First Four Seals - Overview

SYNOPSIS:  The Lamb begins to break open the first four seals in preparation for the unveiling of the contents of the scroll, a process that unleashes destructive forces against the covenant community - Revelation 6:1-8

Source - Unsplash.com
Following his enthronement, the Lamb begins immediately to break open the seven seals, beginning with the first four. His authority to open the sealed scroll is based on his sacrificial death. This vision portrays what has occurred as a result of his Death and Resurrection.

The first four seal openings release riders on colored horses. Each is authorized to inflict destruction on the earth, but only within the limits set by the Lamb. He remains in firm control. This is indicated by the repeated use of the verb “give” (“it was given to him…”) and the explicitly stated limits (“a fourth part of the earth”).

The targeted victims of the four horsemen are not all the inhabitants of the earth but, instead, members of the covenant community. This identification is implicit in this first section but becomes explicit when the fifth seal is opened, and John sees martyrs under the altar.

The use of present tense Greek verbs and participles suggests the forces released are not one-time events but, instead, continuous processes set in motion by the Lamb (Revelation 6:1-8).


Literary Structure

The opening of the seven seals is part of a larger literary unit that began in Revelation 4:1, the vision of the Throne that culminated in the enthronement of the Lamb and his authorization to open the scroll.

The opening vision of the book portrayed the Risen Christ in priestly garb walking among seven golden lampstands, that is, the seven churches of Asia. This is followed by the seven letters to the churches. The seven letters are subdivided into two groups; the first three with the call to heed the Spirit preceding the promises to persevering saints (Revelation 2:1-17), the last four with the call placed after the promises (Revelation 2:1-17, 2:18-3:22).

Lamb - Source:  Unsplash.com
In the present vision, the Lamb has assumed his place on the heavenly throne following his sacrificial death. His enthronement is followed by the sevenfold series of seal openings. Like the seven letters, the series of seals is subdivided into smaller literary units.

The first six seal openings occur in uninterrupted succession. Within this, the first four and the fifth and sixth seal form two distinct groups. The first four are characterized by four horsemen that unleash chaos. The fifth seal reveals martyrs seeking vindication by God against their persecutors and the sixth seal is a picture the wrath of God inflicted on all men who opposed the Lamb (Revelation 6:1-17).

The seventh seal is separated from the first six by a parenthetical section describing the sealing of the servants of God and the innumerable multitude seen standing before the Lamb. The seventh seal produces a period of silence and introduces the next sevenfold series, the seven trumpets (Revelation 7:1-17, 8:1-6).

Scriptural Background

It is the Lamb who breaks open each seal and, thereby, reveals “things that must come to pass.” Having been enthroned, he begins to implement the contents of the Sealed Scroll. 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 seals do not picture events in chronological sequence; instead, the contents of all four are unleashed simultaneously by the Lamb. This is indicated by the summary statement in Verse 8; collectively, the four riders kill a “fourth of the earth.” The riders are modeled on the four chariots from the book of Zechariah, the “four winds of heaven” sent out to the four corners of the earth (Zechariah 1:8-11, 6:1-8).

This same image lies behind the “four winds of heaven” that are held back by angels standing at the four corners at the earth described after the sixth seal opening. The “four winds” are released only after the servants of God 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 at the proper time (Revelation 7:1-3).

In the book of Zechariah, the colors of the four groups have no significance beyond representing the winds that emanate from the four points of the compass. But in Revelation, the color of each of the four horses 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 the book of Revelation, they unleash destruction on certain of its inhabitants.

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 its seal; each executes only what it has been authorized to do, and only within its defined limits.

White Horse Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash
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 represents a process. This same present tense command is given to each of the four riders.

The rider is “given” authority by the Lamb and holds a victory wreath and a “bow.” He rides out, “conquering and that he should conquer.” The bow symbolizes conflict. This may suggest warfare between nations; however, the second rider is more directly 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, by gospel proclamation. This idea is strengthened by the later image of the heavenly rider on a white horse who defeats the forces of the Beast (Revelation 19:11).

However, other than a white horse, the two figures have nothing in common. This first rider is given a “victory wreath” or stephanos, whereas, the heavenly rider on a white horse wears many diadems. This first rider carries a bow, but the heavenly rider wields a sword. Moreover, the first horseman is commanded by the Lamb, whereas, the heavenly rider is the Lamb.

Verse 8 summarizes the effects of all four riders - death, famine, bloodshed, pestilence. Nothing positive results from them, they are agents of chaos and destruction. Since the first rider is part of this group, he cannot represent the Lamb, the church or the gospel. Like the others, he represents something destructive.
A better proposal is that the first rider is a counterfeit of the Lamb; he represents deceivers that attack the saints of God and claim 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, the Beast “conquers” saints, not nations or armies. When a satanic agent “conquers,” the victims are saints (Revelation 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. A 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 may 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” are attempts to infiltrate false teachings into the church; to conquer the saints by means of false doctrine.

Bowman Photo by Marcel Ardivan on Unsplash
By Marcel Ardivan on Unsplash
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 the patron deity of archery. Apollo was worshipped in the province of 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 the Latin language, he was Articenens, the “bow-carrier.” All this suggests a link between the first rider and Apollo (Revelation 9:11).

Most likely, the rider on a white horse symbolizes deceivers within the church that “conquer” by means of deception. They are forerunners of a final onslaught by the Beast, the False Prophet and Babylon. The “beasts of the earth” in Verse 8 reinforces this interpretation.

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. Deceivers prepare the way for the final assault by the Beast against the saints, a culmination of a centuries-long effort to destroy the church (Revelation 2:2, 2:6, 2:14-15, 2:20-24, 13:7-10).

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” (Revelation 12:3). This color links the two. Fiery red suggests bloodshed and this rider does, indeed, “take peace from the earth so that men should slay one another.” This image may point to civil strife, warfare between nations or both. The use of the verb sphazō (“slay”), rather than the more generic “kill” (apokteinō), suggests a third possibility.

Sphazō often connotes the slaying of a sacrificial victim and is so used in the book of Revelation, for the “slain” Lamb and for martyred saints. It is also used once for one of the heads of the Beast that was “slain, as it were, unto death.” The sense of the latter is an apparent slaying. This is the same verb used in the fifth seal for the martyrs found underneath the altar who were “slain for the word of God” (Revelation 5:6, 5:9, 5:12, 6:9, 13:3-8, 18:24)

The Greek noun rendered “sword” is machaira, a term for the short sword carried by Roman legions. It symbolizes the Roman authority to impose law and justice, including the right to execute offenders. The same term is applied to the Beast that kills saints with the “sword.” A different Greek noun is used to refer to the double-edged sword wielded by Jesus, the rhomphaia (Romans 1:16, 2:12, 13:1-10, 19:15-21)

The term machaira occurs one other time where it refers to the sword-wound of the Beast, “he that had the stroke of the sword (machairaand yet lived.” This event is described in Verse 3: “I saw one of his heads, showing that it had been slain (sphazōunto death, and the plague (plégé) of his death was healed” (Revelation 13:14).

The Beast from the sea is, purportedly, “slain” by a “sword” but is miraculously “healed.” This is an imitation of the Death and Resurrection of the Lamb. It is used by the False Prophet to deceive the inhabitants of the earth into giving homage to the Beast. The False Prophet “has two horns like a lamb but speaks as a dragon,” also in imitation of the Lamb (Revelation 13:1-12).

The second rider removes peace from the earth but in an ironic fashion; by causing the nations to slay the Lamb’s followers. This can only occur as and when the Lamb authorizes it; the authority to act is “given” to the rider. Similarly, the Beast can only wage war against the “saints” after it is “given” to him to do so. It is not coincidental that the fifth seal portrays the Lamb’s martyrs pleading for vindication against their persecutors (Revelation 13:7).

The logic is this: the persecution of the saints demonstrates God’s justice when He judges the Beast at the Great White Throne, along with the False Prophet, Babylon, the "inhabitants of the earth," and the Dragon.

The Third Seal (6:5-6)

The third rider represents economic distress, which is signified by inflated prices for basic commodities. This means difficult economic times for anyone affected but not widespread famine. Nothing in the verse indicates this situation is due to warfare or natural catastrophes, though either is certainly possible.

High prices and difficulties in 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. Possibly in view are attempts by pagan authorities or neighbors to coerce Christian compliance by economic restrictions (Revelation 2:9).

A quart of wheat for a denarius and three quarts of barley for a denarius.” A denarius was approximately one 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.

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 later as one of the commodities cut off from merchants by the downfall of Babylon (Revelation 18:13).

Economic difficulties impact entire societies, both Christians and pagans would be hurt by regional shortages or famine conditions. However, considering the overall picture of Revelation, more likely in view are economic obstacles placed upon 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)

Livid” or “pale-green” translates the adjective chlōros, a green, pale green or a yellowish-green shade of color. It is explicitly linked with death and “Hades” follows the rider, presumably, on foot in order 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” constitute cosmic enemies of God destined for consignment to the Lake of Fire. Nevertheless, as a result of his Death and Resurrection, they are under the control of the Lamb to serve his purposes for now (Revelation 1:18, 20:14).

Summary Statement (6:8b)

The final clause summarizes the destruction unleashed by all four riders. The plural pronoun “them” refers to all four riders, not to Death and Hades. It cannot refer to the latter; “Death” is the name of the fourth rider and “Hades” follows in his wake to deal with the dead.

Them” refers to the group that is “given” the license to kill a “fourth of the earth,” whether by sword, famine, plague or 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 four riders: wild beasts (white horse), sword (red horse), famine (black horse), and plague (pale-green or the “livid” horse).

This final clause borrows imagery from Ezekiel 14:13-21, in particular, from Verse 21: “For thus says Yahweh, How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four sore acts of judgment, sword, famine (limos), beasts (thérionand pestilence (thanatos), to cut off from it man and beast.” The Greek Septuagint version of Ezekiel uses the same Greek words for three of the four items that are listed in Revelation 6:8famine (limos), beasts (thérion), and plagues (thanatos).

The introduction of “wild beasts” or thérion appears out of place. However, the same Greek term is applied later to the two earthly agents of the Dragon: The “wild beast” from the sea and the “wild beast” from the earth (thérion). Both use deception and persecution to overcome the saints. Of special relevance is the description of the “wild beasts of the earth,” the same phrase applied to the False Prophet (“another beast ascending out of the earth”). The rider on the white horse is a forerunner of the ultimate “beast from the earth,” the counterfeit Christs bent on deceiving the saints (Revelation 13:11).

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 that satanic forces cannot cross.

Verse 8 also serves to transition the narrative to the fifth seal opening where John sees a group of martyrs underneath the altar. No explanation is given as to how or when they were slain. The context answers this; the martyrs are the victims of the hostile forces unleashed by the first four seal openings.

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