Chapter 6: In the Path of the White Horse

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of The Book of Revelation


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Chapter Text

St. John brings us now to the breaking of the Seven Seals of the Book (six of the Seals are broken in Chapter 6; the Seventh Seal is broken in 8:1, and is connected to the Seven Trumpets). We have seen that the Book represents the treaty document of the New Covenant, the opening of which will result in the destruction of apostate Israel (see on 5:1-4). What then does the breaking of the Seals represent? Some have thought this to signify a chronological reading through the Book, and that the events depicted are in a straight, historical order. This is unlikely for two reasons. First, the Seals seem to be on the outside edge of the Book (which is in the form of a scroll): one cannot really begin to read the Book until all the Seals are broken. The Seventh Seal, consisting of a call to action by the blowing of the Seven Trumpets, actually opens the Book so that we may read its contents.

Second, a careful reading of the events shown by each Seal reveals that they are not listed in chronological order. For example, in the Fifth Seal – after all the havoc wreaked by the Four Horsemen – the martyrs calling for judgment are told to wait. But the judgment is immediately poured out in the Sixth Seal, the entire creation “unseam’d from the nave to the chaps.” Yet, after all this, God commands the angels to withhold judgment until the servants of God are protected (7:3). Obviously, the Seals are not meant to represent a progressive chronology. It is more likely that they reveal the main ideas of the Book’s contents, the major themes of the judgments that came upon Israel during the Last Days, from A.D. 30-70.

  1. H. Charles pointed out the close structural similarity between the Six Seals of this chapter and the events of the so-called Little Apocalypse recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. As his outline (adapted below) demonstrates, “they present practically the same material.”[1]

Revelation 6

  1. War (v. 1-2)
  2. International strife (v. 3-4)
  3. Famine (v. 5-6)
  4. Pestilence (v. 7-8)
  5. Persecution (v. 9-11)
  6. Earthquake; De-creation (v. 12-17)

Matthew 24

  1. Wars (v. 6)
  2. International strife (v. 7a)
  3. Famines (v. 7b)
  4. Earthquakes (v. 7c)
  5. Persecutions (v. 9-13)
  6. De-creation (v. 15-31)

Mark 13

  1. Wars (v. 7)
  2. International strife (v. 8a)
  3. Earthquakes (v. 8b)
  4. Famines (v. 8c)
  5. Persecutions (v. 9-13)
  6. De-creation (v. 14-27)

Luke 21

  1. Wars (v. 9)
  2. International strife (v. 10)
  3. Earthquakes (v. 11a)
  4. Plagues and famines (v. 11b)
  5. Persecution (v. 12-19)
  6. De-creation (v. 20-27)

This is very perceptive of Charles, and of the many commentators who have followed his lead. What is astonishing is that they should fail to see St. John’s purpose in presenting “the same material” as the Synoptic writers: to prophesy the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. While all readily admit that the Little Apocalypse is a prophecy against Israel (see Matt. 23:29-39; 24:1-2, 15-16, 34; Mark 13:2, 14, 30; Luke 21:5-6, 20-24, 32), few seem able to make the obvious connection: The Big Apocalypse is a prophecy against Israel as well!

The Four Horsemen (6:1-8)

  1. And I saw that the Lamb broke one of the Seven Seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder: Come!
  2. And I looked, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it had a Bow; and a crown was given to Him; and He went out conquering, and to conquer.
  3. And when He broke the Second Seal, I heard the second living creature saying: Come!
  4. And another, a blood-red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the Land, and that men should slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.
  5. And when He broke the Third Seal, I heard the third living creature saying: Come! And I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand.
  6. And I heard 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 harm the oil and the wine.
  7. And when He broke the Fourth Seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying: Come!
  8. And I looked, and behold, a green horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. And authority was given to him over a fourth of the Land, to kill with sword and with famine and with death and by the wild beasts of the Land.

The central Old Testament passage behind the imagery of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is Zechariah 6:1-7, which pictures the Four Winds as God’s chariots driven by His agents, who go back and forth patrolling the earth. Following and imitating the action of the Spirit (see 5:6), they are God’s means of controlling history (see below at 7:1, where the Four Winds are identified with, and controlled by, angels; cf. also Ps. 18:10, where the “wings of the wind” are connected with “cherubs”). Biblical symbolism views the earth (and especially the Land of Israel) as God’s four-cornered altar, and thus often represents wide-sweeping, national judgments in a fourfold manner. The Horsemen, therefore, show us God’s means of controlling and bringing judgment upon the disobedient nation of Israel.

Milton Terry’s comments are helpful: “The true interpretation of these first four seals is that which recognizes them as a symbolic representation of the ‘wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes’ which Jesus declared would be ‘the beginning of sorrows’ in the desolation of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:6-7; Luke 21:10-11, 20). The attempt to identify each separate figure with one specific event misses both the spirit and method of apocalyptic symbolism. The aim is to give a fourfold and most impressive picture of that terrible war on Jerusalem which was destined to avenge the righteous blood of prophets and apostles (Matt. 23:35-37), and to involve a ‘great tribulation,’ the like of which had never been before (Matt. 24:21). Like the four successive but closely connected swarms of locusts in Joel 1:4; like the four riders on different colored horses in Zechariah 1:8, 18, and the four chariots drawn by as many different colored horses in Zechariah 6:1-8, these four sore judgments of Jehovah move forth at the command of the four living creatures by the Throne to execute the will of Him who declared the ‘scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites’ of His time to be ‘serpents and offspring of vipers,’ and assured them that ‘all these things should come upon this generation’ (Matt. 23:33, 36). The writings of Josephus abundantly show how fearfully all these things were fulfilled in the bloody war of Rome against Jerusalem.”[2]

Just as important as Zechariah in the background of this passage is the Prayer of Habakkuk (Hab. 3), the traditional synagogue reading for the second day of Pentecost,[3] in which the prophet relates a vision of God coming in judgment, shining like the sun, flashing with lightning (Hab. 3:3-4; cf. Rev. 1:16; 4:5), bringing pestilence and plague (Hab. 3:5; Rev. 6:8), shattering the mountains and collapsing the hills (Hab. 3:6, 10; Rev. 6:14), riding on horses against His enemies (Hab. 3:8, 15; Rev. 6:2, 4-5,8), armed with a Bow (Hab. 3:9, 11; Rev. 6:2), extinguishing sun and moon (Hab. 3:11; Rev. 6:12-13) and trampling the nations in His fury (Hab. 3:12; Rev. 6:15). Habakkuk clearly interprets his imagery as a prophecy of the military invasion of Judah by the Chaldeans, God’s heathen instruments of divine wrath (Hab. 3:16; cf. 1:5-17). Under similar imagery, St. John portrays Israel’s destruction at the hands of the invading Edomite and Roman armies.

1-2      The Book-visions begin, as the Messages did, with Christ holding a cluster of seven in His hand. As the Lamb breaks each of the first four Seals, St. John hears one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder: Come! This is not spoken as a direction to St. John to “come and see.”[4] It is, rather, that each of the living creatures calls forth one of the Four Horsemen. The four corners of the earth, as it were, standing around the altar, are calling for God’s righteous judgments to come and destroy the wicked – just as the apostolic Church’s characteristic cry for judgment and salvation was Maranatha!  O Lord, Come! – and bring Anathema![5]

As the first living creature calls, St. John sees a white horse, its rider armed for battle, carrying a Bow. The Rider is already victorious, for a crown was given to Him (St. John generally uses the impersonal passive throughout the prophecy to indicate that something is done by God; cf. 6:2, 4, 8, 11; 7:2, 4; 8:2, 3, etc.). Having achieved victory, He rides on to further victories: He went out conquering, and to conquer. Amazingly, the run-of-the-mill Dispensational interpretation claims that this rider on the white horse is the Antichrist.[6] Showing where his faith lies, Hal Lindsey goes all the way and declares that the Antichrist is “the only person who could accomplish all of these feats.”[7]

But there are several points about this Rider that demonstrate conclusively that He can be none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. First, He is riding a white horse, as Jesus does in 19:11-16. Second, He carries a Bow. As we have seen, the passage from Habakkuk that forms the basis for Revelation 6 shows the Lord as the Warrior-King carrying a Bow (Hab. 3:9, 11). St. John is also appealing here to Psalm 45, one of the great prophecies of Christ’s victory over His enemies, in which the psalmist joyously calls to Him as He rides forth conquering, and to conquer:

Gird Thy sword on Thy thigh, O Mighty One,
In Thy splendor and Thy majesty!
And in Thy majesty ride on victoriously,
For the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness;
Let Thy right hand teach Thee awesome things.

Thine arrows are sharp;
The peoples fall under Thee;
Thine arrows are in the heart of the King’s enemies.
(Ps. 45:3-5)

We should ask a rather obvious question at this point – so obvious that we are apt to miss it altogether: Where did Christ get the Bow? The answer (as is usually the case) begins in Genesis. When God made the covenant with Noah, He declared that He was no longer at war with the earth, because of the “soothing aroma” of the sacrifice (Gen. 8:20-21); and as evidence of this He unstrung His Bow and hung it up “in the Cloud” for all to see (Gen. 9:13-17). Later, when Ezekiel was “raptured” up to the Throneroom at the top of the Glory-Cloud, he saw the Bow hanging above the Throne (Ezek. 1:26-28); and it was still there when St. John ascended to heaven (Rev. 4:3). But when the Lamb stepped forward to receive the Book from His Father’s hand, He also reached up and took down the Bow, to use it in judgment against the apostates of Israel. For those who “go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of Grace? For we know Him who said: ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.’ And again: ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:26-31). It was thus necessary that the first Rider should be seen carrying the Bow of God’s vengeance, to signify the unleashing of the Curse upon Israel’s ground; for these apostates, the Noachic covenant is undone.

St. John’s first readers would immediately have understood his reference to this Rider with the Bow as speaking of Jesus Christ, on the basis of what we have already seen. But, third, there is the fact that the Rider is given a crown, and this too agrees with what we know about Christ from Revelation (14:14; 19:11-13).[8] The fourth and final point, however, should render this interpretation completely secure: the Rider goes out conquering.[9] This is the very same word in the Greek as was used in the letters to the seven churches for overcoming or conquering (see Rev. 2:7, 11, 17,26; 3:5, 12,21). Consider how the Revelation has used this word up to this point:

He who conquers, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My Throne, as I also conquered and sat down with My Father on His Throne. (3:21)

The Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so as to open the Book. (5:5)

And I looked, and behold, a white horse; and He who sat upon it had a Bow; and a crown was given to Him; and He went out conquering, and to conquer. (6:2)

It is Christ who is the Conqueror par excellence. All events in history are at His command, and it is entirely appropriate that He should be the One represented here as the leader of the judgments of God. He is the Center of history, and it is He who brings judgments upon the Land. His opening of the New Covenant guaranteed the fall of Israel; as He conquered to open the Book, so He rode out in victory to implement the meaning of the Book in history. He rode forth at His Resurrection and Ascension as the already victorious King, conquering and to conquer, extending the applications of His once-for-all, definitive victory throughout the earth. And we should take special notice of the awful judgments following in His train. The Horsemen represent the forces God always uses in breaking disobedient nations, and now they are turned against His covenant people. The same holds true, of course, for all men and nations. All attempts to find peace and safety apart from Jesus Christ are doomed to failure. The nation that will not submit will be crushed by His armies, by the historical forces that are constantly at His absolute disposal.

There are differences between this vision of Christ and that in Revelation 19. The primary reason for this is that in Chapter 19, Christ is seen with a sword proceeding out of His mouth, and the vision symbolizes His conquest of the nations after A.D. 70 with the Gospel. But that is not in view during the breaking of the seals. Here, Christ is coming against His enemies in judgment. He is coming, not to save, not to heal, but to destroy. The awful and terrifying riders who follow Him are not messengers of hope but of wrath. Israel is doomed.

3-4      The Lamb breaks the Second Seal, and St. John hears the second living creature saying: Come! In answer to the call, a rider on a blood-red horse comes forth, who is granted by God the power to take peace from the Land, and that men should slay one another; and a great sword is given to him. This second rider, standing for war, shows how utterly depraved man is. God does not have to incite men to fight against each other; He simply orders His angels to take away the conditions of peace. In a sinful world, why are there not more wars than there are? Why is there not more bloodshed? It is because there are restraints on man’s wickedness, on man’s freedom to work out the consistent implications of his hatred and rebellion. But if God removes the restraints, man’s ethical degeneracy is revealed in all its ugliness. John Calvin wrote: “The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench. But if some men occasionally make a show of good, their minds nevertheless ever remain enveloped in hypocrisy and deceitful craft, and their hearts bound by inner depravity.”[10]

All this was abundantly fulfilled in Israel and the surrounding nations during the Last Days, when the Land was filled with murderers, revolutionaries, and terrorists of every description; when “every city was divided into two armies encamped against one another, and the preservation of the one party was in the destruction of the other; so the day-time was spent in the shedding of blood, and the night in fear…. It was then common to see cities filled with dead bodies, still lying unburied, and those of old men, mixed with infants, all dead, and scattered about together; women also lay amongst them, without any covering for their nakedness; you might then see the whole province full of inexpressible calamities, while dread of still more barbarous practices which were threatened, was everywhere greater than what had been already perpetrated.”[11]

5-6      Following on the heels of war is the third angelic rider, on a black horse, holding a pair of scales in his hand, a symbol of famine from the prophecy of Ezekiel, in which the starving inhabitants of Jerusalem were forced to weigh their food carefully (Ezek. 4:10). This Horseman brings economic hardship, a situation described as completely chaotic. A voice from the center of the living creatures – i.e., from God’s Throne – says: A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine. This curse thus means a shortage of the necessary staples – a measure of wheat rising to more than 1000% of its former price, consuming an entire day’s wages,[12] so that a man’s entire labor is spent in obtaining food. This is God’s curse on men whenever they rebel: The land itself spews them out (Lev. 18:24-28; Isa. 24). The Curse devours productivity in every area, and the ungodly culture perishes through starvation, disease, and oppression (Deut. 28:15-34). This is how God controls the wicked: They must spend so much time just surviving that they are unable to exercise ungodly dominion over the earth. In the long run, this is the history of every culture that departs from God’s Word.[13]

Josephus describes the frantic search for food during the final siege: “As the famine grew worse, the frenzy of the insurgents kept pace with it, and every day both these horrors burned more fiercely. For, since nowhere was grain to be seen, men would break into houses, and if they found some they mistreated the occupants for having denied their possession of it; if they found none, they tortured them as if they had concealed it more carefully. Proof whether they had food or not was provided by the physical appearance of the wretches; those still in good condition were deemed to be well provided with food, while those who were already wasting away were passed over, for it seemed pointless to kill persons who would soon die of starvation. Many secretly bartered their possessions for a single measure of wheat if they happened to be rich, barley if they were poor. Then they shut themselves up in the darkest corners of their houses; in the extremity of hunger some even ate their grain underground, while others baked it, guided by necessity and fear. Nowhere was a table laid – the food was snatched half-cooked from the fire and torn into pieces.”[14]

On the other hand, however, in this specific curse on Jerusalem the luxuries of oil and wine are unaffected by the general price rise; the black Horseman is forbidden to touch them. The scales are the sign of Libra, spanning September and October; Farrer surmises that if the grain harvest failed in April and May, “men might begin to tighten their belts in October. They would then be just finishing the fruit-gathering, and might observe the irony of nature, that grapes and olives had gone unscathed; of the traditional triad corn, wine, and oil, corn, at a pinch, will keep you alive without the other two, but not they without the corn.”[15] In all likelihood, another dimension of this expression’s import is that God’s messengers of destruction are kept from harming the righteous: Scripture often speaks of God’s blessings upon the righteous in terms of oil and wine (cf. Ps. 104:15); and, of course, oil and wine are used in the rites of the Church (James 5:14-15; 1 Cor. 11:25). This would then parallel those other passages in which the godly are protected from destruction (cf. 7:3).

7-8      Finally, the Fourth Seal is broken, and the fourth living creature calls up the last Horseman of judgment, who rides a green horse – the green color[16] connoting a sickly pallor, a presage of death. Thus the fourth rider, with a much broader and more comprehensive commission, is named Death; and he is followed by Hades (the grave) – both having been set loose by the Son of Man, who unlocked them with His key (1:18). And authority was given to him to bring four plagues upon the four-cornered Land: to kill with sword and with famine and with death and by the wild beasts of the Land. This is simply a summary of all the covenantal curses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Moreover, it parallels God’s listing of His four basic categories of curses with which He punishes ungodly and disobedient nations – “My four severe judgments against Jerusalem: sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague to cut off man and beast from it!” (Ezek. 14:21; cf. Ezek. 5:17). At this preliminary stage, however – and in keeping with the “fourness” of the passage as a whole – Death and the grave are given authority to swallow up only a fourth of the Land. The Trumpet-judgments will take a third of the Land (cf. 8:7-12), and the Chalice-judgments will devastate it all.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle to a correct interpretation of this passage has been that commentators and preachers have been afraid and unable to see that it is God who is bringing forth these judgments upon the Land – that they are called forth from the Throne, and that the messengers of judgment are the very angels of God. Especially vicious and harmful is any interpretation which seems to pit the Son of God against the court of heaven, so that the curses recorded here are seen as somehow beneath His character. But it is Jesus, the Lamb, who breaks the seals of judgment, and it is Jesus, the King of kings, who rides out in conquest, leading the angelic armies against the nations, to destroy those who rebel against His universal rule.

It was crucial for the early Christians to understand this, for these judgments were even then breaking loose upon their world. In every age, Christians must face the world with confidence, with the unshakable conviction that all events in history are predestined, originating from the Throne of God. When we see the world convulsed with wars, famines, plagues and natural disasters, we must say, with the Psalmist, “Come, behold the works of the LORD, who has wrought desolations in the earth” (Ps. 46:8). Ultimately, the Christian’s attitude toward God’s judgments upon a wicked world is the same as that of the four living creatures around the Throne, who joyfully call out to God’s messengers of judgment: “Come!” We too, in our prayers, are to plead with God to bring down His wrath on the ungodly, to manifest His righteousness in the earth. Faced with these awesome revelations of judgment, what is our proper response? We are told, in 22:17: The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!”


The Martyrs Avenged (6:9-17)


  1. And when He broke 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;
  2. and they cried out with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the Land?
  3. 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, should be completed also.
  4. And I looked when He broke 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;
  5. and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind.
  6. And the heaven vanished like a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
  7. And 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;
  8. 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;
  9. for the great Day of His wrath has come; and who is able to stand?

9-10    For the first-century readers of this book, the tribulations depicted in it were becoming all too real: Each church would soon know the anguish of having some of its most forthright and able leaders imprisoned and executed because of the Word of God, and because of the Testimony which they had maintained. For many Christians, all across the empire, the coming months and years would involve great distress, as families would be separated and loved ones killed. When tragedy strikes, we are tempted to ask: Does God care? This question is especially intense when the pain is caused by vicious enemies of the faith bent on destroying God’s people, and the injustice of the suffering becomes apparent. If Christians were truly the servants of the King, when would He act? When would He come to punish the apostates who had first used the power of the Roman State to crucify the Lord, and now were using that same power to kill and crucify the “prophets and wise men and scribes” (Matt. 23:34) whom Christ had sent?

Thus the breaking of the Fifth Seal reveals a scene in heaven, where the souls of those who had been slain are underneath, or around the base of, the altar. The image is taken from the Old Testament sacrifices, in which the blood of the slain victim would stream down the sides of the altar and form into a pool around its base (“the soul [Heb. nepheshl of the flesh is in the blood,” Lev. 17:11).[17] The blood of the martyrs has been poured out (cf. 2 Tim. 4:6), and as it fills the trench below the altar it cries out from the ground with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood upon those who dwell on the Land? The Church in heaven agrees with the cherubim in calling forth God’s judgments: How long? is a standard phrase throughout Scripture for invoking divine justice for the oppressed (cf. Ps. 6:3; 13:1-2; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 89:46; 90:13; 94:3-4; Hab. 1:2; 2:6). The particular background for its use here, however, is again in the prophecy of Zechariah (1:12): After the Four Horsemen have patrolled through the earth, the angel asks, “O LORD of Hosts, how long wilt Thou have no compassion for Jerusalem?” St. John reverses this. After his Four Horsemen have been sent on their mission, he shows the martyrs asking how long God will continue to put up with Jerusalem. St. John’s readers would not have failed to notice another subtle point: If the martyrs’ blood is flowing around the base of the altar, it must be the priests of Jerusalem who have spilled it. The officers of the Covenant have slain the righteous. As Jesus and the apostles testified, Jerusalem was the murderer of the prophets (Matt. 23:34-37; Luke 13:33; Acts 7:51-52). The connection with “the blood of Abel” crying out from the ground near the altar (Gen. 4:10) is another indication that this passage as a whole refers to judgment upon Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 23:35-37). Like Cain, the “older brothers” of the Old Covenant envied and murdered their righteous “younger brothers” of the New Covenant (cf. 1 John 3:11-12). And so the blood of the righteous cries out: The saints pray that Christ’s prophecy of “the days of vengeance” (Luke 21:22) will be fulfilled.

That this blunt cry for vengeance strikes us as strange just shows how far our pietistic age has degenerated from the Biblical worldview. If our churches were more acquainted with the foundational hymnbook of the Church, the Psalms, instead of the sugary, syrupy, sweetness-and-light choruses that characterize modem evangelical hymnals, we would understand this much easier. But we have fallen under a pagan delusion that it is somehow “unchristian” to pray for God’s wrath to be poured out upon the enemies and persecutors of the Church. Yet that is what we see God’s people doing, with God’s approval, in both Testaments of the Holy Scriptures.[18] It is, in fact, a characteristic of the godly man that he despises the reprobate (Ps. 15:4). The spirit expressed in the imprecatory prayers of Scripture is a necessary aspect of the Christian’s attitude (cf. 2 Tim. 4:14). Much of the impotence of the churches today is directly attributable to the fact that they have become emasculated and effeminate. Such churches, unable even to confront evil – much less “overcome” it – will eventually be captured and dominated by their enemies.

11       The righteous and faithful saints in heaven are recognized as kings and priests of God, and thus there is given to each of them a white robe, symbolizing God’s acknowledgment of their purity before Him, a symbol of the victory of the overcomers (cf. 3:4-5). The whiteness of the robe is part of a pattern already set up in Revelation (the Seven Letters) in which the last three items in a sevenfold structure match the first four items. Thus:

First Seal: White horse                                  Fifth Seal: White robes

Second Seal: Red horse                                 Sixth Seal: Moon like blood

Third Seal: Black horse                                 Sun black

Fourth Seal: Green horse                              Seventh Seal: Green grass burned

In answer to the saints’ plea for vengeance, God answers 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, should be completed also. The full number of martyrs has not yet been completed; the full iniquity of their persecutors has not yet been reached (cf. Gen. 15:16), although it is fast approaching the doom of God’s “wrath to the uttermost” being poured out upon them (1 Thess. 2:14-16). We must remember that the primary application of this has to do with apostate Israel – those who dwell on the Land – which (in cooperation with the Roman authorities) was murdering the saints. The martyrs are instructed to wait a little while, and God’s judgment will assuredly strike, bringing the promised “Great Tribulation” upon covenant-breaking Israel.

12-14 As the Sixth Seal is broken, we are more clearly brought into the closing events of the Last Days. The Lamb reveals the next great aspect of His covenantal judgments, in a symbol often used in Biblical prophecy: de-creation. Just as the salvation of God’s people is spoken of in terms of creation (cf. 2 Cor. 4:6; 5:17; Eph. 2:10; 4:24; Col. 3:10),[19] so God’s judgments (and the revelation of His presence as Judge over a sinful world) are spoken of in terms of de-creation, the collapse of the universe – God ripping apart and dissolving the fabric of creation.[20] Thus St. John uses the fundamental structures of creation in describing the fall of Israel:

  1. Earth
    2. Sun
    3. Moon
    4. Stars
    5. Firmament
    6. Land
  2. Man

These seven judgments are detailed in terms of the familiar prophetic imagery of the Old Testament. First, destabilization: a giant earthquake (cf. Ex. 19:18; Ps. 18:7, 15; 60:2; Isa. 13:13-14; 24:19-20; Nah. 1:5). Second, the eclipse and mourning of Israel: The sun became black as sackcloth made of hair (Ex. 10:21-23; Job 9:7; Isa. 5:30; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Mic. 3:6). Third, the continued image of an eclipse, with the idea of defilement added: The whole moon became like blood (Job 25:5; Isa. 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31). The fourth judgment affects the stars, which are images of government (Gen. 1:16); they are also clocks (Gen. 1:14), and their fall shows that Israel’s time has run out: The stars fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind (Job 9:7; Eccl. 12:2; Isa. 13:10; 34:4; Ezek. 32:8; Dan. 8:10; Joel 2:10; 3:15); the great wind, of course, was brought by the Four Horsemen, who in Zechariah’s original imagery were the Four Winds (Zech. 6:5), and who will be reintroduced to St. John in that form in 7:1; and the fig tree is Israel herself (Matt. 21:19; 24:32-34; Luke 21:29-32). Fifth, Israel now simply disappears: The heaven vanished like a scroll when it is rolled up[21] (Isa. 34:4; 51:6; Ps. 102:25-26; on the symbolism of Israel as “heaven,” see Isa. 51:15-16; Jer. 4:23-31; cf. Heb. 12:26-27). Sixth, the Gentile powers are shaken as well: Every mountain and island were moved out of their places (Job 9:5-6; 14:18-19; 28:9-11; Isa. 41:5, 15-16; Ezek. 38:20; Nah. 1:4-8; Zeph. 2:11).[22] God’s “old creation,” Israel, is thus to be de-created, as the Kingdom is transferred to the Church, the New Creation (cf. 2 Pet. 3:7-14). Because the rulers in God’s Vineyard have killed His Son, they too will be killed (Matt. 21:33-45). The Vineyard itself will be broken down, destroyed, and laid waste (Isa. 5:1-7). In God’s righteous destruction of Israel, He will shake even heaven and earth (Matt. 24:29-30; Heb. 12:26-28) in order to deliver His Kingdom over to His new nation, the Church.

15-17 Old Testament prophetic imagery is still in view as St. John here describes the apostates under judgment. This is the seventh phase of de-creation: the destruction of men. But this seventh item in the list opens up to reveal another “seven” within it Gust as the Seventh Seal and Seventh Trumpet each contains the next set of seven judgments), for seven classes of men are named here, showing that the destruction is total, affecting small and great alike: the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man. None will be able to escape, regardless of either privileged status or insignificance. The whole Land has rejected Christ, and the whole Land is being excommunicated. Again, the parallels show that the judgment upon Israel is intended by this prophecy (cf. Isa. 2 and 24-27), although other nations (“the kings of the earth”) will be affected as well.

As the earth is de-created, and the mediating natural revelation is removed – placing sinners face-to-face with the bare revelation of the holy and righteous God – the men of Israel attempt to flee and to seek protection in anything that might seem to offer refuge. Flight underground and into caves is a sign of being under a curse (cf. Gen. 19:30-38). Thus they hid themselves (cf. Gen. 3:8) in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains (the lex talionis for their mistreatment of the righteous: Heb. 11:38; cf. Jud. 7:25),[23] 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; for the great day of His wrath has come;[24] and (Nah. 1:6; Mal. 3:2) who is able to stand? The interpretation given here is again confirmed: This passage is not speaking of the End of the World, but of the End of Israel in A.D. 70. The origin of the symbolism used here is in the prophecy of Hosea against Israel:

Ephraim will be seized with shame,
And Israel will be ashamed of its own counsel.
Samaria will be cut off with her king,
Like a stick on the surface of the water.

Also, the high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, will be destroyed;
Thorn and thistle will grow on their altars.
Then they will say to the mountains: Cover us!
And to the hills: Fall on us! (Hos. 10:6-8)

Jesus cited this text on His way to the crucifixion, stating that it would be fulfilled upon idolatrous Israel within the lifetimes of those who were then present:

And there were following Him a great multitude of the people, and of women who were mourning and lamenting Him. But Jesus turning to them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say: Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed. Then they will begin to say to the mountains: Fall on us! and to the hills: Cover us! (Luke 23:27-30)

As the churches in Asia Minor were first reading this vision, the prophesied judgments were already taking place; the final End was fast approaching. The generation that had rejected the Landlord’s Son (cf. Matt. 21:33-45) would soon be screaming these very words. The crucified and resurrected Lord was coming to destroy the apostates. This was to be the great Day of the outpoured wrath of the Lamb, whom they had slain.

[1] R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), Vol. I, p. 158.

[2] Milton Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ in the Canonical Scriptures (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1898), pp. 329f.

[3] M. D. Goulder, The Evangelists’ Calendar: A Lectionary Explanation for the Development of Scripture (London: SPCK, 1978), p. 177.

[4] Contrary to the reading in the King James Version, which is not supported by most manuscripts.

[5] 1 Cor. 16:22 (cf. Rev. 6:10); according to the Didache (Ch. 10), Maranatha was repeated at the end of the Eucharistic liturgy. If John A. T. Robinson’s hypothesis is correct (that the Didache was written in A.D. 40-60), this represents the closing prayer of every worship service for decades prior to the Fall of Jerusalem. See his Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 324-27, 352.

[6] This is not true of all Dispensationalists. Among the dissenters on this point I am happy to note Henry Morris, The Revelation Record (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1983), p. 112, and Zane C. Hodges, “The First Horseman of the Apocalypse,” Bibliotheca Sacra 119 (962), pp. 324ff.

[7] There’s a New World Coming: A Prophetic Odyssey (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1973), p. 103.

[8] This word for crown (stephanos) is used seven times in Revelation with reference to Christ and His people (2:10; 3:11; 4:4, 10; 6:2; 12:1; 14:14).

[9] Cf. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, iv.xxi.3.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ii.v.19, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 340.

[11] Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, ii.xviii.2; to gain an accurate (and thus horrifying) picture of how closely the prophecies in Revelation and the Synoptic Gospels parallel the events of Israel’s Last Days, leading up to Titus’s siege of Jerusalem, it is necessary to read Books ii-iv of Josephus’ history.

[12] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), p. 155.

[13] See David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators: A Biblical Response to Ronald J. Sider (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, third ed., 1985), pp. 92ff.

[14] Josephus, The Jewish War, v.x.2.

[15] Austin Farrer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 100. J. Massyngberde Ford mentions an order by Titus during the siege of Jerusalem that olive groves and vineyards were not to be disturbed (Revelation: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary [Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1975], p. 107).

[16] The Greek word is chloros, and simply means green; it is used two more times in Revelation (8:7; 9:4), and once in Mark (6:39). Translators have usually rendered it as pale, apparently under the firm conviction that, since there is no such thing as a green horse, St. John could not possibly have seen one.

[17] See Rousas John Rushdoony. Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press. [1970] 1978), p. 145.

[18] See, e.g., Ps. 5, 7, 35, 58, 59, 68, 69, 73, 79,83,109,137, 140. The common term for these and other passages is Imprecatory Psalms; such an expression can be misleading, however, since most of the Psalms have imprecatory sections (curses) in them (cf. Ps. 1:4-6; 3:7; 6:8-10; 34:16; 37:12-15; 54:7; 104:35; 139:19-22), and all the Psalms are implicitly imprecatory, in that the blessings of the righteous are mentioned with the corollary assumed: The wicked are cursed.

[19] See David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1985), pp. 22ff.

[20] See ibid., pp. 98ff., 133ff.

[21] Referring to the Biblical imagery (cf. Gen.1:7) of a “solid” sky, Ford explains: “Heaven’s having been ‘wrenched apart like a scroll that is rolled up’ leads to an image not of a papyrus or leather roll but rather a scroll like the two copper ones found in Qumran. The idea of noise is conveyed more dramatically if the reader is meant to picture a metal scroll suddenly snapping shut.” J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1975), p. 100.

[22] In contrast to popular interpretations of the texts which speak of faith moving mountains (Matt. 17:20; 21:21; Mark 11:23), it should be noted that this expression occurs in passages which speak of the coming judgment upon, and fall of, apostate Jerusalem. Jerusalem is often called “the mountain” in Scripture (e.g. Dan. 9:16); thus the saints at the altar (6:9-11) are pictured as crying out, in faith, for this great mountain to fall down. Jerusalem’s destruction is accordingly portrayed, in part, as a burning mountain being cast into the sea (8:8; cf. Zech. 14:4).

[23] See James B. Jordan, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985), pp. 114, 140.

[24] G. B. Caird attains the breathtaking ne plus ultra of absurd commentary with his astounding assertion that “the wrath of God in the Revelation, as elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments, represents not the personal attitude of God towards sinners, but an impersonal process of retribution working itself out in the course of history.” A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966). p. 91.