6:1-8) Ė the first vision was of a rider on a red horse followed by red, sorrel and white horses, and the other vision was of four chariots pulled by red, white, black and dappled horses, which were explained to be "the four spirits of heaven" with the colors representing geographical points of the compass to which the spirits were assigned (Zech 6:5ff). While the first horses Zechariah saw were red, the first horse John sees is white. Much has been made of the colors of these horses. Johnson suggests that the colors may serve the same function as in Zechariah. Of course, there may be no symbolic significance intended, since there is no such thing as a colorless horse. The color may simply serve to tell the horses apart.
and the one sitting on it: There is much speculation over the identity of the rider of this horse. Historicist commentators consider the white horse as a symbol of the Roman Empire from the death of Domitian to Commodus (A.D. 96 to 180) (Gregg 102). Wesley associated this rider and horse, as well as the other three, with the Emperor Trajan. Preterists interpret the vision as prophesying the military conquest of nations by greater nations as occurred in ancient times by a succession of powerful empires (so Barclay and Mounce). In the first century the Roman Empire was held together by military force. Some futurists explain the meaning of the seal and the identification of the rider as the advent and rule of the Anti-Messiah (so Johnson and Walvoord). Other commentators from different approaches suggest the seal represents Yeshua victorious in the world through the advance of the good news (so Irenaeus, Alford and Morris). Victorinus interpreted the rider as the Holy Spirit sent by Yeshua at Pentecost. While not mentioned by any source reviewed by this writer, the white horse may represent the increased power and influence of dominant religion in the Middle East.
Many assume that the first rider is an individual while also assuming that the remaining riders do not represent individuals. Those who favor identification of the rider as the Anti-Messiah presume that Revelation is a chronological story and that the gathering and resurrection of the saints occurred before Chapter Four. However, the Anti-Messiah will be revealed halfway through the story as a beast that arises from the abyss, not as a bow-armed rider from heaven, and there is no explanation by an angel or the Lamb identifying this rider as the Anti-Messiah. Some commentators suggest a parallel with the vision of Yeshua returning on a white horse to slay the beast (19:11). Yet, as in the case of the Anti-Messiah viewpoint, there is no reference here to the Lamb, except as the one sending the rider, so it is hardly likely that the sender would also be the rider.
The fact that all the riders are on horses is intriguing. From the earliest times horses were principally a military asset, often used to pull chariots (Gen 50:9; Ex 14:9). The horse was viewed as a key resource for national survival, which in large numbers, such as Solomon accumulated (1Kgs 10:26), served as a strong deterrent to aggression. In a battle the horse-pulled chariot of biblical days was a "combat multiplier," giving an army significantly increased speed and shock in an attack. In the first century Gentile military leaders sometimes rode horses and the white horse was particularly favored by kings and generals for victory parades as symbolic of their power. The white horse was not actually ridden in battle since the rider could be easily targeted by the enemy (Henry). God repeatedly warned Israel not to put their trust in the strength or speed of horses (Ps 20:7) or to multiply horses (Deut 17:16). Some kings used swift horses rather than camels to carry messages (Esther 8:10, 14). In Zechariah 1:8-10 and 6:1-7 may be found the first use of horses to represent heavenly spirits sent to patrol the earth.
had a bow: Grk. toxon occurs only here in the apostolic writings and may refer to the great bow mentioned in Zechariah 9:13 (Robertson). The "bow" was a feared weapon of attack for all nations, a particular weapon of the king (Rienecker) and in Scripture frequently symbolizes the ability of nations to wage war (Ps 18:34; 46:9; Jer 49:35; 51:56; Ezek 39:3; Hos 1:5; 2:18; Zech 9:10). Ancient armies had three basic tactical weapons: ground infantry, mounted infantry (also called cavalry) and archers. Arrows were a form of artillery, and, like artillery in modern warfare, were used to precede a ground attack or cavalry charge. Bowmen could inflict heavy casualties and limit losses to their own infantry in hand to hand fighting.
Preterists favoring the military conquest interpretation point to the Parthians that were considered the most famous archers in ancient times and white horses were their trademark (Mounce). However, the bow also symbolizes divine judgment and victories in Scripture, such as Psalm 7:12: "If a man does not repent, He will sharpen His sword; He has bent His bow and made it ready." (See also Ps 45:4f; Isa 41:2; 49:2f; Hab 3:9; Zech 9:13f.) On the other hand, the bow is used to symbolize the organized warfare against Godís people. A vivid example is Psalm 37:14: "The wicked have drawn the sword and bent their bow to cast down the afflicted and the needy, to slay those who are upright in conduct" (cf. Ps 11:2; 64:3-4).
and a crown: Grk. stephanos referred to a wreath worn by winning athletes or crown of honor. In the LXX stephanos translates the Heb. atarah, the royal crown and corresponding figurative uses (e.g., 2Sam 12:30; 1Chr 20:2; SS 3:11) (DNTT 1:405). Its first use in the Besekh is of the crown of thorns forced on Yeshua's head (Matt 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2, 5), but in Revelation of a crown worn by the victorious Messiah (Rev 14:14). In addition, stephanos is the imperishable crown gained by the disciples (1Cor 9:25; 2Tim 4:8; 1Pet 5:4; Jas 1:12; Rev 2:10; 3:11). In Revelation this crown is also worn by the elders (4:4), pit locusts (9:7), and the woman (12:1). So, for the rider of the white horse the crown may represent either the authority to conduct conquering or the authority exercised over those conquered.
was given to him: A textual argument used to support the interpretation of the first rider as the Anti-Messiah is that the phrase "was given to him" repeatedly occurs in Revelation to refer to a power or authority granted to some evil personage to carry out acts contrary to Godís character, yet accomplish His will (9:1, 3, 5; 13:5, 7, 14, 15) (Johnson). Similarly, the first rider was given a crown and the fourth rider was given a sword (6:4). However, the fact of being given something is also applied to the saints (6:11; 19:8), the angels (8:2), and John in particular (11:1). Again, the diversity of usage cannot decide whether this phrase is significant.
and he went out: Grk. erchomai, aor. act. ind., means to come, come back, return or appear and in a few instances it means to go. When used of persons erchomai often indicates traveling or a journey. overcoming: Grk. nikaō, pres. part., to win victory over, overcome, defeat (Danker). In Greek culture the verb was typically associated with military and legal combat (DNTT 1:650). The participle being a verbal adjective not only describes action, but also the character of the one performing the action. and to overcome: Grk. nikaō, aor. subj. The subjunctive mood of the verb indicates the intention and potential of achieving the goal. The phrase could be literally translated "overcoming in order to overcome." This same Greek word is used frequently in Revelation as a goal or activity of the saints (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 21:7).
Conversely, it must be acknowledged that the word is also used of the power of the beast to overcome the saints (11:7; 13:7). In sharp contrast to the remaining riders, no specific negative actions harmful to the inhabitants of the earth are described; only the end result of this riderís activity. Since conquering means to defeat an adversary, the means to the end would likely be detrimental to those being conquered. The only way a war can be won if by destroying the enemy's capacity for war. Thus, it is safe to assume that a large portion of the earth will be affected by this rider's activity. Taking all the above points into consideration, the viewpoint that the first rider represents general military conquest has merit, but there are other considerations, since the second and fourth seals incorporate war. The conquering here may have a very distinctive application.
Ladd discounts the rider being Yeshua, but argues that the white horse and rider together represent the advance of the good news on the earth, which Yeshua said would continue until the end in spite of wars, civil strife, famine, pestilence, earthquakes and earthís weather run amok. Coffman, taking a different approach, suggests that bloodshed, famine, and pestilence naturally follow the rejection of the good news or the failure to obey its holy teachings based on the principle that all human suffering is ultimately traceable to the source of sin and rebellion against God in human hearts. The interpretation of the white horse as the advance of the good news had an early appeal as indicated by the commentary of Victorinus, who said that the words of the early preachers were "sent forth as arrows reaching to the human heart, that they might overcome unbelief."
The saints are empowered to overcome all spiritual obstacles by the Holy Spirit and the word of God. Yeshua promised the good news would be proclaimed to all the nations and then the end would come (Matt 24:14). The conquering, then, could reflect Godís promise to Abraham, "Your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies" (Gen 22:17). Indeed, in the latter half of the twentieth century evangelism began increasing every decade at a rate unprecedented since the first century, in spite of wars, oppressive governments and social upheavals. According to the best statistics available, on every continent, except North America, thousands of people have been coming to faith in Yeshua every hour, including a spiritual awakening among Jews to accept Yeshua as Messiah. The growth of the Body of the Messiah has become almost exponential and could be the fulfillment of the first seal.
The counter-argument to the first seal being the spread of the good news lies in the concept of conquering versus the nature of evangelism depicted in the apostolic writings. The nature of conquering means defeating an opponent, gaining the upper hand and the victor imposing his will on the loser. The Great Commission does not command disciples to go out conquering but to be faithful witnesses and make disciples of those who accept the good news of the Messiah. The good news succeeds out of weakness. The promise to Abraham really refers to the millennial kingdom. Yeshua did not intend for the saints to rule over society during the present age as depicted in this vision. The emphasis of the verse seems to be that it is the rider who is overcoming.
A more likely interpretation is that the first seal represents the advance of Islam, even though it did not come into being until the 7th century A.D. (For background information on the origin and nature of Islam see the monograph by Avner Boskey.) Some expect the Anti-Messiah to be a Muslim, as Richardson argues persuasively. Historically, Islam has been a great enemy of Christianity and over the centuries considerable warfare has occurred between the two. Of interest is that Arabs are particularly enamored of horses and Muslims believe that when Muhammad died he ascended to heaven on a white horse (Schmitmeyer). Radical Islamic leaders (especially terrorists) have an ambition to defeat America, destroy Israel and conquer the world. Al Queda reportedly uses a white horse graphic on their literature to symbolize their strength.
Islam as a religion has grown considerably in numbers and political influence throughout the world in the last century. The "conquest" by Islam has been extensive in Europe and America and mosques may be found in every major city. What could not be achieved by the sword has been brought about indirectly by immigration, growth of Muslim communities, polygamy, and active proselytizing. The expansion of Islam into "Christian" America is very worrisome. Pluralistic attitudes among Americans tend to tolerate different religious groups as long as they are law-abiding, and Muslims in Western countries live normally without resorting to terrorism. Nevertheless, it is an inescapable fact that Islam is an evangelistic and missionary religion that seeks to dominate the world. Because of their intensive lobbying efforts Islam is now tolerated and even taught in American public education systems whereas Christianity and Judaism are banned.
The threat of the major Islamic regimes in the Middle East and the terrorist organizations they either openly sponsor or tacitly support cannot be ignored. (Read Glenn Beck, It Is About Islam, Simon and Schuster, 2015.) And, while Muslims in the West may be law-abiding, there is great sympathy internationally in the Muslim street for anti‑American and anti‑Israeli terror. Radical Muslims would welcome the Anti-Messiah, Muslim or not, since he will seek the destruction of Israel, Jews and Christians. Enthusiasm for a Muslim Anti-Messiah would be greatly increased if they believed he were the reincarnation of Muhammad. In the meantime, disciples of Yeshua should pray for, love and witness boldly to Muslims and pray for the release of the Holy Spirit revelation concerning Yeshua to Arab and Islamic leaders and peoples, while at the same time praying for God to do justice for the victims of Islamic terrorism.
One additional note. The focus of these first four seals is on the riders and their activities, most resulting in dire consequences to the earth. None of them are treated as symbols of specific persons, religions or political movements on the earth. The riders themselves are most likely supra-natural spirit beings sent by the Lamb with a clear mission to accomplish. It should also be noted that nowhere is the origin of the spirits from which they "come" defined, although the context would favor heaven. The usage of "crown" could indicate that this spirit is a high-ranking angel, as the angelic elders in 4:10 wear crowns. Who or what, then, is he overcoming? The "bow of God" may represent Godís power arrayed against all powers under Satanís control by which he seeks to prevent the end of the age events from occurring as prophesied. And, the "crown" is passed to the saints who suffer as a result of this great struggle and thus the saints do benefit and evangelism may proceed successfully thanks to the efforts of this first spirit. The spirit-riders who follow are able to inflict terrible conditions because of the initiative and success of the first spirit-rider.
The Second Seal Opened (6:3-4)
3― And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, "Come!"
And when He opened the second seal: As with the first seal, the Lamb opens the seal to reveal the contents of the scroll. I heard the second living creature saying, Come: Then the second of the four living creatures issues a command to "Come," most likely to the next rider or spirit. The designation of "second" and the sequence in which John sees these seals opened does not necessarily represent a chronology in time of their happening on earth. Indeed, they may be occurring simultaneously and the enumerating coincides with the order John saw them.
4― And another, a red horse, went out; and to the one sitting on it, was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.
And another, a red horse: "Red" is Grk. purros comes from pur, meaning flame-colored or blood-red (cf. 2Kgs 3:22). In the apostolic writings purros is found only here and 12:3 (Robertson). John notes first the horse and then its rider. Zechariah, too, had a vision of a red horse (Zech 1:8; 6:2). While commentators typically do not speculate on the significance of the horseís color, Baron suggests that red symbolizes judgment, blood and vengeance and that in accordance with Isaiah 63:3 the red horse in both Zechariah and Revelation signifies the readiness of the angel of the Lord to execute swift judgment on Israelís enemies (Baron 27). Whatever ambiguity may exist about the first seal rider, there is no doubt that this rider is being sent to cause conflict. Actually, this will not be the first time that a spirit is used for this purpose. In Judges 9:23-24, God sent a spirit to instigate conflict between King Abimelech and the men of Shechem. In 1 Kings 22:19-23 the prophet Micaiah told how the Lord sent a spirit to entice King Ahab of Israel to engage in war against King Jehoshaphat of Judah. The activity of these spirits was to bring judgment on evildoers, and so it will have the same purpose at the end of the age. The results of this spiritís activity may foster the cry for peace Ė at any price Ė that will welcome the advent of the Anti-Messiah, since no one is able to make war with him (cf. 1Th 5:3; Rev 13:4).
went out; and to the one sitting on it was given to take peace: Grk. eirēnē in Greek literature primarily denoted an absence of war (DNTT 2:776f). Eirēnē was used in the LXX to translate shalom, which has a much broader meaning. Shalom represents communal or even personal well being, the source of which is God alone (cf. Rom 15:33; 1Cor 14:33). from the earth: Grk. gē, which can mean soil, land as contrasted with the sea, and the earth in contrast to heaven. The LXX uses gē more than 2,000 times and translates the Heb. word eretz (DNTT 1:517). In the Tanakh eretz designates either (a) the earth in a cosmological sense, or (b) "the land" in the sense of a specific territorial area, primarily the Land of Israel (TWOT 1:74).
The mission of the second spirit is described as having two components. The first task of the spirit is to take peace from the earth. Mankind has always hoped for social peace, but strife is a fact of life and the continued need for armies and police forces testify to manís inability to construct a peaceful world. Strife is manifest in ethnic divisions, family breakdown, labor-management disputes, the crime rate and civil lawsuits. The billions of dollars expended on lawsuits every year does not begin to pay for the bankrupt businesses, broken relationships and lost peace of mind.
Strife will increasingly characterize the days preceding the Lordís return. Yeshua predicted in His Olivet Discourse, "because lawlessness is increased, most peopleís love will grow cold" (Matt 24:12). Lawlessness actually points to Torahlessness. Western culture has reached a point where morality based on the Ten Commandments has been rejected. Regardless of the label chosen to describe the phenomenon, the modern world is not much different than ancient Israel where "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judg 24:25). With such self-oriented values, it is not surprising that people will no longer be willing to sacrifice for the good of others, resulting in more adversariness, loss of social peace, violence and loss of life. The second seal may well describe the pervasive planetary level of violence as existed in Noahís day that brought about Godís judgment by the global flood (Gen 6:11, 13).
and that men would slay one another: The second task of the spirit is to cause men to "slay one another," which could refer to the murder rate in society, the worldwide terrorism of Islamic fundamentalists and criminal groups or even civil war. The first murder in human history occurred shortly after the fall of Adam (Gen 4:8) and the violence of the antediluvian world reached such a terrible condition that God decided to remove the entire population and start over with Noahís family (Gen 6:11ff). Yeshua warned His disciples, "You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place" (Matt 24:6). Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harvard historian, has commented that World War I was thought at the time to be the war to end all wars but its cost of 15 million lives and the horrendous blood bath of World War II resulting in over forty million dead made the twentieth century the "most terrible period in Western history" (Metz 75). Yeshua said that the time of His coming would be just like the violent days of Noah (Matt 24:37). Thus, as history comes to a close the Lamb will send forth this spirit to increase killing and so fulfill His word. One can only wonder whether the escalation in terrorism and the war against terrorism since September 11, 2001 has anything to do with this spiritís activity. Time will tell.
and a great: Grk. megas is a superlative that denotes (1) a unit of measure to specify size, capacity, quantity, intensity, age, or degree of wealth, or (2) a general reference to rank, dignity, sublimity or importance. sword: Grk. machaira refers to a dagger or the Roman short sword used by ancient Roman infantry for close hand to hand combat (Mounce). was given to him: The spirit is given a sword to carry out his second task. The fact that it is called "great" has nothing to do with the size of the blade or the composition of the sword but the extent of its use. With this sword the rider is able to promote violence throughout the earth. The metaphor of the great sword is reminiscent of Yeshuaí surprising statement that He "did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt 10:34). While His words had a direct and immediate bearing on the division that occurred in families over a family member accepting Yeshua, He also forecast His actions in the last days. First, His sword will set the wicked against each other and then in the great and final battle when the King of Kings comes on His horse the Lamb will slay the beast with the sword (19:15). Then, He will abolish war and the implements of war (Zech 9:10). Under the reign of the Lord Yeshua there will be no need to own a firearm for personal protection and true peace will finally be achieved (Isa 2:4; Hos 2:18).
The Third Seal Opened (6:5-6)
5― And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, "Come." And I looked, and behold, a black horse; and the one sitting on it had a pair of scales in his hand.
And when he opened the third seal: As with the two previous seals, the Lamb opens the third seal to reveal the prophetic content of the page. I heard the third living creature saying, "Come!" The third of the four living creatures issues a command to "Come," to the spirit-rider of the seal. I looked, and behold, a black horse; and the one sitting on it had a pair of scales in his hand: The word is singular and a device to measure weight. The balance or scale of biblical times was simply designed with a vertical beam and a horizontal crossbeam that was loosely attached at its center with a pan for weighing hung from each end of the crossbeam. The scale was typically used as a symbol of integrity, honesty and equitable treatment (Lev 19:36; Job 31:6; Prov 16:11; Ezek 45:10). The rider on the horse apparently symbolizes the societal and economic conditions, because the rider does not execute any action that could bring about the circumstances as described.
6― And I heard like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine."
And I heard like a voice: While looking at the rider holding the scales John hears a voice among the living creatures make an announcement about sale prices for farm products. The voice was probably God the Father since the location is described as the "center" of the four living creatures that in 4:6 are around the throne. a quart: Grk. choinix, indicates a dry measure of approximately 1.92 pints (Rienecker). There is a similar prophecy of inflated sale prices when Elisha passed on the word of the Lord that a seah of fine flour would be sold for a shekel on a specific day and it occurred just as Elisha said (2Kgs 7:1, 16, 18).
of wheat: Wheat is the most important cereal grass mentioned in the Bible. It was cultivated in Bible lands from early times (Gen 30:14). This grain was used for bread (Ex 29:32) and in worship offerings (Lev 2:1), and as an article of commerce (Ezek 27:17; Acts 27:38). Wheat arrives late in the year in Israel and Shavuot (Pentecost) celebrates the first fruits of the wheat harvest. A quart of wheat was the average daily consumption of a man in the first century. for a denarius: a denarius, a Roman silver coin worth about 16 cents, was the average daily wage for a day laborer (Ladd). In biblical times wheat and barley, olive oil and wine were the staple foods of Israel and Asia Minor. Barley was the food of the poor and although it took more to support life, it was available even during times of famine (Robertson). In ordinary times a denarius would purchase 12-15 times as much food, but this prophecy portends the day when it will take a full dayís wage to purchase food for one day, a frightening prospect for the poor.
and three quarts of barley for a denarius: Barley is a grain known since early times and well adapted to varied climates, ripening quickly and resistant to heat. It was usually harvested in the Spring and celebrated in Israel with the waving of a sheaf in the Temple on the first day of the week following Passover (called Reishit Katzir, "First Fruits of Harvest"). Barley was considered food for the very poor and held in low esteem as a grain. It was used in the offering of jealousy (Num 5:15), for fodder (1Kgs 4:28) and for food (Jdg 7:13; John 6:5, 13). The difference in price between the wheat and barley may reflect differences in availability and desirability. and do not damage: Grk. adikēsēs means to do wrong in the sense of violating human or divine law or to treat someone unjustly or to injure someone or some thing. The combination of the verb with the adverb mē ("not") functions as a prohibition or negative entreaty.
the oil: Grk. elaion refers to oil of the olive tree fruit and not petroleum, as suggested by Morris. and the wine: Grk. oinos may refer either to the fermented beverage made from grapes or to a vineyard, in this case probably the latter. The announcement is not merely a statement of foreknowledge, but a decree, since He directs that the oil and wine remain undamaged. Therefore, God is giving authority to the spirit to adversely impact wheat and barley crops, which are important, not only to the Middle East, but also to the global food market. Jobís experience with Satan indicates that spirit-beings can control forces of weather (Job 1:16, 18-19), and agricultural production is primarily dependent on the right weather, whatever the skill of the farmer may be. Of course, olive groves and grape vineyards are not grown in the same places as wheat and barley, so to damage one and not the other depicts manís common experience with the weather.
The main thrust of the verse is not to describe drought per se, because famine or shortage of food products can result from a variety of causes. The emphasis here is the economic impact of the spiritís activity. It should also be noted that the prices quoted could be what is earned from the production of these farm products, rather than their cost to the consumer. Prices fluctuate because of supply and demand along with the cost of doing business. In modern times various countries have contributed to hyperinflation as envisioned in this verse by imposing socialism on their farm industry. Those with wealth may weather such hard times, but socialist ideology, high taxes, bureaucratic regulation and price controls invariably hurt the poor.
The Lord places a limitation on the spiritís destructive activity (cf. 7:3) without which the agriculture industry might totally collapse. The instruction to avoid harming the olive oil and wine is a reminder that these crops were as necessary to Israel in ancient times as the wheat and barley and points to the revitalization of Israel whose land in these last days has "blossomed as the rose" (Isa 35:1). Prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948 the land of Israel was dry and barren. The nations that occupied the land after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians were never able to make the land produce (Sevener 129). Yet, when the Jews returned and their nation was restored, God blessed the land. Olive groves and grape vineyards are significant crops in modern Israel and it is reasonable to assume from Revelation that Israel will be protected as ancient Goshen during the terrible days to come.
The Fourth Seal Opened (6:7-8)
7― And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come."
And when he opened the fourth seal: The Lamb of God continues to open the Book of the End of the Age and opens the fourth seal to reveal its contents. I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come": Immediately the fourth living creature carries out his assignment by issuing a divine-directed command to the spirit-rider to "Come."
8― And I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and the one sitting on it, the name of him Death; and Hades was following with him; and authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
And I looked, and behold: Again, John uses the double verbs to emphasize his personal experience. an ashen horse: Grk. chloros means the light green or yellowish green of plants and when used of persons denotes the color of sickness as contrasted with a healthy appearance. Mounce suggests the usage of chloros here refers to the color of a corpse or the blanched appearance of a person struck with terror. and the one sitting on it, the name of him Death: Grk. thanatos. See the note on 1:18. The fourth rider, named "Death" kills a fourth of the earth with war, famine, pestilence or epidemics, and animals. Death is an enemy of all (1Cor 15:26), and is represented here, not as a literary personification of physical death, but as a rider, no doubt alluding to the demonic prince that destroys life and imprisons souls in the Pit (cf. Ex 12:23; 1Cor 10:10; Rev 9:11; see the note on 1:18).
Note that the trumpets destroy a third (8:7-8, 10-12) and the bowls destroy the rest (16:1ff). A parallel description may be found in Leviticus 26:21-26 and Ezekiel 14:13-20. God warned through Ezekiel that "if a country sins against Me" (Ezek 14:13ff), and even though Noah, Daniel and Job were in that country, it would not be spared the sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts (cf. Jer 15:5). Apparently God has granted grace to many cities and nations because of the presence of Godís people (cf. Gen 18:23-32), but when these horsemen are released it is a sign that Godís forbearance is at an end.
and Hades: Grk. Hadēs renders the Heb. Sheol, which ordinarily refers to the place of the unredeemed dead. See the note on 1:18. However, like Death the reference to Hades is not a literary personification of a location, but the name of a demonic prince. was following him: Hades is seen here trailing behind Death. Hades is not riding on the back of the horse (or on any horse), but he is going throughout the earth collecting all the corpses left behind by Death. The narrative may be visionary, but portrays reality (cf. Jdg 9:23), since in 20:14 they are thrown into the lake of fire. While it might seem strange that God would call on the assistance of spirit-beings in the employ of Satan, the place from which the riders come is nowhere specified and in this case God simply gives these spirits the same sort of authority as He gave Satan in the time of Job.
and authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth: Whether the "fourth" of the earth is a fixed portion of the earth or whether it is a percentage of all people is not clear. "Earth" should probably be translated "land" since the means of death are more properly connected with the land than the oceans. "Deathís" authority is spelled out very specifically and given four means of accomplishing his mission. to kill: Grk. apokteinō, to intentionally kill or murder. with sword: Grk. rhomphaia. The sword here is the same large broad sword that Yeshua is depicted using in 1:16 and probably refers to warfare between nations. Yeshua said wars would continue until the end of the age (Matt 24:6) and included wars and rumors of wars among catastrophes that are the "beginning of birth pangs" (Matt 24:8) which precede the great tribulation.
and with famine: Yeshua predicted in His Olivet Discourse that there would be famines in various places (Matt 24:7; Luke 21:11). A famine is a time of scarcity of food, in some cases severe enough to result in starvation. Many parts of the earth are experiencing famine and, especially in Africa, desert is overtaking previously fertile areas. Famine can also occur from socialistic agricultural policies or antiquated transportation systems that inhibit the equitable distribution of food.
and with pestilence: Grk. thanatos means "death," which in Scripture may refer to physical or spiritual death. Based on the context the translator may infer a cause of death, such as "fatal illness" or "pestilence," as in the NASB. Pestilence refers to illnesses that pass rapidly from person to person and endanger populations to such a degree as to become a public health threat. Infectious diseases have killed as many in history as some of the major wars. In 1350 the Bubonic Plague killed over 25 million people and in 1918 the Spanish flu killed over 27 million (Metz). Many "common" diseases are increasing as a cause of death, not just because of inadequate distribution of vaccines or antibiotics, but because lifesaving drugs often become ineffective as the disease organisms mutate and become resistant to them.
and by the wild beasts of the earth: Mounce suggests that death by wild animals would be expected in a land decimated by war and famine. While one may associate death from "wild beasts" with a lion mauling, the description could apply to any disease that may be transmitted from animals to people. Scientific research has linked AIDS with African monkeys. The rare CJD disease in England was linked to the "mad cow" disease of food animals, such as cows and sheep. While there is a natural barrier between animals and people as far as transmitting diseases from one to the other, the experience with AIDS and CJD has proven that the barrier can be broken down. to them: the pronoun is actually singular, "to him," referring to the one on the horse.
The Fifth Seal Opened (6:9-11)
9― And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained;
And when he opened the fifth seal: The broken seal reveals a vision of an altar and martyrs, but this time there is no rider. I saw: John says, "I saw," emphasizing that his report is a factual account of his experience. underneath the altar: Various Jewish midrashic and mystical sources (such as 1 Enoch) during the Second Temple period express a belief in heaven as a place of abode for souls after death. The Besekh concurs with this view (Luke 23:43; 2Cor 5:1, 8; Php 1:23; 3:20; Rev 13:6). John does not provide any dimensions or design of the altar, nor does he explain how millions of the slain could be "underneath." In 8:3 the altar is described as being "before" the throne, meaning that it is within sight of Godís throne. Nothing is known of the size of heaven, although the size of the New Jerusalem will be revealed later in Chapter Twenty-one. There is no reason why the vision could not be taken in a spatial sense, since there is plenty of room for the innumerable great tribulation martyrs to be standing "before" the throne (7:9).
the souls: Contrary to the notion that the soul becomes extinct at death, the narrative of this seal affirms that when the body dies, the soul survives (cf. Matt 10:28). Other passages also teach that a personís spirit or soul survives the death of the body (Acts 7:59; 1Cor 5:5; 1Pet 3:18). The soul and spirit, though considered "non-physical" in Greek philosophy (and in Western thought) are just as real as the physical body and cannot be understood by the laws that govern material objects. In Hebrew thought a person does not "have" a soul, but is a soul-body. The Hebrew words for "soul" and "spirit" do not refer to a non-physical part of a human being, but rather to the whole person. Human beings live as "souls;" they do not have souls (Wilson 175; e.g., Acts 2:41; 7:14; 27:37; and 1Pet 3:20). Evolutionistic humanists deny the reality of the soul and spirit, which means they are also living in denial of the judgment to come after death.
of those who had been slain: Grk. sphazō means to slaughter, to butcher or to murder someone. There is much speculation by commentators on the identity of these martyrs. A few other passages in Revelation also speak of martyrs (13:15; 18:24; 20:4). John notes that these souls are special for they have been "killed," a graphic word depicting butchery. The identifying description also emphasizes that all in the group shared the same brutality and may depict mass executions. Given the general nature of the description, these martyrs could certainly include all who have ever been killed for their loyalty to Yeshua. From Stephen, the first martyr for Yeshua, history is replete with murder and mayhem of those who have followed Yeshua. Yeshua prophesied in His Olivet Discourse, "Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name" (Matt 24:9). Of course, if there is a chronology to be assumed from the seals, then these martyrs may be from a more specific time in history.
The phrase "the souls of those who had been killed" is repeated in 20:4 with "beheaded" substituted for "killed," and there the phrase is directly connected with the edict of the beast. The specific nature of the phrase, then, probably is meant to point to the war against the saints during the great tribulation, given the anticipation of the wrath of God in the sixth seal and the description of the great tribulation saints in 7:9ff. There may be in this unusual picture an allusion to the Jewish practice of pouring the blood of sacrificial animals at the base of the altar (Lev 4:7; Ex 29:12) (Rienecker). Martyrdom would then amount to being sacrificed on the altar of heaven in identification with the Servant-Messiah who called all His disciples to take up their crosses as an act of personal sacrifice. (See also Philippians 2:17 and 2 Timothy 4:6 where Paul likens his impending martyrdom to being a drink offering.) However, the vividness of the image and its symbolic import do not negate the fact of Johnís report. If the first four seals reveal events that will occur, then the fifth seal must also have a basis in reality.
because of the word of God: Two reasons are given for martyrdom. The first reason is that the martyrs kept the word of God. The phrase "word of God" has multiple meanings in Scripture. It refers to the written Word of God containing the revealed knowledge of God and the salvation history of Godís people. The Word of God is also that message of salvation given to a prophet for a particular time and spiritual need. Since "Word" is the Greek word logos, the phrase could refer to Yeshua, as in John 1:1. The reference to the word of God may also relate to the insistence by the saints that Godís Word is an absolute standard to judge behavior and that no one, great or small, are exempt from obedience to it. Perhaps there are shades of all those meanings here, but the main point is probably that the martyrs were slain because of their unwavering allegiance to Yeshua who had predicted their suffering (John 16:2, 33).
and because of the testimony: Grk. marturia. See the note on 1:2. which they had maintained: The second reason given for their martyrdom is the testimony of Yeshua. (See the note on 1:9 for the testimony of Yeshua.) The "testimony" the martyrs kept can refer to their giving first place to Yeshua and declaring that He is the only way of salvation. Such a testimony is considered narrow-mindedness by the world that sees so many shades of gray and treats all religious belief systems of equal validity. The phrase could also be taken in the legal sense of a refusal to change their testimony or recant their faith while on trial. Consider this, if you were put on trial for being a disciple of Yeshua, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
10― and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"
And they cried with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord": Grk. despotēs, which means lord, master or ruler and refers to one who exercises absolute authority (Rienecker). will you refrain from judging and avenging: Grk. ekdikeō means to (1) avenge someone, procure justice for someone, (2) take vengeance for something, punish something or (3) do justice to oneís official position.
The martyrs ask a rhetorical question that on the surface appears to impugn Godís justice. A literal translation would be "until whenÖnot judging and avenging?" (Marshall) The verbs are in the present tense, so even in heaven these martyrs comprehend the passage of time without God acting. Surely the God who expects man to do justice (Mic 6:8) will do so Himself? Yet their question assumes there will be a terminus to this period of waiting. The martyrs appeal to God for justice because of three paramount characteristics. First, God is the sovereign ruler of the universe and nothing is outside His power or control. He has all the power needed to carry out His will. Second, God is holy, which means He is wholly pure and cannot tolerate evil in His presence. Third, God is true, meaning that He is faithful to His children and will do justice as He promised. Their appeal for justice and divine vengeance is based on knowledge of Godís true character. The martyrs also cry out as a group. Prayer is essentially corporate as Yeshua taught His disciples with "our Father" (Matt 6:9). Marvin Wilson quotes an old Hasidic saying, "A prayer which is not spoken in the name of all Israel is no prayer at all" (Wilson 187). Rightly does Paul declare that if one member suffered, then all members suffer" (1Cor 12:26).
The question has arisen among commentators whether the prayer of the martyrs represents a desire for vengeance or a desire for vindication. Some would consider the former desire "Jewish" and the latter "Christian." The Christian response to opposition is thought to be limited to passive toleration of evil and returning good for evil as described by Yeshua (Matt 5:38-48) and Paul (Rom 12:14-21). Consider the prayers of David (Ps 109), Jeremiah (Jer 18:18-23) and Nehemiah (Neh 4:1-5) who prayed for divine justice against the enemies of God. Stephen is cited as the example of the "Christian" virtue, even though he was a Jew, since he was so willing to forgive (Acts 7:60). This is an ironic attribution since the Roman Church from the second century to the twentieth century blamed Jews for deicide and perpetuated institutional unforgiveness toward them.
Stephen, however, pled for forgiveness, presumably on the basis of his countrymenís ignorance, as Yeshua had acknowledged from the cross (Luke 23:24). Knowing the justice and judgment of God, Stephen did not want wrath poured out on his native country because of the injustice done to him, but instead that they would have the opportunity to come to faith in their Messiah. Stephenís plea is similar to the petition of Moses, which God declined to grant and judgment fell anyway (Ex 32:32-35). God would not punish Israel for the unjust death of one person, but Stephenís death did add to the cumulative responsibility for opposing the message of God (Matt 23:34f), and thus Jerusalem was finally destroyed in A.D. 70 for rejecting both the message and the Messiah (Luke 19:43f).
Regardless of Stephenís prayer, the apostolic message and writings do not invalidate the Tanakh. Rather, there is consistency between the New Covenant and the former covenants in the expectation and promise of doing justice. From the time of Noah, God declared, "whoever sheds manís blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man" (Gen 9:6). Since the word "vindicate" means to clear from accusation, it hardly follows that the Revelation martyrs are requesting their Savior to prove their innocence to the earthly authorities that ordered their deaths. The martyrs are not asking for censure of their enemies, but that the Supreme Court of the Universe would provide justice for the crimes committed against them. The Apostle Paul declared that God would do this very thing:
"For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Yeshua will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Yeshua" (2Th 1:6-8).
Vengeance is merely the application of the punishment justice requires, and as such is not wrong, evil or sub-Christian. God delegated to Mankind the authority and duty for justice, including capital punishment as the crime warrants, thus establishing the chief duty of human government (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:4). God simply does not want individual citizens exacting their own vengeance because manís anger rarely metes out punishment proportional to the offense (as in the "eye for an eye" standard). Instead, acting as Godís agent government must exact vengeance as He authorized by following the standards that He established in the Torah for justice.
Peter also affirmed the law given to Noah by warning disciples that God would not protect them from the suffering of government vengeance for taking personal revenge (1Pet 4:15-17). However, when human government no longer recognizes the absolute standards of Godís Law, denies the Creator, and treats Godís people as persona non grata, "What can the righteous do?" (Ps 11:3). The answer is "The Lord is in His holy temple" (Ps 11:4). In other words, God is not on vacation, but the heavenly court is in session and the saints must look to God for the justice He has promised (Ps 11:6-7).
our blood on those who dwell: Grk. katoikeō means to live, dwell, settle (down) or inhabit. The verb is derived from oikos meaning a house or dwelling. on the earth? The phrase "those who dwell on the earth" occurs ten times in Revelation (3:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:8; cf. Isa 26:18) and the remaining occurrences normally refer to those who follow the beast and do not turn to God (Stern). The fact that the martyrs speak of these "earth dwellers" as adversaries would support the interpretation that the fifth seal represents the aftermath of the beastís war against the saints (13:7). There is no necessary implication that every loyal citizen of the beastís kingdom actively persecutes the saints.
However, silence can make one an accessory to a crime even after it is committed and therefore deserving of punishment. In common law failure to report a crime of which one has personal knowledge is called misprision. Thus, when the public fails to oppose the beastís war against the saints they become guilty under Godís Law and deserving of the same punishment as the actual perpetrators (cf. Ex 23:1f, 7; Lev 5:1; Deut 19:10-13; 21:9; Luke 12:47; Jas 4:17). The unrighteous in the parable of the sheep and goats are judged guilty for their failure to help the righteous when they are persecuted and suffer various privations (Matt 25:41-45). Set in the context of the Olivet Discourse the parable of the sheep and goats may represent God doing justice for the great tribulation martyrs.
11― And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.
And there was given to each of them a white robe: Grk. stolē referred to any stately robe, particularly a garment reaching to the feet, or one train-like, sweeping the ground (Rienecker). Though there is no necessary connection to the prayer of the saints, the martyred souls are outfitted by the heavenly clothiers in white robes. White clothing is the uniform of heaven and represents the righteous deeds of the saints (19:8). Being given the white robes probably occurred upon arrival in heaven and is all the vindication the martyrs need since their suffering came not from their own wrongdoing (cf. 1Pet 4:16). The Lord exhorts the martyrs that they must wait because there are more who will join them. There is no indication that the fifth seal represents the gathering of the saints at the Second Coming, which includes the catching up of living saints (cf. 1Th 4:17). The fifth seal describes only martyrs who have been slain, and their brethren who will join them after having been killed.
and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer: The saints are told that they must wait "a little while," an indefinite time period that stands in contrast to other periods of specific duration given in Revelation. until the number of their fellow servants: Grk. sundoulos means "fellow slave." In Greek literature the term was used in reference to an oriental court official and his ruler. Similarly, both the apostle Paul (Col 1:7; 4:7) and Ignatius (Epis. to Eph 2:1; Mag 2; 1Phild 4; 1Smyrn 12:2) used sundoulos to refer to specific church leaders or officials with whom they worked, including deacons.
The reference to "the number" of additional martyrs to arrive during this waiting period could mean an exact number that God in His omniscience would know. It could also refer to something being completed as a precursor to another event. For example, Yeshua had prophesied, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matt 24:14). Scripture does not define how many nations there are or how long it will take to preach the gospel to all of them; it only states that when one event is completed another one will happen. and their brethren, who were to be killed even as they had been: "brothers," indicates fellow disciples in the community of faith. The enemy will strike both shepherd and sheep. would be completed also: Grk. plēroō means to "fill full," referring to the number of something (Robertson). Thus, the martyrdom of the saints (i.e., the Body of Yeshua the Messiah) will be completed under the reign of the last Anti-Messiah, prompting Yeshua to ask, "When the Son of Man returns will He find faith [lit. "the faith"] on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). The answer is "No."
12― And I looked when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood.
And I looked when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake: Grk. seismos, from which we get our English word "seismic," means "to shake" (Robertson). While used once for a strong storm at sea (Matt 8:24), seimos is used mostly for earthquake. Seismos occurs seven times in Revelation (8:5, 11:13, 19; and 16:18). The heavenly portent of the sixth seal was originally revealed to Joel,
"Before them the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon grow dark and the stars lose their brightness. Ö The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes" (Joel 2:10, 31).
Earthquakes have always existed, but Yeshua includes seismic events in His list of adverse environmental events that the disciples should expect (Matt 24:7). Charles Wesley, in recounting several catastrophic earthquakes in the 17th and 18th centuries, asserted that earthquakes are truly acts of God, and, whatever the natural cause may be, they are the result of His anger at sin ("The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes," Sermons on Several Occasions, 1872 ed.) Indeed, the Scriptures are replete with prophetic pronouncements attributing earthquakes and climate-related calamities to God acting in judgment. (Jdg 5:4; Job 9:5f; Ps 18:7; 46:8; 75:3; 77:18; 82:5; 97:4f; 104:32; 114:7; Isa 2:19, 21; 13:11, 13; 24:1, 18-20; 29:6; 54:10; Jer 5:9, 22; 10:10; Ezek 38:19f; Joel 2:10; Amos 1:1; Nah 1:5; Hag 2:6; Zech 14:4-5; Matt 24:7; 27:51; Acts 16:26; Heb 12:26.)
The prophecy of Yeshua that there would be earthquakes, powerful storms in the sea and unusual stellar occurrences (Luke 21:11, 25) does not mean that He was making a prediction of events outside of Godís control (cf. Heb 1:3), but rather that these calamities are simply the end of the self-destruct sequence that began with Godís curse in the Garden. The many promises in Scripture that neither the righteous nor Godís kingdom can be shaken (e.g., Prov 10:30; Heb 12:28) point to the reality that earthquakes bring fear and torment because people are not ready to meet their Creator and Judge.
On the basis of the Olivet prophecy a number of Bible teachers have claimed that a pronounced increase in both the frequency and intensity of earthquakes would occur just prior to the Second Coming and that recent decades have witnessed such a trend. However, Yeshua did not say that earthquakes would increase in any manner; only that they would happen, and the evidence of scientific reports has not borne out the claims. (See Steven A. Austin and Mark L. Strauss, Earthquakes and the End Times: A Geological and Biblical Perspective, Institute for Creation Research: 1999, 20 January 2005.) Scripture does speak much of a cataclysmic earthquake to come (cf. Ps 99:1; Isa 2:19-21; 13:13; 24:18-21; Joel 2:10; 3:16; Hag 2:6; Heb 12:26-27; Rev 16:18). Seismic activity is mentioned five times in Revelation but three times are labeled "great" (here; 11:13; and 16:18). While no further specific information is provided as to magnitude, the adjective "great" would place this earthquake among historyís worst.
The sun: Grk. hēlios (Heb. shemesh), the sun, the star that is the central body of the solar system, created on the fourth day to "govern the day" (Gen 1:16-19). Its mean distance from the earth is about 93 million miles from the earth, which assures the right balance of heat, light and photosynthesis to sustain all of earth's physical and biological processes. In both the solar system and on the earth "there is nothing hidden from its heat" (Ps 19:6). The sun moves in an orbit through the Milky Way Galaxy (Ps 19:5-6), at a speed that scientists estimate to be 600,000 mph (BBMS 165). The radiant heat energy from the sun provides the physical power to sustain all of earth's physical and biological processes. The sun is certainly "the light of the world (John 18:12), and on the earth, "there is nothing hidden from its heat" (Ps 19:6).
became black: When the disciples asked Yeshua about the sign of His coming (Matt 24:3), He answered that the sign of Joel would immediately precede His glorious coming in the clouds accompanied by angels (Matt 24:29f). Before identifying the expected sign Yeshua said that the period between the First Advent and the Second Advent would be marked by a number of precursor events, but for the final sign He summarized the warnings of the prophets. "But immediately after [note "after," not "before"] the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken" (Matt 24:29; cf. Isa 13:6, 10; 24:23; Ezek 32:7; Hag 2:6f; Joel 3:15f; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:11; Acts 2:20.). While Joelís prophecy in particular held spiritual significance for the apostles on Pentecost (Acts 2:20), Yeshua affirmed to John that the unusual phenomenon described in Joel would provide an unmistakable warning that the appearance of the Messiah would shortly happen, giving the tribes of Israel time to repent and turn to their Messiah. The sign of Joel consists of both a great earthquake and an eclipse.
as sackcloth made of hair: The eclipse prophesied by Joel and witnessed by John is a most unusual event and John used two points of comparison to describe the appearance of the sun and moon as he saw them. Unlike other biblical prophecies that only state the sun would be "darkened," the revelation to John clarifies that the sun became black as sackcloth. In Johnís day sackcloth was a rough cloth made from the hair of a black goat and worn in times of mourning (Mounce). However, the sun is not described as chemically changing into sackcloth. In 16:8 the sun is still full of heat energy and scorching people. Rather, the blackness refers to diminished visible light on the earth.
and the whole moon became like blood: Some prophecies donít explain the nature of the moonís darkening, but here as in Joel the moon became like blood. The moon is not being described as changing chemically into blood, but rather the color of blood. John obviously knew the color of blood since the only time you see blood is on the outside of a body, whether animal or human. While blood is bright red on the inside of a body, it begins to darken when exposed to outside air.
Eclipses may be lunar or solar. A lunar eclipse can only occur at full moon, and only if the moon passes through some portion of the earthís shadow. The shadow is actually composed of two cone-shaped components, one nested inside the other. The outer or penumbral shadow is a zone where the Earth blocks part but not all of the Sun's rays from reaching the Moon. In contrast, the inner or umbral shadow is a region where the Earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the Moon. (See Fred Espenak, Solar Eclipses for Beginners, MrEclipse.com: 2000.)
During a total eclipse of the moon, the lunar disk is not completely dark, but is faintly illuminated with a red light refracted by the earthís atmosphere, which filters out the blue rays. A lunar eclipse may even result in a range of colors from dark brown and red to bright orange and yellow. If the earth had no atmosphere, then the moon would be completely black during a total eclipse. The exact appearance depends on how much dust and clouds are present in earthís atmosphere at the time of the eclipse. A solar eclipse can only occur at New Moon when the moon passes between the earth and the sun. During a solar eclipse, which occurs at least twice a year, the moon covers some or all of the sunís disk and effectively obscures the light from the sun. In that event the lunar disk appears black with a bright solar halo. While a lunar eclipse is safe to observe directly, a solar eclipse is dangerous to the naked eye.
The description in this verse says something significant about the atmospheric conditions of the earth at the time of the lunar eclipse. Total lunar eclipses tend to be very dark after major volcanic eruptions since these events dump large amounts of ash into Earthís atmosphere. For example, in December 1992 dust from the Mount Pinatubo eruption during the lunar eclipse rendered the moon nearly invisible. Joel mentions the environmental conditions that accompany and contribute to the appearance of the sun and moon, "I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke (Joel 2:30). The dark red color of the moon may indicate a similar condition of a significant volcanic eruption triggered by the great earthquake. For John to have witnessed the sun appearing black and the moon appearing dark red at the same time requires not one eclipse, but two.
Double conjunction eclipses do occur, but simultaneous solar and lunar eclipses are impossible by definition. Double conjunction eclipses do occur in which the Moon obscures two planets at the same time, the last one occurring on April 28, 1998 with the Moon obscuring Jupiter and Venus. The next double conjunction eclipse will occur February 13, 2056. (See Astronomy Picture of the Day: April 28, 1998, NASA.) The Moon is totally dark during a normal solar eclipse, so the Moon would not appear dark red. However, the preeminent signal of the Second Advent is a divinely created event. So, two eclipses could occur if as the sun, earth and moon come into alignment for a lunar eclipse another planetary or asteroid body "happens" along at the same moment to obscure the sun. God has a history of making the impossible a reality.
13― and the stars of the sky fell into the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind.
and the stars of the sky fell: Grk. piptō means to (1) fall (down) from a higher point, (2) fall to pieces or (3) be completely ruined (usually in a moral sense of persons). into the earth: Just as the earth suffers a great earthquake, the heavens are also shaken by an unimaginable shock wave. "Fell" is normally a top to down direction but falling has no meaning in outer space. Interpretation is difficult but three approaches have been offered. Some preferring the symbolic approach consider the prophecy as an allusion to Daniel 8:10, which speaks of a small horn, "It grew up to the host of heaven and caused some of the host and some of the stars to fall to the earth, and it trampled them down." The falling stars could refer to the fall of Satan and his angels. Yeshua saw Satan fall from heaven (Luke 10:18) and John saw Michael the archangel defeat Satan and throw him and his angels to earth (Rev 12:7-9).
However, the text offers no symbolic interpretation. Obviously one cannot take the prophecy literalistically since multiple "stars" falling into the earth would cause planet-wide devastation. Scripture promises that the earth will be destroyed, but not from stars crashing into it. The prophecy may be taken from Isaiah 34:4, "And all the host of heaven will wear away, and the sky will be rolled up like a scroll; all their hosts will also wither away as a leaf withers from the vine, or as one withers from the fig tree." In that prophecy the stars wear away (Heb. maqaq), which means to rot or decay. The LXX translates maqaq with piptō. However, piptō not only means to fall as a direction, but to fall apart or to collapse as a structure might collapse. A fact of astronomy is that big stars can experience gravitational collapse and when they do it produces a supernova, a massive explosion. Scripture does speak of stars losing their light (Isa 13:10; Ezek 32:7-8, Joel 2:10 and 3:15).
A more realistic approach considers that all heavenly bodies outside the earth, sun and moon mentioned in Scripture are called "stars" and these "stars" likely refer to bodies in the vicinity of earth. "To the earth" is literally "into the earth," so this may describe an intense meteor shower crashing on to the earthís surface (Morris). as a fig tree casts: Grk. ballō implies something in the hand that is thrown or cast, such as the scattering of seed, casting of lots, throwing stones at someone or in this case figs blown by the wind (the hand of God) from a tree. its unripe figs: Grk. olunthos, "unripe figs," refers to the green figs that appear in winter and which, while some ripen, many fall off in the spring (Rienecker). when shaken by a great wind: The word picture of the fig tree shedding its figs because of a great wind is an apt description of the meteor shower. It is also possible that debris from a supernova are the objects that enter the earthís atmosphere. The same Wind of the Spirit, which hovered over the waters shaping the earth in the beginning (Gen 1:2), now moves these heavenly objects en masse to the earth in preparation for the end.
14― And the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
And the sky: Grk. ouranos. In the LXX ouranos translates the Heb. word hashamayim ("the heavens"). See the note on 3:12 for "heaven." The translation of "sky" is misleading since it is but the "face" of hashamayim (Gen 1:20). was split apart: Grk. apochorizō means to separate or to part (Robertson), but Rienecker thinks that with the analogy of the scroll the verb means to tear apart or to rip apart. like a scroll: Grk. biblion means a book, a scroll or a document and is the diminutive form of biblos, which was derived from an older form bublos. Bublos originally meant the papyrus plant, or its fibrous stem, that was exported to Greece through the port of Byblos in Syria where the plant was prepared. In the LXX biblion translates Heb. sepher, which was used for anything that has been written, such as a scroll, book, writing, letter, diary, or a legal document. Biblion is also used in the LXX for individual sacred writings (Dan 9:2), but most importantly as a solemn expression for the Torah (Deut 17:18; 28:58; cf. Heb 9:19) (DNTT 1:243). John uses an analogy with which he was very familiar.
when it is rolled up: John then observed that the "sky" split apart and explained the phenomenon as being like an unrolled papyrus scroll that, if it should break in the middle, would roll quickly back on either side (Rienecker). However, the description of the "sky" emphasizes its being split, not just its movement. What does it mean that the "sky" is split? There was a time when commentators could not imagine such an occurrence as a physical reality, but why should this description be any less real than the promise of Yeshua coming in the sky (Mark 13:26)? The Greek phrase literally means "the heaven departed" (Marshall). The verb is the same as Acts 15:39 to describe Paul and Barnabas parting company.
There are important biblical and scientific facts that have a bearing on understanding Johnís description. In the beginning when God created the cosmos, He began by creating a ball of water called "the deep" (Gen 1:2; a watery black hole), and from that point God "stretched" out an expanse He called hashamayim, "the heavens" (Gen 1:2-8; cf. Job 37:18; Ps 104:2; Isa 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 48:13; 51:13; Jer 10:12; 51:15). Moreover, this stretching continued past creation and is apparently still going on. (Note the present tense of Job 9:8; 26:7; Ps 144:5; Isa 40:22; Zech 12:1.) As in this verse, Scripture also indicates that the heavens can be torn (Isa 64:1), worn out (Ps 102:26), shaken (Hag 2:6; Isa 13:13; Heb 12:26), burnt up (2Pet 3:12), and rolled up (Isa 34:4; Heb 1:12). This means that "interstellar space" is not just an empty nothing, but is a real something (Humphreys 67f). Modern astronomers generally believe that distant galaxies are all receding from our galaxy Ė or, that all galaxies are receding from each other.
The evidence cited for such expansion is the Doppler Effect, the "red shift" in the light spectra from distant galaxies (BBMS 171). A source of light that is moving toward us will emit light waves with a shorter wavelength than will a light source moving away from us. In the first case, this would make the light bluer, in the second, redder, than the light spectrum from a stationary source. Scripture seems to indicate that it is space itself that is being expanded or stretched out rather than the galaxies moving through unbounded nothingness. However, one day the heavens will break in two and roll up as a scroll (cf. Isa 34:4), perhaps in the same manner as a rubber band or balloon breaking after being stretched past its limit. The result will be catastrophic to the stars and to the earth, as indicated in the biblical prophecies.
and every mountain and island were moved: Grk. kineō means to move away, remove or set in motion. The passive tense of the verb emphasizes the divine action to bring about the event. out of their places: The great earthquake is mentioned again, but now the global magnitude of the quake is emphasized (cf. Isa 40:4f). This earthquake may at first be localized, but apparently triggers a major slippage of the earthís crustal plates that "move" the mountains and islands out of their places. While islands may have mountains the contrast of the two geological sites in the same sentence means that "mountains" refers to locations on the great landmasses. Islands, of course, are merely the tips of mountains that are under the oceanís water (cf. Jonah 2:6). The brevity of the statement and the mention of the dual locations constitute a powerful understatement of global devastation! Of course, even slight movement of the earthís surface will cause severe damage to man-made structures. The great quake described in 16:18-20 may be a restatement of this quake, or it may be a separate quake following closely on the heels of the one mentioned here since earthquakes often occur in a series. What may seem like a significant quake can be followed shortly thereafter by an even greater temblor.
While the length of time for completion of the earthquake, eclipse and stars falling is not mentioned, these cataclysmic signs portend the Lordís coming and in terms of sequence take place after the great tribulation and immediately preceding the visible return of Yeshua and the gathering of the saints (Matt 24:29ff). This sequence reinforces the interpretation that the fifth seal refers primarily to the great tribulation in which the number of martyrs is completed and that the sixth seal depicts the conclusion to the bowls of wrath. Joel also places these signs as preparatory to the Day of the Lord, the day on which the battle of Armageddon occurs (Joel 2:30 Ė 3:2). Taken together these passages confirm that the day of Godís wrath (6:17) should not be confused with the great tribulation.
15― The kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.
The kings of the earth and the great men: Grk. megistan refers to magistrates or civil officials in authority (Rienecker). and the commanders: Grk. chiliarch was commonly used of a Roman military tribune who commanded a thousand men or more (Rienecker). and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man: Seven stations of life are named, covering the whole fabric of society from the king down to the lowest slave (Rienecker). The list is remarkably parallel to the group given in 19:18, and not only could describe people from all nations but especially those gathered for the battle of Armageddon.
hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains: When the inhabitants of the earth experience such overwhelming calamities, they immediately seek shelter in clefts, caves, caverns and other natural formations, as prophesied by Isaiah,
"Men will go into caves of the rocks and into holes of the ground before the terror of the Lord and the splendor of His majesty, when He arises to make the earth tremble" (Isa 2:19)
This is a day of terror for all regardless of social status (cf. Isa 2:10; 13:7-8). In a futile effort to avoid facing God these men of position, power and prestige find themselves seeking shelter in caves along with common people with whom they would not normally associate.
16― and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb;
and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the presence: The use of the Greek word prosopon, meaning face or countenance, as a metaphor emphasizes the very personal nature of God doing justice for His people. The followers of the beast may be unmoved by the trumpet and bowl plagues, but they will tremble when they come face to face with God. Ironically the people "pray" to the mountains and rocks, a reflection of the modern evolutionist viewpoint that invests the material universe with the power to bring itself into existence and influence the lives of people. Evidently the prospect of being buried in an avalanche is preferable to seeing the face of God, although in reality they will not be spared personal accountability (20:11f). Yeshua had already warned of this incident happening when He was being taken to Golgotha. As His supporters were mourning, Yeshua repeated the prophecy of Hosea, "Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ĎFall on us,í and to the hills, Ďcover usí" (Hos 10:8; Luke 23:30). Perhaps the bombardment of boulder-size hailstones in the seventh bowl of wrath (16:21) is Godís answer to their idolatrous prayer to the mountains and rocks.
of Him who sits on the throne: Yet, the description of unbelievers speaking of the one "who sits on the throne" and the "Lamb" seems strange. In order to believe in Godís wrath one would have to believe in His existence, which is routinely denied in the world. Even those who talk about the "man upstairs" certainly do not believe they will be punished for their sins and the notion that natural calamities might be Godís doing is ridiculed, even by many Christians. However, in view of the global earthquake, double eclipse and meteor shower, the inhabitants of the earth will no doubt be overcome by a severe dread of doom about to fall. It may be that before their deaths the saints will warn their persecutors to "flee the wrath to come" and the unbelievers, failing to heed the warning, attribute these dire events to the God of the martyrs.
and from the wrath: Grk. orgē means anger, indignation or wrath. Orgē is the preferred word in the apostolic writings for the judgment of God at the end of the age (11:18; 16:19; 19:15; cf. Matt 3:7; Luke 21:23; Rom 5:9; 1Th 1:10; 5:9). Those who followed the beast cringe at the prospect of the wrath of the Lamb. Yeshua said that the Father had delegated to Him the authority of judgment (John 5:22). The word "wrath" refers to Godís anger at sin and the resulting eternal punishment in hell that He imposes as a just recompense. Godís wrath began in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve received the predicted penalty of disobedience (Gen 2:17; 1Cor 15:22). Because of being born into Adamís race all people are by nature "children of wrath" (Eph 2:3). The first occurrence of a word for Godís wrath in Scripture is in Numbers 16:46, referring to a plague God sent upon His people for grumbling. Thereafter, most of the references to Godís wrath in Scripture pertain to punishment of Israel for sinning.
of the Lamb: Many cannot reconcile the wrath of God with the love of God represented by the Lamb of God, a figure for the atoning sacrifice. Yet, in the context of Godís covenant with Israel, his wrath is an expression of wounded and rejected love (DNTT 1:109). Yeshua wept over Jerusalem knowing that destruction from her enemies awaited Israel because they did not accept the Messiah (Luke 13:34f; 19:41-44). The Lord expressed His attitude to Ezekiel, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ezek 33:11).
17― for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?"
for the great day of their wrath has come: Grk. histēmi means to stand still or stop and in this context has the sense of holding oneís ground in a military battle. Just as Godís Word predicts a terrible tribulation for the saints at the hands of the Anti-Messiah, so Scripture also promises a "great day" of wrath at the end of history when the Lord destroys His enemies in the Second Coming. "Great" identifies the day of singular importance above other days. Various synonyms also occur in the apostolic writings for this event, such as Day of Judgment (Matt 10:15), Day of Wrath (Rom 2:5), the Day of the Messiah (1Cor 1:8), That Day (2Tim 1:18) and Day of God (2Pet 3:12). The Hebrew prophets likewise spoke of the great day of the Lordís anger (Isa 2:12; 13:9, 13; Jer 46:10; Lam 2:22; Zeph 1:18; 2:2f).
The unbelievers lament that Godís judgment "has come," emphasizing anticipation of the Day of the Lord. Everything that was to precede the arrival of the Day of the Lord has been completed. Those who chose to follow the beast have suffered the affliction and distress of the trumpet and bowl judgments (cf. Rom 2:9), most likely as punishments meted out for the beastís war on the saints, and now they must face the arrival of the Son of Man and the armies of heaven who will perform the coup de gr‚ce. Other passages in Scripture repeat the same characteristics of this day as described in Revelation. (See Isa 13:6-13; Ezek 30:3; Joel 1:15, 2:1, 11, 31; 3:9-14; Amos 5:18-20; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:14-18; Zech 14:1-9; Mal 4:5; Acts 2:20; 1Th 5:2; 2Pet 3:10.)
The word "day" when used in "day of the Lord" or "day of wrath" must refer to the human reckoning of time that is 24 hours or less. There is no compelling reason why the Day of the Lord must be interpreted as lasting months or years based on oneís view of when the resurrection occurs. When one examines closely the passages describing the "Day of the Lord," it becomes apparent that this special day and the scene of this seal is the conclusion of the period of trumpet and bowl judgments, which are detailed in the seventh seal.
and who is able to stand? The rhetorical question is a recognition that the enemies of God cannot possibly hope to survive the immanent battle, and must of necessity point to that day when unbelievers will stand before heavenís court (20:11-15) where no evidence can be offered that will bring acquittal. The "guilty" verdict with its just punishment is anticipated. The righteous know, of course, that they only stand before God as blameless because of the meritorious work of Yeshua (1Cor 1:8; 1Th 3:13; 5:23). The warnings of the harvest parables in the apostolic narratives in which "wheat" would be gathered into a barn and "chaff" and "tares" would be burned with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:7-12; 13:36-42) carry the foreboding sense that the wrath of God will end with the wicked spending eternity away from the love of God in a hellish place.
In contrast to the reaction of the world to the herald of the Messiahís coming, the heavenly portent will be the final opportunity for Israel to repent, "And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls" (Joel 2:32). Zechariah also spoke of Israelís repentance saying, "I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced" (Zech 12:10; cf. Rev 1:7). While the dual eclipses and earthly calamities bring dread to the opponents of God, these events give Israel and "whoever wills" the hope of salvation (Rom 11:26).
Alford: Alford, Henry. The New Testament for English Readers. New York: Lee, Shepard, and Dillingham, 1875.
Barclay: William Barclay, The Revelation of John. 2 Vols. The Westminster Press, 1976.
Baron: David Baron, Zechariah: A Commentary on His Vision and Prophecies. Kregel Publications, 1918.
BBMS: Henry Morris, Biblical Basis for Modern Science. Baker Book House, 1984.
Coffman: James Burton Coffman, Commentary on Revelation. Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament. Abilene Christian University Press, 1983-1999. Online.
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 Vols. Colin Brown, ed. Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.
Humphries: D. Russell Humphreys, Starlight and Time. Master Books, 1994.
Johnson: Alan F. Johnson, Revelation. Expositorís Bible Commentary. Zondervan Publishing House, 1983. (Zondervan CD-ROM Version 2.6, 1989-1998)
Ladd: George E. Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972.
Metz: Donald S. Metz, Revelation. Wesleyan Heritage Press, 1999.
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Mounce: Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation. rev. ed. New International Commentary on the New Testament. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Rienecker: Fritz Rienecker, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. 2 Vols. The Zondervan Corporation, 1980.
Robertson: Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. 6 Vols. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933. (Parsons CD-ROM Version 2.0, 1997) Online.
Schmitmeyer: Jim Schmitmeyer, A Horsemanís Mentality: A Look at the Lessons Terroristís Horses May Learn, EquiSearch. Accessed 16 Feb 2009.
Sevener: Harold A. Sevener, Godís Man in Babylon. Chosen People Ministries, 1994.
Stern: David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. 5th ed. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1996.
TWOT: Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 Vols. ed. R. Laird Harris. Moody Bible Institute, 1980.
Victorinus: Victorinus, Bishop of Pettau (d. 303 A.D.), Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John.
Walvoord: John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Moody Press, 1966.
Wilson: Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.
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