The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Revelation 6

Listen or read the following transcript as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of the End Times from Revelation 6

“I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!’

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’ ”

This is the Word of God. Let us bow in prayer.

Especially on so somber a theme, Lord God, we beseech you. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. For Christ’s sake, amen.

It is important to understand this chapter in the flow of the narrative that is found in the Apocalypse. In chapter 4, God is presented in all of his transcendent glory. The angels bow down before him and cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” He is surrounded by thunder and lightning, things that keep the approaching seer John from getting too close to the throne.

Around the throne are these glorious beings, the four living creatures and others who distance God from John. God himself is not pictured. His is the glory that is on the throne, and all of this transcendent splendor then is the backdrop for chapter 5. In chapter 5, we are told that the one who sits on the throne has in his right hand, the hand of power, a scroll sealed with seven seals.

It transpires that this scroll is nothing less, nothing other, than God’s purposes for both judgment and redemption. This is the scroll that bears all of those purposes, and like a first-century will, such as the will of the Emperor Vespasian that was sealed with seven seals, it is the slitting of the seals that enacts the document. When the Emperor Vespasian died, for example (though there were doubtless duplicates of his will), it was the slitting of the seals that meant the will was probated; that is, that it came into effect.

So now the drama is in the question … Who can approach such a God, such a God of transcendent glory and judgment, who has in his right hand the scroll that holds all of God’s purposes for judgment and blessing, take the scroll from his hand, and slit the seals, bringing to pass all of God’s purposes in judgment and blessing?

For unless those purposes are brought to pass; that is, unless the seals are slit and the scroll is opened, God’s purposes for redemption and judgment will not be brought to pass. And as John waits breathlessly to see what will happen, he discovers that no one is found in heaven or on the earth or under the earth who can approach such a God and bring about God’s purposes.

So he weeps. He weeps. It is as if all of God’s purposes will be frustrated. There is no hope. There is no way out. Maybe injustice will prevail. Maybe sin will triumph. It is a contradiction of all he knows of God. And then as he weeps, an interpreting elder touches him on the shoulder as it were and says, “Stop your crying, John. Look … Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, he has prevailed to open the scroll.”

So John stops, and he looks, and he says, “I saw a Lamb.” This is not another being. The point is that the one who is the Lion of the tribe of Judah is also the slaughtered Lamb. The Lord Jesus takes up both symbolisms in himself. He is the reigning King. He is the slaughtered Lamb. Yet he’s also the apocalyptic Lamb, the Lamb of authority, the Lamb with seven horns. Slaughtered, yes, but Lion, King, the one with all authority!

And he comes from the very center of the throne, one with God. He does not have to come from the outside. One with God, from the center of the throne. And he takes the scroll from him who sits on the throne, and all heaven breaks out in a symphony of praise. Now that vision, chapters 4 and 5 together, constitutes the backdrop for the rest of the book of Revelation.

So now in chapter 6, the Lamb, the Lord Jesus, slits the first seal, and then the second, and then the third. What you have now is the beginning of the enactment of what is in the scroll, God’s purposes for judgment and blessing. The seals then, as you read on in the book of Revelation, move on eventually to the seven trumpets and the seven vials, the seven bowls. In other words, all of it is triggered by the triumph of Christ who alone is able to bring to pass all of his Father’s purposes in judgment and blessing.

We cannot follow all of the seven seals tonight; it would take a little too long. We will look at six of them. They are broken up into parts. The first four constitute a group, all of judgment. Then five and six are separate and longer, and then in chapter 7, there is a long interlude, one might say, a parenthesis, until you come to the seventh seal at the beginning of chapter 8.

In fact, when you get to the trumpets, you get the same pattern: four trumpets, then three, and the last three are sort of broken up with an interlude between the sixth and the seventh. I cannot take the time to explore that tonight.

We shall look at the first four; that is, the four horsemen, and then the next two, and try to fit these themes into the flow of the book of Revelation and see what they say to us today. So let us begin then with the first four. What we find here (once you cut your way through the imagery) is military destruction, civil disorder, bloodshed, social breakdown, death. It is not a pretty picture.

1. The first four seals.

A. The first seal.

The white horse. Chapter 6, verses 1–2: “I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder …” These are the four living creatures who surround the throne, who constitute the base of the throne.

“… ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” Some have tried to argue that this white horse and its rider represent Christ coming in triumph at the end of the age. For in truth, in chapter 19, there is mention of another white horse.

In chapter 19, verse 11, John writes, “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him … and his name is the Word of God.” Oh, it’s clear that this is a reference to Christ.

If this is the same white horse, and if this is the same rider, the class is closed. But with all respect, I think that makes a mistake. It is not uncommon in Scripture for one symbol to function in several different ways, with the context being the defining element. For example, the lion can be the Lion of the tribe of Judah and point to Christ; the lion can refer to the Devil, going about as a roaring lion seeking who he may devour, and only the context is going to tell you which it is. Always, always, always look at the context.

Now in this particular case, this horse is one of a series of four, and the other three all have to do with destruction, onslaught, war, judgment; moreover, some of the symbolism comes from the book of Zechariah, chapters 1 and 6, where, again, there are horsemen of various colors. Now in the book of Zechariah, their primary function is to explore, to examine things in the far corners of the earth, whereas here they are actually to enact judgment.

But typical of the way John alludes to the Old Testament, he picks up some of the Old Testament symbolism and invests it with new color, as we shall see. The most important thing is here Jesus in this chapter (chapter 6) is already identified with the Lamb. Jesus is the Lamb here; he’s not the horse. He is the Lamb who slits the seals, and the horses, as it were, are released.

So in the bracketing of this symbolism here, this white horse is bound up with the pale horse and the red horse and the black horse. The white here signifies conquest, military conquest. The red, bloodshed. The black, scarcity, famine, poverty. The pale horse is the livid color of death. These are sent to release disasters on the earth.

Here then is a spirit of militarism, of conquest. The bow, for example, was a standard symbol for military power. The prophet Hosea says that God will break the bow of the wicked in the Valley of Jezreel. Jeremiah 51 says that the mighty men of Babylon are taken, and their bows are broken in pieces. It is a way of saying that all of their arms are crushed. Here, this rider on a white horse bent to conquest comes with a full panoply of armor, and he is given the right to serve as a conqueror bent on conquest. That means inevitably there is war, rapacity, plunder, death.

B. The second seal.

Verses 3–4. This horse is equally gruesome. “When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.” Have you noticed all these passive tenses: “… to him was given … to him was given the power … to him was given a large sword”?

This means that finally this is under the sanction of God himself. It’s not as if God has sort of slipped and things have gotten out of his control. No. The right hand of God held all of these purposes for blessing and judgment, and now as the seals are slit, God’s purposes are unfolding, and the power of war. Now this red horse, the power of unrest (probably civil unrest) “… to take away peace from the earth …” is let free.

If the first suggests invasion from without, this second may well emphasize especially civil war. Peace is taken away; that is, there is no further restraint. The destructive instincts of human beings come out. We read in Isaiah 19, “ ‘They will fight every man against his brother, every man against his neighbor on that day,’ says the Lord.” Zechariah 14 pictures things very similarly.

Of course in the first century some readers might have thought particularly of the struggles in the Roman Empire. Between AD 68 and AD 70 there were four emperors on the throne, endless civil strife and bloodshed, soldiers getting killed for no good reason, entire armies being killed, and then clans being massacred as people strove for power. Doesn’t sound all that much different from the Balkans, does it? Or Rwanda. “Things fall apart,” the poet said. “The center cannot hold.” Are not some of us a little nervous of the direction of things in Western countries?

When God comes in judgment, he takes peace from the earth. It’s almost as if God in his mercy has imposed a kind of peace that limits the destructive power of human beings when all of their venom is unleashed. And now God’s purposes even in judgment are unfolded this way. That’s what the text says.

C. The third seal.

The third horse and its rider. Verses 5–6. Again the third living creature interprets for him, “ ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand.” These are not the scales of justice. These are the scales for weighing out money, for weighing out quantities of food.

You wouldn’t bother to use scales to weigh out bread in the ancient world at a time of luxury, at a time of plenty, but once you’ve gotten down to the last few scraps, you weigh out your money carefully, and you weigh out your grain carefully. So it is here, “Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures …” Almost certainly the voice of Christ himself. He is the voice who speaks from the four living creatures again and again.

“ ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wages …” Now a quart of wheat was approximately what one strong man would eat, but a day’s wages were supposed to be enough for a man to support his entire family. In other words, these are inflationary times when money just won’t buy enough to eat. You may get a job, if you’re lucky, and then you work and work and work, and all you do is get enough to buy money to feed one person. And somebody in the family starts to starve.

Or you go for the cheap stuff; you go for the barley. Then you get three quarts for a day’s wages; three people can eat. And yet even here there are limitations. “… do not damage the oil and the wine!” The idea is, you see, that when rampaging troops came through in attacking hordes, they would steal the grain, they would steal the standing barley, they might steal the supplies of oil that were there, and sometimes they would just burn what was left to teach people a lesson.

But at very least, the vines and the olive trees were still standing. They might have been plundered, but their roots are deep inside the ground; they’re still left. There is always the possibility in another half season of fruit coming back. You might be hungry for a while, but it didn’t necessarily mean death.

So here then there is still a restriction on the amount of damage that is occurring. Yes, there is inflation. Yes, there is hunger, bordering on starvation, but this voice from the throne still says, “Do not damage the oil and the wine.” The idea, you see, is that as the book of Revelation gets on, the judgments become worse and worse and worse. In this first round, one-quarter of the earth is affected (verse 8), one-quarter of human beings. The idea is not (as we shall see) one-quarter of the ground geographically, but one-quarter of human beings are affected.

In the second round, the trumpets, one-third, a larger percentage of the earth, is under judgment. And then in chapter 16 with the bowls, there is complete and final destruction and death everywhere. The judgments get worse. Here in other words, there is still some restraint. Yes, there is hunger, but “… do not damage the oil and the vines.”

D. The fourth seal.

In the fourth horse, verses 7 and 8, now the color is the color of a corpse. Here the rider is named Death, and Hades follows close, his inseparable companion. Death and Hell. One-quarter of the earth; that is, a quarter of human beings sorely affected by what Ezekiel 14 calls the four terrible acts of judgment: sword (that is war); famine (for whatever reason); wild beasts (that is, once society began to break down in those days, the wild beasts would begin to take over.

You can show from bone remains and the like, for example, that there were lions still in the Middle East in those days); plague, pestilence. You say, “But these things are not really possible any more, are they? They are the old days. They are passed, are they not?” But our history books tell of times when bubonic plague swept through Europe and wiped out one-third of the population. And just at a time when we think that medical science is conquering all of these things, low and behold, new viruses erupt.

I wrote a book a few years ago called, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. In it I included an appendix on AIDS. I did the best research I could to get the best figures from the World Health Authority and elsewhere to find out just how many people were HIV positive. Best estimates at the time, a bare 5 years ago: 10 million. Best estimates today: 40 million.

Now the fact that most of them are in Africa doesn’t change things from God’s perspective; they are still human beings. The truth of the matter is if a vaccine was found tomorrow, 40 million people would still die. There’s no way it’s going to become effective enough, cheap enough, fast enough to save the millions and millions and millions of men and women in rural Africa.

Brothers and sisters, we haven’t seen the end of this. Never talk about the “war to win wars.” That’s just liberal piffle. Jesus says, “There will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is not yet.” That is what there will be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent them. It doesn’t mean we should not be amongst the foremost peacemakers. It doesn’t mean that we should not try with justice and integrity to do what we can to help.

It does mean that human beings will inevitably find ways of subjugating other human beings, of killing, of rampaging, of taking, of being cruel, of controlling, of grabbing. “There will be wars and rumors of wars.” That is what Jesus himself taught. And this is the same lesson taught again. Death, from sword and famine, from nature, from the plague.

But the very fact that the sword overlaps with the first one, that wild beasts and plague overlap with others, shows that these are not four horses coming at separate periods of time or anything of that order. The idea is that these are the things that accompany the onset of God’s purposes for redemption and judgment. As the seals are slit, in this book in the hand of him who sits on the throne, those are the things that unfold. Thus, the first four seals reflect the troubled times that presage the coming consummation.

2. The remaining seals.

The seals are now taken individually. I will deal with only the fifth and the sixth.

A. The fifth seal.

The cry of the martyrs. Verses 9–11. Note the change of venue. We are now not on the earth seeing the judgment wreaked by the four horsemen; now we find ourselves, again, in the throne room described in chapters 4 and 5. “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’

Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.” Now we need to find out here who cries out, what they cry out, and what they are told.

First, who cries out. Verse 9: “… the souls of those who had been slain.” Now clearly, in the context, slain because of the their Christian witness; they are martyrs. That they are described as souls may suggest (what is, in fact, the case) the intermediate state. Now it could just be a way of saying people, as in the old SOS expression, “Save our souls,” which does not mean save our souls but don’t bother with our bodies. It just means save us. So it is possible that souls here simply means people.

On the other hand, the language is peculiar for the Greek New Testament; it is rather strange. It may suggest that these people are waiting, like everybody else in the book of Revelation at this point, the final consummation, the final resurrection. They have already been taken into the very presence of God, but they are still short the final consummation, and they want that consummation to dawn.

They are there, we are told, “… because of the word of God and the testimony [of Jesus].” The expression here means the word from God, the testimony by Jesus that these people maintained. In other words, they’ve accepted the Christian revelation, the word from God, the revelation that God has given. The testimony attested by Jesus. They’ve accepted that. That has been their life’s bread.

They have understood the text that says, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Often there is deep hostility against such people because such people cannot easily be squeezed into the world’s mold. Oh, it’s possible to be some sort of faultless inerrantist who doesn’t read the Bible and doesn’t really believe it and not be shaped by the Bible, and then you’re a threat to no one.

But if you believe the Bible is God’s Word, if you’re the kind of inerrantist, the kind of believer, the kind of devout, reverent reader of the Word of God such that the Word shapes your life and your values and how you rear your family and what you do with your money and how you organize your time, the kinds of conversations you hold, the kinds of things you watch or do not watch on television, what kinds of things you find amusing …

It shapes your sense of humor. It shapes your sense of destiny, of values, of priorities, what you do in your retirement. If you’re that kind of believer, you’re a threat in society. Society has never been too happy with believers of that sort, and some of them get killed. The fact of the matter is that missiologists who observe this kind of thing say that there have been more Christian martyrs in the last 150 years or so than in the previous 1,800 years combined. That’s the truth.

So during this age of Christian expansion, there’s been more missionary work in the last 150 years than in the previous 1,800 years combined. It has also been the age of martyrdom. In fact, isn’t that what Jesus says? In the parable of the wheat and the tares he says, “Let both grow until the end,” both the wheat and the tares. They will grow until the end.

You ask, “Will the world get better? Will the world get worse?” And I say, “Yes! Both will grow until the end.” I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but let me tell you what is going to happen: there is going to be more war and there is going to be more evangelism and there is going to be more suffering. That’s what is going to be.

Jesus said, “Let both grow until the end.” There will be more martyrs and there will be more evangelism and there will be more revival and there will be more persecution. That is what is going to happen. And now these people who because of the word of God, because of the testimony of Jesus that they’ve maintained, have earned the deep hostility of the world and ultimately died. They are under the altar.

In the Old Testament, the blood of the bull was poured out at the base of the altar. The blood represented its life; it was under the altar. So as someone has said, this is a way of saying that their untimely deaths on earth are, from God’s perspective, a sacrifice on the altar of heaven. Their blood has been poured out. These people are now in the very presence of God, hiding as it were under the altar.

That’s the way Paul views his impending martyrdom in 2 Timothy 4:6. His coming death he sees as an offering in which he poured out. He uses the same language in Philippians 2:17. So these people then are Christian martyrs. They are Christian martyrs because in an age when it was not popular they held to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. That’s who cries out.

Second, what they cry out. Verse 10: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Many readers of the Bible find this an incongruous passage. Surely this doesn’t square with what the Lord Jesus himself demonstrated on the cross, does it? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Or Stephen, the first Christian martyr, crying out in Acts 7, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”

But this … this is bloodthirsty vengeance. Thus, one commentator writes, “It should be frankly recognized that this is not a Christian prayer.” Now how should we think our way through these things? Let’s take an analogy from an entirely different area. Let’s think for a moment of how the Bible speaks about the love of God.

The Bible speaks, for example, of the love of God for the world. The world in John’s gospel, “God so loved the world,” John 3:16, is not so much a big place as a bad place. The world in John’s use is the moral world, you and I in rebellion against God. God’s love in John’s gospel is marvelous, not because the world is so big and God’s love manages to reach that far, but because the world is so bad and God’s love manages to reach so deep.

There’s a sense in which God loves the world, and that sense is his stance toward this world is salvific. “Turn, turn, why would you die? The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says the Lord. On the other hand, in some passages God has a peculiar love for his elect, a special love, a choosing love.

Thus, he says to Israel, “Why are you my special people? Is it because you’re wiser than the other nations? Or more powerful? Is it because you’re more mighty? Or more intelligent? Or more obedient? No, it is because the Lord loved you.” That is, he loved them as opposed to others. It was his elective love. Or in the book of Malachi, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” That is, there is an elective love in God. Same sort of thing in Romans.

There’s another way in which the Bible speaks of the love of God. Sometimes the love of God is presented in Scripture as a peculiar kind of parent-child relationship. When I say to my children, “I expect you to obey,” then they protest and smother me with kisses, saying “I love you, Daddy,” after they’ve done something naughty again …

Your sign of loving me is that the next time you don’t do it. Don’t smother me with kisses if, in fact, you’re planning on doing it again. They know, however much I love them, that it’s not going to save them from a good swat if, in fact, they defy me. And thus, the book of Jude, chapter 1, verse 21 says, “Keep yourselves in the love of God …” Oh, now there’s one sense, of course, in which you can’t escape the love of God.

In the general sense, God is loving toward this fallen world, even as he is also wrathful toward this fallen world. And there’s a special sense in which you are amongst the elect, God is not going to remove his love from you. That’s the second sense. But in this third sense, this love is poured out from father to child, and keeping yourself in the love of God means you jolly well obey and do what he says.

Jude isn’t the only one who speaks like that. Jesus teaches us the same thought in John, chapter 15, after the language of the vine and the vineyard. He says, “Keep yourself in my love just as I remain in my Father’s love. As I remain in my Father’s love by obeying everything he gives me to do, so you remain in my love by obeying everything I give you to do.” Jesus remains in his Father’s love because he obeys him perfectly. We’re to remain in Jesus’ love by obeying him perfectly. That’s what the text says.

Now clearly that’s not the same thing as the kind of general salvific stance of God toward the world, nor is it quite the same as the elective love of God; it’s a kind of relationship between father and child that’s already been established. Now those are quite different ways of talking about the love of God, and they are all found in the Bible. If you absolutize any one of them, you will quickly destroy biblical theology.

For example, if you absolutize the first one … All of love is God’s love for this vast wicked world … you never talk about elective love or you never talk about relationship love … then you never have any place for all the Bible does say about election, you never have any place for obedience, but you don’t need it, because God is this kind of sentimental being in the sky who just spends all of his existence loving people. Poor chap.

If on the other hand, you absolutize the second one and forget the other two, then God has a direct love for the elect, and all the rest, well, quite frankly, there is no stance of mercy or generosity or kindness, despite the fact that the Bible insists Jesus is this again and again. God is the kind of God who sends his sun and his rain upon the just and upon the unjust; that’s an act of love.

Or if you absolutize the third one, you’re sunk in a swamp of merit theology at the end of the day. It all depends on how much I obey God. If I obey God enough, he loves me enough; if I don’t obey God enough, he hates me. Clearly what is necessary, then, is an understanding of God’s love that embraces all that the Bible says.

Part of the job of thinking Christians; that is, the theologians, people like you and me, thinking Christians who read their Bibles, is to observe all of these different things and hold them all together and to try to put them together in a way that is biblically faithful so that your total picture of the love of God is right and faithful and true to what God is and what he is like. Now exactly the same sort of reasoning must take place in a passage like this.

If you come to a passage like this and absolutize it, then what you get is a kind of warrant for endless vendettas and judgment and vengefulness. On the other hand, there is a streak in Western liberal Christendom that quotes our dear Lord’s words on the cross as if it’s the whole (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”) but somehow they are not concerned for all the passages that speak of the holy anger of God, the justice of God, the terror of the Lord, the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom …

They are just not interested in justice or holiness, unless it’s the justice that happens to be on the current political agenda, but not justice from God’s point of view, that which protects the sanctity, that is devoted to his holiness, that is passionate about upholding his cause, and yet is at the same time, personally distanced in a sense so that it is not my reputation that is at stake, but God’s.

Now if you absolutize one or the other, you lose something sacred in Scripture. It is important Christians not be bitter, vengeful people. It is important that we be forbearing. It is also important that we be passionate about holiness and concerned about upholding God’s name and integrity. You see, these people are not individually going up to God and saying, “I want justice done. I was martyred, and it wasn’t fair!” That’s not what they’re saying. Do you see? They’re not crybabies.

Third, what they are told. They’re in the presence of God, and as they see the transcendent splendor of the throne of God, collectively they say, “How long, O Lord? How long do you put up with this? Are you not concerned to enact judgment? Your people, your covenant community, died!”

It is God who says, “There are more still to die. There are more of your brothers and sisters who will die. There are more martyrs to be named.” God knows them every one. He remains sovereign, and when their full number is accomplished, then judgment will be effected, and not before. Wait.

That is, in fact, what they’re told in verse 11, isn’t it? It is not a question then of God controlling their impatience but assuring them he is still in charge. The cause of God will be vindicated. Meanwhile, they are to enjoy their blessings: the white robes, symbols of purity and blessedness. That’s what John sees in the fifth seal. You see, it’s still not the final consummation.

This is opening the seal to get to the final consummation, but meanwhile, effecting God’s purposes of blessing and judgment. This is what will take place. There will be these four wretched horsemen on the earth, and there will be martyrs in heaven, and this is what is going on as God brings to pass his purposes for judgment and blessing.

B. The sixth seal.

Verses 12–17. This earthquake, first of all, a sign of God’s visitation. So often this is the case in the Old Testament. In Sinai in Exodus 19:18, there is a great earthquake, and the people fear. The same in Isaiah 2. In Haggai 2, God himself says, “Once again in a little while I will shake the heavens and the earth.” When everything is in a right order, there is a sense of serenity, of stability, and in a theistic universe of providential order, but now there is instability, so the instability in a theistic universe itself becomes a sign of judgment.

A couple of days ago I was in Japan, and I took the bullet train by Kobe. You can still see where everything is flattened and shattered. Five thousand people died. It wasn’t even a large quake. Verse 13: “The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair …” There was a particular breed of goat that had very black hair, so sackcloth made of that particular hair was extremely light absorbing.

“… the whole moon turned blood red …” This has happened before, after all, when Jesus died on the cross the sun turned black. “… the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind …” “Ah,” you say, “Don, this is pretty primitive stuff. Everybody knows that the stars are much bigger. You can’t speak of the stars falling on the earth. It doesn’t make sense.”

“The sky receded like a scroll …”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

Well, undoubtedly there are some common Hebrew metaphors. In Hebrew thought, nature reflects what is going on in the spiritual arena. The hills dance for joy, the trees clap their hands, and stars fall from the skies. Part of it is that kind of language. Everybody knows the sky is not a scroll, but it’s a wonderful picture, isn’t it?

You know how you take a scroll, and it’s all tight. It has sat there for a long time, and then when you open it up, it’s almost like a cartoon. You push it back, and you let go of the ends. Slap, bang; it goes again like it’s on an elastic spring. You pull it again, and it all goes together. So also, the whole scroll, which seems so stable, the panoply of God … It’s all closing. Now just where the metaphors end and the final consummation of the new heaven and the new earth begins, I’m not sure.

One of the things you get in the book of Revelation is a kind of approach to prophecy that you get in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament you find particular judgments of God on Babylon or Assyria or the like that become a kind of model, a typology, that ultimately points to the ultimate judgments of God.

So also in the book of Revelation. You find judgments on ancient Rome and on the Roman Empire that become a kind of prefiguring, a kind of typology, that points to the end. So you have this language of earthquake and shattering and judgment, the universe disrupted, all signs pointing to the end. And the language, of course, is exactly the kind of language that Jesus used regarding the end.

In Mark chapter 13, for example, do we not read words like this, “For then there will be great distress, unequaled …”? Do we not read, “Great signs and miracles to deceive—if it were possible, even the elect”? Do we not read of times of war and rumors of war? Reread Mark chapter 13, Matthew chapters 24–25. These are horrific passages that we must dwell on and think about.

If we cannot detect exactly where to draw the line between Hebrew metaphor and the final windup of the universe, hear the word of Jesus, “But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

Verses 15–17 depict the terror. We remember the language of Isaiah 13:7–8, “Everyone’s heart shall melt; they will be in anguish like a woman in travail.” Malachi 3: “But who can endure the day of his coming? […] For he is like a refiner’s fire.” You see, the idea here is that what sinners dread most is not death, but the unshielded presence of the glory of God.

At the end of the day, the people here are not frightened of the earthquake; they are frightened of the coming of the end as the established orders fall apart. It is a terrifying thing to stand in the presence of God, without hope, without knowing him, without being accepted by him. Who shall stand on the day of his coming?

If kings and princes are mentioned, it’s not because they are always the worst of human beings, but because if any might normally feel secure, it is the upper end of society. But here, panic and confusion are everywhere. Princes, generals, the rich, the mighty, slave, every free man … everybody.

“They hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” Even among the very things that are falling apart and quaking. Better that than to face the wrath of him who sits on the throne and the Lamb. “They call to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us! Hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’ For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

There’s a song I learned when I was a boy. In terms of quality of poetry it’s pretty abysmal, but it still captures what this text is about.

I dreamed that the great judgment morning

Had dawned, and the trumpet had blown;

I dreamed that the nations had gathered

To judgment before the white throne;

From the throne came a bright shining angel,

And he stood on the land and the sea,

And he swore with his hand raised to Heaven,

That time was no longer to be.


And O, what a weeping and wailing,

As the lost were told of their fate;

They cried for the rocks and the mountains,

They prayed, but their prayer was too late.


The rich man was there but his money

Had melted and vanished away;

A pauper he stood in judgment,

His debts were too heavy to pay;

The great man was there, but his greatness

When death came, was left far behind!

The angel that opened the records,

Not a trace of his greatness could find.


And O, what a weeping and wailing,

As the lost were told of their fate;

They cried for the rocks and the mountains,

They prayed, but their prayer was too late.


The moral man came to the judgment,

But self-righteous rags would not do;

The men who crucified Jesus

Has passed off as moral men, too.

The soul that had put off salvation,

“Not tonight; I’ll get saved by and by,

No time now to think of religion!”

At last, he had found time to die.


And O, what a weeping and wailing,

As the lost were told of their fate;

They cried for the rocks and the mountains,

They prayed, but their prayer was too late.

This is not the end of depictions like this in the book of Revelation. Perhaps the most horrifying picture of judgment in all of the book of Revelation is found in chapter 14, verses 9 and following:

“A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.’ ”

That is what the text says. Then later in chapter 14, verses 17 and following, there is a picture of God, as it were, tramping out a winepress. In the ancient world a great stone vat was used as a winepress. The grapes were put inside, and slave girls would go in barefoot and tramp down the grapes, tramp down the grapes. There would be holes in the bottom, the juice would come out, and that juice would be fermented and make the wine. And more grapes would go in, and they would tramp them down and tramp them down.

Now we are told that human beings are put into the winepress of God’s fury, and God tramps them down until their blood rises to a horse’s bridle for miles. That is the picture of the Word of God. Do not tell me it’s metaphorical, for if it’s metaphorical, it’s metaphorical of something pretty horrific.

I fear that the reason why we are so uncomfortable before such passages today is not because we have arisen to a higher order of evolutionary greatness which manages to dispatch those figures to our primitive past but because we have lost the notion of sin and its odium and offensiveness before God. We just do not see ourselves as God sees us.

Yet, this is not how the book of Revelation ends. For in truth, in the book of Revelation, the glory of God’s grace is also measured by the terror of the fury. God, in the book of Revelation, has the right to judge us. This is the kind of rebellious creatures we are. In hell itself people will not be crying out, “God have mercy on me, I would like to believe!” They will still be shaking their puny fists in his face and defying the God who made them.

That’s what the last chapter of the book of Revelation says, “Let him who is filthy be filthy still.” Still no repentance. Still attracting the wrath of God to them. Forever. Yet, he is also the God who sent his Son to die and bear the fury of God’s wrath that human beings, like you and me, people who deserve his wrath, people who without him would otherwise cry to hide from the presence of the Lamb, instead know we are accepted in the Beloved because the just has died for the unjust.

So we then turn to God, and instead of saying, “Hide us from the wrath! Hide us from the wrath of the Lamb!” we cry with the saints in every generation, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” Why? Because we’re better? God help us. Because we’re smarter? Because Jesus died for sinners, of whom I am chief. Because what sets aside the wrath of God has been provided by the love of God.

Because there is no hope for us but the Lord Christ who died, the Lamb of God, the one who was wounded for our transgressions, who was bruised for our iniquities, who bore in his own body our sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

3. Some practical biblical truths.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not conclude with some practical biblical truths to draw this together.

A. This is my Father’s world.

Never for a moment think when things are falling apart that God has lost control. The picture here and throughout the book of Revelation, even in the portraits that are most grim and defying, are of a God who is still in control. It was given to this angel, or it was given to that horseman, or it was given to that spirit to do such and such. This is my Father’s world.

B. This world stands under his judgment.

Does not Jesus himself insist that is the case? Does not John write that the wrath of God already abides on those who do not know Christ? It is not that God is waiting to see which way we’ll go, whether we’ll be good and he’ll bless us or whether we’ll be bad and he’ll curse us. We’ve already staked out our independence. We’ve insisted that we want to go our own way.

Isn’t that what the prophet said 700 years before Christ? “We have turned everyone to his own way.” We are all highly original sinners. “But God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” That is our hope. That is what the people of God trust. This world already stands under judgment. From a biblical perspective it is never too surprising that judgment falls; it is always far more surprising that it hasn’t fallen sooner.

C. For those with eyes to see, every instance of judgment is a prefiguring of ultimate judgment.

There are no accidents in God’s universe. None. None. It doesn’t necessarily mean that when judgment falls on this person as opposed to that person that this person is necessarily worse. Oh no, Habakkuk had to learn that lesson. Sometimes God will use a very wicked superpower in order to bring judgment to his own covenant people who by all measurable sociological analyses are less wicked than the superpower.

Does not Jesus say in Luke chapter 13 that those on whom the tower fell were not more wicked than those on whom the tower did not fall? But he also says, “Yet you should all repent, lest you also perish.” How many at the end of World War II thought, “Has that taught us a lesson? Has that put a judgment over human hubris?”

All of our sins by which we think we can organize our way out of anything and teach our way out of anything and put capital into things to solve anything … What were the nations that were most affected by the mighty Reformation? Germany, England, and through England, America. What were the nations caught up primarily in the war? When judgment falls, every instance of judgment is a prefiguring of ultimate judgment. Never forget it!

D. That final judgment is incontestable and irreversible.

There is no higher court of appeal.

E. Our only hope, and it is enough, is the Lamb of God.

The slaughtered Lamb of the previous chapter. The Lamb who brings about God’s purposes of both judgment and blessing. That is why the church stands to sing:

Thou art the everlasting Word,

The Father’s only Son;

God manifestly seen and heard,

And heaven’s beloved one.


Worthy, O Lamb of God, art Thou,

That every knee to Thee should bow.

But perhaps you feel the terror of God on your soul tonight. You know you have never trusted him. Will you not cry out even where you sit this moment? Cry to him from your heart heavenward and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

You will find that he is a gracious and good God, who reconciles sinners like yourself, like me, to him, who repent and place their faith in Jesus. He works in us to draw us. He transforms us. Will you not cry out where you sit, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”? And then you will join the church in singing, “Worthy, O Lamb of God, art thou, that every knee to Thee should bow.” Amen.