06. The Seven Seals
(Revelation 6v1 – 8v1)
I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there 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 among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
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?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
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?”
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel…
…After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:
“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
In the last chapter, John introduced us to a central, symbolic detail in his story: a mysterious scroll (5v1). This classified document at the center of heaven seems hold the answers to every question humanity could ask… like “the will of God” in parchment form. The toughest questions we can ask about the world or our individual lives would find their answer in this scroll. Questions like:
When will God do something about a broken world? When will God do something about human suffering—especially the suffering of those who love God? When will God do something to make everything right?
There’s a theme emerging:
“When will God do something?”
We’re all interested in this scroll. Most of us have experienced excruciating moments or painful seasons where we’ve cried out: “When are you going to do something, God? And things are such a mess—what could you possibly do to make things new?”
John began despairing when he realized that these questions are so heavy—this scroll is such a classified document—that no one will ever be able to read it. Imagine opening your mailbox to find an envelope with revolutionary, life-changing information inside… but somehow it’s impossible to open. That’s the picture. In the ancient world, before you could read a scroll, you had to break the bits of wax sealing it shut. But no one is weighty or worthy enough to break these seals and make sense of this scroll.
But then John is told, “Do not despair! Do not weep!” Someone who CAN read this scroll—the Lamb. The king who conquers by crucifixion can make sense of the world and our lives. And so Revelation 6 & 7 describe the process of breaking the seals to open this scroll.
“When will God do something?” we ask.
“Just watch,” John says, “Jesus will make sense of the world.”
Chapter 6 begins with possibly the craziest cluster of verses in the Bible. As the Lamb begins breaking into the scroll to discover God’s plan for the world, all hell starts breaking loose. The small, unassuming scroll quickly becomes a blockbuster set-piece.
As the first four seals are broken, the four horsemen of the apocalypse materialize. Four colorful horses gallop forth, affecting the world on a massive scale.
Since most of us are unfamiliar to this genre (first-century apocalyptic), we’ve got to keep reminding ourselves, that Revelation is full of pictures and symbolism. These are not literal horses or riders… scholars agree that they’re symbolic images. And these first four broken seals bursting forth as horses seem to represent the evils of human history.
That makes sense on some level. We ask many of our questions precisely because of evil within human history. These “seals” stop “the scroll” from “being read.” These horses ride against God’s purposes in the world. Choose your metaphor, but the puzzling problem remains the same: our world hemorrhages with darkness, and we want to know what God is going to do.
Any revelation of God’s purposes has got to honestly address our frequently nightmarish world. The Lamb must confront human history’s miserable misadventures before anyone can read the scroll. And these horsemen certainly seem to embody some of the world’s most profound, persistent, and painful problems.
In the white horse (6v2), we find the human desire to conquer other humans—everything from the conquest of Alexander the Great to Hitler invading Poland.1
And how do people conquer other people? Why, the red horse (6v4), of course! The horse of blood and fire and the hatred of war.
But conquering tyrants often don’t concern themselves with the scales of justice—with sustainable systems to make sure everyone’s needs are met. And so the black horse of famine (6v5) follows. When the prices of food (like wheat or barley, 6v6) skyrocket to twelve times the normal cost,2 the greed of the powerful says, “As long as it doesn’t touch my luxury—the oil and wine and the new iPhone—I don’t care about rampant inflation or food shortages or economic injustice.”
And eventually comes the pale green horse (6v8) with its rider “Sickness” or “Death.”3 Death personified rides this horse and Hades—the Greek underworld and prison of the dead—follows closely behind.
The Lamb begins to break through the first four seals, and as we get closer to the scroll being opened—as we approach an answer—things are getting worse. Conquerings and war and economic injustice and pestilent death run amok.
And what seems deeply troubling about it all is how God himself seems to be welcoming it. Almost inviting it. Did you notice how the four living creatures around the throne (those creatures that seem to embody all of creation) keep saying “come”?4
The Lamb seems to invite the Horses.
If this isn’t our lived experience, I don’t know what is. God—who ought to be healing the world—frequently seems to be allowing the opposite. Why would those around the throne be welcoming the worst? We’ll have to address this in later chapters… it’s simply an open question at this point in John’s story.
As the Lamb begins to open the scroll, it’s like all the chaos and terror and heartache of human history begins to unfold before us.
Which eventually begs the question: “What in the name of heaven and earth is going on? Sweet and merciful God—how much longer?” Which leads us to fifth seal (6v9).
When the fifth seal is broken, instead of seeing a fifth horse materialize, we see something different. John’s vision leaves the number of horses at the wonderfully symbolic number of “four.”5 Instead, he sees the souls of those committed to Jesus under some kind of altar in heaven. They’re asking “God, when are you going to judge? When will you right the wrongs of the world?” Instead of a symbolic picture of evil’s perpetrators, we’re shown a symbolic picture of evil’s victims.
Christians killed by tyrants or various local persecutions are pictured as under an altar in heaven. That seems a strange place for them to be until we remember where the blood of sacrifice would drain—it would trickle down to “under the altar.” And so those who have joined Jesus in suffering the brutal, beautiful of love in a world of hatred are pictured as sacrificing their lives for the Lamb.
They won’t be at peace until justice is done in the world,6 yet despite all appearances they are safe. And they’re doing what the people of God always do: they’re asking tough questions of God—praying through the world’s toughest questions. They sound like the psalms:
“How long, Sovereign Lord?”
“What is going on? How do we make sense of this?”
“God, when are you going to show up and do something?”
There are no questions off-limits to the church. One task for the people of God is cultivating communities that are ruthlessly vulnerable, brutally honest, incredibly realistic. The saints are nothing if not honest about the world, prayerfully exploring those things that seem to make no sense.
And while the Christian “martyrs” (or “witnesses”) are asking their tough questions, some wild stuff beings to happen. The sixth seal gets broken, and the story sounds like we’re approaching the end of the world. The language talks about a great earthquake, the sun turning black, the moon becoming like blood, stars falling like figs, the sky rolling up like a scroll, mountains fleeing, islands vanishing (6v12-14)… and it’s probably like the language of horses—symbolic images.
I mean, if we try to read this like a literal happenings or predictions, things unravel immediately. People hide in the rocks of the mountains (6v15) but the mountains were just removed (6v14). On a strictly literal level, the images don’t make much sense.
The language sounds like the end of the world—maybe the end of the space-time universe—because that’s often the way the prophets of Israel talked about God showing up and doing something.7 When Isaiah or Ezekiel or Joel talk like this—and they do—they weren’t talking about the end of the universe. They used earth-shattering, world-falling-apart kind of language to talk about God showing up and doing something. This seems like John raiding the prophets’ verbal warehouse for adequate language to talk about God beginning to act.
And this symbolic language points to the reality that there are evidently all kinds of people who don’t want God to do anything. People across the spectrum who want nothing to do with Justice or Truth or Love or Beauty. They’re actually afraid of a good and loving God bringing his good and loving judgment to the world. They decry his action “the wrath of the Lamb” (v16).
They’re afraid of the Lamb—afraid of Love.
So in the fifth seal we’ve got a group of people crying out to the God of self-giving love, asking him to heal the world. And in the sixth seal we find another group who (if they got honest) don’t want it. They don’t want the Lamb to burn away everything that is not love.
You couldn’t guess who they are—they come from all walks of life8—but they would rather live in a world full of war, economic injustice, and death than see Love come remake the world.
They prefer the Horses over the Lamb.
A world of death over a world of life.
When we survey all the evils of the world—everything blocking God’s purposes in the world—the corruption of the human heart might be the hardest seal to break. We’d rather hide from the Lamb than permit him to heal us.
People from all walks of life are shouting: “The judgment of God—who can withstand this?” (6v17). But the vision immediately gives us an answer as chapter seven begins. It’s an answer in super symbolic language, but it’s definitely an answer:
We find a group of heavenly beings seeming to prepare for the actual end of the world that may come when the seventh seal is broken (7v1), but then we hear an angel crying out: “With all these seals being broken, we need to seal those who are going to make it” (7v2-3).
In the ancient world, globs of wax stamped with a personalized mark could seal a scroll shut, but they could also simply show ownership. A king might put his unique and royal seal on a public decree so everyone knew it to be legitimate.
And so we suddenly overhear a group of angels saying, “You know, we should probably mark out those who ARE going to make it. We should glob them, stamp them, seal them.9There are a lot of people who WILL withstand this.”
And so they glob, stamp, and seal a super-symbolic number:
one hundred forty-four thousand (7v4-8).
12 x 12 x1,000 = 144,000.
Like the people of God counted on crack.10
And it reads like one of those army roll-calls we find in the Old Testament.11 It’s like heaven hears the twisted question “Who can withstand Love remaking the world?” and answers: “There’s an entire army of people that will withstand it.”
And If we need any convincing that 144,000 is a symbolic number, we should pay careful to the difference between hearing and seeing.12 John hears 144,000 being sealed (7v4) but when John looks what he actually sees is more people than anyone could count (7v9):
A massive, uncountable army of people
longing to see a world remade by Love.
They’re looking for a world with no going hungry or thirsty—with no tears, with no death (7v15-17). A world ruled by the Lamb and not by Horses. They’re not hiding from the Lamb. On the contrary—they’ve joined his suffering love, they embrace the “great tribulation,” and find themselves made clean by his blood (7v14). They sing the Lamb’s praises.13
And then we finally reach what should be THE decisive moment: the breaking of the seventh seal (8v1). There’s been such a dramatic interlude between the sixth and the seventh… almost like John is building anticipation to breaking point. But when we finally get to the seventh seal…
…and then we’re surprised. We have to wait.
(8v1) “When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”
With every barrier to God’s purposes finally broken, we expect sound and fury and shock and awe. But we actually find is silence… and a little more waiting.
There’s something genius about this because it’s just like our lives. We almost don’t need to read about people waiting, longing, and asking, “God, how long until you do something?!”
We all live it. We see chaos galloping all around us, and we trust that God is going to do something—at a particular moment in time—in a particular way…
…and then God surprises us.
We expect God to save our world immediately—what’s taking so long?— the scroll is unsealed!—surely everything is ready!!—and we’re left hanging. There’s silence. We’ve got to wait a little longer. God’s unfolding plan takes a bit longer than we anticipated. Even the souls under the altar in heaven longing for justice are told to wait a little longer while a few more Christians die (6v11). That’s not exactly what I expected.
“But make no mistake,” Revelation insists,
“God IS saving the world.”
It’s just never HOW we expected
and never WHEN we expected.
Faithfully following Jesus frequently means waiting a little longer. Sometimes that means sitting in silence. We’re faithfully living, faithfully dying, faithfully praying—and we’ve still got to wait. There are no shortcuts. The life of faith often means faithfully staying the course and waiting—even when heaven says “wait.” And even when heaven is silent.
If that’s where you are right now—like your world is getting worse, like heaven is silent, like God’s plans are forever coming and never arriving, take heart. God has better plans than we can imagine. We won’t be silence forever. It’s only half an hour.14
Sometimes waiting a little longer also means sitting in suffering. Intricate theories about Revelation and the end of the world argue us that God will spare his people from “suffering” (or “tribulation”). But it’s worth noting that everyone in the uncountable singing army comes out of “The Great Suffering” (7v14).
If anyone ever implied that giving devotion to Jesus could help you escape all suffering, they were dead wrong. In fact, Revelation seems to imply God may be most deeply work when the world seems most falling apart. When “the Great Suffering” arrives in our lives, we can run or hide or rebel in fear of Love… or we can trust that Love is actually at work.
In suffering, we’re invited to open ourselves further to him—to his love, to his ever-present grace—and patiently allow him to make us more like him. This is the sacred mystery and severe mercy: Jesus does not save us from suffering; he frequently saves us through it. He breaks down our pride, crucifies our self-sufficiency, breaks through our defenses, and resurrects us through the cross.
Even when earth is suffering.
Even when heaven is silent.
“But make no mistake, ” insists Revelation,
“God is already at work… God is already saving.”
Lamb on the Throne, create in me a heart that longs for your good judgment to break barriers into the world. Come quickly to banish the galloping forces of evil and burn away all that is not love. Teach me patience in silence and suffering, and give me eyes to recognize your always-surprising rescue. May my life be defined by the news that God claims me in Jesus, and may I sing his praises until everything is made new.
- It’s sometimes thought that perhaps the first rider could be Jesus (or “the gospel”) riding forth since later Jesus is depicted riding a white horse (19.11). This, however, is ultimately unsatisfying, since it breaks up this fourfold, thoroughly negative unit. It’s better to see Jesus appearance later as the “true and better” conquerer.
- Beale, 381: “The prices listed here are about eight to sixteen times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time.” That’s like milk costing $25 a gallon or bread costing $36 a loaf.
- “Thanatos” is Greek for “death” but was also the word used for a pestilent disease. We do this too in English when we call the medieval bubonic plague “The Black Death.”
- Rev 6.1, 3, 5, 7.
- The number 4 tends to be a symbolic indictor of wide-sweeping, inclusive completeness within creation. Think about it like the 4 corners of a map or 4 cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west.
- This is more evidence that John’s vision of heaven is not in the future but more like a “backstage” occurring simultaneously with history. Christians who have been killed (6.9) by cruel tyrants or local persecution are “in heaven” but not at peace yet. These martyrs await universal justice.
- If you’re looking to explore this, check out Isa 13:10-13; 24.1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Ezek 32.6-8; Joel 2.10, 30-31; 3.15-16; Hab 3.6-11. Most of the wild images in these prophetic passages “refer to the historical end of a sinful nation’s existence occurring through divine judgment” usually through military conquest of one nation against another (Beale, 397). The strong language conveys the seriousness of God at work.
- Rev 19:18-19 depicts this same group of people as be allied with “the beast.” They seem to be a sampling of the “all kinds of people” who prefer death (the horses, the Beast, etc) to life.
- The stories of both Exodus 12 (Passover) and Ezekiel 9 (marking foreheads) seem to be in the background here.
- The number 12 tends to God’s people (especially in a complete sense), while 1,000 (and its multiples) tends to serve as a symbolic multiplier. The complete people of God. And make it bigger.
- The list here resembles a military census of the kind we see in Numbers 1-2. When the 144,000 reappear in ch 14, they are described symbolically as a victorious, ritually pure army (that comment about “virgins” in v4, compare. Dest 23.9-10, 1 Sam 21.5; 2 Sam 11.8-11).
- John has already used this technique of upending our expectations in 5.5-6, where he hears about the Lion of Judah but sees a slaughtered-but-standing Lamb.
- Their song is a remix of Isaiah’s prophetic songs: Isa 49.9-10 and Isa 25.7-8.
- “The term ‘half-an-hour’ has no obvious mystical or symbolic meaning, although Henry Swete’s simple explanation is attractive: ‘Half-an-hour, though a relatively short time, is a long interval in a drama and makes an impressive break between the Seals and the Trumpets.’ We can perhaps imagine the lector pausing at this point for dramatic effect: the hearers naturally want to find out what will happen next. While time may be scrambled in the Apocalypse, it still rehearses a story, like our own lives, a sequence of happenings that can only be lived and told in time.” (Joseph Mangina, Revelation)