The Beginning of the Great Day of God’s Wrath
As discussed previously, the outline for this study of Revelation is based on Revelation 1:19, the things past (the salutation and the vision of Christ, chapter one), the things present (the letters to the churches, chapters 2-3), and the things future (chapters 4-22). The last and major portion of Revelation, begins with chapter 4:1, but as mentioned, chapters 4 and 5 provide us with a prologue to the events and pictures of chapters 6-19. They give us heaven’s perspective of the judgments that will now be revealed. This is not without significance. Wilbur Smith writes:
A fundamental factor in this book, too often passed over by commentators, is of great help in understanding these chapters when it is recognized. That is, many scenes of this book are located in heaven, while the judgments themselves take place on this earth; and the scenes in heaven always precede the earthly events to which they are attached. Thus, the messages to the seven churches are preceded by a vision of the ascended Lord. The opening of the six seals in chapter 6 is preceded by a vision of the Lamb in heaven, worthy to open the book (chs. 4; 5). The judgments accompanying the blowing of the seven trumpets are preceded by a heavenly scene extending from 7:1 to 8:5. The dreadful events of chapters 11; 12; 13 are again preceded by a heavenly scene of instructions to John. The devastations accompanying the seven plagues (chs. 15; 16) are preceded by the announcements of the angels and the showing of “the temple … in heaven.” And, after the final judgment of chapter 20, the book concludes with a picture of the heavenly home of the redeemed.
I have always felt that there are two great truths to be drawn from this phenomenon. First, what is about to take place on earth, though unknown to man and unexpected by him, is fully known to those in heaven—the ascended Lord, the angels, the twenty-four elders, the living creatures, and the others. Secondly, what is to take place on earth is under the complete control and direction of heaven, so that we may safely say, judging from this book, as well as from other prophetic books in the Scripture, that everything that takes place on this earth only fulfills the Word of God. This principle is remarkably set forth in the preliminary announcements concerning the kings of the earth going forth to make war with the Lamb. Though we read of the ten kings satanically inspired, having one mind and giving their power and authority unto the beast (17:12, 13), nevertheless, it is God who “did put in their hearts to do his mind, and to come to one mind, and to give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God should be accomplished” (17:17).88
Chapters 6-19 concern the judgments and players of the events often referred to as the Tribulation, a period of time covering seven years. But as Ryrie points out:
There is no problem in outlining the events of these chapters; the difficulty comes in determining the sequential order of those events, particularly the relation of the three series of judgments to each other. Do the judgments of the seals (chap. 6), and of the trumpets (chaps. 8-9) and of the bowls (chap. 16) follow each other in succession, or do the trumpets and /or the bowls recapitulate the judgments of the seals with greater intensity? In other words, do the trumpet and bowl judgments follow the seals as different and distinct judgments or do they picture the same judgments? To this writer’s understanding they all follow in chronological sequence and there is no recapitulation.89
I would agree and this study will be based on the view that the judgments follow in chronological sequence with the trumpets immediately proceeding after the seventh seal is broken (cf. 8:1-2). With the breaking of each of the first six seals some form of judgment follows, but not with the seventh. Instead, only silence, but the trumpets are immediately announced as though they constituted the content of the seventh seal.
A similar situation exists in connection with the seven trumpets. Following each of the first six trumpets, specific judgments follow, but not after the seventh angel sounds his trumpet. Instead, we are again given a glimpse of heaven’s response just as before (cf. 8:1 with 11:15-19). Chapters 12-14 form another interlude describing key players and making important announcements, but with chapter 15 the bowl judgments are anticipated and then described in chapter 16. The implication is that somehow the seventh trumpet prepares the way for the bowls that follow. In essence, then, the seven seals include the entire Tribulation period from its beginning to its conclusion since the trumpets and bowls ultimately come out of the seventh seal. See again the charts used in connection with the introduction to this study on Revelation. Walvoord states the same position. He writes:
The six seals seem to unfold successively in a chronological pattern. Out of the seventh seal will come another series of seven trumpets and out of the seventh trumpet will come another series of seven vials or bowls of the wrath of God. Different actors are prominent, namely, the Lamb opening the seal, the angels sounding the trumpets, and God Himself pouring out the vials. Actually, however, the seven seals comprehend the whole, as all the trumpets and all the vials are comprehended in the seventh seal. The seven-sealed book therefore is the comprehensive program of God culminating in the second coming of Christ.90
Note the following chart from the Expanded Edition of the Ryrie Study Bible:91
The Seven Seals
1. Antichrist 2. War 3. Famine 4. Death 5. Martyrs’ prayers 6. Great earthquake
7. Announcement of Trumpets
The Seven Trumpets
1. A third of vegetation burned 2. A third of the sea judged 3. A third of fresh water judged 4. A third of the luminaries darkened 5. Increased demonic activity 6. A third of mankind killed
7. Announcement of Bowls
The Seven Bowls
1. Malignant sores 2. Sea turned to blood 3. Fresh waters to blood 4. Men scorched with fire 5. Darkness over the kingdom of the beast 6. Invasion from the east. 7. Greatest earthquake and widespread destruction
Discussing this same issue, Everett Harrison writes:
It has been claimed by some commentators that these three successive septenary series of three judgments are a recapitulation of the same events. That is, the trumpets review what the seals previously set forth, but with greater intensity; and the vials review the same events, characterizing them with even more severity. I have not been able to accept this view. For one reason, the sequence in each series is altogether different, and this alone, it seems, makes the concept of recapitulation impossible.92
Though this was discussed in the introduction to this study, let me summarize the make up of chapters 6-19. Chapters 6-19 cover the Tribulation events with chapters 6 (the seals), 8-9 (the trumpets), and 16 (the bowls) forming the chronological backbone and following one another sequentially. The others chapters give us important information about the key players in the drama of these end time events from the standpoint of heaven and earth. Ryrie has an excellent explanation of this.
The other chapters reveal vital information about the period but are not arranged in chronological order. They either cover the entire period, or spotlight an event within the period, or survey the first or last half of the period. The chapters in this section are arranged like a conversation on the telephone between two persons. They start telling the story in order (chap. 6) but soon there is an interruption to fill in some information (chap. 7). Then the order of events is resumed (chaps. 8-9), then some more fill-in (chaps. 10-15). There is a return to the progressive order of events (chap. 16) and finally more detail (chaps. 17-19). Sometimes the fill-in runs ahead of the story and at other times it backs up to add or emphasize pertinent information.93
(As a preparation for chapters 6-19 and for an overview of this future time often referred to as “the Tribulation,” see Appendix 5.)
When the first seal is broken by the Lamb, one of the four living creatures in a voice of thunder tells John to “come” so that he might behold the vision of the breaking of the first seal
The “voice of thunder” is naturally symbolic of judgment as a coming storm. I was born and raised in Texas and spent many of my years of ministry there. It was not uncommon for us to have some pretty awesome thunder and lighting storms with heavy down pours of an inch or more within just a short period of time, but most of the time, we could hear the thunder long before the storm ever hit.
After the command to “come” John says, “I looked and behold.” This stresses the effect on John, He was startled and he exhorts us “to behold” what he saw so that we too may grasp its significance. What John saw was a white horse rider with a bow. A crown was given to the rider and he went forth conquering and to conquer. Each aspect of this is significant.
“White” is a symbol of peace and righteousness. For this reason some have tried to identify this rider as Christ, but “white” is the only similarity between this rider and the white horse rider of Chapter 19:11 which is clearly Christ.
(1) This occurs too early in the Tribulation. At this time Christ is in heaven rewarding His bride while at the same time pouring out wrath from the throne mentioned in chapter 4:2. Christ’s coming on a white horse is at the end and is the culmination of the Tribulation. Also, note that Revelation 6:16 views the Lamb as still in heaven.
(2) Further support that the white horse rider is not Christ is the parallelism with the other three horses which are instruments of judgment. Each rider is an instrument of evil and judgment on the world. The Lamb is viewed as the One who opens the seals allowing the riders to go forth and would not be one of the riders.
(3) In Revelation 19 no more judgments follow. Christ’s own coming puts an end to the Tribulation judgments. Here, however, the judgments of the entire Tribulation have yet to unfold.
(4) The crown which this rider wears is the stefanos crown, a single crown and a victor’s crown, not the crown of a sovereign who wears the diadem crown. In chapter 19 the white horse rider wears many crowns, and they are the diadem crowns, the crowns of sovereignty.
This rider is the Antichrist, the false Christ who comes as a peacemaker. Later he will show his true colors and will then be called the beast. This is undoubtedly the prince who is to come and who will make a peace treaty with Israel according to Daniel 9:26-27. This fits with the picture Paul gives us in 1 Thessalonians 5:3. The world will be trusting in the peace and safety brought about by the tactics of the white horse rider, but it will be oblivious this very peace has inaugurated the Day of the Lord which will quickly usher in destruction.
1 Thessalonians 5:2-3. for you know very well that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (NIV).
(1) White is a symbol of peace and he comes as a peacemaker. According to Daniel 9:26-27, one of his first feats will be to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute by a peace treaty with Israel. This evidently begins Daniel’s 70th week, the unprecedented time of Jacob’s distress (Jer. 30:7).
(2) His weapon is a bow, yet no arrows are mentioned. The bow is a symbol of distant victory and since no arrows are mentioned it seems to indicate that he gains his victory by bloodless tactics.
(3) That all this is true is indicated further by the fact that peace isn’t taken from the earth until the second seal.
(4) He has a hidden agenda. His purpose is not world peace, but rather world domination. He goes out conquering and to conquer. He is the false Christ.
So, Revelation 6:2 says “he went out conquering and to conquer,” but the picture given here of a bow (perhaps a symbol of distant victory), but with no arrows mentioned, suggests that he conquers by cold war tactics through a one world order mentality that has been growing for years and continues to do so. Today the world is ripe for the rise of such a man with his world government as an answer to international problems. Prominent world leaders and movements have posed the idea that what we need is a world order with a charismatic leader who can mold the world into harmony and peace. In his book, written in 1973, The Day the Dollar Dies, Willard Cantelon quotes a number of world leaders to this effect. He writes:
Harold Urey said, “The only escape from total destruction of civilization will be a world government.” Robert J. Oppenheimer stated, “In the field of atomic energy, there must be set up a world power.” Arthur Compton added his word, “World government has become inevitable.” Dr. Ralph Barton Perry of Harvard said, “One world government is in the making. Whether we like it or not, we are moving toward a one-world government.” Professor Hocking wrote, “Therefore the alternative is that we vest all political power in one agency and resign that power ourselves.”94
James Warburg says, “We are living in a perilous period of transition from the era of the fully sovereign nation-state to the era of world government.”95 In Between Two Ages, Zbigniew Brezinski, former assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, openly advocates a one world government as a necessity. And this is not even the tip of the iceberg. Such thinking is all part of a deluding influence that will continue to grow as a product of the blindness and rebellion of man against God, being blinded by his own natural blindness and by the deceptions of Satan, and even by God’s own sovereign judgment (cf. Eph. 2:1-3; 4:16-17; 2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Tim. 2:26). Undoubtedly, this kind of thinking among world leaders will pave the way for the white horse rider who comes proclaiming peace, but it is really the system of the beast in disguise and a precursor to the horrible world conditions that will follow. In 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12, the Apostle Paul warns:
8 And then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; 9 that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.
This passage pertains to the end times, but the same thing is happening today, though in a lesser degree. Concerning this, Ryrie writes:
The deluding influence comes from God; it is both a punishment and a moral result of their rejection of the truth (vv. 10, 12). These verses reflect the OT concept that God is sovereign even in the activities of the powers of evil (cf. Ex. 4:21; Josh. 11:20; 1 Kings 22:19-23; 1 Chron. 21:1; cf. 2 Sam. 24:1). The result will be that men will believe what is false, as Satan works through Antichrist.96
Ironically, a large part of the world has greater access to the Bible and its revelation of the good news of the Lord Jesus than at any other time in history through the many translations of Scripture, through books, tapes, videos, radio, the internet, etc. In its moment of greatest need, however, the world will turn to a man who goes forth with a plan for peace just as our Lord Himself stated in John 5 when He was on earth.
43 I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another shall come in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another, and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?
The various colors of the horsemen surely represent in symbolical language the nature of the human agencies employed in the execution of these judgments (cf. “the red dragon,” 12:3; and the “scarlet beast,” 17:3). It is important to keep in mind, however, that the hand moving these instruments is the Lamb who, as sovereign Lord, opens the seven seals. Each seal is begun by the words “and He (the Lamb) broke …” Note also the words, “and to him was granted …”
Some commentators see the word “come” (Greek ercou) in each of the seals as referring to John, while others think the verb is addressed to the four horsemen. If it refers to the horsemen, the heavenly agents of God’s throne are successively calling these human instruments to move in their divinely appointed role. It emphasizes that they cannot move until God allows, even though they operate by their own volition and evil purposes (cf. Isa. 10:5-11). As such, the command “come” could be translated “go forth” (a present imperative of ercomai).
Others take this to be an admonition to Christ in the sense of Revelation 22:17 and 20 where the same word ercou is used. Interpreters of Revelation seem widely split between these views, but the most probable view is the first or second view. If the preponderance of manuscript evidence had the addition “see” as “come and see” then there would be no question, it would refer to John.
It seems best, however, to take this as a command to the four horsemen to go forth to accomplish their purpose. Reasons: (1) With the fifth and sixth seal, when human agencies astride the horses are no longer used, there is no command to come or go, yet John is still seeing the vision of the six seals. (2) In Revelation 4:1, when John is called up, the aorist tense is used, but here the instantaneous present “come” or “go forth” is used which would be more in line with a command to the four horsemen. This strongly stresses God’s sovereignty and is comforting to the human heart.
While the white horse was symbolic of a victorious conqueror and one who primarily gained his supremacy by cold war and bloodless peace maneuvers, red is a clear symbol of bloodshed or warfare and the rest of the verse clearly shows this to be the case (Rev. 12:3; Isa. 63:2f).
As with the white horse rider, so this rider is unnamed. Some see this as Russia because Russia is known as the Red menace and their army as the Red army. Certainly Russia, if she is the king of the North as depicted in Ezekiel 38 and 39, could fit strongly in the promotion of war and the removal of peace in the Tribulation period. Russia and her allies could easily help to promote the escalation of cold war to actual warfare, but the primary emphasis is on the fact that prior to and during the Tribulation, there will be constant tension among nations and the ambitions of men who will be clamoring for power and control. This will come to its climax just prior to the return of Christ. Walvoord understands Matthew 24:4-8 to apply to conditions characteristic of this age rather than the Tribulation.97 Walvoord writes:
Though “wars and rumours of wars” (Matt. 24:6) are characteristic of the age, it is evident that warfare occupies a large place in the consummation of the age with a resultant great loss of life. There apparently is a series of wars, the greatest of which is under way at the time of the second coming. The hope of permanent peace by means of the United Nations and other human efforts is doomed to failure.98
However, concerning the fact the seals closely parallel the events or signs of the end times spoken of by the Lord in His Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:1-15), Barnhouse writes:
The order of events follows closely that which was announced by our Lord in answer to the disciples’ questions on the Mount of Olives, “For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (Matt. 24:5). This is the white horse. “And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars … for nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom …” (24:6,7). This is the red horse of war. There are some who apply this passage to our day, thinking that the wars which trouble this age are those spoken of in prophecy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The wars of our day are but rehearsals, but the wars which Christ prophesied take place after the believers are removed from the earth, after the man of sin has been revealed (II Thess. 2:3). These campaigns are described in the book of Daniel.99
The short-lived peace which the world will have known in those early days of the Tribulation (during part of the first half) will be broken by the red horse rider. International conflicts will begin to erupt all over the earth. We are not told here in Revelation 6 just what exactly causes this, i.e., the kind of political or military move, but men everywhere begin to slay one another. Until this point there would undoubtedly be “rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:6), but then nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom (Matt. 24:7). These parallels between the seals and Matthew 24 are too striking to be ignored.
The Parallels Between
The third judgment, and an aftermath of war brings famine to the world. The “black horse” speaks of suffering and death and the “balances” of the careful rationing of food because of its scarcity.
The denarius, as a Roman coin, in ancient times was a normal day’s wage. In New Testament times this coin would purchase eight quarts of wheat, or eight measures (one measure equals about one quart) or 24 quarts of barley. Wheat was the better grain and barley was normally used only for livestock except in times of scarcity. During the Tribulation, however, one denarius (a full day’s wage) will buy only one measure (about one meal) of wheat, or three meals of barley with nothing left. Of course, the larger the family, the worse it will be. But note the words, “do not harm the oil and the wine.” These were luxury items which will apparently be unharmed at this point. There will be plenty of luxury items but only the super rich will have them. The average man will spend all he has on the bare essentials. Barnhouse has an interesting comment from his own experience on this.
Just after World War I, I spent a few days in Vienna at the time when misery was very great … There was a shortage of coal and the police had ordered everyone off the streets by nine o’clock. The city was filled with wealthy refugees from Russia and other countries. Walking along the boulevard one afternoon as the crowds were coming out of the opera which began early to conform with the curfew regulations, I saw men with bare feet in the snow, their skeletons covered with rags, their ribs seen through the holes in the cloths with which they attempted to cover their bodies. From time to time there was blood on the snow from their feet. Out of the opera came men escorting women with fortunes in jewels upon them. Never have I seen more wonderful displays in any of the capitals of the earth. The beggars blocked the way to the fine limousines that came for the rich. I saw the men striking the beggars with their canes to clear the way for the women. Poor girls not clad in the gaudy finery of prostitutes, but with poor clothing and in wooden shoes, clattered about clutching at the passerby and offering to sell themselves for a coin which at that moment could be purchased for one five hundredth part of a dollar. Mark well, there was no famine in Vienna. There was scarcity in the midst of plenty, but there was no hurt to the luxuries.100
The picture here is scarcity in the midst of plenty. This will be accentuated in the times of the Antichrist, especially in the last half of the Tribulation via his buying and selling policies.
The color of this horse is ashen, a pale or yellowish green. The same Greek word is used in Revelation 9:4 of green vegetation. It is the Greek word clwros which denotes a yellowish green, the light green of a plant, or the paleness of a person who is critically ill. Our word chlorophyll or chlorine comes from this word.
We are told the name of this horse is death and that Hades follows. “Death” refers to physical death, not annihilation—only the physical body is claimed. “Hades” refers to the underworld, the prison and temporary quarters of the souls of unbelievers between their death and the time of the Great White Throne Judgment. This is the compartment called torments in Luke 16:23.
“Authority was given him over one fourth …” According to present figures and estimations this is about 800,000,000, a staggering figure. The emphasis of this judgment is death on a massive scale. Four powers of death are mentioned: (a) The sword refers to death by war and perhaps by the cruelty of the beast and his godless system under the domination of the Red Dragon, Satan. (b) Famine, of course, anticipates death on an even greater scale by starvation. (c) Pestilence speaks of death by disease and plagues. (d) Wild beasts, perhaps, as an aftermath of the above, anticipates the fact that people will be weak, unprotected and easy prey for wild animals.
The unprecedented character of the Tribulation is now beginning to show itself, and some believe this is still in just the first half of the Tribulation. However, others see the unprecedented nature of this fourth seal as an indication the second half of the Tribulation has begun.
Having quoted several Old Testament passages that point to the unparalleled nature of this future time of trouble (Dan. 12:1; Joel 2:1-3), Walvoord writes:
Inasmuch as the judgment described in the fourth seal is unparalleled, it seems to correspond with greater accuracy to the latter half of Daniel’s seventieth week than to the earlier half and for that reason must be the time of great Tribulation which Christ declared would exceed by far anything the world had previously known.
So great will be the trial of that period that Christ exhorted those living in Palestine at that time to flee to the mountains to escape their persecutors:
“21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened” (Matthew 24:21-22).
If the supreme mark of this great tribulation is unprecedented trouble, the fourth seal certainly qualifies as describing this period. Though some expositors believe the great tribulation does not begin until chapter 11, on the basis of this evidence, some have come to the conclusion that the great tribulation must begin much earlier, possibly as early as the first seal of Revelation 6. Though the book of Revelation itself does not state specifically what event begins the great tribulation, the characteristics unfolded in the fourth seal would indicate the great tribulation is underway at the time.
… The fifth and sixth seals advance the narrative and describe the period specifically as “the great day of his wrath” (6:17), which almost certainly is a reference to the great tribulation.101
Obviously, regardless of when the last half of the Tribulation begins in the design of Revelation, the dreams of the world for a great society where the world will get better and better in all spheres of life, scientifically, intellectually, morally, socially, and spiritually, are very contrary to the picture we see in the Word of God. “Suddenly all of man’s programs for bringing in peace, plenty and longevity through medicine will be overturned in the short time that it will take to accomplish this judgment (Matt. 24:4-7).102 This should certainly warn all believers to never fall for any world leader or any form of world government program, for, as with the tower of Babel, they stand condemned by God’s Word as an attempt at world peace apart from God. They cannot accomplish what they promise and will be the product of a demonic system. Not until the return of Christ will we have a one world government characterized by righteousness and justice for only then will we have a ruler capable of establishing and maintaining such a rule, the Lord Jesus Christ.
That these martyrs are introduced at this point strongly suggests that they come out the Tribulation. They are Tribulation martyrs. The fifth seal, then, parallels Matthew 24:9-14 and undoubtedly occurs during the last half of the Tribulation. My understanding of the chronology of Matthew 24 is that verses 4-8 refer to the first half of the Tribulation, the beginning of birth pangs, and verses 9-28 refer to the last half. Some see the last half beginning with verse 15 and the mention of the Abomination of Desolation, but the “therefore” that introduces verse 15 links this event very closely to the preceding events marked especially by the persecution mentioned in verse 9. It is this blasphemous event in the temple that shows the persecution will begin and that signals the need to flee.
The persecution of Matthew 24:9 is not just of the Jews, but is a persecution against any believer in Jesus Christ, Jew or Gentle. Note “you will be hated … on account of my Name.” These will accept Christ because of the preaching mentioned in Matthew 24:14, and this is undoubtedly carried out in part by the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7. The period called, “the beginning of sorrows,” the first half of the Tribulation, is now over. The Prince of Daniel 9:26-27 breaks his covenant with Israel, manifests his true beastly character, and begins to persecute Israel along with all believers in Christ. This will coincide with the events of Revelation 12:7-17.
Verse 9b, They are martyred “because of the Word of God.” This will be a day of absolute, unleashed, autonomous and idolatrous humanism with man worshipping his own reason and rejecting any idea of revelation from God. So anyone who believes the Bible and proclaims it message will be persecuted. But God has always preserved His Word and there has always been a remnant—those within mankind who have turned to God’s revelation for light and direction. This immediately and always creates opposition. The Word exposes and judges man’s deeds, and so, in haughty independence and defiance, the world persecutes those who stand for the Bible. This has always been true as history shows, but in the Tribulation it will become unprecedented.
“And because of the testimony which they maintained, …” or we could translate, “on account of the witness which they continually had.” The Greek text uses the imperfect tense of the repeated and continuous witness these saints maintained under the various persecutions that eventually led to their death. Of course, this is all future since this is a prophetic scene of the persecutions of believers in the time of the Tribulation that John is privileged to see.
“Testimony” is the Greek word marturia from marturew which means “to bear witness, be a witness, give testimony.” Marturew comes from martus meaning “a witness.” But martus is also translated “martyr” because it is used of those who have witnessed for Christ by their death. These believers will witness for Christ by their life as they hold fast to the Word of God in the midst of a degenerate world, but they will also witness for Christ by their death. Matthew 24:14 refers in part to their labors in addition to the labors of the 144,000 of chapter 7.
Verse 9a, “Underneath the altar the souls … slain.” “Souls” is the plural of the Greek yuch which may mean “the souls,” referring to the immaterial part of man. But yuch is often used in the sense of “the lives” or “persons.” John sees these martyrs very much alive. Men may destroy our bodies, but they cannot kill the soul or the person who indwells the body, the house for the person. At death, the soul or the person goes to be with the Lord (Phil. 1:21-22; 2 Cor. 5:6-8). The body “sleeps” but the soul or the person is conscious, awake.
“Slain” is the Greek sfrazw. This was a sacrificial term used for the slaughtering of the animals for sacrifice. The emphasis seems to be on the fact they were not just killed, but slaughtered.
“The altar” maybe the altar of incense or the altar of sacrifice. The use of the verb sfrazw suggest the altar of sacrifice which stood in the court of the tabernacle just inside the entrance. It was the means of access into the tabernacle complex. It stood for Christ, our Sacrifice and Access into God’s presence. But remember, the earthly tabernacle and its ritual was all patterned after the heavenly sanctuary (Isa. 6:1f; Heb. 8:1, 2, 5; 9:1, 11-12).
Some think that because these martyrs are seen “under the altar” the altar must be the altar of incense, otherwise they would have been seen on the altar. But there could be a good reason for this portrait. If this is the altar of sacrifice, it is significant that they are seen under it, not on it. The sacrificial animals were placed on the altar, killed there, their blood spilled and the animal burned to consume the sacrifice. But these sacrificial animals anticipated God’s Lamb, the Lord Jesus. Only Christ, the true Lamb of God, our Passover, is qualified to be placed on the altar to die for our sins and give access into God’s presence. These, however, are under it, under the blood or under the substitutionary death of Christ, and thereby saved and in heaven by the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The point is, as believers in Christ, they too share in the world’s hatred of Christ, and as living sacrifices for Christ they are slain, as martyrs and witnesses for the Lord (Rom. 12:1). Undoubtedly, by their death and the way they die others will come to know Christ.
For another perspective on this scene, Alan Johnson writes:
Depending on which altar is meant, one of two different ideas is connoted. In 8:3, 5 and 9:13 the altar is the golden altar of incense that stood in the tabernacle either in or before the Most Holy Place (Exod. 30:1ff.; Heb 9:4). Likewise, the other references in Revelation to “altar” also can be understood as referring to this altar of incense (11:1; 14:18; 16:7). In accord with this sense, the prayers of the saints would be for God’s vindication of the martyrs of Christ (cf. Luke 18:7-8).103
Verse 10. “Cried out” is the Greek krazw and means “to shriek, scream.” This word and the words “with a loud voice” lay stress on the earnestness of their cry and concern. These saints are in heaven, with no sinful natures and in God’s blessed presence. But they are seen crying out for justice. This is not a cry for revenge, but for God’s justice and righteousness to prevail on earth against the sin and the atrocities of man in rebellion to God. As in the disciples’ prayer, “Your kingdom come,” they are praying for the second advent which ushers in God’s righteous and just reign on earth.
“How long” asks the question, “When, Sovereign Lord, are you going to act in history?” They expect this because of their knowledge of God evidenced by the way they address the Lord. “O Lord” is the Greek %o despoths or “the Despot.” They clearly recognized the Lord as the Sovereign One in control of all the affairs of the earth and the universe. “Holy” is %agios which means, “set apart.” It is used of God’s perfect holiness or His absolute just and righteous character, as one totally set apart from sin. It is the expectation, much as with the prophet in Habakkuk 1:13, anticipating God’s holy justice to be poured out against an evil and rebellious world. “True” is alhqinos. It means “true in the sense of the ideal, genuine, real.” It stresses God’s veracity but also the fact He is the true and genuine Ruler of the world as opposed to the usurper, Satan.
“Will you refrain from judging.” “Judging” is krinw and means “to pronounce judgment” or “to act in judgment, carry out a sentence.” “Avenging” is ekdikew and means “to avenge, exact a penalty from, carry out justice against wrong doing.” These saints are acting on the truth of Romans 12:19, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.”
Note that the justice of God is directed toward “those who dwell on the earth.” The Greek uses a present adjectival participle which characterizes these as the earth-dwellers, those who have no interest in God, or in spiritual or heavenly things. As mentioned in connection with 3:10, in Revelation it is practically a technical term for unbelievers who live in rebellion against God.
Verse 11. The martyrs are each given a “white robe” to symbolize their fully redeemed state and the gift of righteousness by Jesus Christ. Since Tribulation saints along with all OT saints are not resurrected until after the Tribulation described by Daniel as “a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time” (cf. Dan. 12:1-2 with Rev. 20:4), some have suggested that these martyrs are given temporary heavenly bodies. The robes spoken of here and portrayed to John in this vision, however, may simply be the symbol of the fact they are clothed in the righteousness of God as believers in Christ.
Further, they are told they “should rest for a little while longer.” “Rest” is anapauw, “to give intermission from labor, give rest, refresh,” and in the middle voice as here, “to take one’s rest, enjoy rest.”104 This is a compound verb and is somewhat stronger than simply pauw. In the middle voice it means “to take rest, enjoy a rest.”105 Based on the facts their labors and trials are over, that God is all wise and on the throne, and they are now in the presence and protection of the Lord, they are told, “you yourself, enjoy your rest, leave it in God’s hands, for soon justice will be done.”
“A little while longer” refers to the short remaining time of the Tribulation, less than three and a half years, if these events occur in the last half of the Tribulation.
“Until the number of their fellow servants … were to be killed … should be completed.” Until the end of the Tribulation believers will suffer persecution and death on behalf of Christ as a proof of their love of Christ, the reality of God, and as a testimony to the world that God is worthy of the creature’s worship and obedience.
“Completed” is the verb plerow which means “to fill, or fulfill, or complete, bring to fruition.” This stresses the divine providence and purpose of God in the deaths of the martyrs. They are not without God’s knowledge or without God’s control or concern. The exact numbers are known to God and allowed by Him according to His own eternal purpose. For “precious” in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones” (Psalm 116:15).
The nature of this scene which John beholds is awesome. It is awesome in its effects upon the universe as judgment, and in its effects upon mankind. Here is a turning point in history, a momentous event unlike any man has ever seen. It disturbs the normal order of the universe which man has taken for granted almost from the beginning of time. As we shall see, John calls this “a great shaking.”
The previous five seal judgments were largely brought about by the activities of man. But such is not the case here. Because of this, some have taken the position that it is only with the sixth seal that we have the wrath of God. Until this point it is merely the wrath of man. Because of this, they have also taken the position that the church will go into the Tribulation and will not be raptured until about midway through the last half of the Tribulation, just before this time of God’s wrath. They believe the church has been promised deliverance from God’s wrath, but since the first three quarters of the Tribulation is not God’s wrath, but man’s, the church will not be raptured until just prior to the sixth seal which alone constitutes the wrath of God (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9).
But this is untenable for we have seen from chapters 4-5 that all the seals constitute an outpouring of God’s wrath and are unleashed by the Lord Himself. Further, they are all seen as the means or instruments by which He establishes His rule on earth. Finally, just because the first five seals employ human agents, that does not mean this is not part of the outpouring of God’s wrath. The other seals are intermediate instruments of God to execute His judgments of wrath. The only difference in the sixth seal and the first five is the degree and magnitude of His wrath. A good passage to illustrate this fact is Isaiah 10:5-12. Note that in this passage, Assyria is called “the rod of My anger and the staff in whose hands is My indignation” (vs. 5). Assyria was a human agent commissioned by God (vs. 6) to execute His wrath or judgment against Israel for her rebellion. The fact God used a human agency does not remove the fact this was God’s wrath in action.
So the sixth seal is the direct intervention of the Creator upsetting the normal order of His creation. The nature and effect of this judgment is such that it causes all of mankind from kings to slaves to recognize that God the Creator is acting in human history in divine wrath. If the six things that occur here were set off or caused by something which man does, like an atomic explosion, then it could be attributed to man’s foolishness causing universal ecological destruction. It should further be noticed that the magnitude of this is far above what even atomic fission could accomplish. This is an act, a direct intervention of God in history. The passage stresses that men see it as the direct hand and action of God.
When the sixth seal occurs God shakes the universe like a rag doll and all the world will know without a doubt not only that there is a God, but that He is acting catastrophically in divine wrath against man’s rebellion. It is interesting to note that this judgment affects the creation, that which from the beginning of time has spoken of God, an evidence of His being and of His nature, an evidence of His divine essence, but also an evidence that modern man has rejected and attributed to evolution (Rom. 1:19-22).
“And there was a great earthquake” (vs. 12a). Literally the Greek says “and a shaking, a great one came to be.” The Greek word here is seismos from seiw which means “to shake, agitate, cause to quake.” Our word seismology comes from this Greek word. “Great” is megas and means “large, great.” It is used of (a) an extension in space in all directions, as to length, numbers, or size, and (b) figuratively of measure, intensity, quantity, of natural phenomenon (strong, severe, intense), and of rank or importance. This will be the most severe, intense, shaking which the world or universe has ever known—one reaching out in all directions so that the whole universe is shaken like a rag doll. This is not just a great earthquake, but a shaking of the universe, in which even the powers (stars) of the heavens will be shaken (Luke 21:26; Matt. 24:29). This shaking affects sun, moon, stars, atmosphere, and earth, bringing about a tremendous quake all over the earth. The devastation of this is beyond our imagination, though many scientists today are actually trying to evaluate by scientific data how much devastation would occur if a meteor of various sizes were to hit the earth. Some actually think such is inevitable and that if large enough, it will destroy the earth.
“And the sun became black as sackcloth” (vs. 12b). The sun is the most conspicuous of the heavenly bodies and the most important to earth because of its warmth and light. Note its use in Scripture:
(1) To mark the time of day (Mark 1:32; Luke 4:40).
(2) Ecclesiastes speaks of “things under the sun” or life in the real world.
(3) It shows God’s order, permanence, consistency, grace, and faithfulness (Matt. 5:45; Ps. 19:1, 4-6); righteousness, beauty and light (Mal. 4:2; Matt. 13:43).
(4) It shows direction, i.e., east and west (Rev. 7:2; 16:12).
(5) Primarily, it rules the day and separates the light from darkness or night (Gen. 1:14, 16).
(6) In addition, it is for signs and for seasons; an indicator of seasons, and days, and years (Gen. 1:14).
Very important to the sun’s function is the sign aspect. The word sign brings to mind some spectacular display in the sun or moon, something foreign to normal experience. As God designed the sun and moon to be sources of light in the sky to give light and direction to men on earth, so God’s special acts with the sun and moon are designed to illuminate God to man and His actions in history (Joel 2: l0, 31; Matt. 25:24; Acts 2:19-20; Isa. 13:9-l0; Ezek. 32:7; and our passage Rev. 6:12).
All of these passages relate to the Lord’s return. These signs herald the return of Christ and His judgment— the direct intervention of God’s wrath in human history.
“Became black as sackcloth” is literally “as sackcloth of hair.” This was a very rough cloth made of the hair of a black goat and worn in times of mourning and despair. The blackening or darkening of the sun as a sign, speaks of God’s judgment and the withdrawal of His longsuffering. It shows this will truly be a time of great despair for man.
What causes this darkening? We are not told; we can only speculate. Perhaps it is caused by the ash, dust and debris which will fill the sky when the earth begins to quake (vs. 14). This will undoubtedly cause volcanic eruptions which will make Mount St. Helens look like a hiccup by comparison. When there is a large volcanic eruption, the sun becomes darkened by the substances in the air.
“And the whole moon became like blood (vs. 12c). Note the uses for the moon in Scripture: (a) a light for the night (Gen. 1:16); (b) it shows a fixed and consistent order to God’s creation (Jer. 31:35); (c) beauty (Ps. 8.3); (d) permanence and opportunity to know God (Ps. 72:5, 7); and (e) for signs, and for seasons (Gen. 1:14-16). What was true above with the sun in its function as a sign is also true of the moon.
“Became like blood” means the moon will take on a blood red color. As a sign, this speaks of the loss of life and death. How eerie this all will be to look up at night and see a blood red moon. Evidently through the atmospheric changes brought about by the shaking of the earth and the heavens, particles or substances will be in the air which will cause the moon to take on a red cast.
“And the stars of the sky fell to earth vs. 13a).” The word “star” (asthr) is used of any heavenly body seen at night, i.e., stars, planets, asteroids, meteors, etc. These are not stars as we often use the word which are huge and often dwarf the earth in size. These are meteorites or asteroids which are small by comparison to the earth. John compares them to unripe figs falling to earth from a fig tree when shaken by a great wind. However, what John sees is classed in the category of stars, which in Scripture have much the same meaning and significance, though to a much lesser degree, as do the sun and moon. They indicate time by their appearance, direction (used for navigation), order and precision, beauty and grace. Here, because of their size, likened to unripe figs, these are apparently meteorites or perhaps asteroids which are larger. Revelation 8:8 most likely refers to an asteroid and this to meteorites.
In his book, The Earth, The Stars, and The Bible, Paul Steidl says:
In the past the earth has been struck by a number of objects smaller than the Apollo asteroids. The famous Arizona meteorite crater is 4,200 feet across and 600 feet deep, but is estimated to have been caused by a meteorite of only two million tons, or about 300 feet across. The meteorite (or comet) which fell in Siberia in 1908 devastated over 1,000 square miles. The shock was felt as far away as Europe, while trees up to twenty miles from the site were blown over. Yet this body was estimated to be only 200 feet across.106
With such objects whether meteorites or asteroids, falling like unripe figs on earth, the damage and effects on the minds and hearts of men and on the topography and structure of this planet are astronomical. Thank God the body of Christ will not be here!
“And the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up” (vs. 14a).
“The sky” is %o ouranos, “the heaven” or “the vault or firmament of heaven,” i.e., the sky and the aerial regions above the earth. Most likely this includes only our atmosphere. Scripture speaks of three heavens (2 Cor. 12:2; Deut, 10:14; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 68:33). There is (a) the first heaven, our atmosphere (Rev 6:14), (b) the second heaven, outer space (Rev. 12:7 perhaps), and (c) the third heaven, the eternal abode of God, the highest heaven (Ps. 68:33; 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Cor. 12:2).
“Was split apart” is the Greek word apocwrizw from apo which means “from,” showing source, separation, departure,” plus cwrizw which means “to separate, divide.” This compound verb means to tear apart, split or separate as when a huge curtain is separated or pulled back to reveal what lies behind it as in a theater. The illustration used in Revelation to express the idea is that of a scroll.
“Like a scroll when it is rolled up.” “Scroll” is the Greek word biblion and means a scroll, book, or roll. The figure is that of a papyrus roll which, when it is first unrolled for reading, splits apart or separates the two roles to reveal the contents on the inside.
Now remember that the great shaking mentioned in verse 12 affects the entire universe at once, The effects mentioned here upon the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky and the earth (the islands and mountains), are apparently not successive occurrences, but occur simultaneously as a part of the great shaking. Zephaniah and Joel both picture the Tribulation as a day of darkness and gloom, of clouds and thick darkness (Zeph. 1:15; Joel 2:2). Revelation 6:14b describes one of the effects of this great agitation of the universe, a tremendous earthquake. This causes volcanic eruptions that will fill the sky with smoke, volcanic ash, dust and rocks which, as mentioned previously, will darken the sun and make the moon blood red. The meteorite showers will also surely add to all of this. Then with the sky black with these particles and clouds and filled with darkness, God will cause the sky to separate and roll back separating the darkness, opening up a window-like effect into heaven.
Apparently this lasts for at least one full revolution of the earth so all the world sees this (vs. 15). But not only this, it appears from verse 16 they are given, through this window, a glimpse of God and the Lamb on the throne.
“And every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (vs. 14b).
“Were moved” is the Greek word kinew which means “to move, set in motion.” The whole earth is set in motion. The earth today has many geological faults, cracks below and in the crust of the earth. Through this worldwide earthquake, these faults will be undoubtedly set in motion causing the mountains and islands to be moved out of their present places.
With verses 15-17 we see who will be affected and their response.
(1) Those affected: Every class of society. No one is exempt. Money or status cannot protect one from these judgments (vs. 15a).
(2) Their actions: Now men not only know that the end is near, but they act like it. There is no buying, selling, or planning for the future while this seal is being poured out. Instead, people hide themselves among the caves and rocks of the earth (vs. 15b).
(3) Their attitude (vs. 16): In every age there have been those who have predicted the end of the world. There have been the dooms dayers (as they are sometimes called) but previously even those who believed it have by-in-large lived as though they didn’t believe it. But not now. Three things characterize their attitude: (a) They want to die. Speaking to the mountains and rocks they cry, “fall on us.” (b) They are struck with terror, perhaps not so much from the physical phenomenon as from the sight of God on the throne. They cry “Hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne …” (c) They are, in spite of this, unrepentant even though they know they are facing the day of God’s wrath poured out against sin. Note their words, “who is able to stand?” The idea here is not who can make it through alive, because they want to die. They sense God’s perfect righteousness and know they cannot stand before Him. They must be judged, yet no note of repentance is heard. This shows just how hard the soul of man can become!
The sixth seal is now over on earth and silence in heaven follows for about a half an hour, like the quiet while in the eye of a hurricane. But then suddenly a new wave of judgments will begin to be poured out on the earth, the seven trumpet judgments (8:1f). Chapter seven is parenthetic, it does not carry the chronological sequence forward, but adds some important details regarding the saved of the Tribulation, many of whom are martyred.
The remarkable wonder is that anyone is left alive. But millions survive. After this, it appears from other chapters in Scripture as Revelation 13, 17, 18, and Matthew 24:37f, that man on the whole goes on in pursuit of his rebel like ways, indifferent to God, buying and selling, giving in marriage and worshipping the beast. How soon man forgets! What a telling story this is about man’s condition in sin. I am reminded of Pharaoh in Exodus who continued to harden his heart in spite of the miracles he saw with his own eyes.
105 Some believe NT Greek has pretty much abandoned the rules of classical Greek, and, therefore, the middle voice has very little significance, if any, in the NT. For arguments against this see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan, 1996, pp. 420f.