Revelation 6:1-7:17

We are about to see three sets of seven judgements as God seeks to turn the world back to himself. There are two ways to look at these sets. One is that they are a linear timeline, running consecutively, one after the other. Another way suggests that we do not have three sets of seven judgments presented in chronological order, but all three series present the entire process of judgment leading up to and culminating in the end of human history. Each succeeding set of seven presents a more intensified or wide-angle version of these judgments. The seven trumpets present a more developed and intensifed version of the seven seals, and the seven bowls present a more intensified version of the seven trumpets. It is as if the author first saw a fourth of the world affected and then looked again and saw a third of the world affected; the final look showed the full picture of how the whole world was affected. As with a camera with a wide and wider angle and higher powered lens, things come increasingly into focus.

The four horsemen have a symbolic or representative quality. We realize that the text is not telling us to expect the end times to begin when we see a solitary figure with a bow in his hand riding a white horse through the streets of our city, but recognize that the visions stand for larger realities. The text makes clear that the horsemen represent conquest, violence, economic hardship, and death. These were genuine threats for people in the first century and they have remained threats for people in subsequent centuries: waves of conquest, outbreaks of violence, and periods of economic hardship have occurred repeatedly in human history, and death finally comes to all.

The principal purpose of the visions in Revelation 6 is to awaken a sense of uneasiness by vividly identifying threats to their well-being. The four horsemen are designed to shatter the illusion that people can find true security in the borders of a nation or empire, in a flourishing economy, or in their own health. Subsequent visions promise that God will not allow injustice to continue forever, and warn that no place on earth and no position of power or wealth will protect people from the judgment of God and the Lamb. Those who grasp the way that these visions relentlessly undercut human pretensions will find themselves asking the final question in the chapter 6: “Who is able to stand?”

Albrecht Durer’s (1471-1528) woodcut of the four horsemen shows how these threats work on readers. The first horseman with his bow appears in the background of the picture, furthest away from the viewers. This placement is suggestive because fear of conquest by a foreign power is often furthest away from readers’ minds. If the first horseman awakens a sense of distant uneasiness, the second horseman brings the threat a step closer by pointing to the violence that people perpetrate on “one another” (6:4). Danger is not limited to external invasion, but can also come from internal conflict. The third horseman brings the threat still closer by depicting economic insecurity, as he grasps scales like those used in commerce. This horseman is the largest and most prominent in Durer’s picture, suggesting that economic difficulties loom largest in most people’s minds. The fourth horseman, who represents death, is in the lower foreground of the picture, together with the bizarre creature that represents Hades. Viewers’ eyes often overlook the figure of death as their attention is drawn to the large horseman representing economic uncertainties; but death is the threat that sits in the lap of each viewer. No one escapes it.

How can we face this world’s situation — with wars, economic chaos, and epidemics facing us on every side? What does it mean to be a Christian in all this mess? John wrote to comfort his readers in the face of all these terrors with the assurance that these forces alone do not control the development of history.

At the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., there was enough nuclear stuff in our world to blow it up entirely at least thirty-five times. (It seems to me that once is more than enough!) The first horseman, who is armed with a bow, was an apt figure to represent conquest. The most famous mounted bowmen of John’s time, came from Parthia, the region that lay beyond the Roman Empire’s eastern frontier. The Parthian forces repeatedly drove back the Roman army in 53 B.C., 36 B.C., and A.D. 62, bringing Roman imperial expansion to a halt. The Parthians were a nagging reminder about the limits of the security that Rome – the region’s most powerful empire – could provide. The implication was that the Christians who partook of the sacrifices offered to the deified emperors were compromising their convictions to placate powers that were not supreme, but vulnerable to invasion by outside forces.

The second horseman stands for the threat of violence that can erupt within one’s own society. Romans tried to tell people that they should be grateful to them for providing peace. Yet the second rider warns against being lulled into complacency by comfortable conditions that pass for peace, for such peace can be removed.

The third horseman holds a pair of scales, like those used in commerce, and issues a threat of economic hardship (6:5-6). A heavenly voice comments on the scales’ significance, citing inflated grain prices (8 to 10 times normal), while oil and wine continue to be available. If a denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer, then it would cost an entire day’s pay to buy one quart of wheat or three quarts of barley. These quantities of grain might be enough to keep a small family alive, but there would be no money left to buy any oil or wine. This was a vivid reminder about the limits of any economic system to guarantee prosperity.

If those of us for whom famine and pestilence seem distant realities are to hear the dreaad the text conveys, we must consider analogies closer to home. Many people are but a paycheck or two away from missing house or rent payments, so images like Revelation’s are more relevant than we may want to think.

The fourth horseman, who sits astride a sickly green horse, represents death (6:8). This rider holds nothing in his hands, but is followed by “Hades,” the Greek name for the realm of the dead. The specter of death heightens and expands the threats represented by the previous horsemen, hemming readers in with forces that ultimately reach beyond human control.

These threatening powers do not operate independently of God. Each horseman appears only after the Lamb has broken a seal on the scroll and one of the living creatures has given the command: “Come!” Repeatedly we hear the words“was given,”“was permitted,”“was given.” These are under divine restraint.

The opening of the fifth and sixth seals results in a jarring pair of scenes that challenge ordinary perceptions of peace and security: the martyrs rest in heaven (Rev. 6:9-11) and the remainder of humanity is disturbed on earth (6:12-17). These visions press readers to give up the idea that they can remain neutral, asking them whether they identify with the martyrs or with the rest of humanity. There is no middle ground.

The martyrs utter a cry that has appeared on the lips of the afflicted throughout the generations: “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev. 6:10; Zech. 1:12; Ps. 79:5-10). Some modern readers are bothered by the martyrs’ cry for justice, arguing that it does not measure up to the standard of turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies, as Jesus taught; but the plea for justice cannot be easily dismissed. The martyrs suffered not because they were sinners but because they were faithful. One rightly asks: Does God care that the wicked shed the blood of the innocent? Or is mercy another name for indifference?

The good news is that each is given a “white robe,” which connotes purity, victory, and celebration (Rev. 6:11). Despite the hostility they received on earth, the gift shows that the martyrs are valued in God’s eyes. Moreover, the martyrs are given a place under God’s own altar, which suggests that their deaths were not meaningless tragedies but sacrifices that ultimately serve God’s purposes.

The martyrs fell under human judgment because of their faith, and they paid for it with their lives. Accordingly, one might think that a better alternative would be to give up one’s faith in order to maintain one’s standing in the eyes of society. The sixth vision, however, shows that those who assimilate into the general society in order to escape its judgment actually open themselves to judgment before the throne of God. Seeking refuge with the rich and powerful at the expense of one’s faith is ultimately futile, for the sixth seal shows the wealthy and influential seeking refuge from God and the Lamb by calling the mountains and hills to fall on them.

When the mass of humanity finally cries out, “Who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:17), readers might expect the answer to be “No one,” for all seem doomed to destruction under God’s wrath. Yet that is in fact not the case, because the next section shows that there are some who are able to stand before God and the Lamb, not by their social position, but by grace.

“Who can stand” before the judgment of God and the Lamb (6:17)? An answer is given when John sees a vision of the redeemed “standing” before the throne singing praises to God and the Lamb (7:9).

There is a dramatic switch from seals of destruction to a sealing that gives hope. The seal does not ward off suffering altogether, but it does shield people from the wrath of God and the Lamb (6:16-17). Those who bear the names of God and Christ are protected through tribulation so that they can stand in time of judgment and join in the celebration of God’s victory (7:10).

This passage uses two different images for the same reality. The redeemed are identified as an assembly of 144,000 in 7:4-8 and as a “great multitude” in 7:9-17, but both refer to the same group. On one level, to be sure, the images appear to contrast, since the first refers to a definite number of people who come from the twelve tribes of Israel, while the second refers to a group that cannot be numbered, who come from every tribe and nation.

The seer is told the number of those who have the seal of God on their foreheads — 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes. The repetition of the number 12,000 twelve times reminds us forcefully that all the people of God will be sealed since 12 stands for God’s covenant people and 1,000 is the number of completion (10) multiplied by itself a divine (3) number of times.

This vision makes the same contrast between hearing and seeing that was used in 5:5-6 where John heard that the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” had conquered, but he saw a Lamb that bore the marks of slaughter. In exactly the same way, John hears (7:4) about the redeemed who come from the twelve tribes, which recalls Old Testament promises concerning God’s preservation of Israel; but when he actually sees (7:9) the realization of the promise, he encounters a countless multitude coming from every tribe and nation.

Just as references to the Lion and the Lamb enable readers to consider the same person (Christ) from two different perspectives, the references to the 144,000 and to the great multitude allow readers to see the same community (Christ’s followers) from two different perspectives.

The deliberate listing of the names of each of the tribes and their numbers underscores how well God specifically knows His people.

Perhaps many of the tears that God will someday wipe away forever are tears of despair from the times when we just cannot believe the Spirit’s promises to us and tears of anger against God from the times when life seems so unfair and out of control.