John has been granted a vision of Heaven, highlighting the rule of God on His throne and the glory and honor given to Him (Revelation 4:1-11). John sees that God holds a scroll with seven seals upon it, and learns that the Lamb of God, Jesus, is worthy to open the seals, and He is greatly praised by all creation and the angelic host (Revelation 5:1-14). The time has come for the Lamb to open the seals.
As the first four seals are opened, horses and their riders come forth (Revelation 6:1-8). The first horse is white and goes off to conquer (Revelation 6:1-2). The second horse is red, and its rider was given a sword to take peace away from the earth (Revelation 6:3-4). The third horse is black, and its rider carries a balance, and a voice calls out highly inflated prices for wheat and barley, while oil and wine remain, indicating scarcity (Revelation 6:5-6). The fourth horse is pale, perhaps the pallor of illness or death upon a man, and Death rides it with Hades following behind, and sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts bring forth death (Revelation 6:7-8).
The fifth seal is opened, and John sees souls under an altar, those slain as martyrs for God (Revelation 6:9). They cry out to God, wanting to know when their blood will be avenged; they are given white robes and told to wait a little longer until the full number of martyrs is reached (Revelation 6:10-11).
The sixth seal brings forth all sorts of momentous events: earthquakes, the sun turning black and the moon to blood, stars falling from the sky, the heavens rolled up as a scroll, and the movement of mountains and islands (Revelation 6:12-15). Everyone on earth, from kings to slaves, hide and want to find some way of escaping face of the One upon the Throne, and the wrath of the Lamb (Revelation 6:16-17).
Before the seventh seal can be opened, God’s people must themselves be sealed. John sees the angels who hold back the four winds at the four corners of the earth, and they are exhorted to do no harm to the creation until the people of God are sealed (Revelation 7:1-3). John speaks of these as 144,000 from the “tribes of Israel,” listing 12 tribes of 12,000 people each, following the standard pattern of the tribes of Israel except omitting Dan, counting Levi, and speaking of Manasseh and Joseph but not Ephraim (Revelation 7:4-8; cf. Genesis 35:22-26).
Then John sees a great multitude from every people and nation before the throne and before the Lamb, praising and glorifying God and the Lamb as seen previously in Revelation 5:9-14 (Revelation 7:9-12). They are the ones who came out of the tribulation, having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, and they are always before the throne of God, serving Him constantly, sheltered by His glory (Revelation 7:13-15). They do not hunger or thirst, are not oppressed by heat, and are shepherded by the Lamb who guides them to springs of living water, and God wipes every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:16-17).
Then John sees the seventh seal opened (Revelation 8:1). All is silent for about a half an hour. Another series of events will soon take place before John’s eyes.
The opening of the seven seals has fascinated and mystified people for generations; the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is one of the most defining images of Revelation. The meaning behind these events is quite disputed, and we can understand why: these images seem quite strange.
Nevertheless, the images are consistent with many themes found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Four horses and their riders are sent out in Zechariah 1:8-10 and 6:1-8; judgment is suspended until the righteous are sealed in Ezekiel 9:1-8. We can gain some insight into the meaning of these images through their continued use throughout Scripture.
The horses and their riders evoke the hand of God among the people: the white horse and rider as conquering by the promotion of the Gospel and/or victory in battle, the red horse and rider as persecution of believers or conflict among nations, the black horse and rider as scarcity on account of famine, extortion, or mismanagement, and the pale horse and Death as the representative judgment of God against a nation: sword, famine, pestilence, and death (Revelation 6:1-8; cf. Leviticus 26:21-26, Ezekiel 4:10, 16, 14:12-21, Matthew 10:34-39).
The altar of the fifth seal is the altar of sacrifice, and since the blood of the sacrifice would collect under the altar, and life is in the blood, so the lives of the Christians who died for their faith remain under the altar (cf. Exodus 29:12, Leviticus 4:7, 18, 30, 17:11-14). Their blood must be avenged, not because of hatred or ill will against their fellow man, but on account of the divine mandate in Genesis 4:10, 9:5-6 and Numbers 35:33 regarding the pollution that comes from unavenged blood. God remains a God of justice as well as a God of love!
All of the events of the sixth seal evoke the signs of the days of judgment and reckoning in Isaiah 13:10-13, 34:4, Jeremiah 4:19-28, Hosea 10:8, Joel 2:30-32, Amos 8:8-9, and even Jesus in Matthew 24:29-34. These all speak of nations great and small falling.
Many relate the events surrounding the six seals to Israel in the days of the destruction of Jerusalem around 70 CE or to the Romans and their Empire in the first centuries CE. This is to be expected, since the referents for the images speak of judgment upon Babylon, Israel, and Judah. They are how God visits judgment upon people, and reflect God’s continued activity and presence in His creation.
Yet however God judges the nations, He has sealed His own people with His name. The “144,000” do not necessarily escape the trials and tribulations of the seals, but they have the spiritual security of being God’s people. Throughout the New Testament, Christians in the church are spoken of in terms of the people of Israel (Romans 2:28-29, 9:6, Galatians 6:15-16, Philippians 3:3): so it is with the 144,000 in Revelation 7:1-8. They are the “12 x 12 x 1000,” the very large number who are religiously complete before God; they are Christians living on earth and serving God, often called the “church militant.”
They are joined in their praise and service by the innumerable people of God who have gone on to their reward and continually stand before the Throne and the Lamb (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). They are the “church triumphant,” and they have received the wonderful promises of God. They do not hunger or thirst; they do not suffer from heat; they have living water, being shepherded by Jesus, and God wipes every tear from their eye. It is all love, joy, peace, glory, and grace, and it is wonderful!
While we will never exhaust the mysteries of the seven seals, we can gain encouragement from them. Events transpire as they have in the past: people stand for God’s Word and are persecuted for it. Nations conquer and are conquered; there are times of plenty and times of scarcity; people always find ways of making war on each other. Nations rise and fall. The people of God must endure such things as they always have. Yet they have their own seal upon them which God has given them; they are His and live to praise Him. They cherish the hope of the promise of joining that “church triumphant,” able to stand before the throne and the Lamb in love, joy, peace, glory, and grace, and receive rest. Let us stand firm for the cause of the Lord so as to obtain that wonderful inheritance, glorifying and honoring He who sits upon the throne and the Lamb!