Revelation 6

Chapter 6

The anticipation ends as the Lamb opens one of the seals. Each living creature then calls out a tribulation on the earth it represents, like a royal attendant relaying a decree. The point is that the terrors to follow do not come apart from Christ's will but reflect it. It is written and so fixed in God's scroll, and the Lamb opens it. The call to "come" very much reflects the authority of heaven. And the awesomeness of the creatures and events is displayed in the first voice being "like thunder," which represents the fearful presence of God. We might assume the other creatures' voices were similar.
     A key question is whether each seal reflects a period in history - whether in the days of the 7 churches, since then or just before the end.  The prophetic "soon" we have been given for when the vision takes place could fit any of these, though with a focus on the end (22v6-7). The sixth seal certainly implies progression to the day of God's wrath, rather than each seal detailing what would span the entire church age. Seal 1 could be the rise of antichrist emporers in Rome. 2 could relate the violence of the centuries since then. 3 could refer to the scarcity we see as populations rapidly multiply today. 4 could refer to a time still future etc.
    However it is hard to see obvious progression in seals 1-4 through history, and the first four seals are set apart in being horses called out by the living creatures (the "4" stressing their impact to the 4 corners of the earth, 7v1). So it is quite possible their judgments will span history, with 5 then relating the longing for justice by the persecuted as history progresses and 6, that justice finally about to arrive. This would best speak to the 7 churches and all since who need an explanation for the death and destruction that marks human history. Moreover, the ascended Lamb calling out the judgments fits them stemming from his arrival in heaven and place amongst his people at the time of writing.
     Finally, though unlikely, it is also possible that the judgments do reflect a period immediately preceding Christ's return, with seal 1 speaking of the particular rise of the anti-Christ. As we read through the book, we may therefore need to revise our thinking. But the simple point is this: The contents of the scroll cannot be revealed until the seals are opened and the events come to pass. This makes it likely the scroll itself details the final judgment (6v17, 10v1-4, cf. Ezek 2v10). So we are learning that the relief of the end and the joy of the new creation it inaugurates cannot arrive without humanity having to endure these temporal judgments first. And so with the first readers we are encouraged to endure. Although the emphasis on judgement shows the riders are not primarily called out to persecute, the tribulations they bring would inevitably mean persecution and hardship for God's people who often suffer more in war and famine because of their status and desire to act righteously.
     The white horse, crown and conquering of the first horse suggest it could be Christ himself (Rev 19v11-12, cf. Ps 45v3-5). Certainly, every other reference to white in the book denotes purity. But the Lamb is opening the scroll, and the coming horsemen are all negative (cf. Zech 1v8-15). Indeed, v8 enables us to see that the riders aren't literal beings such at all - not even demons, but personifications of realities Christ sovereignty calls forth or permits. Most likely then, this is the spirit of antichrist - whether a specific individual or all Kings or governments (as seen by the crown) in history who claim divinity and oppress God's people. He has a white horse because he claims to be good or righteous, yet a bow because he dispenses harm as he conquers peoples. Even our own government claims to be doing what is right and just as it reinvents morality and prosecutes Christians who assert God's truth. The spirit of antichrist is very much alive.
     As the second seal is opened a second creatures calls a second horse. This is red, perhaps reflecting blood shed. It's rider will take peace from the earth causing people to kill each other. No doubt that's why he has the big sword. If the first rider is the Spirit of antichrist rather than a particular demonic being, this would be the "spirit" of war. Imprimatur is the word "permitted." God acts as ultimate cause, but is not responsible for the evil. He allows it for his purposes. As war has dominated history its hard to say this horse corresponds to a particular period. Certainly the language is very general and could always be applied.
     v5: The black of the third horse could denote despair. It is responsible for famine. The scales reflect the scarcity of food meaning that a quarter of a litre (four cups) of wheat sells for a day's wages etc, and oil and wine need to be protected so not lost. The voice speaking may imply the command regarding oil and wine is a divine limit on the famine, coming from the Lamb who is amongst the living creatures.
     The fourth horse is pale, no doubt reflecting the paleness of corpses. The rider is death. Hades follows (perhaps on another horse) just as entering the place of the dead follows the cessation of life. By being given authority over a fourth of the world to kill by violence, famine, plagues and predators we are seeing that there will always be tragedy in the world. This phrase is taken from the curses of God's covenant with Israel showing it is paradigmatic for how he treats the world. However the suggestion is that the majority (here three quarters) will enjoy life protected from such things, dying a natural death. This horseman therefore develops the previous two, but also limits them.
     As the Lamb opens the fifth seal things change as there is no horseman. It seems an altar is visible, perhaps at some distance before the throne as it would be before the Holy of Holies in the temple. And there is some visual representation of souls too, perhaps as embodied people. It could be that John's guide told him who they are. They are martyrs - those "slain" like the Lamb for their witness to him and the Word of the gospel they shared. That's why they are under the altar where the blood of sacrifice was sprinkled. They have given their lives for the Lord. Obviously not all believers are martyred, but these would be an encouragement to be ready to suffer the worst for Christ as many had to under the rule of Nero and Dominian.
     v10: Their loud cry reflects their longing for justice. And it acknowledges three truths about God: He is sovereign and so reigns as king and judge. He is holy and supremely majestic and pure in that justice. And he is "true" meaning that he judges rightly and will be faithful in acting for his own. They therefore ask how long until he judges their persecutors, avenging them. This may seem distasteful to the comfortable Christian. But it is a real longing for right justice in those who have been terrible abused and wronged for their faith. And it doesn't negate prayer that God would bless enemies by bringing them to repentance. Where he doesn't, justice is also a right request. The cry looks towards the universal and final judgment, and acknowledges this as a prayer in heaven for those left on earth. It's a prayer that might be said even now as atrocities are committed against believers. And it reflects the seriousness of such acts.
     The response is an encouragement of patience. They are "each" given a white robe reflecting their cleansed purity, glorification and privilege as the redeemed. They don't yet have resurrection bodies, so the stress is on their acceptability to God, character and status. The Laodicians were called to "buy" such white robes (3v18). The martyrs are told to "rest" a little longer, affirming they are now free from their torment and enjoying the relief heaven affords God's people. What we learn is delaying the end is the fulfilment of God's purposes - but here for the persecuted. There can be no final judgment until all the evil that is to be committed has been and all who are killed for their faith have been killed. This would give a sense of privilege in martyrdom to the reader, seeing this as an inevitable part of God's purpose rather than a shock. These are fellow "servants" and "brothers" stressing the high calling and fellowship of those martyred.
     As the Lamb opened the sixth seal there were numerous signs. By reflecting OT prophecy they teach that the day of the LORD predicted by the prophets is at hand. Since Sinai earthquakes have signified God's majesty, and the darkened sun and red moon mark his wrath. The stars falling like figs, the sky rolling up like a scroll, and the removal (cf. 16v20) of mountains and islands imply judgment is a sort of de-creation as was the case with the flood. It is also a preparation for a new creation - the "old order of things" passing away (21v4).
     The darkness at the cross suggests such things could be seen literally. However, it is this earth the meek will inherit, so we should not think it implies total removal. Indeed, how could the people exist to cry out in such circumstances let alone hide amongst absent mountains? And it is obviously impossible for stars to fall to the ground, unless a reference to something like meteorites alongside a darkening of the atmosphere. The language is probably therefore metaphorical - the shaking of creation signifying the terrifying nature of what is coming. There may also be some hint to the fall of evil angelic beings in the stars (1v20), oppressors who use islands (1v9), and human kingdoms established on mountains (17v9, 21v10).
     But this is coming on all people whether slave or free. However the powerful are singled out, no doubt because they have been behind much oppression and because they would be presumed secure: No human station can hinder judgment or exempt someone from it. As the verse ends: "who can withstand it?" It's a saluatory reminder of the responsibilities of anyone with power.

     Like frightened animals the people hide in caves and rocks, and call on rocks and mountains to shield them from the furious face of the creator-king and the wrath of the slain lamb. Death is preferable to wrath, as wrath means punishment. It is striking that the meek image of lamb is combined here with the language of wrath. We must not forget these two sides to Jesus goodness (Mk 3v5). The point is that after Christians have had to suffer so much for so long, the day of wrath has finally arrived. Jesus will ensure justice for those he redeemed.