Thursday, August 26, 2021

30. The Revelation: The Fourth and Fifth Seals: Death and Divine Judgement (Rev. 6:7-11)



"When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth." (Rev. 6:7–8)

The Lamb broke the seal and the fourth living creature summoned the fourth horse and its rider. John described the final horse as an ashen horse. “Ashen” refers to a sickly, pale, yellow-green color. The horse’s color vividly portrays the pale-green pallor of death characteristic of the decomposition of a corpse. The rider who sat on it had the name Death. Death on a massive scale is the inevitable consequence of widespread war and famine. In this terrifying scene, John saw Hades following with Death.

The extent of the death and destruction brought by war and famine is given. Authority was given to Death and Hades to destroy a fourth of the world’s population. At the world’s current population, that would amount to the staggering total of nearly 1.5 billion deaths. Death will use four tools in his grim task. The first three elements, the sword, famine, and pestilence, are often linked together in Scripture (1 Chronicles 21:12; 2 Chronicles 20:9; Jeremiah 14:12), and all four elements appear in Ezekiel 14:12–21.

The sword (war) and famine have already been discussed in connection with the second and third seals. The fourth seal expands these conditions. “Pestilence” here may primarily refer to disease as the cause of death (2:23; 18:8) but is broad enough to encompass natural disasters such as the earthquakes predicted by Jesus (Matthew 24:7), floods, and volcanic eruptions. It could even refer to the effects of biological and chemical weapons.

At first glance, the inclusion of “wild beasts” with war, famine, and disease seems puzzling, since most creatures dangerous to man are either extinct or isolated in unpopulated regions. But one explanation may be that the most deadly creature of all, the rat, thrives in all populated areas. Rats have been responsible for uncounted millions of deaths throughout history by spreading disease. The most devastating occurrence of rat-borne disease was a fourteenth-century outbreak of bubonic plague that wiped out one-fourth to one-third of Europe’s population. In a world ravaged by war, famine, and disease, the rat population may run wild.


"When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also." (Rev. 6:9–11)

The fifth seal marks the midpoint of the tribulation, bridging the gap between the beginning of God’s wrath in the first half of the tribulation and its full fury revealed in the second half. Like the horsemen of the first four seals, it also portrays a force. That force is the prayers of God’s saints. Three features become evident.

The Persons (Rev. 6:9)

First, John saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain. These are martyrs, killed during the time of the judgments. In addition to divine judgment, there will be widespread persecution of believers led by Satan, his demons, and the final Antichrist.

The persecution of believers, which will begin early in the first half of the tribulation, will intensify dramatically after Antichrist sets himself up as God. At that time he will “make war with the saints and … overcome them” (13:7). With the whole world worshiping Antichrist as God, believers will be considered blasphemers for opposing him. That will bring upon them persecution from Antichrist’s false religious system. Revelation 9:21 speaks of the proliferation of murders at this time; many of the victims will no doubt be believers, the victims of mob violence.

John described the martyrs he saw underneath the altar as souls because their bodily resurrection had not yet taken place (20:4). They are the firstfruits of those who will be saved during the tribulation. Some will be Jewish, foreshadowing the salvation of Israel as a whole at the end of the tribulation (Zechariah 12:10; 14:1; Romans 11:26–29).

The text does not define which altar is in view, nor does the scene in heaven parallel the earthly temple or tabernacle. The altar John saw is most likely comparable to the altar of incense in the Old Testament (Exodus 40:5), because of the association of incense with prayer (5:8; 8:3–4; Psalm 141:2; Luke 1:10).

John gives two reasons why the martyrs will be slain: “because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained.” They will correctly interpret what they see going on around them, calling on people to repent and believe the gospel. Antichrist and his followers will not tolerate their bold preaching and will kill them. “Because of the testimony” which they had maintained refers to their loyalty to Jesus Christ (1:2, 9; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4), demonstrated by their proclamation of God’s Word despite life-threatening hostility.

The Petitions (6:10)

The fifth seal is not martyrdom, as some suggest, because martyrdom could not be judgment from God. The seals depict God’s wrath and judgment on the evil, not His children. The force, then, that is involved in the fifth seal is the prayers of the tribulation martyrs for God to enact vengeance on their murderers.

Prayer will play a vital role in God’s judgments on the earth. This prayer of the martyrs is similar to the imprecatory psalms. A prayer for pardon is appropriate in a time of grace. But when judgment comes, prayers for divine judgment are fitting. Such prayers are not from a desire for revenge, but a protest against all that is sinful and dishonoring to God.

God’s hand of judgment will move in response to the martyrs because their prayers will be urgent and consistent with His purpose. The word translated “cried out” emphasizes the urgent need and denotes strong emotions. The twenty-four elders and the angels loudly praised God (5:12), and the tribulation martyrs will petition Him with a loud voice. In keeping with their call for vengeance and justice, they address Him as the “Lord, holy and true.” The word translated “Lord” speaks of God the Father’s power and authority.

The martyrs’ question “How long … will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” does not reflect a personal vendetta. They are asking Him the question because they have a holy desire to see Satan and Antichrist destroyed. “How long” is a well-known cry of suffering Israel, reflecting the perplexing question of the righteous asking when their pain will end (Psalms 13:1; 35:17). The phrase “those who dwell on the earth” is a technical one used throughout Revelation for the ungodly. As was the case with murdered Abel, the very ground cries out for their blood.

The Promise (6:11)

Two elements make up God’s response to His martyred saints: a symbolic gift, and a spoken word. The gift given to each of them was a white robe. These long, brilliant white robes were a reward of grace (7:9, 14), symbolizing God’s gift of eternal righteousness. They symbolize all the glory that redeemed saints will enjoy in heaven. These were not actual robes, since this vision is before the resurrection of the bodies of the redeemed, which occurs for tribulation saints at Christ’s return (20:4–5).

Along with this gift came God’s spoken word, that they should “rest for a little while longer.” That is not a rebuke for impatience, but an invitation to stop the cry for vengeance and enjoy heavenly rest until God’s wrath arrives. The phrase “for a little while longer” (John 7:33; 12:35) indicates that the time will not be delayed. This seal is best seen as describing a period in the middle of the seven years of tribulation. There is a verbal similarity to the phrase in Revelation 10:6, “there will be delay no longer.” Some time will clearly elapse between 6:11 and 10:6. God’s day of judgment and vengeance is about three and a half years ahead, and will not come until the number of the martyrs’ fellow servants would be completed.

“Fellow servants and brethren” are two classes of people. The first group was alive and willing to die like the martyrs, though they would not. The second group were those who will be killed.