[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
(1) Note the language of “seeing” and “hearing” used in this section. How is this to be understood? Can the geographical setting be reconstructed? Where is the speaker? The hearer? Where do things happen?
(2) Are the various roles of the Lamb in chapters 5, 6, and 7 contradictory?
(3) What significance, if any, should be attached to the color of the horses? What is associated with each horse? What calamities accompany the four horsemen? Compare with Mark 11:8. Compare 6:2 with 19:11. Do you see any relationship?
(4) Why the reference to the altar in 6:9? Why are the martyred souls under the altar? Is their cry a Christian one (6:10)? Why or why not? What general conditions does the chapter describe (see 6:9-11)?
(5) What sort of imagery is employed with the opening of the sixth seal (6:12-13) and what is its meaning?
(6) What are the two foci of interest in chapter 7?
(7) What significance, if any, is there in the four horsemen in chapter 6 and the four angels in chapter 7?
(8 ) What is meant by the “sealing” in 7:3-8? Who are sealed? Why? Is the number and distribution of the sealing significant? What appears to the its purpose?
(9) What relationship, if any, is there between the sealed (7:4) and great multitude (7:9)?
(10) What is said about the status, activity, and experience of the great multitude in 7:9-17?
6:1-2—First Seal: The White Horse
In 6:1, the Lamb opens the seals and suffering and destruction results. On the surface, it would appear that the Lamb causes the destruction—that this is how the Lamb causes the destruction—that this is how the Lamb actively judges a sinful world and that the image of “Lamb” is transformed into the image of a violent, conquering, wrathful judge.
This is a vision of human reality as ity almost always has been. Wars, famine, rebellion, disease, and tremendous social upheaval are characteristic of all eras of the past and are certainly characteristic of our day. So what is pictured here is not something unusual. John was simply seeing reality—pictures of what has happened and will continue to happen. These things are evil. But John also saw the Lamb opening the seals, affirming that God uses these evil things to bring about God’s purposes. The prime example of this is the death of Jesus. Evil caused it, but God bnrought good from it.
Jesus did not merely defeat the powers of evil; he made them agents of his own victory. This is why John says that Jesus “has won the right to open the scroll,” and why the scroll, once open, lets loose upon the earth a series of plagues. John is not asking us to believe thay war, rebellion, famine, and disease are the deliberate creation of Christ, or that—except in an indirect way—they are what God wills for the people he has made. They are the result of human sin. The point is that just where sin and its effects are most in evidence, the kingship of the crucified is found, using human wickedness inthe service of God’s purpose. As we proceed, we will see evil serves God’s purposes (e.g., killing of Jesus and the testing of Christians). The folly of worshiping false gods is exposed. Evil punishes and eventually destroys itself.
The interpretation of the first horseman (6:2) is controversial. Some say that because the horse is white it must indicate the “conquering” gospel, which Mark 13:10 tells us will spread in the last days along with the spread of evil.
Others see the first horseman as evil, representing wars of conquest. The basis for this interpretation is the need for consistency with the other seals and with the other series of seven plagues that come later in the book, the trumpets and the bowls. The white horse could be part of the imitation a motif of the dragon, which we will look at in later chapters. I accept this latter interpretation.
When taken together, the four horsemen represent war and its attendant evils: war, strife, famine, and disease. The white horse signifies triumphant warfare. The horseman rides victoriously on his career of conquest.
“Conquer” is used 11 times in the book to allude to conquest by a faithful witness (once in each of the seven letters, in 5:5 of the Lamb, and in 12:11 and 15:2 of the faithful servants). Three times it refers to conquest by violence (here, in 11:7 where the beast kills the two witnesses, and in 13:7 where the beast wars against and conquers the saints). In all “conquering” passages, Christ and his followers conquer by dying; Satan and the evil powers by killing.
6:3-4—Second Seal: The Red Horse
The language in these verses suggests that the first rider represents an army invading other countries from the outside (the riders is “bent on conquest”). The second represents a general confusion of strife including perhaps civil war or revolution (“that people should slay one another”). The two signs follow the pattern of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21, where we read of “wars and rumors of wars” (i.e., wars near and far): “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” The second seal extends and intensifies the strife so that all peace is taken from the earth. The red horse probably signifies bloodshed.
6:5-6—Third Seal: The Black Horse
The third rider’s horse is appropriately “black,” for he introduces famine. The “balance” implies that food will have to be weighed out and rationed with care (cf. Lev. 26:26; Ez. 4:16). The price of wheat and barley indicates that they are scarce. The command, “Do not harm oil and wine,” could illustrate that some will self-indulge, even in time of famine.
6:7-8—Fourth Seal: The Pale Horse
The last rider, Death, with his accomplice Hades stalking behind him—gathers the results of the work of the previous three. John’s readers knew that war was commonly followed by pestilence, famine, and wild beasts that multiplied without check. They were also aware of Ezekiel 21:14: “Prophecy therefore, son of man; clap your hands and let the sword come down twice, yea thrice, the sword for those to be slain; it is the sword for the great slaughter, which encompasses them.”
The first four seals do not portray a sequence of events, but different aspects of Roman power and rule: the expansionistic military success of the Roman Empire, the inner strife and war which was undermining the world-wide Pax Romana, the concomitant inflation that deprived especially the poor of their essential food sustenance, local rebellions, and finally pestilence, death, and widespread hunger. This was the bitter fruit of Rome’s wars of conquest. Certainly this cannot be limited only to Rome. It has happened many times since then.
The fact that Death and Hades are the angels here shows that these plagues are evil. They are not obedient angels of God even though they are ultimately used by God.
6:9-11—Fifth Seal: The Martyrs
“Under the altar” (6:9) was where the blood of sacrifices was poured out in the Old Testament (Lev. 4:7). Here the faithful witnesses are pictured as a sacrifice to God. Their suffering is not in vain. The death of each martyr brings the end closer and thus helps to bring about a new age. This vision expresses the conviction that suffering is not random or meaningless. There is a cosmic plan, a divine providence. Those who keep God’s word and witness to the truth need not fear death. They can rejoice in the knowledge that their suffering contributes to the manifestation of God’s rule.
Verse 10 is a bit troubling with its call for vengeance. There are at least five possible ways to interpret it: (1) as a call for personal vengeance which God answers in the way that it was intended; (2) as an understandable call for personal vengeance that God answers in God’s way; (3) as a misled call for personal vengeance that God answers in God’s way; (4) as a call for vengeance against Satan; or (5) as a general call for God’s righteousness to win out. Regardless of one’s interpretation, 8:3-5 indicates that God does answer.
The answer to the prayer ultimately comes not in the punishment of individual enemies, but in the “judgment of the great harlot” who deceives the nations (17:1–19:2) and the coming of a new order—one of which even the kings of those who dwell on the earth can be a part (21:24).
6:12-17—The Sixth Seal: Cosmic Signs
The opening here of the sixth seal seems at first glance to reveal a tremendous physical catastrophe. However, the fact that after “every mountain and island was removed from its place” (6:14), the mountains still remain (6:16), indicates that something else may be in mind. Since the “top dogs” of society are specifically mentioned (6:15), a sociopolitical catastrophe may be intended. Certain things happen in human history as a result of human sin, such as the collapse of governments, social upheavals, and revolutions.
The kings of the earth and the others are pictured in 7:15-17 as being terrified by the face of him “who sits upon the throne.” This is another statement about God’s sovereignty and ultimate power over the kings and leaders of the earth.
7:1-8—The 144,000 Sealed
When the breaking of the sixth seal was followed by signs of the end in 6:17, people cried out in terror, “the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?” The answer to this question is now given. Those whom God sealed can stand before it. They will be safely preserved from the outpouring of divine wrath, even though they suffer martyrdom.
In chapter six we saw four horsemen, with a veiled reference to divine permission allowing them to ride forth. Now we perceive four winds that have power to harm the earth (7:1), but are controlled by four angels of God. This would appear to be simply a new angle of view. God’s control over the horsemen/winds insures that God’s church is sealed and secure before they go forth to destroy.
Zechariah 6:1-8 records a vision of judgment that connects four horses (white, red, black, dappled) with the four winds of heaven. Interestingly, John here speaks of the four winds of the earth. Perhaps the winds in Revelation, although they are released by divine permission and used as agents of a divine purpose, are in their essential nature earthly—as earthly as those that dwell on the earth and the kings of the earth whom they afflict, for they are evils that have their origin in human sin.
Several texts in the seven letters suggest that the name of God or of Christ may be the seal (see especially 3:12). If so, this sealing may be a reference to identifying oneself with God in baptism. Our understanding of its significance in this context affects and is affected by our understanding of who the 144,000 are.
John lists the twelve tribes, representing the people of God in the Old Testament. The twelve is multiplied by twelve either to express perfection or in reference to the twelve apostles. Either way, the intended reference is to the whole people of God in the Old Testament and the New Testament. The multiplication by 1000 implies infinity or unnumerability.
According to this interpretation, the sealing or baptism refers to all Christians. This new Israel is protected from separation from God in the midst of tribulations (cf. Rom. 8).
The tribes of Dan and Ephraim are not mentioned here. Joseph and Manasseh are listed instead. Both Dan and Ephraim were known for their idolatry. The 144,000 are those who have rejected idolatry (i.e., antichrist).
7:9-12—Innumerable Crowd Worships God
The innumerable crowd of 7:9 and the 144,000 are one and the same. What John heard was God’s declaration of their total, given symbolically 144,000. What he saw was that this definite total is from the human point of view a numberless multitude. Similarly, from God’s standpoint they are all “Israel”—God’s people. From our standpoint they come from every nation.
John’s eye is presented with a multitude he cannot count, as was Abraham’s when called upon to look at the stars which signified his descendents (Gen. 15:5). The vision of the white-robed host, purified by martyrdom, reflects Daniel 11:35. The theme is continued in Daniel 12:1-3, where the same persons are registered “in the book” and “like the stars.” This is a way of saying, “numbered by God, but uncountable to people.”
The multitude holding palm branches (7:9) is an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles, which was celebrated after the harvest and was an occasion of great rejoicing (cf. Lev. 23:33-36; Neh. 8:13-18). Palm branches were carried and used in the booths raised on the flat housetops. In Zechariah 14:16-19, the Feast of Tabernacles is set in the messianic era.
7:13-17—Survivors in Their White Robes
The vision here refers not only to the glory of eternity, but also to the life of Christians in the world here and now. The point of this scene is that God’s people are safe amid the troubles of this world. God spreads his tent over them.
The faithful ones have “washed” and “made white” their robes. Theirs is an active, not merely a passive role. By their faithfulness they join their sacrifice to that of the Lamb. The victors gain their victories by passing through great tribulation, not by detouring around it. They are able to do this only because of what the Lamb has done for them in giving himself to be slain. Verse 14 refers to surviving the tribulation, not escaping it.
In all that follows in the book, John’s readers are never to forget that the victory is a spiritual one. It is a victory over all that cans educe and contaminate. The threat of physical death is not what makes the great tribulation so serious. Rather, the most dangerous thing about it is the serious conflict of loyalties. In this conflict, Christians may be in genuine doubt as to where their duties lie, unless they keep clear on the central affirmation of their faith—that the whole truth of God is to be found in Jesus Christ.
The visions beginning in chapter six are not chronological. When John says “after this…” he means what he saw next, rather than what happened next in time. For example, chapter 6 speaks of destruction, but 7:1-3 says the destruction is being delayed until the servants of God are sealed. The passages 6:12-17; 11:15ff.; and chapter 16 all bring us to the brink of the last day…, but then more happens. We will see other examples later in the book. So we have in these chapters different visions of much the same thing. Two simultaneous views of the same reality are juxtaposed—the plagues and the celebration—here in chapters 6 and 7. This pattern is repeated later in the book. Plagues and judgment juxtaposed with celebration and victory in a way reminiscent of the experiences of the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia. They were weak and persecuted, but rich in God’s sight. Even now we can in some sense experience the kingdom.
The plagues are not so much caused by God as they are used by God. The visions serve as an encouragement to recognize that God is behind our world’s wars and rumors of wars in that God somehow uses them to bring about God’s purposes, evil as those things in themselves may actually be.
The fifth seal (6:9-11) is an encouragement to John’s readers that their suffering is part of those purposes. They are not random or arbitrary, without meaning or value.
The sixth seal (6:12-17) is a reaffirmation of God’s sovereignty vis-à-vis Caesar. God’s wrath allows evil freedom to destroy itself and to test Christians. It is purifying for the faithful and destructive for evil, exposing it for what it is. In both cases, it is ultimately a work of God’s love on behalf of the creation.
Chapter 7 is meant to be a strong word of encouragement and hope. Those who are identified with God and the Lamb are kept safe from separation from God. Though they may suffer, God’s love will meet God’s people in their suffering and help them go through it.
It is the responsibility of God’s people to wash “their robes and [make] them white in Jesus’ blood” (i.e., to be and to remain faithful and pure). This is possible because God is faithful and is working in the world to bring about the day when “a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues” will worship God and the Lamb together.
One of the cental themes in the book of Revelation is the inter-relationship between the outworking of God’s wrath in the world and the effecting of God’s salvation. At first glance, it would seem that these two actions are almost in contradiction. This tension is quite apparent in this section.
Chapter 6 tells us what happens when the Lamb opens the first six of the seven seals on the scroll given to him by the one on the throne. This scroll should be seen as a legal document relating to the destiny of humankind. It contains the message of the ultimate reconciliation of creation with God. With the opening of this scroll the hopes of all those who trust in the final victory of God’s love would be fulfilled.
In chapter 6 is a series of visions. We see here what John saw when the first six seals keeping this scroll closed were opened. What we see, however, seems quite inconsistent with the idea that the scroll contains the message of salvation. Instead, it contains images of tremendous destruction and killing.
How can these images be related to God’s work of redemption? Because they picture human history. Wars, famines, disease, and great social upheaval are characteristic of our day. So what is described is not unusual. John is simply seeing pictures of reality.
This is not just some fantastic vision in an ancient book. Rather, it is of the world we live in, and it addresses our faith in God now. If God is effecting human salvation and moving history toward a redemptive end, how is it that all these terrible things keep happening? What is the relation between the terrible evils and sufferings pictured here and God’s kingdom of peace and healing?
The answer to this question is linked closely with the concept of the wrath of God and of the Lamb spoken of in 6:17. In effect, what is said here is that all these terrible things which are so common in our world are the results of the outworking of the wrath of God and the Lamb. In some way, God’s work of salvation includes this series of images of destruction that John sees, images which could well be pictures from the evening news or a newsmagazine.
What does it mean that these things are the outworking of God’s wrath? For one thing, God’s wrath is an expression of God’s loving, redemptive will. God is not an internally divided being, part loving and part wrathful. Rather, God is wholly active love. But for those who reject God’s love, these acts can seem to be acts of wrath.
Perhaps an analogy can help illustrate this. Parents’ attitudes toward their children can be loving and their motivation can be that the children experience the best that life has to offer. Yet sometimes the outworking of this love is viewed by the child as discipline and restrictiveness. It is possible for the child to reject love, to become hardened to it, and to be totally blind to the loving intentions behind the discipline.
God’s wrath, though, is more than disciplining those he loves. God disciplines people for their own good. But God’s wrath also has a destructive element. God is at work destroying evil. Evil later in Revelation is personified in various characters (the beast, the harlot, the dragon). In chapters 19 and 20 we are told that these characters—along with Death and Hades—are all finally destroyed.
The purpose of this aspect of God’s wrath is also redemptive. God’s wrath, inhating and destroying evil, serves the purpose of cleansing creation, so that in the new creation people from every nation “shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb…will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:16-17).
It is important for us to realize what God is doing. God is letting evil destroy itself. God is not directly causing wars and famines. God is providentially using these things, which are caused by the forces of sin and death, to lead to the final destruction of the very same forces which cause them.
The ultimate example of God using the forces of evil to destroy themselves is the crucifixion of Jesus. It was ine very way an evil act. But this very act is what ensures Satan’s destruction and the completion of redemption.
One part of this whole process is especially troublesome: the forces of evil are not the only ones to suffer. If it is true that the tribulations mentioned in chapter 6 are being used by God to bring about redemption, it is also true that they greatly affect all people, even those who are “on God’s side.”
One message of chapter 6 is that God uses earthly tribulations to bring about redemption. The affirmation of God’s ultimate capability to use even the worst events of human history for God’s redemptive purposes is something which can provide hope for people of faith. It is an affirmation of faith that nothing can happen to foil God’s purposes. This affirmation is essential for us if we are to remain hopeful in the face of adversity.
When I personally experience evil at the hands of another person, I can believe that God will use that occurrence in ways that are ultimately redemptive. That does not mean that I will not suffer. One clear teaching in the Bible as a whole is that God uses suffering for purposes of self-revelation—to both the sufferer and the world. Even in the context of an incredible manifestation of evil, such as the torture and killing of countless Latin Americans in countries such as El Salvador and Chile, one can remain hopeful that the final word, as with Jesus, who was tortured and killed, is resurrection.
The grounds for this hope are made more explicit in chapter 7. Here, in the first four verses, we are told that the servants of God are “sealed…upon their foreheads.” John heard their number—144,000. This number is symbolic of the whole people of God. Old Testament and New Testament, the twelve tribes times the twelve apostles times 1000 (i.e., uncountable by humans).
The whole people of God is what is meant here. This is made apparent by what John actually sees: “Behold, a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9).
Verse 3 of chapter 7 tells us that the outworking of God’s wrath was to be held back until the multitudes were sealed. This sealing does not mean that God’s people will escape the effects of the tribulations. What it means is that, to use the words of the kings of the earth in 6:17, God’s people will be able to stand before the wrath of God.
In other words, the actions which destroy evil will not destroy those who are sealed by God. The tribulations we experience will not separate us from God’s love. That love does not keep us from suffering, but it meets us in our suffering and assures us of God’s reality and, ultimately, of God’s victory over suffering and pain and death.
According to these verses, the people of God are secure in God’s love and God’s ultimate care. The multitudes will indeed come out of the great tribulation and be united with God and experience true peace with God. Coming out of tribulation, in the context of this book, means going through it faithfully, following the way of the Lamb.
This passage challenges us to remain faithful to God through tribulations. The victorious multitudes described in 7:14 are those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” It is the responsibility of God’s people to remain pure, to identify with the blood of Jesus as that which exemplifies the ways of God and wins the victory over sin and evil.
This call to remain faithful to God is a call to maintain our faith in the victory of God’s love even when hard things come our way. It is also a challenge to share in the tribulations of others, to be faithful witnesses to God’s love by loving those who are suffering. This is possible because of the security we have: nothing can separate us from God’s love.
This has meaning only because of the promise that God is faithful. The bottom line here is that the Lamb has already won the victory over evil, even though the full effects of that are still being worked out. Because of this victory, God provides the resources for us to meet the challenge of faithfulness: the power of the Spirit in our lives, the exhortation of fellow believers, and the testimony of Scripture to the way of Jesus.
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) How do you reconcile the Lamb of suffering in chapter 5 with the Lamb opening the destructive seals in chapter 6?
(2) Do you agree with the interpretation that these plagues are essentially pictures of reality—things that have happened and continue to happen? If so, how can God be using these things for God’s purposes and not be their author? What about the role of Death and Hades (6:7-8)?
(3) What is God’s relation to modern-day evils, like the world wars, the Jewish holocaust, famines in Ethiopia and Cambodia, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
(4) What do you make of the contrast in John’s use of “conquer” in the book: the Lamb and his followers “conquer” by suffering, Satan and the evil powers by killing? Does this have implications about how we might go about “conquering” today?
(5) How do you understand 6:10? Should we imitate the sentiment expressed there? Why or why not? If so, to whom would we direct it? Is it conceivable that we as wealthy and imperialistic North Americans might be “those that dwell on the earth”?
(6) Has the number to be killed (6:11) been completed yet? What might this mean? Should we seek martyrdom in order to hasten the day? How does martyrdom bring the new age closer?
(7) In the light of your observations of the world, is it really possible that “the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong” could be terrified of the Lamb (6:12-17)?
(8) Who do you think the 144,000 are? Are you part of them? If so, what does that imply about how you should live today? What might being “sealed” (7:3) mean? Could this be a source of comfort?
(9) Do you think we should seek to avoid tribulation or seek ot go through it? What kinds of tribulation should we avoid? Which should we embrace? What enables people faithfully to go through tribulation? What elements make up John’s kind of tribulation—natural “evils” which “happen” to us? Or suffering we bring on ourselves by working to overcome evil and sin in the world?