Revelation 6; Zechariah 1, 6; Isaiah 64; Psalm 84 (85)
Chapters 4 and 5 of the Apocalypse are awe-inspiring, but also lift up our spirits. There we hear of God’s loving sovereignty over creation, and give thanks for this along with the heavenly hosts. There we hear also of God’s faithful sovereignty over history, and give praise, along with the hosts, for the redemption brought by the Lamb. We have seen this mighty and loving One both in the midst of the throne, and in the midst of His Church, answering to John’s great need (and ours) for clarity regarding our place in the world, and regarding what God is doing. He alone can open the scroll.
The sealed scroll held in the right hand of the Lamb, then, brings hope. But the hope comes with a cost—yes, the death of the Lamb Himself, but also, judgement upon a world that has gone astray. In Chapter 6, the mood of awe continues, but we turn to the dark side of God’s justice. The Lamb, who is both divine and human, opens the seals, and as He does so, the four living creatures, who superintend the creation, call out “Come!” (In the manuscripts which the ancient Church has received, they actually command “Come and See!” as though it is John and we who are called to take note of what is happening!) But the “come” is directed to those who are hidden within the contents of the scroll, as well. At their bidding, four horsemen come forth, as John and we watch. Some have seen the three series of seven (seals, trumpets, and bowls) as a visionary description only of plagues, since there are echoes of the calamites suffered by the Egyptians and Pharoah when they refused to let God’s people go. And it is certainly true that the riding of the horsemen, and the events that attend their coming do not unequivocally lift our spirits. By them, we and the whole cosmos are issued a warning. Yet there are also glimpses of hope, for the seals speak of deliverance, just as the plagues did in the book of Exodus. Here is the whole sequence:
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come! (and see)” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come (and see)!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
We will deal with the opening of the seventh seal in our next episode. Today’s bite of the text is a big enough mouthful! We notice that what John sees can be divided into three main sections—that of the four horsemen (seals 1-4), that of the martyrs under the altar (seal 5), and that of the pyrotechnics on earth and in heaven and its impact upon humanity.
So the seals have been opened, and John (and we) have seen many things. And what we see is that the Lamb who was standing, though slaughtered in chapter five now displays the signs of divine wrath, but along with that, the hope of deliverance. The fathers have warned us repeatedly not to play off the wrath of God against His love, as though they were separate passions. God is the great I AM, and His mysterious being, when grasped in any way by the creation, has different effects. Fire is powerful and helpful, but can also burn. Frequently even Christians have thought erroneously that God’s love is something that is only experienced once His judgement and anger have been satisfied. Instead, we hear from the Psalmist that “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteous justice and peace kiss each other” (LXX Ps 84:11; 85:10). This happens in God, who is all truth and all compassion. He conquers death by death, and sin by becoming sin for us.
The seals then, disclose reality, our human experience, and what is happening in human history. We should then expect to see a sober and sometimes frightening reality, but not a world devoid of God’s presence. Even here, in this frank display of our fallen world, there is hope and divine reprieve.
We see this even in the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, frequently displayed in shocking paintings and in dramatic music. We might think that these are warnings of utter disaster. However, it helps to look back to another prophet, Zechariah, who also speaks of four horsemen, or of chariots drawn by horses of various colors. In chapters 1 and 6 of Zechariah’s prophecy, these horses and riders are pictured as God’s patrollers, going to the east, west, north, and south of the whole world, to make sure that everything is under control. So then, those who read John’s vision with Zechariah in mind will be reminded that God sees, and is sovereign. As in the times of Pharoah, He hears the cry of His people.
And, in fact, the first seal does not represent a plague, despite the tradition of contemporary exegetes, who see the white horse and its rider in a negative light. Perhaps this has to do with our assumption that all victory is exploitative triumphalism, and that therefore this conqueror must be a tyrant or a false Messiah. But there is nothing to suggest this in the vision itself. The problem appears to be that we have difficulty hearing the word “victory” without assuming that the one enacting this must be power-crazed. This would be an odd assumption for Orthodox, though, who mark their sacred bread with the sign “Jesus Christ Conquers!” After all, the first horse and its rider are white in color, and parallel in appearance to the riding Lamb in Revelation 19, who comes in might to rescue the world. And so, past generations, from St. Irenaeus (AH 4. 12.3) on, have understood the first rider to be either Jesus Himself, or Christ’s representatives in the Church. The incarnate one comes, humble, but victorious, to conquer the world. To Him, a crown—the Name above all names—is given, and because of His resurrection and ascension, His kingdom will never end. Those who follow Him go where He has gone, and conquer with Him.
And so the ancient Victorinus says, “the first seal being opened, [John] says that he saw a white horse, and a crowned horseman having a bow. For this was at first done by Himself. For after the Lord ascended into heaven and opened all things, He sent the Holy Spirit, whose words the preachers sent forth as arrows reaching to the human heart, that they might overcome unbelief. And the crown on the head is promised to the preachers by the Holy Spirit.” (Comm Apoc 6:2, CSEL 49.68) In a similar vein, sixth century Oecumenius considers that the white horse is the gospel. Then he comments, “Christ was he who was conquering that he might conquer utterly and totally, and he brought the crown as a symbol of victory to him.” About the same time, Bishop Caesarea of Arles understood the images in this way: “We interpret the white horse to be the prophets and the apostles. In the rider who is crowned and has a bow we recognize not only Christ but also the Holy Spirit. For after Christ ascended into heaven, he opened all mysteries and sent the Holy Spirit. Through preachers the word of the Spirit, as though they were arrows, went out to the hearts of people and conquered their unbelief. The crown upon the head are the promises made through the Holy Spirit. (Exposition on the Apocalypse 6:2, Homily 5).
For these ancient commentators, then, the sequence of the seven seals begins on a positive note, with the victory of Christ. The antiquity of this interpretation, first sounded by St. Irenaeus, who was taught by Polycarp, who was reputed to be the disciple of John the visionary, should command our attention! The series begins not with plague or disaster, but with a promise of Christ’s victory, just as the divine action of the entire Apocalypse ends with that victory in chapter 19:11. All is under His control, no matter how dire human history may seem to us. Jesus “gives power” to His Church, and it is the same paradoxical power that He himself wielded—victory through the cross.
Once this is established, we can move on with less trepidation to the next few seals, in which we see and mourn the various outcomes of death and evil in this marred world, which we know that Christ is rescuing. The red horseman speaks of blood and violence that so many of our brothers and sisters know all too well. It is mysterious to us that God allows such things to happen, but we also know that the time for this terror is limited, and that Christ has turned the action back upon itself as a weapon, trampling down death by death. As Jesus himself warned, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” And for the ancient Church and those in places that hate Christ, the violence is not haphazard, but directly precisely at Christians as it was at Christ himself. Andrew of Caesarea comments, “the words ‘it was permitted to its rider to take peace’ show the all-wise permission of God that tests his faithful servants through temptations” (Comm on the Apocalypse 6.4).
The third black horseman with scales is no stranger to any of us. Caesarea of Arles wryly remarks, “while evil persons feign to have the scales of justice, they deceive many” (Exposition on Apocalypse 6.5, Homily 5). And so we see the practical nature of these divine visions, which display to us the sad misery of lives directed by greed, and at the expense of others, who suffer. Exorbitant prices for the necessities of life are coupled with tender care for the goods of this world, and so the cycle of wealthy exploitation and abject poverty marks our human societies.
The horseman of violence and the horseman of avarice are closely followed by the pale horse of Death and Hades, as human beings are killed by sword, famine, and the revolt of nature against humanity that marks our fallen condition. Yet, in all this, Christ is still working His victory. For the fifth seal brings before our eyes the glorious martyrs, who call out for judgment, as does the prophet Isaiah in 64:11, saying, “How long, O Lord?” These, our brothers and sisters, from among all those who long for God to act, have the greatest cause to cry out. Their place under the altar of incense is a sign of their nearness to God, who hears the prayers of His people. We may find their cry a little discomfiting in our tolerant age: here is a cry for justice, even for the vengeance of God. But this longing cry for the reversal of powers and the re-establishment of God’s rule is a strong theme in the Bible. Even our Mother Mary saw this as a young woman, when she exulted, saying, He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.
Just as John’s weeping was answered by the sight of the Lion/Lamb, so the martyrs’ longing is answered: by word and by deed. They are addressed in their longing, and told to rest, assured that what He has promised He will deliver. The time will come when all the martyrs are together, and then, in that fullness, Christ will bring together soul and body for those blessed ones, *and the New Jerusalem will be all-in-all. They are assured that their waiting –indeed, their death and that of the other martyrs— is in God’s plan. And, then they are given a white robe —white from the blood of the Lamb!— to wear, a sign of their faithfulness, but above this, a sign of God’s faithfulness towards them. Andrew of Caesarea helpfully links this vision with the teaching of the book of Hebrews: “they are told to have patience until the completion of the brothers, so that ‘apart from them they would not be made perfect’… The white robes reveal the brightness that appears on them … although they ‘had not yet received the promises’” (Comm Apoc 6:11). And indeed, these bright ones themselves become Christ’s pledge and sign for us, for they are the first fruits of the gospel. As Oecumenius so wisely puts it, “For the martyrs die not only for themselves, but they effect a common benefit. Their courage becomes an exhortation to others, and by the blood of the saints the knowledge of God is built up” (Comm Apocalypse 6:9-11).
And so, in knowledge of the One who is working our deliverance, with a sober recognition of the violent, unjust, and dying life in which we find ourselves, and with the faith of the martyrs ringing in our ears, we come to the sixth terrifying seal. The whole of nature shouts its warning to those who will not welcome the Savior. Earth, sun, stars, moon, sky, all cease their natural roles, for things are not as they should be. It is unlikely that the passage is to be read completely literally, for if read in sequence, as presented to us, there would be no human beings left to fear what God will do. No, the cosmic signs in this vision are there to underscore the fact that all is not right, that God’s original harmony of creation has been disturbed, and that a shaking (whatever that means) must occur before all can be restored. In the vision, all humans, especially the rulers, but even those of smaller social stature, recognize their lack of preparation for the Coming One. And they leave us with this question ringing in our ears: “For the great day of their wrath (the wrath of the Father and the Son) has come, and who can stand?”
Before God, we know, no man or woman can stand—unless, of course, that one is made to do so by the Lion-Lamb Himself. The events of the sixth seal lead us to the moment of reckoning, a moment that can turn to repentance or hardening. The question is posed to all of us. We have, though, in our recent memory, the sign of the Lion-Lamb, the assurance of the white rider, the example of the martyrs who heed God and wait in patience. All these things are shown not merely to terrify, but to lead us to humility and dependence upon the Coming One. As the venerable Bede reminds us, in his pastoral wisdom: “when he comes … he should not find us worthy of condemnation but steadfast in faith, our sins being covered by the intercession of the saints and the mercy of God. ‘And who will be able to stand?’ Certainly that one will be able to stand who has now taken care to be vigilant, to be steadfast in faith, and to live courageously” (Explanation of the Apocalypse 6:16-17). The seals are given to call us to this steadfastness, not to make us speculate about the future or to be terrified. May He bring us to this firm place to stand, to wait, and to hope, through the Holy Spirit.