Revelation 6 – Divine Judgments on Empires

The Lamb, having taken the book of prophetic judgment from the hand of God, now begins to open it by breaking the seals. Systematically, the Lamb breaks one seal after another–six in Revelation 6. As each seal is opened John hears and sees a variety of images that evidence divine judgment or are related in some way to that judgment. These images are not the content of the book but rather a series of symbolic enactments that dramatize the process of opening the book. The Lamb is only breaking the seals at this point rather than opening the book itself. The symbolic enactments, however, point to the disintegration of world order and the (re)introduction of chaos into human society. At one level, the Pax Romana is on the verge of dissolution.

The vision unfolds in a pattern of 6+Interlude+1. Six seals are broken in consecutive fashion, but then there is a lengthy interlude (7:1-17) before the seventh seal is broken (8:1-5). While the first six seals portray divine judgment, the interlude answers the question “who can stand the day of wrath” that appears in the last words of chapter 6 (6:17). The prospect of divine wrath (chapter 6) is followed by the assurance of divine love for the people of God (chapter 7).

The Symbolism of the Six Seals

At this point interpretations begin to vary widely. Historicists believe the seals picture the fall of the Roman Empire while Preterists attempt to identify specific seals with specific events relating to the destruction of Jerusalem or the fall of the Roman Empire (depending on how they date the Apocalypse). Futurists generally connect the seals to the Great Tribulation that occurs prior to the second coming of Jesus and many interpreters see allusions to specific contemporary realities (e.g., “red” = Russia or “large sword” = nuclear weapons). Idealists understand the dramatic progression of the seals, trumpets, and bowls as apocalyptic symbols of the recurring conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers without attempting to identify any specific relation to any particular Empire though the battle at the time of the Apocalypse is between Rome and the kingdom of God.

Some futurists, for example, believe the first seal is the beginning of a yet future Tribulation period (based on 7:9ff). But this isolates the text from its first century moorings and disconnects the martyrs in 6:9-11 from the setting of the seven churches of Asia. The seals must, in some way, relate to the social setting of the seven churches rather than merely predict some  specific distant future moment in history.

How one interprets the six seals depends on how one approaches the Apocalypse as a whole and how one understands the unfolding drama.  My own perspective is that the seven churches of Asia Minor find themselves in conflict with Roman claims, power, and imperial religion. Our interpretation must begin with that. The power of the language and its meaning must connect with the immediate audience of this book. As an Apocalypse, however, it addresses a wider audience in terms of its theology, philosophy of history, and the world conflict between God and Satan. My perspective, therefore, is a combination of a preterist-idealist vision.

The Apocalypse offers thoroughly apocalyptic and theological account of the conflict between the church and Rome, but it embedded in that account is the recurring conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers in the future. The Apocalypse offers a theological account of how the kingdom of God relates to world powers by confronting the late first century church with a call to faithful witness in the midst of Roman Empire. Consequently, the Apocalypse is not so much interested in the recounting of history (and thus we should not seek to identify specific symbols with historical events in the first century or twenty-first century) as it is describing the world in which we live where world powers oppose the kingdom of God.

1. The Archer on a White Horse: Conquest.

When the Lamb opens the first seal, one of the four living creatures thundered “Come.” Or, perhaps better rendered, “go and do your thing” as a passive imperative (Fair, Conquering with Christ, 187). This is this divine permission for what is about to happen as is also indicated by the phrase “was given.” Though what follows in the six seals is chaotic, violent, and destructive, God nevertheless is sovereign over it. God permits it, oversees it, and delimits it (only a 1/4 of the earth is affected).

Since it is the Lamb who opens the seal, the rider on the white horse is not the Lamb himself. Though Christ appears on a White horse in Revelation 19:11, this scene is not that one. Rather, this is one of four horses, and this rider carries a bow rather than a sword. The scene in Revelation 19 is climactic, but here the judgment of the six seals is just the beginning.

Instead, the rider on the white horse represents a conquering ruler. This is clear from the conquest language (6:2) and the victory wreath (stephanos). The picture is conquest. It is the disturbance of the Pax Romana, and it is the destiny of all empires–they, too, will be conquered. The bow may allude to Rome’s enemies as the Parthians in the East were a major threat to the Empire in the first centuries CE, but this would only symbolize all of Roman’s opponents rather than identify any specific one.

2.  The Sword-Wielding Rider on a Red Horse:  War.

The second living creature releases (“Come”) a rider on a red horse. The red horse symbolizes bloodshed as the presence of the sword-wielding rider indicates. The rider is given a “large sword” which does not remain inactive. Rather, the rider “was given” (divine permission) the ability to foment war. He removes peace with the result or for the purpose that human beings will kill (slaughter) each other.

3.  The Inflationary Rider on a Black Horse: Famine.

The third living creature releases (“Come”) a rider on a black horse. Since the rider has a pair of scales in his hands, the color probably represents the economic hardship which includes inflationary prices. The amount of wheat and barley available for a day’s wage would only feed a single mouth. Day laborers and their families, then, would ultimately starve. At the same time, the wealthy would continue to feast with their wine. The symbolism might point us to the economic oppression that the wealthy inflict on the poor as they control the markets and prices.

4.  Death Riding on a Pale Horse: Hades.

The fourth living creature releases (“Come”) death itself on a pale horse with Hades close behind. Death exercises control over 1/4 of humanity through a variety of means: sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. In some ways the fourth rider summarizes the effect of th first three and extends it to other dimensions (pestilence and beasts). The first four seals, then, form a unit of sorts where the primary point is the release of chaotic forces that undermine the “peace and safety” of the Pax Romana, and that of all Empires. No Empire controls the chaos of disease, natural disasters, or even war. Death always comes, even to the greatest Empires.

5.  Martyrs Seek Justice at the Altar: Lament.

When the Lamb opens the fifth seal, nothing is released but rather John sees something that he had not previously noticed. He sees martyred saints “under the altar.” Like the Lamb himself, they had been slaughtered (same Greek verb as in Revelation 5:6, 9). Though many have seen the altar as a reference to the martyr’s sacrifice of their lives, it is better to see the altar as an allusion to the ancient practice of asylum where victims seek justice on the horns of the altar (cf. Oster; Stevenson, Slaughtered Lamb, 143-9). Stevenson suggests that the altar imagery includes the idea of protection for the innocent, justice for the victim, and punishment for the guilty. The souls under the altar, then, are present to claim innocence, justice and vengeance.

Their lament, then, is imprecatory. It not only raises the question of when God will finally act but it also seeks justice for victims. The lament question (“How long?”) resonates with so many biblical laments (e.g., Psalms 6:2-3; 13:1-2). The desire for justice also resonates with many prayers in Scripture (including imprecatory requests in the Psalms, e.g., Psalms 7, 58). The continued cry for justice indicates that the seals are not the final answer to the problem as lament continues both in heaven and on earth.

God listens and God answers. However, the answer is not what one might expect. Rather, the seals do not end the injustice; they do not avenge the blood of the saints. More martyrs are yet to come and join the souls under the altar. The time has not yet arrived for the end to martyrdom, injustice, and oppression. Justice has been delayed until a time of God’s own determination. God is sovereign over the chaos and the persecution; it will end when God decides it is time. God has a purpose for continued persecution.

6.  Humanity Hides: The Wrath of the Lamb.

The sixth seal functions as a response to the martyr’s cry, “How long?” The sixth seal does not answer the question of when God will respond but rather whether the Lamb is indifferent to the suffering of his people. Answer? The Lamb is angry (Revelation 6:16-17).

This anger is expressed in cosmic terms–earthquake, solar eclipse, blood-stained moon, falling stars, devastated crops, a rolled up sky, sinking islands, and removed mountains. Often these are interpreted as end-time eschatological events, but this does not appreciate how the language of the Hebrew prophets has shaped the vision. This language is no different from what one finds in the prophets regarding the fall of empires and nations (cf. Isaiah 13:10-13; 24:1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Jer. 4:23-28; Ezekiel 32:6-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15-16; Amos 8:8-10; cf. Ian Fair, Conquering with Christ, 195-196.). The cosmic shake is another way of describing the upheaval of nations which, in many ways, felt like the destruction of the earth itself. More specifically, the language is theophanic, that is, it pictures the appearance of God in the world to destroy evil and enact justice (Stevenson, 150-151). God has showed up and the cosmos shakes. God is beginning to answer the lament of the saints.

It is cosmic in the sense that every human person within the nation or empire is affected by what happens. From the greatest (“kings of the earth”) to the lowest (“slave”), no one can escape the consequences of such national and imperial devastation. The drastic effects of a fallen empire felt by everyone and it creates fear. At the same time, however, only 1/4 of the earth is affected by the seals. The seals are not the final act in the drama; they are only the beginning of divine judgment.

Fear drives humanity to hide from the “face of the one who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” The heavenly throne room is evoked–the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb, but this is no comfort for those the inhabitants of the earth. God will seek justice for the martyred saints and the Lamb will avenge their blood. Neither God nor the Lamb are indifferent; they are already responding through breaking the seals, and they will ultimately defeat the powers and redeem creation. But only when the time is right.

The Prophetic Meaning of the Six Seals

The second vision (Revelation 4-16) intends to show its original readers “what must take place” in the future (4:1). There is a futurist dimension to the vision, but it is fundamentally future to the original readers (the seven churches of Asia in the late first century).

How, then, should we read this “futurist” picture? Many interpreters–of whatever hermeneutical stripe (Historicist, Preterist, Futurist)–attempt to tie the specifics of the text with concrete historical events. While this may be sometimes appropriate, the overwhelming movement of the drama as prophetic literature is to dramatize the judgments of God against the nations. Specific historical events are not necessary for that and the search for specifics draws attention away from the broad sweep of the drama itself. Further, specifics are always uncertain about the past and speculative about the present or future. Such uncertainty and speculation does not serve the interests of the book well since it introduces fruitless discussions. More importantly, it is better to hear the theological message that warns believers of accommodation to cultural idolatries than to argue about specific historical correlations (which are always uncertain at best).

The drama narrates through symbolism and apocalyptic language the conflict between the world powers and the kingdom of God. This is the fundamental point rather than a chronological sequence of historical events. The cycles of human rebellion and divine judgment, of empires and their fall, are present throughout all human history. Each is an act in the drama which tells the story of the conflict. To treat this literature otherwise is to remove it from its own setting as apocalyptic literature.

So, how do the six seals inform us theologically? At least three points are clear whatever hermeneutical approach one takes.

1. Chaos is present within human history.

The description of the six seals underscores the reality of evil and chaos in the world. We cannot deny the reality of war, famine, injustice, pestilence, and death. We should not too quickly look past that reality to some future hope but rather acknowledge the chaos that fills the present world. This is why the world needs redemption; it is why it needs the book opened. The world needs renewal.

The Christian response to such chaos is at least (1) lament and (2) faithful witness. We cry out for justice and we practice justice.

2.  God is sovereign over history and its chaos.

God permits the chaos. God permits war, pestilence, and famine. This is not an arbitrary permission as we will see in future texts (cf. Revelation 9:20). The seals describe past and present reality but they are also divine acts (God releases the riders through the voice of the living creatures) intended to renew the nations unto repentance. God is so sovereign that he limits the damage (1/4 of the earth) and limits the numbers of the martyrs. God has a purpose and that purpose is present even in the midst the chaos.

3. God listens and responds to the lament of the saints.

Lament is an essential dimension of human experience. Humans question God (“how long?”) and they yearn for justice (“avenge our blood”). Lament is not unchristian since martyred saints are present in the heavenly throne room voicing their lament. Even heaven itself is incomplete and unfinished as long as injustice and chaos exist upon the earth. The anticipation that the Lamb will finally defeat evil and eradicate injustice is the cause of celebration in heaven but it is as yet unrealized. So, lament continues…even in the heavenly Jerusalem.


The Lamb takes the book from the hand of the one who sits on the throne and begins to open it by breaking the seals…one at a time. Each seal depicts the experience of the Empire and believers within the Empire. It is the beginning of divine judgment upon the Empire and it announces the stark reality that chaos will ultimately envelope all empires, even the ones to which people now pledge allegiance.

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