SEALS 5 AND 6
In the previous article I discussed the breaking of seals 1 through 4. In the article on chapter 5, I described two different ways of understanding the relationship of the seals to the book which the Lamb received from the One seated on the throne. The seals could be markers or dividers that divide the book into sections. When all of the seals have been opened, then the book has been read. Alternatively, the seals could be guardians to the contents of the entire book. The seals would all have to be broken before the scroll could be unrolled and read. This latter understanding is the more natural, with the seals applied to the leading edge of the scroll.
In this understanding of the seals and the scroll, all seven seals must be broken to read the scroll. The seals are a preliminary series of developments that lead up to the contents of the scroll. This understanding gives us some clue to the meaning of the seals, but they do not give us absolute certainty. Quite frankly, I waver between two interpretations:
· All or most of the events and developments take place between the first century (John’s “present”) and the final days before the second coming.
· The events and developments all take place during the Tribulation period (the last seven years before the second coming).
There could be some combination of these two interpretations. We could consider that the Tribulation period is a boundary that can be crossed, so some of the developments may be throughout the time from the first century to the second coming, with some of them definitely occurring during the Tribulation period.
If we consider that these are not singular events, but rather developments, then we might consider that at least some of them would grow in intensity. Jesus spoke of the “beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:8) The following is the text of Matthew 24:4-8:
And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
This set of developments corresponds fairly closely to Revelation 6:1-6. However, the fourth seal (6:7-8) does not correspond to this description. The fourth seal gave Death and Hades power over one-fourth of the earth to kill with “sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” That seems too extreme for the run-of-the-mill misery that Jesus described in Matthew. So, the time frame of the seals may stretch from John’s time through the church age and enter into the Tribulation period, which is the last seven years before the Second Coming. With this in mind, we examine seals five and six.
Abbreviations: ESV = English Standard Version; ESVSB = ESV Study Bible; NIV = New International Version; NIVSB = NIV Study Bible
Scripture quotations are from ESV unless otherwise noted.
The fifth seal (6:9-11): The descriptions of the visions in Revelation are so vivid that they capture our imagination and yet they defy our logic. So, John describes a group of “souls” of martyrs “under the altar.” These souls cry out that their blood might be avenged. They are each give a white robe and told to “rest” or “wait” a little longer until additional people are martyred.
The “soul” (Greek psuche) is the immaterial component of the person. The word can simply mean “life” and can include the life that is in an animal. It can also be a generic term for a human being. In this context, the first meaning (immaterial component) applies. These are people who have been slain. One then assumes that they are in heaven, examples of Paul’s “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8). Because they are dead and yet are conscious and are visible in John’s vision, the assumption is that they are in heaven. Incidentally, this scene is Biblical evidence (which is meager) for what the “intermediate state” is like. The intermediate state is the condition of a person (in this case a saved person) in the time between physical death and the resurrection of the body. These verses give credence to the idea that the intermediate state is a condition of conscious presence with the Lord.
Metzger states that the “action shifts from earth to heaven…” (Metzger, 59). Only one commentator disagrees with this idea. Russell (see below under the Preterist interpretation) believes that John is literally seeing the Temple in Jerusalem (394). His interpretation—at least in one part of his book—is that the vision of souls who were slain is a vision of the actual slaying. However, the perfect passive is used, indicating an action that has taken place and the effect of the action is continued. The souls are present because the people have already been slain. Hence, his inference that the scene is on earth is not valid. Later, he seems to ignore his own conclusion and understand the scene to be in heaven. (Russell, 396)
They are “under the altar.” There are two questions that are raised by this odd expression. First, we ask “what altar?” Then, we ask “why are they under it?” Ladd points out that there were two kinds of altars in the Tabernacle/Temple worship. One was an altar of incense and the other was an altar of sacrifice. (Ladd, 102-103) He and others (ESVSB and NIVSB) point out that the death of these martyrs is associated with the altar, so this is best to be understood as the altar of sacrifice. When blood was collected from an animal that was slaughtered for sacrifice, it was poured out at the base of the altar (for example, Leviticus 4:7). This description of the souls “under the altar” is a vivid picture of these people’s lives being poured out as a sacrifice unto God just as blood was poured out at the base of the altar. This does not replace or detract from the one sufficient sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 9:11-14 and 10:1-18). Rather, these people have carried Paul’s admonition to become living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) a step further and also have conformed to the call of Jesus to take up their cross (Matthew 16:24-26).
Their martyrdom came about because they had given the message of God and their testimony concerning the gospel of Jesus. These martyrs are not identified as being from any particular group or of any particular time (Ladd, 104). We could say, simply, they are the martyrs. Throughout history, even to the present day, men and women and even children have given their lives rather than deny the truth about Jesus. Jesus said: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” (Matthew 24:9) Persecution is part of the deal of discipleship. These martyrs represent the martyrs of the church age in general.
The martyrs cry out and ask “how long…?” This is one of the themes found in the Psalms. (See Psalm 13:1-2, 35:17, 74:10, 89:46, etc.) I have observed in myself that I can “take” something if I know it will be over soon. I can be exposed to the cold or the heat or I can experience hard work if I know it will be over in a short while. It is far more difficult to endure if I see no end in sight. These martyrs have already experienced their suffering and now death has delivered them from suffering. Nevertheless, they find it difficult to enjoy that deliverance because they have not seen justice to this point.
Two commentators deal with this cry of the martyrs. The issue is that this cry of the martyrs appears to be contrary to admonitions not to exact vengeance. See Romans 12:17-21. Rist comments: “This hope of persecuted Christians that God will avenge them is at least understandable, even though it may be regarded as far from commendable.” He refers then to the examples of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) and Jesus (Luke 23:34). (Rist, 414-415)
Ladd makes a distinction between a prayer for vindication and a prayer for revenge. (Ladd, 104) He cites Luke 18:1-8. Jesus’ parable of the “unjust judge” and the widow concludes with Jesus’ statement that God will “vindicate” (Ladd’s rendering) the elect speedily. (Luke 18:8) NIV translates the verb as “get justice.” The meaning of this word (ekdikeo) in other passages is generally “avenge” (in four translations—NIV, ESV, King James, and New American Standard Bible). In Revelation 19:2, God is praised for He “has avenged on her [Babylon] the blood of his servants.” The expression “avenged the blood” is the same, except for the tense, as that used in Revelation 6:10. Note the ethics of the situation:
· The martyrs are not taking vengeance into their own hands.
· They are appealing to God, who is “holy and true.” Their appeal is not that God should abrogate His holiness, but should uphold it through judgment on those who have killed the martyrs.
· Further, they are appealing to the God who is “true” and who will make a judgment based on truth.
Ladd’s suggestion that they are seeking “vindication” is not faithful to the text. The first definition of “vindicate” is to “clear from criticism, blame, guilt, suspicion, etc.” Most of the other definitions of this word, as this one does, focus on the person who has been accused or wronged rather than on the one who has done the accusing or perpetrated the wrong. (Guralnik, 1585) On the other hand, the verb that is translated “avenge” (ekdikeo) focuses on the person who has done the accusing or has perpetrated the wrong—on the persecutor.
As a final word on this issue, especially to Rist, I ask: who are we to judge people who have given their lives for the gospel? For Rist to sniff that their prayer is “far from commendable” seems to me highly judgmental and far removed from the reality of what it is to be persecuted. Note that the heavenly response to these martyrs is to accept their cry for vengeance as valid.
The martyrs are given a white robe, a symbol of blessedness (Ladd, 106, NIVSB). This seems to validate their cry for vengeance.
The martyrs are told to rest a little longer. This implies that they have been resting for some time. They are to wait until the “number of” their fellow martyrs is completed. The passage at this point turns from the general to the specific. Whereas these martyrs represent all the martyrs of the church age, the passage anticipates a group of martyrs at the end of the age who will complete the number of the martyrs. Ladd does not believe that this is to be taken in a rigid mathematical way: that God has decreed a certain number of martyrs. Rather,
it is simply saying there will be some additional martyrdom. (Ladd, 106) We get the sense that we are pausing at a critical juncture in history. The martyrs of the church are honored and attended to and told to rest a little while longer, because there is going to be some additional suffering.
This implication of a brief period of time remaining leads one to believe that the timing of this scene is in conjunction with the Tribulation period—the last seven years before the Second Coming. By that I mean this scene might be at the beginning or sometime into that seven year period. Pentecost (see below) places all of the seals during the Tribulation. He characterizes the fifth seal as revealing “the fact of death among the saints of God because of their faith…” (Pentecost, 360).
Just as Seal 4 seems to “crank up the intensity” of the “beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 24:8), so Seal 5 implies that, in the chronology of “what must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1), we are entering into the last days. This would be, I believe, the beginning of the Tribulation period.
The Sixth Seal (6:12-17): The description of events under this seal takes about twice as much space as each of the first five seals. Moreover, the material that follows—the entire seventh chapter—could be assigned to the sixth seal.
The present passage, 6:12-17, can be divided into three portions, though they are closely linked. Verses 6:12-14 describe the “celestial signs” or “cosmic disturbances.” Verses 6:15-16 describe the human reaction to these disturbances. The final verse provides an explanation for entire passage: “[For] the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” Thus, the celestial signs are precursors to the “great day,” or “Day of the Lord.”
PART A: THE CELESTIAL SIGNS
Many words are used to pile up the terror of what perhaps is only a brief time, perhaps only a day. A brief summary might be: heaven and earth are shaken. One is reminded of Hebrews 12:26-29:
At that time [at Mount Sinai] his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
There is also the following description that Jesus gave in Matthew 24:29:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Of these four events mentioned by Jesus, two are almost exactly duplicated under the sixth seal—the sun being darkened and the stars falling. The moon’s not giving its light could correspond to a “blood moon” type eclipse, which might correspond to the moon’s becoming like blood. The vanishing of the sky and the shaking of the powers of the heavens might also correspond. There are three ways of interpreting these descriptions (ESVSB).
1. One is to understand them as figurative language for cataclysmic events among humans—war, political upheaval, revolution, economic collapse, etc. (See Metzger and Pentecost below.)
2. Another is to understand them as literal description of some sort of horrific seismic and celestial events (for example, the impact of an asteroid colliding with earth).
3. A third way of interpretation is some combination of the first two—that is, celestial events combined with human catastrophe. (See discussion of Ladd’s view below.)
Metzger considers that the cosmic convulsions that are described in Revelation 6:17ff are symbolic/metaphorical pictures of “social and political upheaval” (interpretation 1). He notes that the use of these kinds of descriptions “to describe social and political upheaval is well established in biblical prophecy (compare the picture of chaos in Jeremiah 4:23-26, where the desolation caused by foreign invaders is intended).” However, he admits that what is “denoted by the details of this highly colorful language [in Revelation 6] is difficult to determine.” (Metzger, 59-60)
Isaiah described the Day of the Lord as a frightful day of judgment that included celestial signs:
Behold, the day of the LORD comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
I will punish the world for its evil,
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.
I will make people more rare than fine gold,
and mankind than the gold of Ophir. (Isaiah 13:9-12)
When one reads the entire 13th and 14th chapters of Isaiah, it is clear that this description is of the destruction of Babylon by the Medes and Persians—which took place in 539 BC. (Although NIVSB interprets Isaiah 13-14 as primarily a prophecy of the downfall of Assyria, which used the city of Babylon as a capital.) For a similar description of cosmic events, see Isaiah 34, especially verse 4. When one reads the Old Testament, it becomes obvious that God brought judgment upon various proud empires throughout history. It began at the Tower of Babel, continued with the plagues in Egypt and the downfall of Assyria, and then continued through the rise and fall of the empires described in Daniel 2. Often poetic hyperbole that used cosmic signs were used in these Old Testament descriptions of God’s judgment that brought catastrophe to great empires.
In the divine judgment upon the ruthless empires of the Gentiles, God “put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and [laid] low the pompous pride of the ruthless.” (Isaiah 13:11) As the people of the earth anticipate the “great day” of God’s wrath (Revelation 6:17), they know instinctively that the wealth and position can no longer protect them.
Ladd considers that two considerations are operative in all of these descriptions (in the Old Testament and Revelation) of cosmic disturbances. (Ladd, 108)
1. The language is “semi-poetic,” not to be taken with “stark literalness.” Our knowledge of the universe is certainly more advanced than that of the ancient writers. We cannot conceive of stars falling to the earth or of the sky rolling up like a scroll.
2. However, there is also Biblical warrant for understanding that the physical universe and the biosphere share with humanity the consequences of spiritual events. For example, the Fall manifested itself in “thorns and thistles.” Also, the creation is in a “bondage to corruption” and “has been groaning together” as it awaits the “revealing of the sons of God.” (Romans 8:19-22) So, the Day of the Lord will have consequences in the physical world (interpretation 3).
PART B: THE HUMAN REACTION
It should be noted that although these “celestial events” sound horrific, they are not what creates fear in the people. Rather, they understand these events as precursors to the “the great day of their [the Father and the Lamb] wrath.” (Revelation 6:17) Metzger notes that “all classes of society…make a futile attempt to escape God’s punishment for their oppression and persecution of the Christians.” He observes that Eastern society is represented together with Roman generals. (Metzger, 60) This picture of society would correspond to the culture in which the church was immersed in Asia Minor, since Rome would only be represented by its army.
PART C: THE DAY OF THE LORD
Throughout the Old Testament, celestial signs and cosmic disturbances are used to describe the end of the age and approach to the “Day of the Lord.” Compare, for example, language similar to Revelation 6:15-17 in Isaiah 2:6-21. Joel also writes of the Day of the Lord as follows:
“And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Joel 2:30-31
He also writes
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the LORD is near
in the valley of decision.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 3:14-15)
In Matthew 24, Jesus also described the celestial events as occurring just before His Parousia (Matthew 24:29-31).
The term “Day of the Lord” is a subject of great controversy, especially among Dispensationalists and their opponents. Ladd believes that it encompasses the “entire period that will end this age and inaugurate the age to come.” (Ladd, 108) He equates all the various terms such as “day of Christ,” “day of the Lord Jesus Christ,” “day of wrath,” etc. and does not try to distinguish these. (Ladd, 108)
The Day of the Lord is described in the Old Testament as both a time of judgment and a time of blessing. For example, as a plague of locusts approached, Joel uses the occasion to highlight the Day of the Lord:
Blow a trumpet in Zion;
sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
For the day of the LORD is coming; it is near,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful people;
their like has never been before,
nor will be again after them
through the years of all generations. (Joel 2:1-2)
Amos warned people that they might be foolish to long for the Day of the Lord:
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why would you have the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, and not light,
as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20)
The prophets countered these gloom-and-doom predictions with promises of blessings:
In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. (Isaiah 4:2-6)
And in that day
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and the hills shall flow with milk,
and all the streambeds of Judah
shall flow with water;
and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD
and water the Valley of Shittim. (Joel 3:18)
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land l that I have given them,” says the LORD your God. (Amos 9:13-15)
The people in the scene in Revelation 6:15-17 interpret the cosmic signs of 6:12-14 to be portents of the Day of the Lord, and they understand that Day to be a day of wrath (6:17). In Revelation 19, three almost-simultaneous events surround what could be understood as the Day of the Lord:
1. The powerful city Babylon is judged for her persecution of the saints (19:2). This is an answer to the cry of the martyrs in 6:10.
2. The wedding of the Lamb to His bride and the great wedding supper takes place (19:7-9).
3. A rider comes from heaven on a white horse and defeats the armies arrayed against him (which includes many of the categories listed in 6:15) (19:11-21)
Thus, we see a mixture of blessing and judgment, of victory and defeat in the Day of the Lord. No doubt a number of other events and developments could be assigned to the Day of the Lord. The point is that, with the victory of Christ and the attendant blessings on His followers, there is the defeat of the enemies of Christ and His followers.
ADDITIONAL INTERPRETATIVE SYSTEMS
Preterist interpretation of Revelation 6:12-17: J. S. Russell consistently applies one uniform principle of interpretation on all last-days Scripture. That principle is that these Scriptures all refer to the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Since he had already applied this principle to Matthew 24, he is careful to demonstrate parallels between Matthew 24 and Revelation 6:12-17. He also refers to accounts in Josephus of how various people hid in caves in Judea and in underground tunnels and caves in Jerusalem and draws the connection between those incidents and Revelation 6:15. So, Russell considers this passage in Revelation is referring to the same set of events of Matthew 24 and that both of them apply to the destruction of Jerusalem. (Russell, 397-401) Therefore, that event in AD 70 is the Day of the Lord. “It the expected consummation for which the apostolic church was watching and waiting,--the day of judgment for the guilty nation…and the day of redemption and reward for the people of God.” (Russell, 398, peculiar punctuation in original) I have commented often about the fact that I believe that Russell’s theory is inadequate. What I see consistently is that Russell “reads into” the text any parallel that will bolster his case. In this case, he uses the incidents of hiding in caves in AD 70 as proof that 6:15 is referring to the events of AD 70. However, this activity was not typical of the vast majority of those in Judea nor in Jerusalem. Moreover, the description in 6:15 is not really about people hiding in caves, but rather about people who are struck by a realization of their enmity with God and the approaching wrath of God. The incidents that Josephus describes are simply of people hiding out from the Romans.
The Dispensationalist understanding of Revelation 6:12-17: Dwight Pentecost summarizes the Dispensationalist understanding of the seals (Pentecost, 359-361):
· The seals are events or developments during the Tribulation period—the seven years before the Second Coming.
· They are the “beginning of the unfolding of the judgment program of God.”
· Once each seal is opened, it may continue as a characteristic “throughout the period when once unfolded.”
· The seals are “mainly divine judgments through human agencies.”
· “The sixth [seal] (6:12-17) speaks of the great convulsions that will shake the whole earth…in which every authority and power loses its control over men and anarchy reigns.”
In his argument that the seals all take place during the Tribulation, Pentecost argues that the aorist tense of the verb in 6:17 (“for the great day of their wrath has come”) means that God’s wrath has already been (partially) expressed in the seals. His reasoning is that the Tribulation period is a period of God’s wrath, and, since God’s wrath has come, the seals are within the Tribulation period. (Pentecost, 183-184) I do not believe this argument is valid. First, the aorist tense does not necessarily mean an event “which has taken place” (Pentecost, 184). There are a number of uses of the aorist (Brooks and Winberry, 98-104). I believe that, in this context, one can argue for “futuristic aorist.” This is used “to indicate an event which has not in fact happened but which is so certain to happen that it is depicted as though it had already happened…[The] emphasis is on a strongly anticipated occurrence.” It seems to me that the idea is that these people are hiding as they recognize and anticipate the Day of the Lord, which is a day of God’s wrath. Pentecost is interpreting the celestial or cosmic disturbances as symbolic language for disruptions in human lives. However, the parallel Scriptures, such as Joel 2:30-31 and Matthew 24:29, indicate that the celestial events are precursory signs before the Day of the Lord. So, it seems that the sixth seal follows that pattern: celestial signs warn that the Day of the Lord is about to take place.
The fifth and sixth seals in Revelation 6:9-17 appear to represent either a singular or a pair of critical junctures in time. The fifth seal indicates that additional people will die for the faith in the near future from the occasion represented by the opening of the seal. The most likely time for this would be either at the beginning of the Tribulation period or part way into that period. So, the martyrs “under the altar” are those who have died for their witness throughout the church age, and the additional martyrs will be those who die during the Tribulation period.
The sixth seal depicts cosmic signs that are precursors to the Day of the Lord. The timing of this is best understood as late in the Tribulation period shortly before the Second Coming. The signs in the earth and skies represent the reverberations of the climax of the human condition lived out before God. This is the final “groaning” of all creation and the final “birth pain” before the great Day of the Lord when the enemies God will experience His wrath and the friends of God will experience His blessing.
Brooks, James A. and Carlton L. Winbery. Syntax of New Testament Greek. Lanham, MD:
University Press of America, 1979.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Guralnik, David B., ed. Webster’s New World Dictionary. 2nd ed. New York: Simon and
Ladd, George Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code. Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1993.
Rist, Martin. “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” Exegesis. The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. XII.
Nolan B. Harmon, Ed. New York: Abingdon Press, 1957.
Russell, J. S. The Parousia, A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our
Lord’s Second Coming. (Google Internet Book) London: Daldy, Isbister
& Co., 1878.
Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ., 2002
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