A few months ago, I realized I wanted to become friends with the book of Revelation. It’s not a thought that ever occurred to me before that end-of-summer day. Over decades, I have mulled Revelation’s passages. I have facilitated year-long small-group meetings that primarily used only the Bible, lexicons, concordances, histories, and biblical dictionaries. We wanted to become Berean: “to examine the Scriptures every day to see if what” the teachers tell us is true (Acts 17:11). Last year, I realized I want to hear Revelation for the pure joy and hunger to know it more deeply and personally. In six months of morning walks, I’ve heard it at least eighteen times. In December, I began to jot WhatsApp notes to my friend Anja in the Netherlands. Then Wendy asked me to write one of the commentaries for Spectrum. My thoughts on Chapter Six will be informed by both my earlier type of study and what is, hopefully, my deepening personal experience with this message.
Revelation 6 opens as a continuation of the vision in Chapter 5: a concerned discussion of a scroll with seven seals and the qualities of one who might be authorized to open it. In first-century CE Rome, this type of scroll was usually considered to be a will. Wills delineated the legacy of the person receiving them. The number of seals could designate the importance of the document or the need for its security. Emperors Vespasian and Caesar Augustus both had wills, written on a scroll and sealed. The number seven in biblical writings usually designates completeness or perfection; therefore, the scroll in the vision is completely sealed. Of all the names, qualities, and roles of Jesus, the one that signified his authority to open the will was that of the Lamb, the Redeemer, the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love. I think it is essential, as we read Revelation, that our twenty-first-century minds understand that this authority is not only about power but about love and saving grace.
And so, it is the Lamb who opens the first seal of a document that I believe tells us about the legacy of this tiny little planet. “I looked and before me was a white horse! His rider held a bow, and he was given a crown and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest” (Revelation 6:1, 2). When I see the rider of the white horse, I see the One who had led the first battle against evil and cast the adversary out of Heaven. Coming to Earth as a conqueror, he became our Creator, the beginning of our legacy. At the end of time, there is another vision of the “white horse whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice He judges…” (Revelation 19:11) and leads the final battle against the evil that wished to destroy His creation. I appreciate these parallel pictures of the same white horse at the beginning and at the end of The Great Controversy. Because the white horse carries One who is also the Lamb, I continue to have faith that love for us and all creation is Heaven’s driving force in the battle.
And then “the Lamb opened the second seal….and another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people slay each other” (Revelation 6:3). It took me a while, but I finally heard, in this text, the story of power being given to the evil one by humanity ourselves, when we couldn’t trust God in the Garden of Eden. We were the ones who ceded our heritage of love for catastrophe upon ourselves and upon our vulnerable planet.
The third seal opens with the results of our decision: “Before me was a black horse. Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice from the four living creatures saying, ‘a quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil or the wine.’”
This is quite the phrase to unpack. For millennia, scales have represented judgment. “Tekel: You are weighed in the balances and found wanting.” (Daniel 5:27) They are also used to describe our interactions with each other. “Thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Enough, you princes of Israel: put away violence and destruction and practice justice and righteousness…you shall have just balances.’” (Ezekiel 45:9-10). What I have read of first-century CE economy indicates that the amount of food given for a day’s wages described above was a starvation diet at extortion prices.
In a literal historical sense, the results of sin have been that we descendants of Adam and Eve “do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling… and in striking each other with wicked fists” (Isaiah 58:3-4). We have blamed others for our actions, we have murdered, we have taken advantage of the fragile in countless ways, we have abused the earth and refused to care for it as it deserves. Famine and extortion are inevitable outcomes of humanity’s choices. Israel was warned against these behaviors, more times than I can count, with the promise of disaster if they did not begin to treat both each other, and the “alien within their gates” (Exodus 20:11), better. The judgment is an acknowledgement of the result of choices freely made.
From another perspective, Hebrew writings often use the concrete to express the spiritual. Pestilence or famine took place in Bible times when there was a “famine of the word of God” (Amos 8:11). The famine in the time of Elijah and Ahab was a direct result of apostasy…famine of the word of God. When our ancestors gave power to the rider of the red horse, there began a spiritual famine, moving away from God’s principles; spiritual starvation as well as physical hunger followed.
I see the phrase “do not damage the oil and the wine” primarily on a spiritual level. The phrase adikeses (do not damage) is second person, singular, imperative mood. A representative of Heaven is speaking to the rider on the black horse, protecting the oil and the wine, setting limits to the destruction. Oil is commonly used to represent the work of the Spirit or being set aside to do the work of the Spirit of God. Jesus, in a story told by Luke (4:18) said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” There are lots of similar illustrations in both the Old and the New Testaments. Jesus, himself, used wine to represent His blood and therefore His sacrifice. In the midst of the carnage of the black horse, there is the unmitigated promise that the results of sin will not stop the love or the mission of God.
“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come’! Before me was a pale horse. Its rider was named Death (Thanatos) and Hades was following close behind him” (Revelation 6:7).
Thanatos was the Greek god of death. Hades is the grave, the place of the grave or the place of darkness. As horrific as it is, this part of our legacy appears to be only the natural consequence of the actions that were described in the second and third seals.
This ends the seals that are introduced by the four creatures around the throne, after being opened by the Lamb. I see these seals as a progressive encapsulation of our downfall and great need.
Seals 5 and 6 deal with two different groups of people who have responded to the fall of our planet in two very different ways. It is not the voice of heavenly beings we hear but the voices of those descendants of Eden who are on opposite sides of God’s battle with evil.
“When He opened the fifth seal I saw, under the altar, the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice ‘How long sovereign Lord, holy and true until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’”
Clearly, this group has chosen to be on the side of God. Clearly, they have paid a temporarily high price for their choice. Clearly, they know that Heaven’s justice will be in their favor. They ask, with all the rights of their relationship with the Lamb, when that justice will come. I have always thought of these people as being only those who had been physically killed because of their beliefs and life choices. As I write this, I am remembering what Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). There are different ways to “kill people,” and I wonder if this group of the fifth seal could also include those who have been denigrated for their beliefs, not necessarily physically murdered.
The group portrayed in the next vignette have a different perspective:
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:12-17).
Here is the answer to the questioners of the fifth seal. It seems the judgments have begun. As there was no caste for the people of the fifth seal, there is no caste for those who have chosen a very different relationship with the Lamb. Kings and slaves both hide from a judgment so complete that the earth and the sky are in upheaval. The people represented here have chosen such little knowledge of Heaven that their prayer is to be hidden from the face of the One who sits on the throne of Heaven, yearning to save them, and from the wrath of the Lamb, who gave all and more to bring them back to His flock. These voices cannot imagine that anyone could be saved. They have believed the lie of the serpent in Eden. They stand accused, like Joshua in Zechariah’s vision – but have declined the Mediator. Their question is, “The great day of their wrath has come; who can withstand it?”
The parenthesis that is Chapter 7 will be a glorious answer to this faithless question. Yes… countless millions will withstand and, because of the Lamb, will be saved.
The seventh seal will be the story of the last terrible effort to show those who believe the lie the results of their choice and to give them a final chance to change that choice.
Catherine Taylor is a family therapist who specializes in the development of benevolent systems. She has been a Sabbath School teacher, sermon presenter, Bible study facilitator, camp meeting speaker, and writer on various Bible topics.
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