Biblical Studies (NT)/III. THE SEVEN SEALS
REVELATION: VISIONS OF THE END
III. The Seven Seals
NOTE: Revelation is an enigmatic work which presents a challenge for interpreters. While most of the ideas presented in these lessons can easily be found in numerous published works, they are not presented here as definitive, but as a starting point for further analysis and discussion.
The Lamb Takes the Scroll
After hearing Christ’s messages to the churches, John is brought before the heavenly throne where four strange creatures, “full of eyes in front and in back” (4:6), and twenty-four elders are worshiping God. God's form appears to be something like that of a human being, because we are told that in his hand is a scroll which contains the judgments which are about to come upon the earth. John writes, “I wept greatly, because no one was found worthy to open and read the scroll, or to look at it” (5:4). No one, that is, except “the Lamb,” who presently appears to open the scroll, prompting great celebration and worship in heaven. John says, “I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’” (5:11-12).
This incident is reminiscent of the words of Paul to the church in Rome: “There is none righteous, no not one.. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10,23), and those of the epistle to the Hebrews: “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). After taking the scroll, the Lamb begins to open the seven seals, one by one. As each seal is broken, a devastating judgment falls upon the earth.
The First Six Seals
The breaking of the first four seals releases four horsemen, known as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” When the Lamb opens the first seal, the first horseman rides forth. He rides a white horse and is a both king and a conqueror, for John writes, “A crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer” (6:2). Later on, in Chapter 19, Christ is depicted riding a white horse. For this reason, some have suggested that the rider in this passage also represents Christ. However, this rider does not ride alone, but is merely one of four of different colors. Also, the timing of this rider’s appearance does not coincide with our understanding from other passages in the Bible of Christ’s appearance. There may, therefore, be no connection between the two. Another suggestion, quite contrary to the first, is that the rider is the Antichrist, who comes in imitation of Christ, and the horse represents his kingdom. This is a possibility. But beyond what is clear from the passage, that he is a ruler and a conqueror, we cannot say for sure who this person is, or what he represents.
When the second seal is broken, a second horseman rides forth, this time on a red horse. He has power “to take peace from the earth” (6:4). Just as the first horseman is a conqueror, this second horseman causes war on a widespread scale.
When the third seal is broken, the third horseman rides forth on a black horse. He brings famine on the earth. This famine is probably caused in part by the wars of the first two horsemen, but there may also be drought or other natural catastrophes which cause the crops to fail.
The breaking of the fourth seal reveals a horseman who rides a “pale” horse, “and the name of him who sat on it was Death, and hell followed with him” (6:8). This rider causes the death of a quarter of the earth’s population through war, hunger, sickness, and predatory animals.
When Jesus breaks the fifth seal, John sees the martyrs of Christ in heaven, crying out for vengeance. They are told that they will soon be avenged, but that they must wait a short time until their numbers are completed. This again calls to mind the words of Paul, who said, “Do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).
The breaking of the sixth seal unleashes huge earthquakes and other natural disasters, so that “every mountain and island was moved out of its place” (6:14). Everyone, from the least to the greatest, will seek a place to hide, “for the great day of his wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (6:17). This last statement adds weight to the futurist interpretation, because it indicates that God has set aside a specific time for judgment, “the day of his wrath.” Furthermore, we have not yet seen catastrophes of the scale described, so that, according to the futurist, they must be still in the future. It must be remembered, however, that the futurist interpretation (and any interpretation which sees a fulfilment of Revelation's prophecies after the first century) is based on faith. Many scholars reject such a view of Revelation on the premise that it is impossible to foresee future events.
There is a delay before the seventh seal is opened. Four angels protect the earth and its people from coming to any more harm until a hundred and forty-four thousand servants of God “of all the tribes of the children of Israel” can be “sealed” (7:4). Many people make the mistake of assuming that the Israelites in this passage are all Jews. However, Revelation says that there will be twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and in the following verses, it specifically mentions each tribe by name (7:5-8). Our modern day Jews are principally descended from only two of these tribes: Judah and Benjamin. The other ten tribes were lost to history after the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered in 722 B.C. by the Assyrians, who forcibly resettled them in other parts of the empire. We have lost track of their descendants, but they must number in the millions today.
The hundred and forty-four thousand appear again later, in Chapter 14. In that passage, we are told that they “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). This may be a hint that they are the resurrected martyrs, for they follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and he goes to his death. For this reason, they are “without fault before the throne of God” (14:5) and are the “firstfruits to God and the Lamb” (14:4), meaning that they come first in the Resurrection. Christ is also described in this way in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:20). It is also possible that they are the martyrs who John sees crying out for vengeance when the fifth seal is broken (6:9-11) (see above).
In addition to the hundred and forty-four thousand, there is “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” (7:9). These have been saved from the great tribulation for they “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). These, together with the 144,000, appear to comprise the resurrected people of God. The 144,000, as martyrs, are elevated to a special status. The rest of the resurrected souls form a much larger group "which no one could number." This passage is the first word of comfort in what has rapidly become a terrifying scenario.
The Seventh Seal
Reading Revelation for the first time, the reader will probably be breathing a sigh of relief at this point, knowing that six seals have been opened and there is only one remaining. However, there is an unpleasant surprise in store, for the opening of the seventh seal, rather than revealing one final judgment, begins a whole new series of seven, greater in severity than the first series. These are referred to as the “trumpet judgments,” because each one is heralded by a trumpet blast from an angel.
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