REVELATION 6 (Part 1)
Adam Maarschalk: September 3, 2009
Scripture text for this study: Revelation 6:1-17 (Part 1 covers verses 1-8)
Brief review of chapter 5: We read of a worship scene around the throne of God in heaven, in which the Lamb who had been slain was found worthy to open a scroll and break its seals. This Lamb, Jesus, has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and nation,” and “made them a kingdom and priests” to God. We will now learn what took place when the first six seals were opened.
From a Futurist standpoint, these seal judgments are yet to take place in history. From a Preterist (past fulfillment) viewpoint, they took place during the years leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD. In some of the upcoming posts, mainly for the sake of comparison, we will be considering statements from both viewpoints, as well as from the Historicist/Idealist viewpoint. For a primer on what these viewpoints entail, please see here. My own commentary will be from the Preterist viewpoint.
A. First Seal: The Conqueror (6:1-2)
One of the four living creatures we saw in the last chapter says, “Come!” John said his voice sounded like thunder.
Q: Who was the first living creature talking to, John or someone else?
A: He was speaking to the rider on the white horse, who was wearing a crown, carrying a bow, and going out to conquer.
The command “Come!” appears three more times, at the end of verses 3, 5, and 7. This command was not given to John four times, but to each of the characters mentioned in verses 2, 4, 5, and 8. We will notice, as each of the first four seals are opened, that Jesus is the One who opens them, but each of the four living creatures in turn calls forth some individual to execute judgment.
In the general Preterist viewpoint, this first seal judgment was fulfilled in early February 67 AD when Rome officially declared war on Israel, and Nero formally commissioned Vespasian as his general to lead the war to crush the Jewish rebellion. This took place 3.5 years before Jerusalem’s downfall in August 70 AD. We will see the significance of this 3.5 year period later in our study of Revelation.
B. Second Seal: Conflict on Earth (6:3-4)
Q: Does the same type of warfare take place when the second seal is opened, or is there a difference?
A: This time the people are not attacked by an outside force, but they slay one another instead.
Mark A. Copeland, a Preterist, says of this passage that it “[r]epresents civil war, in which people would kill one another, such as God used in His judgment against Egypt (Isa 19:1-4).” This certainly fits the language used here. As a historical fact, in the fall/winter of 67 AD a brutal civil war broke out in Jerusalem and Judea between the revolutionaries and those who wanted to maintain peace with Rome. Jerusalem was eventually divided into three factions led by  Eleazar, who was over the Zealots  John of Gischala, who was over the Galileans, and  Simon, who was over the Idumeans. It remained this way until the city was destroyed. The conditions were awful. In one night 8500 people were killed, and their bodies were cast outside of Jerusalem without being buried. The outer temple was “overflowing with blood” and the inner court even had pools of blood in it. Homes and gravesites were looted (For more information, see Footnote #1).
Steve Gregg, in his book “Revelation: Four Views (A Parallel Commentary),” quotes from J. Stuart Russell, who says (p. 106),
The Jewish war, under Vespasian, commenced at the furthest distance from Jerusalem in Galilee, and gradually drew nearer and nearer to the doomed city. The Romans were not the only agents in the work of slaughter that depopulated the land; hostile factions among the Jews themselves turned their arms against one another, so that it might be said that “every man’s hand was against his brother.”
Gregg also quotes Josephus (from Wars, 2:18:2): “Every city was divided into two armies encamped one against another…so the daytime was spent in shedding of blood, and the night in fear.” Gregg himself adds (p. 108) that these verses in Revelation 6:3-4 substantiate the words of Jesus when He wept over Jerusalem:
The Jews had rejected the Prince of Peace, who had said, while weeping over Jerusalem, “If you had known…the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). The next words Jesus spoke predicted the Roman armies invading the land and leveling the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:43-44). What could speak more directly to the fulfillment of this threat than for Revelation to speak, as here, of one sent to take peace (v. 4) from the land? Zechariah also had predicted this as a consequence of the Jews’ rejection of Christ (Zech. 11:10-14).
At this point, it would be valuable to note that the Preterist viewpoint (which sees this as fulfilled in the land of Israel in the first-century) would be less plausible if the phrase “the earth” here refers to the entire globe. In chapter one, we already got the sense that the predicted events in this book were to be localized, and that they had to do primarily with the land of Israel/Palestine as it existed in John’s day. You may recall that we compared the language of Revelation 1:7 with Matthew 24:30 and Zechariah 12:10-14, and saw (for example) that the term “tribes of the earth” clearly had to do with the tribes of the land of Israel. Kenneth Gentry is especially helpful in his book, “Before Jerusalem Fell” (1998, pp. 128-131), in explaining that “land” and “earth” are often used interchangeably in Scripture, with a meaning that is localized rather than global.
A quick glance at a couple of New Testament Scriptures begins to demonstrate this. For example, relating the circumstances surrounding Christ’s death on the cross, Matthew 27:45 in the ESV states, “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” A footnote says that “earth” could have been used instead of land in this text, but most readers will conclude that this darkness was localized that day and not global. Looking also at Luke 21:20-24, the context likewise shows that these events belong to Judea and Jerusalem, and even Futurists generally agree that this passage speaks of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem from 67-70 AD. Yet verse 23 says, “…For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.” The phrase “this people” here no doubt refers to the unrepentant Jews, and “the earth” here is the land of Judea. The same is true in Revelation 6.
[In our study of Revelation, we will suggest that many of the references to “the earth” in the book of Revelation are not meant to be taken as worldwide in scope, but as dealing instead with the land of Israel/Palestine. In a 3-part study on this subject beginning with this post, I have outlined nearly 20 instances where this appears to be the case.]
C. Third Seal: Scarcity on Earth (6:5-6)
Q: Who made the remark about “a quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius”?
A: We are only told that there “seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures.”
The following is a short excerpt regarding this famine from a term paper I wrote in 2009:
…[T]he great famine predicted by Agabus in Acts 11:27-30 began in the fourth year of the reign of Claudius (i.e. 45 AD) and “was of long continuance. It extended through Greece, and even into Italy, but was felt most severely in Judea and especially at Jerusalem, where many perished for want of bread” [quote from George Peter Holford in 1805]. This famine was recorded by Eusebius [early church father], Orosius [3rd century Christian historian], and Josephus, who related that “an assaron [about 3.5 pints] of corn was sold for five drachmae” (in the heyday of ancient Greece in the 4th century BC one drachmae was the daily wage for a skilled worker). This brings to mind Revelation 6:6, where under the third seal judgment it is said that a denarius (or a typical daily wage) would only purchase a quart of wheat. This situation was said by Josephus to have climaxed during the five-month siege on Jerusalem in 70 AD.
In December 69 AD John of Gischala foolishly set fire to the supply warehouses in Jerusalem, and nearly all the grain supplies were burned, which would have lasted the city for years. This set the stage for a massive famine which would prove to be Jerusalem’s undoing. The famine became so severe during the final five months in which Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans that there are records of parents roasting and eating their own children. Others ate their belts, sandals, dried grass, and even oxen dung. There were violent home invasions where anyone who was suspected of hoarding food was tormented until they revealed where it was. Some escaped from Jerusalem to the Romans because they couldn’t bear the conditions in the city any longer. Josephus records that some then failed to restrain their appetites, but quickly ate so much that they literally caused their bodies to burst open.
No wonder Jesus had said, “Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days!” (Luke 21:23; cf. Luke 23:28-29). Noting that Revelation 6:6 makes specific reference to wheat and barley, it’s interesting what Josephus said of the conditions in Jerusalem during the Roman siege in 70 AD (Steve Gregg, Revelation, p. 112): “Many there were indeed who sold what they had for one quart; it was of wheat, if they were of the richer sort, but of barley, if they were poorer (Wars, 5:10:2).” Steve Gregg also adds,
The statement, do not harm the oil and the wine (v. 6) could allude to the fact that some sacrilegious Jews pillaged the oil and wine from the temple. Josephus writes that John Gischala, the leader of one of the factions, confiscated the sacred vessels of the temple: “Accordingly, drawing the sacred wine and oil, which the priests kept for pouring on the burnt offerings, and which was deposited in the inner temple, [John] distributed them among his adherents, who consumed without horror more than a hin in anointing themselves and drinking (Wars, 5:13:6).
D. Fourth Seal: Widespread Death on Earth (6:7-8)
A quarter of the population was to be wiped out  with sword  with famine  with pestilence  by wild beasts of the earth. We’ve already seen how the period of time leading up to Jerusalem’s downfall was characterized by war and famine. Regarding pestilences, George Peter Holford (1805) added these details:
History…particularly distinguishes two instances of this calamity, which occurred before the commencement of the Jewish war. The first took place at Babylon about A. D. 40, and raged so alarmingly, that great multitudes of Jews fled from that city to Seleucia for safety, as hath been hinted already. The other happened at Rome A.D. 65, and carried off prodigious multitudes. Both Tacitus and Suetonius also record, that similar calamities prevailed, during this period, in various parts of the Roman empire. After Jerusalem was surrounded by the army of Titus, pestilential diseases soon made their appearance there to aggravate the miseries, and deepen the horrors of the siege. They were partly occasioned by the immense multitudes which were crowded together in the city, partly by the putrid effluvia which arose from the unburied dead, and partly from spread of famine.
Steve Gregg (pp. 114, 116) sheds more light on the significance of John’s description of the fourth seal judgment:
The reference to the means of death, sword, hunger, death [i.e. pestilence], and beasts of the earth [v. 8] are a deliberate echo of Ezekiel 14:21, where “sword and famine and wild beasts and pestilence” are called God’s “four severe judgments on Jerusalem.” In Ezekiel, God used these means to inflict judgment at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., which was a precursor of this event, similar in detail and in significance, in A.D. 70.
Josephus describes the carnage and death in Jerusalem during the siege in the following terms: “So all hope of escaping was now cut off from the Jews, together with their liberty of going out of the city. Then did the famine widen its progress, and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine; and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged. The seditious…as not enduring the stench of the dead bodies…had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath. However, when Titus, in going his rounds along those valleys, saw them full of dead bodies, and the thick putrefaction running about them, he gave a groan…and such was the sad case of the city itself (Wars, 5:12:3-4).”
INTERPRETATIONS OF THESE SEAL JUDGMENTS
We’ll examine the fifth and sixth seal judgments in the next post (covering Rev. 6:9-17). First let’s pause briefly and consider how these seals have been interpreted by various schools of thought:
FUTURIST VIEW (#1): “The first seal is a rider on a white horse who is given a crown and sets out to conquer. The second seal is the red horse of war. The remaining seals are famine, death, martyrs, and great earthquakes and astronomical events. In the Olivet discourse, Jesus describes the events leading up to the “great tribulation” as things which are merely birth pangs. These birth pangs, however, include false Messiahs (Matthew 24:5), war (24:6-7a), famines and earthquakes (24:7b). The comparison between this description of events and the first six seals is unmistakable. This suggests that the first six seal judgments take place in the first half of Daniel’s 70th week, and that the remainder of the judgments take place in the last half.” (Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership, “REVELATION – Survey of the New Testament: The General Epistles and Revelation,” Winter 2007, p. 14. At http://www.gcfweb.org/institute/general/revelation.pdf.)
FUTURIST VIEW (#2): “Some interpreters view the seals as describing conditions preparatory to the Tribulation. Other scholars believe that they picture events that are part of the [future Great] Tribulation. I favor the second view.” (Dr. Thomas Constable, Notes on Revelation: 2008 Edition, pp. 66-67. At http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/revelation.pdf)
HISTORICIST/IDEALIST VIEW: “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 . . ., 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…” [Sam Storms (quoting Wilcock), “The Seven Seals – Part 1,” 7 November 2006. At http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/the-seven-seals-part-i/]
PRETERIST VIEW: “I view the first four seals as revealing forces God would use to bring judgment upon the oppressors of His people (1-8)” [Mark A. Copeland. “Revelation: Chapter 6,” http://www.ccel.org/contrib/exec_outlines/rev/rev_06.htm. “His people,” of course, refers to the body of Christ, not ethnic Jews, who themselves were the oppressors in partnership with Rome.]
Our study of Revelation 6 (Part 2) continues here.
All of our Revelation chapter-by-chapter studies, and any other posts related to the book of Revelation, can be found here.
 For further details, see: http://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/16/pp17-the-historical-events-leading-up-to-70-ad-part-1/.
 For further details, see here: http://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/16/pp13-signs-of-the-close-of-the-age/.
 For further details, see: http://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/22/pp18-the-historical-events-leading-up-to-70-ad-part-2/.
 Although Sam Storms is a Historicist, he views the Olivet Discourse in the same way as Preterists do. For example, noting the similarities between the Olivet Discourse and the seals of Revelation, he says,
What conclusions do we draw from this? Some have argued this proves that the Olivet Discourse and the Seals of Revelation are describing the same period of time, often thought to be the ‘tribulation’ immediately preceding the second advent of Christ. But I have argued elsewhere that the Olivet Discourse is actually concerned with events that the people of Jesus’ own ‘generation’ would witness, i.e., events characteristic of the first century, specifically the period 33-70 a.d…
This leads to one possibility, that Revelation was written before the events of 70 a.d. and is a graphic description, in obviously figurative language, of the fall of the city and destruction of the Temple. I’m more inclined to believe that the solution is found elsewhere… [C]ontrary to the futurist interpretation of the book, I do not believe these judgments are reserved exclusively for a period of ‘tribulation’ just preceding the second coming of Christ.