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30 December 2018

The First Four Seals (Revelation 6:1–8)

Following his elevation and enthronement, the Lamb immediately begins to break open the seven seals. This prepares the way for the disclosure of the scroll’s contents. His authority to open the sealed scroll is a direct result of his sacrificial death. The picture portrays what occurs as a result of the Lamb’s past death.
The first four seal openings release riders on colored horses (Revelation 6:1-8). Each is authorized to inflict destruction on the earth, though within limits set by the Lamb. He is in firm control, as indicated by the repeated use of the verb “give” (“it was given to him…”) and explicitly stated limits (“a fourth part of the earth”).
The target of the four horsemen is not humanity in general, but the covenant community that follows the Lamb. This identification is implicit in this first section but made explicit when the fifth seal is opened, and John sees martyrs under the altar.
The use of the present tense Greek verbs and participles suggest the forces released are not onetime events, but continuous processes set in motion by the Lamb.
Literary Structure
The opening of the seven seals is part of a larger literary unit that began in Revelation 4:1, John’s vision of the heavenly throne. That vision culminated in the enthronement of the Lamb and his authorization to open the sealed scroll.
The book’s opening vision portrayed the Risen Christ walking among seven golden lampstands while holding seven stars. This was followed by the sevenfold letter to the churches of Asia. The seven “letters” are further subdivided into two groups; the first three with the call to heed the Spirit’s voice preceding promises to persevering saints (2:1-17), the last four with the Spirit’s call after the promises (2:17 – 3:22).
In this second vision the Lamb assumes his place on the heavenly throne because of his sacrificial death. His enthronement is followed by the sevenfold series of seal openings. Like the seven letters, this group is subdivided into smaller units.
The first six seal openings occur in uninterrupted succession (6:1–17). Within this, the first four, and fifth and sixth, seal opening form distinct groups.  The first four are characterized by four horsemen that unleash chaos (6:1-8). The fifth seal opening reveals martyrs seeking vindication by God (6:9-11), and the sixth portrays the wrath of God and the Lamb (6:12-17).
The seventh seal is separated from the first six by a parenthetical section (7:1-17), which in turn consists of two recognizable sections: the sealing of God’s servants and the innumerable multitude standing before the Lamb.
The opening of the seventh seal produces a period of silence and introduces the next sevenfold series, the seven trumpets (8:6 - 11:19).
Scriptural Background
It is the Lamb who breaks open each seal and thereby reveals “things that must come to pass” (1:1, 4:1).  Having been enthroned, the Lamb immediately begins to implement the contents of the sealed scroll. The seal openings unleash chaotic forces, but the Lamb is in firm control. The Lamb reigns from the heavenly throne but the results of his actions unfold on the earth. God’s domain is not detached from the Creation.
The first four seal opening do not picture events in chronological sequence but to things unleashed simultaneously by the Lamb. This is indicated by the summary statement in verse 8; together the four riders kill a “fourth of the earth.” The four riders are modeled on four chariots from Zechariah 1:8-11 and 6:1-8, also called “the four winds of heaven” that go forth to the four corners of the earth.
This image is used in Revelation 7:1-3 where “the four winds of heaven” are held back by angels standing at the four corners at the earth; they are released only after God’s servants are sealed (“that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree”). In other words, these forces are released simultaneously and at the proper time.
In Zechariah the chariots patrol the earth to punish nations that attacked Israel. God used the nations to punish His wayward people but they inflicted more devastation than God intended.
In Zechariah 1:8-11 the Prophet saw a “man riding a red horse”; after him came “horses, red, bay, and white.” The rider and horses represented “those whom Yahweh has sent to go to and fro through the earth” on behalf of God’s people.  In verse 11 the riders reported all was quiet on the earth.
In Zechariah 6:1-7 the prophet saw four chariots, the first with red horses, the second with black, the third white, and the fourth spotted and deep red. The angel explained, “these are the four winds of the heavens coming forward after each has presented itself near the Lord of all the earth…So he said, ‘Go your way, journey to and fro in the land,’ and they journeyed to and fro in the land.”
In Zechariah’s accounts the four colors have no obvious significance beyond representing winds that emanate from the four points of the compass. But in Revelation 6:1-8 each color symbolizes the nature of its rider; white represents conquest, red warfare, black economic scarcity, and pale-green pestilence. In Zechariah, the riders patrol the earth; in Revelation, they unleash destruction on it.
The First Seal
The Lamb opens the first seal; he alone is worthy to do so. Each rider ventures forth only when the Lamb breaks open its seal; each executes only what it has been authorized to do, and only within defined limits.
The first rider emerges when one of the four living creatures issues the command, “go.”  This translates a Greek verb in the present tense, signifying continuous action in the present. This suggests a process rather than a one-time event. This same present tense command is given to each rider.
The rider is “given” authority to act by the Lamb. The first rider is “given” a victory wreath and holds a “bow” as he rides, “conquering and that he should conquer.” The bow is a symbol of war. This may suggest he represents warfare. But the second rider is then also linked to violent conflict (“it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slay one another”).
This figure rides a white horse. Another suggestion is that he represents Jesus conquering his enemies, perhaps through gospel proclamation. This idea is strengthened by the image of the heavenly rider on a white horse who defeats the forces of the Beast gathered against the Lamb (Revelation 19:11). However, other than a white horse the two figures have little in common.
This first rider is given a “victory wreath,” a stephanos, whereas the heavenly rider wears multiple diadems. This first rider carries a bow but in 19:11 the heavenly rider has a sword. And the first horseman is commanded by the Lamb, whereas in 19:11 the rider is the Lamb.
Verse 8 summarizes the effects of all four riders; death, famine, bloodshed and pestilence. Nothing positive results from their rides, they are agents of destruction. Since the first rider is part of this group, he cannot represent the Lamb, the church or the gospel. Like the others, he symbolizes destruction and chaos.
A better alternative is that this rider is a counterfeit of the Lamb and represents deceivers that attack God’s elect, claiming to speak for Christ (Matthew 24:24; Revelation 2:2; 2:6; 2:14-15; 2:20-21; 13:11-17).
The verb rendered “conquer” is nikaō, the same one applied to the Lamb, to persevering saints and to the Beast. Elsewhere in Revelation the Beast “conquers” saints, not nations or armies; when a satanic agent “conquers” the victims are saints. For example, the “Beast” “conquers” the “two witnesses” and the “saints” (11:7; 13:7-10).
The first rider goes out “conquering and that he should conquer.”  The verb has no object; precisely what is conquered is not stated. The clause with two forms of the same verb is odd. The first form is a present tense participle (“conquering”), the second a verb in the aorist tense and subjunctive voice (that “he may conquer”). This could point more to his attempts to conquer than his actual success.
The church at Ephesus was commended for rejecting the works of the ‘Nicolaitans,’ a compound of niké, “conquer,” and laos, “people.” It has the sense “conquest of people.” The “deeds of the Nicolaitans” were attempts to infiltrate false teachings into the church; to conquer them by means of false doctrine.
A figure with a bow may have the god Apollo in view, Apollōn.  In Greek mythology, he was an oracular deity linked with prophecy. His image carried a bow and arrow, and he was a patron deity of archery. Apollo was worshipped in Asia and was considered the twin brother of the goddess Artemis.
The name ‘Apollo’ was associated with the verb apollumi, meaning “to destroy.” The “king the angel of the Abyss” is named Apolluōn, a spelling almost identical to Apollōn and a cognate of apollumi or “destroyer.” In Revelation 9:11. In Latin he was Articenens, the “bow-carrier.” All this suggests a link with Apollo.
Most likely, the rider on a white horse symbolizes religious and political deceivers that “conquer” through deception. They are forerunners of a final onslaught by the Beast, False Prophet and Babylon. The “beasts of the earth” in verse 8 reinforces this interpretation and association.
White represents purity and righteousness, the “righteous deeds of the saints.” That this figure rides a white horse and wears a victory wreath makes him a parody of the Lamb. He represents deceivers working to “conquer” the saints. False teachers were already active in the churches of Asia (e.g., 2:2; 2:6; 2:14-15; 2:20-24).
Deceivers prepare the way for the final assault by the Beast against the saints (13:7-10). The Beast will be the culmination of a centuries-long effort to conquer the church.
The Second Seal (6:3-4)
The second horseman rides a “fiery-red” horse (purrhos).  The term occurs twice in Revelation; here and in the “great fiery-red dragon” (12:3). This color links the two. Fiery red strongly suggests bloodshed and this rider does “take peace from the earth so that men should slay one another.”
This image may point to civil strife, to warfare between nations or to both. The use of the verb sphazō (“slay”) rather than the more generic “kill” (apokteinō) could suggest a third possibility.
Sphazō often connotes the slaying of a sacrifice and is so used in Revelation; for the “slain” Lamb (5:6; 5:9; 5:12; 13:8) and for martyred saints (6:9; 18:24). It is also used once for a head of the Beast that is “slain, as it were, unto death” (13:3). The sense of the last clause is an apparent slaying. This is the same verb found in the fifth seal for the martyrs underneath the altar who were “slain for the word of God” (6:9).
The Greek noun rendered “sword” is machaira, a term for the short sword carried by Roman legions. It symbolizes Roman authority to impose law and justice, including the right to execute offenders (Romans 13:1-7). The same term is applied to the Beast that kills saints with the “sword” (Revelation 13:10). A different Greek noun is used to refer to the double-edged sword wielded by Jesus (rhomphaia - 1:16; 2:12; 2:16; 19:15; 19:21).
The term machaira occurs one other time in Revelation 13:14 where it refers to the sword-wound of the Beast, “he that had the stroke of the sword (machaira) and yet lived.” This event is described in verse 3: “I saw one of his heads, showing that it had been slain (sphazō) unto death, and the plague (plégé) of his death was healed.”
The picture in Revelation 13:1-10 is of the Beast-from-the-sea that is purportedly “slain” by a “sword” but miraculously “healed.” This is an imitation of the death and resurrection of the Lamb and is used by the False Prophet to deceive the inhabitants of the earth into giving homage to the Beast (13:11-12). The False Prophet “has two horns like a lamb but speaks as a dragon.”
A third alternative is that the second rider removes peace from the earth in an ironic fashion; by causing the nations to slay the Lamb’s followers.  This can only occur as the Lamb authorizes it; the authority to act is “given” to the rider. It is not coincidental that the fifth seal portrays the Lamb’s martyrs with their cries for vindication.
The logic is this:  the persecution of the saints demonstrates God’s justice in the impending judgments of the Beast, False Prophet, Babylon, inhabitants of the earth and the Dragon.
The Third Seal (6:5-6)
The third rider represents economic distress signified by inflated prices for basic commodities. This means difficult economic times for anyone affected but not necessarily widespread famine. Nothing in the verse indicates this situation is due to warfare or natural catastrophes, though that is certainly possible.
High prices and difficulties obtaining basic commodities also result from trade embargoes, boycotts and the like, or simply from a lack of funds.  Several of the churches in Asia already experienced economic hardship (2:9). Perhaps in view here are moves by pagan authorities or simply neighbors against local Christians.
A quart of wheat for a denarius and three quarts of barley for a denarius.” A denarius was approximately a day’s pay for a laborer.  A quart of wheat was enough to meet the daily needs of one person. Barley was a courser and less expensive grain than wheat. This suggests inflated prices for basic foodstuffs that could result in hunger.
The Lamb limits the effects of this seal opening. Olive oil and wine are not to be harmed. Anyone affected by this situation does not need to starve if he or she can substitute barley for the more desirable wheat. “Oil and wine” are paired together in Revelation 18:13 as one of the commodities cut off from merchants by Babylon’s downfall.
Economic difficulties impact entire societies; both Christians and pagans would be hurt by any regional shortages or actual famine conditions. However, in light of Revelation’s overall picture, what may be in view are economic obstacles placed against Christians by pagan opponents. Economic control is one of the primary weapons employed by the Beast, False Prophet and Babylon (Revelation 13:16-18).
The Fourth Seal (6:7-8a)
 And when he opened the fourth seal I heard the voice of the fourth Living Creature, saying, ‘Go!’ And I saw and, behold, a pale-green horse and he that was sitting on it had for a name, Death, and Hades followed with him.”
Pale-green” translates the adjective chlōros, a green, pale green or yellowish green shade of color. It is explicitly linked with death and “Hades” follows the rider, presumably on foot to gather up the dead.  “Hades” is a term in the Greek Septuagint used for the Hebrew sheol, the shadowy abode of the dead.
“Death” and “Hades” are cosmic enemies of God destined for consignment to the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14). Nevertheless, as a result of his death and resurrection they are now under the control of the Lamb to serve his purposes (1:18).
Summary Statement (6:8b)
“And there was given to them authority over the fourth of the earth to kill with sword and with famine (limos) and with plague (thanatos) and by the wild beasts (thérion) of the earth.”
The final clause summarizes the destruction unleashed by the four riders. The plural pronoun “them” refers to the four riders, not to Death and Hades. It cannot refer to “Death and Hades.” First, “Death” is the name of the fourth rider and he causes death. Second, Hades follows in the rider’s wake to deal with the dead.
“Them” is the “given” license to kill a “fourth of the earth” by sword, famine, plague and wild beasts. This is the same verb applied to each of the four riders; each was “given” authority to inflict damage. Further, the four causes of death correspond to the afflictions unleashed by the riders; wild beasts (white horse), sword (red horse), famine (black horse) and plague (pale-green horse).
This clause borrows imagery from Ezekiel 14:13-21, in particular, verse 21: “For thus says Yahweh, How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four sore acts of judgment, sword, famine, beasts and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast.  The Septuagint version of Ezekiel 14:21 uses the same Greek words for three of the four items listed in Revelation 6:8:  famine (limos), beasts (thérion) and plagues (thanatos).
The introduction of “wild beasts” (thérion) seems out of place. But the same Greek term is applied later to Satan’s two earthly agents; the “wild beast” from the sea and the “wild beast” from the earth (thérion). Both use deception and persecution to overcome the saints. Of particular relevance is the description “wild beasts of the earth,” the same phrase applied to the False Prophet:  another beast ascending out of the earth” (13:11). The rider on the white horse is a forerunner of the ultimate “beast from the earth,” he represents counterfeit Christs bent on deceiving the saints.
The four riders are only authorized to destroy a “fourth of the earth.” This reflects the Lamb’s sovereignty even over malevolent forces; he sets boundaries satanic forces cannot cross. If Satan was able to operate with complete freedom, the entire covenant community would be wiped out momentarily.
Verse 8 also serves to transition of the narrative to the fifth seal opening in Revelation 6:9-11. The moment the Lamb opens the fifth seal John sees a group of martyrs underneath the altar.  No explanation is given as to how or when they got there, a question raised by some interpreters. The context answers this; the martyrs are the victims of the actions of the four riders unleashed by the first four seal openings.

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