Revelation 6 Commentary

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vv.1-14 “The seals closely parallel the signs of the approaching end times spoken of in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:1-35; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-33). In these passages the events of the last days fall into three periods: (1) the period of false Christs, wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, and death, called ‘the beginning of birth pains’ (Matt 24:8); (2) the period of the Great Tribulation (Matt 24:21; NIV, ‘great distress’) and, (3) finally, the period ‘immediately after the distress of those days,’ when the sun, moon, and stars will be affected and Christ will return (Matt 24:29-30). This parallel to major parts of Revelation is too striking to be ignored. Thus the seals would correspond to the ‘beginning of birth pains’ found in the Olivet Discourse.”

vv.1-8 “The four horsemen portray the judgment of God on human arrogance and rebellion as manifest in the persecuting Roman power. […] …the combination of white horse and mounted archer called up only one picture in the imagination of the first-century reader – the dreaded Parthians. They were the only mounted archers in the first century; white horses were their trademark. Parthia was on the eastern border of the empire, and was never subdued by the Romans. […] Here, the picture of victorious Parthians functions as the announcement of the beginning of the end of Roman sovereignty, to be replaced by God’s rightful sovereignty (11:15-19).”

“The judgments threatened by the four horsemen are judgments that Jesus said would characterize the present age (Mark 13:7-8).”

“The terrifying events of the first four Seals, which those who have to live through them might imagine to be signs of Christ’s return and of the close of the age (Mt.24:3), are in fact the commonplaces of history. The four horsemen have been riding out over the earth from that day to this, and will continue to do so. This may also explain the cry of the four living creatures as these Seals are broken open. On other interpretations, they appear to be little more than a convenient foursome of characters who happen to be available to usher in the riders. But why? And why do they call ‘Come!’? […] Whom then do the living creatures call? There is someone whose coming is both promised and desired. Hear the cry of 22:20: ‘“Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’ Hear the echo of 1:6, 7: ‘Amen. Behold, he is coming!’ The same Greek word used there, in the first and last chapters of Revelation, is the cry of the living creatures here, and is followed by the corresponding cry of ‘How long?’ from the souls under the altar. Both God’s people and God’s creation yearn for the coming of Christ to deliver them from suffering (Rom. 8:19-22).”

“Ellul regards the four horsemen as ‘the four chief components of history’; history is characterized by their hideous imprint. If John received his vision today, the terrifying symbols might be different, but they would covey the same message as they did then. We can cling to nothing other than trust in the sovereign God who rules history, for nothing else remains certain.”

vv.1-2 “The first rider represents a satanic force attempting to defeat and oppress believers spiritually through deception, persecution, or both (so 11:7; 13:7). The image of the rider may include reference to (1) the antichrist, (2) governments that persecute Christians, or (3) the devil’s servants in general […] ‘White’ elsewhere in the book does not primarily connote victory but the persevering righteousness of Christ and the saints (see on 3:4-5). Here white may refer to the forces of evil as they try to appear righteous and thus deceive by imitating Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 11:13-15). The portrayal is intended by John as a parody of Christ’s righteousness and victory in 19:11-15: Satan’s attempts to be victorious are but feeble imitations of Christ, worthy only for ridicule (as in. e.g., 11:7; 13:1-13).”

vv.5-6 “Famine (the third horse) likewise constitutes a terrifying specter. The image of the balance (6:5), normally used in the marketplace to weigh out the amount of food one could buy for one’s money, suggests God’s sovereignty over the food supply. Both famine and pestilence often accompanied war. […] Both pagans and Jews also understood that such hardships often represented divine judgments, and they called for repentance…”

v.6 “Why does the text mention the sparing of oil and wine (6:6), less necessary to life than the grain? Some suggest that it indicates that the wealthy will still have the luxury items… Although the stark reality of famine would have been felt by most people in antiquity, especially in cities dependent on the countryside, this image may have particularly grabbed the attention of an audience in Roman Asia in the 90s of the first century. Because the wine trade was more profitable than grain, Roman owners of provincial estates grew more vines than grain, leading to a wine surplus but grain shortage.”

v.8 “The coming of ‘Death’ may sum up the result of the previous horsemen or may refer particularly to plague and pestilence (cf. 2:23).”

vv.9-11 “…the martyrs already in heaven, rather than smugly celebrating their own deliverance, cry out ‘How long?’ to the Judge of the universe who continues to tolerate it. […] They join their cries with those of Israel (e.g., Pss. 74; 79), and with the figures in Jesus’ stories (Luke 18:1-8). There must be elements of personal feeling here – Christians too had feelings of resentment, bitterness, and revenge. But neither here nor in the teaching of Israel and Jesus can such cries be reduced to personal anger and desire for revenge. Ekdikeo (‘avenge’ in RSV) means both ‘avenge’ and ‘procure justice for’ someone. Here is a cry for God to reveal himself, a plea for a public vindication of God’s justice… The Christians in John’s churches who are trying to decide how they must respond to the pressures of the Roman emperor cult recognize their own anxious cry in the ‘How long?’ reverberating through the heavenly scene. They are encouraged to persevere in their own witness, even to the point of death (2:10), when they see the victorious martyrs in heaven receive their white robes and when they hear the announcement that they must hold out only ‘a little longer’ (6:11) until God intervenes. But they are not promised escape from the challenge to martyrdom. Those who have been killed are triumphant in heaven; those on earth can look forward to only an earthly future, however brief, in which yet more are to be killed (6:11). John’s encouragement to martyrdom is utterly realistic.”

“The position of these martyrs ‘under the altar’ undoubtedly recalls the place where priests poured the blood (hence the ‘life’ – Lev. 17:11) of their sacrifices… Jewish tradition recognized that the martyrs were with God and at peace and were sacrifices accepted by God (3:6). Here in Revelation the sacrifices are not vicarious per se, but the martyrs do share in Christ’s sacrificial suffering; they are allies of the sacrificed Lamb of 5:6, 9 and will also share in his exaltation (3:21; 20:4). They are ‘sacrifices offered to God. In fact, they were slain on earth…but in Christian faith the sacrifice was really made in heaven, where their souls – their lives – were offered at the heavenly altar.’ Although they are told to wait, they receive divine assurance (6:11). The passive voice in ‘was given’ suggests that God himself rewards them with white robes… and that he himself responds to their plea. […] ‘A little longer’ is indeterminate by human time, measured only by God’s standards (cf. 10:6, 12:12, 17:10, 20:3), but nevertheless functions as an assurance that the time is finite, hence it will not prove too long for them to bear.”

vv.12-14 “The question of whether the earthquake, the darkened sun, and so on, are to be taken literally or metaphorically, misses the point. That day will spell the end of the entire universe as we know it (Heb. 12:26), the end of the planets and galaxies as well as the end of the human institutions they may symbolize.”

“The sixth seal portrays the end of the cosmos as humanity knows it. Far from merely a repeatable judgment within history, like the four riders (6:1-8), this judgment includes the dissolution of the heavens (6:12-14) and the world finally recognizing that it stands under its Creator’s wrath (6:16-17).”

vv.15-17 “The passage also indicates that it is ultimately loyalty to Jesus Christ, not social status, that determines one’s fate. Ancients sometimes summarized humankind by simply contrasting opposites, for example, ‘slave and free’… But John lists the entire social order in verse 15, emphasizing that no marks of distinction will exempt anyone from judgment – from the ‘divine’ Caesar on down. […] Lambs were considered among the most docile creatures… hence ‘wrath of the Lamb’ is a striking and terrifying image. Note that those who have not yet repented, who seek refuge from caves and mountains, do not cry out to God or the Lamb for mercy; it is now too late for that…”

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