The opening of the seals reveals a series of actions that depict spiritual warfare and the plight of those who have been martyred for the testimony of Jesus. Even here, the protection of the righteous is symbolized through the sealing of 144,000 (symbolic of Israel) and a multitude dressed in white robes. What follows is judgment upon evil forces.
Sealing a document in antiquity certified the contents. It also meant that only the one with the authority to open the document would be allowed to do so. In the case of the scroll, which Christ took from God, seven seals kept its contents a mystery.
Reading Assignment. Read Revelation 6-11 at least three times.
With the opening of the first seal, there appeared a rider on a white horse holding a bow. He is given a crown and rides out as a conqueror. White usually symbolizes victory. The symbolism is similar to that of Zech. 6:1-8. As in that reference, there are four chariots pulled by different colored horses. The horses are identified as the "four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. Clearly, in both Zechariah and Revelation, the symbols represent an action engineered by God. God works in his world.
Under the second seal is a rider on a red horse who is capable of making war and taking life. Red normally signifies blood. The particular ideas suggested under the several seals together portray both the right and the will of God to enter into judgment at his pleasure.
As the third seal is opened, a rider on a black horse with a pair of scales projects that darker days are coming. Food will be rationed. Rationing is a normal consequence of warfare. So, the third seal simply extends the ideas set forth in the preceding.
The next seal reveals a rider on a pale horse. He is associated with widespread death caused by war, famine, and plague. In addition to food rationing, war brings death and plague. Again, the fourth seal extends the picture presented under the preceding seals.
The scene changes when the fifth seal is opened. Attention is drawn to those who have been martyred because of their faith. They ask how long it will be until their deaths are avenged. In response to their cry, they are given assurance of victory, are told others must also die for their faith, and that in time their blood will be avenged.
Seal six reveals an earthquake, but the text is clear that this is not treated as an ordinary natural occurrence. In apocalyptic fashion, all elements of the universe react in extra-ordinary ways. The context shows the action is symbolic, for all the mountains and islands disappear, only to have unbelievers cry out for the mountains and rocks to fall on them and hide them from the wrath of God. The emphasis is not on the earthquake and attendant catastrophes, but on the lack of readiness of the unbelievers to stand before God.
Chapter 7 looks very much like a flashback, for the four angels are preventing judgment upon the unrighteous until the believers are shielded”marked, acknowledged. First, attention is given to Israel. Ancient Israel consisted of thirteen tribes, with the thirteenth (Levi) being the priestly tribe. Normally, reference is made to "twelve tribes. The listing includes twelve tribes, but Levi is substituted for Dan. Dan was a small tribe, so it seemed natural to simply include Levi because of its significance. The whole of the people chosen by God to fulfill his purpose are represented in twelve tribes and each of these by 12,000 from each. The multiplication of 12 times 1,000 symbolizes completeness. Hence, all those who are faithful to God are recognized by him (7:1-8).
But the symbolism does not stop with the faithful from the tribes of Israel. John sees a great multitude drawn from "every nation, tribe, people and language standing in the presence of God and the Lamb. They are the victorious ones, who have been faithful through the tribulation that befalls those who are true to the testimony of Jesus Christ. The victorious in turn praise God (7:9-17).
The last seal opens with silence”silence before the storm. There follows the blast of seven trumpets. Normally, trumpets were used to sound a warning and issue a call to battle. Here, the blast of the trumpet is associated with the pouring out of affliction. Note the interplay between the Christians and their world. Christians pray. The nature of their prayers are not specified, but the context leads us to think they lamented to God because of their situation and they offered prayers appropriate for believers”prayers for their enemies and requests for divine support in their affliction. In conjunction with his nature, his will, and the cry of the saints, God intent to act is symbolized by the angel's hurling fire to the earth.
Following the sounding of the first trumpet came upon the earth hail and fire mixed with blood. The effect was destruction of one third of the earth, trees, and grass. Rather than looking for a literal interpretation, look for a symbolic one.
With the second trumpet came a blazing mountain thrown into the sea. As a third of the sea turned into blood, one third of the sea creatures died and one third of the ships were destroyed.
The result of the third trumpet was a blazing star turned the earth's fresh water and people died from the bitter water.
The fourth sounding trumpet yielded the striking of one-third of the sun, moon, and stars, with the effect of dimming light upon the earth. At this venture, a series of woes is pronounced in view of what will follow the blowing of the next three trumpets.
With the blowing of the fifth trumpet, attention shifts from physical elements to Satan. He is described as a "star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. Satan controls the Abyss from which he afflicts unbelievers. Locusts become the symbol of his power to afflict. This is the first woe.
Satan's locusts were given power to destroy, but they could harm "only those people who did have the seal of God of their foreheads, a reference back to 7:2. Satan is presented as the very opposite of God. He is associated with evil and destruction. But he cannot gain control over those under God's protection!
When the sixth trumpet sounds, a large army is dispatched to kill one third of mankind. John describes what he saw as a vision. The description is symbolic and should not be pressed for identification with a particular world power. The action is punitive, yet those who survived did not repent of their allegiance to Satan or idols. Neither did they turn from their acts of violence, magic, immorality, or disregard for the belongings of others.
Following the events just described, John saw an angel portrayed as robed in a cloud, with a rainbow, a shining face, and strong fiery legs. The angel was holding a small scroll containing content that was not to be revealed (10:1-4). The full mystery of God is about to be accomplished. This is the mystery of which the prophets spoke concerning God's divine kingdom (10:7). Perhaps Dan. 2:44 is the key to this verse.
John was told to take the scroll and eat it. This is reminiscent of the events described in Ezekiel, where the prophet was told to eat a scroll containing lament, mourning, and woe. It was as sweet as honey in his mouth but the words were addressed to Jews who would not listen (Ezekiel 2-3). The similarity is striking. The message is sweet, for it is from God. But it is sour, because it contains a message of judgment John is to declare to the unbelieving world.
Meanwhile, the drama includes two "witnesses. John is given a measuring rod and told to measure the temple of God and to count the worshippers. Remember, the physical temple had been destroyed a quarter of a century previous to this time. But the physical temple is the point of reference, with its inner court and court of the Gentiles. The measuring is similar to the sealing. It sets the boundaries and identifies the people of faith.
What we find next is a conflict between believers and unbelievers. The conflict runs for forty-two months or 1,260 days, alternative ways of representing three and one-half years time. No doubt, this represents a period of suffering for the faithful. But amidst the assault, God's two witnesses”speak of God and his judgment against evil. The witnesses are identified with two olive trees and two lamp stands. In Zechariah, similar language is found, with a lamp stand and two olive trees. These are said to be "the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth (Zech. 4). The language is suggestive of the priest and the king. The symbolism is important, not the number of lamp stands here in contrast to the seven found in Revelation 1. It is questionable as to whether we should even try to identify the witnesses further. The witnesses affirm that God's word goes out and that it stands against the forces of evil that attempt to destroy God's saints. As for the number of months or days, the imagery is similar to that found in Daniel 12. As there, so here, the interest of the reference is not to a specific period of time, but to the fact that the evil forces will prevail for a short time, but not ultimately. Recalling the days of Elijah, God acts through his witnesses. Again, the language does not favor two human beings who are able to shut up the heavens and induce famine. Remember, the "witnesses stand in the presence of God and are merely shown here in physical form. The symbolism is pressed to the extreme. God's witnesses are eventually overcome by Satan and slain. Those dedicated to evil rejoiced momentarily, until they realized the witnesses were from God. They were resurrected and returned to him. The place where all this activity is going on is Jerusalem, which is identified as the place where Jesus was crucified, and is equated with Sodom and Egypt”places symbolic of citadels of evil. The drama brings to mind the parable of the man who sent his servants and then his son to collect revenue from his vineyard (Matt. 21:33-46). The original audience of Revelation would have had no difficulty identifying with the drama and would not be looking for a specific timetable of events. Satan is active; he causes grief; he silences those who preach against him; but he shall ultimately be judged in God's own time.
The message of the seventh trumpet is that "the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. What follows is the eruption of thanks and praise to God for the accomplishment. A heavenly scene appears that depicts God's temple in heaven and the ark of the covenant. Appropriately, natural forces break forth in recognition. There is no contradiction here with 21:22, which says there is no temple in heaven. We are dealing with symbolic language. At the seventh trumpet blast, what John sees is a heavenly scene that communicates to Jewish believers and others knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures the idea that God is victorious. The significant thing is that the events are heavenly events, not earthly ones.