“History Before John’s Eyes”
It appears that John is now being given a fast introduction to the general future of men and the earth, ending with judgment. Each event is unfolded when a seal is opened, meaning that the events, though secret to men until now, will come to pass. Though these things are prophesied and may not yet have happened to us, they have already happened in eternity.
I concur with other writers, who say that we now come to the most difficult part of Revelation – that which deals with prophecy. What I give in this article is my interpretation based on what I believe God has shown me concerning the text, and on what the actual text says, so I will not argue the case.
When John was in Patmos, it was about 62 years after the death of Christ, and a number of the prophecies might already have come to pass. I say ‘might’ because some of the contents of this book cannot finally be determined until all of time has elapsed. What I am saying, is that teachers must not try to sway you with their self-invented theories of what this or that prophecy means, because, in certain parts, no-one is able to give a final answer. It is very easy to give an ‘interpretation’ and to force others to believe it. It is less easy for a Christian teacher to say “I offer this interpretation, but I cannot say it is 100% correct”. Nevertheless, that is what I am saying! Perhaps, some interpretations given by others are correct… but there is no way to really tell.
We must, then, come to this portion with the knowledge that certain of the contents will not be known to us. We must simply wait until God reveals them to us in heaven. Like Matthew Poole, I believe the events described after the opening of the second seal occurred after the events spoken of in connection with the first seal. That is, they are given chronologically (in order of time).
Another problem to us, is that these prophecies could, in reality, be ascribed to any one of many events, some of which happened at the time of John, or just before his vision. Unless a prophecy is given with a specific reference to a specific event, there is no true way we can honestly and finally give a fixed interpretation. Thus, I find myself giving a general interpretation, because that is what the prophecies tell us. I believe that whilst I may not have the specific meaning, the intrinsic and ‘core’ meaning is, to my mind, correct.
“And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.”
John is now made privy to the opening of the first seal on the book. He saw Christ breaking the seal and this was accompanied by a voice, loud and booming, coming from one of the four beasts before the throne. The beast called John to “Come and see”. And what he sees we can only see broadly.
The Apostle saw a white horse with a bowman sitting astride its back. As he sat there, he was handed a crown. Then he rode off to conquer. Who was he? Does the colour of the horse have meaning? Why did he have a crown? Why have a bow? Who or what did he conquer? Can we really answer any of these questions? The aim should be to interpret only insofar as the Bible gives us clear meaning. Outside that we come to the realm of personal assumptions. Do not assume any of this is easy! It is often quite hidden and only hinted at.
It is very likely that the colour of the horses holds significance, otherwise there is no reason to mention them in the text. White is the symbol of purity, innocence and heavenly worth. The horse in this case is a war-horse. The one sitting on his back (possibly Christ) holds a bow, and is therefore a warrior. He is approved by God, and so is given a crown, meaning that the rider has been given rank for his good exploits. But is this person Christ, or representative of Christians who hold fast and fight the good fight?
The bow has a root meaning of ‘bringing forth’ (fruit). The rider goes forth and conquers the foes of God. Also, the arrows depict the Gospel – it is never sent forth without a response, and when God elects a man he can never escape the arrow! This sounds just like Christ, but there is no definite meaning. Whether it is Christ or those who are faithful, it does not matter, for the meaning is the same: that God will prevail and His goodness will see off all who are His enemies, and brings forth the fruit of God’s will – saved souls. Note that this conquering is continuous.
I see this sign as one of Christ bringing salvation and being victorious over death and Satan, triumphing even during evil days brought on by wicked men! He is the firstfruit who pre-empts all others who are saved. If this is a correct view, then the events following the opening of the first seal are the first to occur in the ‘last days’. We already know that the ‘last days’ began at the time of the Apostles, so Christ would have been the One Who began the whole series of events that will occur between His birth and the last day of creation as we know it.
“And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.”
When the white horse rode away, the second beast called John to come and see another part of the vision, after Christ opened the second seal. This time there was a red horse, the colour of fire, or ‘fiery’; war. This suggests a thing of hostility and anxiety. You will notice that its rider was given or granted the power to do what he did; he rode forth to cause people to kill each other and to rob the earth of its peace and security. This is important, for there is no time in history when God is not in complete control. There are also times when the horrors we see in our times are the result of God giving His agents, whether good or evil, the direct order to bring mayhem and disaster to errant peoples, as He did with the Hebrews, many times. No man can escape the judgment of God. Let atheists and wicked persons beware.
You will remember, for example, how God deliberately allowed Satan to harass Job, and how He allowed Satan to tempt Christ. God can and does use even Satan and his demons to do His will, as well as His faithful (the ‘king of the north’ is a good example of this, in Isaiah). We cannot assume that the rider was bad or demonic, because God has often used ‘good’ agents to bring about disaster to others; note how He sent one of his angels to destroy the first-born throughout Egypt.
The rider took ‘peace’ from the earth – harmony and security. Or, put another way, he brought war. To ‘kill’ in this text is to butcher or to slay murderously. This can certainly apply to us today, especially in the light of Islamic terrorism, but it can also apply to the way all of society is becoming more and more violent and intolerant of each other. It can also apply, though, to other times in history, from the sacking and destruction of Jerusalem, to all other major conflicts after that until today.
The rider had a ‘great sword’. That is, a sword used for cutting up and killing. It was ‘great’ signifying the rank, might and authority of the carrier, who holds the delegated power of God. It constantly amazes me how those who claim to be ‘mature’ Christians ignore this side of God. They prefer to speak only of His love. Yet, God is a God of wrath and judgement also. He has crushed, and will continue to crush, His enemies, even on this earth.
Who, then, is this rider? Possibly, it could be an angel whose express purpose is to bring judgement upon the people of earth, when God determines it. The major conflicts of history should not be viewed merely as men rising up against men of their own accord. If we read scripture aright, we find God prompting kings and armies to act as His arm of judgement, even against His own peoples, in order to bring them to their senses. Sometimes He does so as an act of His anger, the purpose then being simply to punish. Why? To show that when God says something He means it; when He warns us, we must obey, or suffer the consequences, whilst we are still on this earth. The current filth that covers the world is allowed by God, Whose wrath at our laxity is overwhelming. Only our repentance and change can overcome this.
So, the rising tide of terrorism of all kinds in the world today, from animal rights activists who believe it is acceptable to maim or kill others for the sake of animals, to Islamic fighters who kill thousands in one moment, is not self-motivated. It is part of the end-times scenario, when men will rise up against men, often without rhyme or reason. It is a sign of our godlessness as human beings, and our rebellion against the Creator. Whether the rider is an angel, or a person in history who is used to wreak havoc, it does not matter – what matters is that it is God Who commands it to occur, as a judgment.
“And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.”
Now we come to the third seal. The third of the four beasts repeated the call of the others: “Come and see”. Now came a black horse, and its rider held up a set of weighing scales. The horse was black. The word, melas, can also mean black ink… the colour being of darkest dark and often used to describe famine.
The scales are symbolic of bondage, whether good or bad. Another term would be a ‘yoke’, e.g. the ‘light’ yoke of Christ compared with the yoke of Satan, which is burdensome. Of course, scales also measure one weight against another. What is in one scale is compared with what is in the other scale to see if they are equal. We are ‘weighed in the balance’ to see if our good is greater than our bad.
What is this rider weighing? We have a strange and unexplained statement, apparently coming from the midst of the four beasts, possibly from the One on the throne, though this is not made clear. At any rate, the voice is uttered with the authority of God. The voice said that one gets a measure of wheat for a penny and three measures of barley for the same cost, and we must not harm the oil and the wine. This is very hard to decipher! However, it seems that what was once plentiful is now made hard to find, and restricted. This can apply to food and services as well as to the Gospel. Our own sinfulness removes God’s open generosity.
The measure was a choenix or dry measure of less than a quart, or, what would support a man who ate reasonable amounts for one day. This the man could obtain for one penny or denarius, a silver Roman coin. Originally it referred to a coin equal in worth to ten asses and was the main coin of Rome at the time. When Christ and John were alive, it was equal roughly to one day’s wage for a labourer.
So, a man could buy a day’s supply of wheat for a day’s wage, and three day’s supply of barley for a day’s wage. This seems to say that the man’s wages were sufficient for food to keep him for the week, if he was careful and not greedy, but insufficient for anything other than survival. Are we not seeing this today, with dramatically rising prices without cause?
‘Hurt not’ the oil and the wine? To ‘hurt’ is to do wrong or to be unjust; to offend or to act wickedly against another. The oil is olive oil, and also refers to healing the sick and anointing the body at feasts. The wine is – wine; but, used metaphorically, it means God’s wrath.
Overall, the horse and rider, with his scales, seem to suggest a time when God gives just enough for the ordinary working man, and crops (e.g. wine and oil) sufficient for all, but not in abundance. The people were not to harm or destroy the crops but to grow them. Thus, the horse and rider depicted a time of supply and justice. Again, I believe that this time followed on from the time of war. Such times often occur: peace and plenty followed by war and evil, plus famine, or, the other way around. All are from God’s hand.
“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”
The fourth beast called John to see the events following the breaking of the fourth seal. This time there was a pale horse. Its rider was named ‘Death’. And he was ‘followed’ by hell. Evidently, Death and Hell comprised of many, for power was given to ‘them’ over a quarter of the whole earth.
‘Pale’ can mean ‘pale’ but also green or yellowish, the colour of dead bodies. This is the likely meaning, as the word chloros (pale) has its root in a word similar to chloe, meaning a green herb. This meaning ties in with the name of the rider, Death, or thanatos. This represents the ‘dark side’, the abode of the dead where there is misery and separation from life. It also represents ignorance and sin and eternal distance from God – hell. That is why ‘Hell’, or Hades, followed Death. That is, the realm of the dead given over to the unsaved, wicked masses.
They were given God’s authority to kill with the sword. To ‘kill’ in this verse is apokteino, meaning to kill by any means, to destroy or to allow to die; it means to inflict mortal death and to deny spiritual life (and thereby to obtain eternal misery in hell). They could also kill by hunger – famine and poverty; and by use of beasts – wild or poisonous animals, or even savage men. That is, thera; preparing men for destruction, like game.
This speaks of a time when a huge part of the world will experience wholesale death and destruction at the hands of violence, famine, and possibly wild animals; though the best meaning is probably ‘the grooming of men and women to enter hell’. How? By sheer ignorance and wickedness. Today, for example, we see this ‘grooming’ via such mechanisms as the Toronto Blessing, the Alpha course, and so on.
We also see entire societies building their minds and hearts upon evil, violence, greed and filth, founded on socialism. We also see countless wars going on at any one time and widespread famine. Overall, though, this can apply to any period when these elements are seen. They speak of the hold of death and hell over human beings when God removes His hand from their lives.
“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.”
Now we come to the fifth seal. When this was broken open, John saw countless souls ‘under the altar’, symbolising that they had been slain or burned. They were killed as martyrs for their faith and because they witnessed openly against all odds, even when killed. They cried out to God, asking Him when He would judge those who had murdered them.
Each of them was given a white robe, the symbol of purity and honour, and they were told that their cause would be dealt with soon. But, first, they should rest, until everyone who would die in similar manner was accounted for and in Paradise (re. The words of Christ on the Cross). This is a word to all who call themselves Christian; none of us knows if we will die for our faith, and though to most this is an unbearable thought, it is a very real one, that ought to be borne in mind, no matter where we live and whether or not those we live amongst are peaceful. There will be martyrs in every age.
“And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
And the heaven departed as a scroll when it rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?”
The sixth seal revealed a great commotion. There was a ‘great earthquake’, of massive proportion and effect. The sun - or its light - became dark, black as horsehair… a course cloth (sakkos as in ‘sack’) made from the hair of animals, worn by mourners or those living an austere life. The moon - or its brilliance - became ‘as blood’. This refers to murder or violent death.
The ‘stars of heaven’ fell to the earth like the leaves of a fig tree in a mighty wind. This appears to mean there would be a time of woe and destruction unparalleled in history. In this activity is a guiding hand, One Who causes them to act that way.
The ‘heaven’ - or sky and space - ‘departed’ or left their place, all rolled up together ready for the dust heap. The mountains and land were shaken free of their foundations and everyone, including those who thought they had earthly power, were scared witless and hid in the caves and dark places to flee what was to come. They were so afraid they asked the mountains to crash upon them to put them out of their misery, not realising that a far worse and eternal misery awaited them for their rejection of Almighty God!
Those who thus hid away were also hiding from the Judge, God, and the Lamb, Jesus Christ. They know they are sinners unsaved by grace, and they know their fate! It was the Day of Wrath, when no man can stand against God.
The whole teaching appears to point to the general progress (or fall) of mankind throughout history. If we look at history we can ascribe the events portrayed to almost any time period, including the future. It is likely that what we have is a broad picture: Christ came, followed by a time of war, then a time of plenty and peace. This was followed by a time when Satan and evil would run amok throughout most of the world, seeking the spiritual death of all they affected. (Of course, they cannot ‘unsave’ those elected by God, but they can certainly cause them great spiritual harm. They will also mislead millions away from God’s word)
Then, those killed for their faith would call upon God to avenge them, and this would be followed by the end of all time and the destruction of the earth and all that was previously made, after which all men would be judged and those who are unsaved and have earthly power, are given their lot – hell.
This is a wide sweep of history but an accurate one. It also contains elements of spiritual truth, such as the evil that follows a time of plenty. Look at times when God smiled upon the people, say, the Reformation. This was accompanied by death and vicious attacks on God’s people, and then a calm. Today we have a world ravaged by violence and spiritual death, but we know it will be followed by God’s judgement and a new heaven and a new earth.
We cannot provide a definite interpretation of the texts in this chapter. But, as you can see, we can give a fairly accurate account of the general progress of this world.
© December 2001 (Revised June 2013)