Readings from Revelation 6 do not appear in our standard three-year Lectionary, which makes them perfect for the ongoing Churchmouse Campanologist series, Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential for our study as Christians.

Today’s reading is taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).  Sources are listed at the bottom of the post.

Revelation 6

The Seven Seals

1Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.

3When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

5When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. 6And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”

7When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

9When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

12When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”


The visions of the apostle St John, as given to him by Our Lord Jesus Christ, continue as He opens the scroll, described in Revelation 5, the first five verses of which we studied last week.  (That post also explains the importance of scrolls and their seals in the ancient world.) During this time — 95 AD — St John was in exile on the Greek island of Patmos.

The 17th century Calvinist minister and Bible scholar, Matthew Henry, writes that John sees the vision but not was written in the scroll itself.  Henry says that some things are known only to God Himself, therefore, we would be unwise to pretend to know what they are or to have a perfect understanding of them.  Therefore, it is worth remembering that what the apostle sees appears puzzling.  Perhaps this is the way it is meant to be until we reach the fullness of time.

Henry posits that Christ unrolls the scroll one seal at a time.  Therefore, a portion of the inside of the scroll is visible, then He must break another seal to see the next portion of writing.  Other scholars contradict this, but in line with how the chapter unfolds, Henry’s interpretation makes sense.

Furthermore, Henry believes that the events in Revelation 6 reveal what would happen to the Church between Christ’s Ascension and the reign of Constantine.  The Lutheran pastor, the Revd Thomas Messer, of Peace Lutheran Church in Alma, Michigan, has studied Revelation extensively and extends this time period to Our Lord’s Second Coming.  Pr Messer reminds us that the imagery in Revelation is taken from Jewish Messianic literature and is not to be taken literally.  The Jews would have known how to interpret the symbolism in Revelation.  The Four Horsemen of which we read here signify events to happen on earth.  Some may have already happened, depending on whose interpretation you follow.

In verse 1, Christ in all glory and majesty opens the first seal.  The living creature commanding John to pay attention may be a minister of the Church.  Henry believes the rider on the white horse is Jesus Himself (verse 2).  He gives several reasons for this.  One, only someone who was assured of victory in a war would ride a white steed.  Otherwise, the colour of the horse would make him a moving target. Two, the bow signifies the convicting nature of the words of Scripture, which pierces the hearts of men.  Three, Christ rides in victory, wearing His crown instead of a traditional warrior’s helmet.  As the verse says, ‘He came out conquering and to conquer’.  He wins the souls of men through Spirit and the Word.  The Gospel and the story of Christ win converts every day around the world and will continue so to do.

Pr Messer offers an interesting counterpoint.  He writes that the rider of the white horse is a deceiver, one who says he is on the side of good, yet is an oppressor of men.  How can Christ be among the horsemen if no one is His equal?  Furthermore, why would Christ carry a bow when He is depicted carrying a sword? We saw the sword is that of the Word and His mighty judgment in His letter to the church in Pergamum (Rev. 2:16).  Pr Messer’s white horseman is one who, by tyrannising others, makes a mockery of the freedom which Our Lord offers.  The white horseman could include Fabians, dictators, those who legislate for ‘the common good’, who wish to control our lives through seeming ‘law and order’.  Yet, they care nothing for us, only what blood, sweat and toil they can extract.

Christ opens the second seal in verse 3.  Again, Henry interprets this next horseman as relating to Our Lord, but this time, to His divine and terrible judgments.  To him, the red horseman of verse 4 symbolises His warlike judgment against unbelievers, who will exact an awful price for not following Him.  Yet, he offers a second interpretation: because they do not obey Christ’s commandments of love, unbelievers cannot help but fall into hate and combat.

On the other hand, Pr Messer sees the red horseman as revealing the bloodthirsty nature of tyrants who fight to remain in power at all costs.  They slay their enemies.  They initiate wars to show their power and seeming invincibility.  He notes that this has run the course of human history and will continue to do so until the final day.  Fortunately, he says, those who believe in Christ have a heavenly reward to look forward to.  Our earthly sufferings are but transitory.

I should note here that both men’s interpretations give us much hope.  Henry says that, whilst believers will fall at Christ’s feet in adoration, He will use unbelievers as His footstool.  Messer says that every time we hear Scripture read, Christ reminds us that He has control over world events.  He allows evil to happen in order for people to see the folly and destruction of iniquity and, thereby turn their hearts and minds to His will and His promise of salvation.

Verses 5 and 6 concern the black horseman, signifying famine and exhorbitant food prices.  Henry notes that eating bread by weight was mentioned as far back as Leviticus 26:26.  He interprets a literal famine, whereby the price of wheat (which we are getting a taste of now!) skyrockets such that many, especially the poor, will not be able to afford bread.  However, the rich will be able to buy whatever they like, as scarce as it is — hence, the voice that says, ‘Do not harm the oil and wine!’  Looking back over history, even today, famine and scarcity often follow wars.  Land is destroyed or appropriated to someone else.  Fewer labourers are around to farm, as they have died or been injured in combat. We see this happening frequently — and tragically — in some African nations.

Henry’s second interpretation is of a more spiritual nature.  A world which turns against God through sin and disbelief incurs His wrath.  Therefore, He withdraws His spiritual food — perhaps even providential protection — from us.  He leaves us to fend for ourselves.

Messer notes that the scales referred to in verse 5 are those used to weigh food, hinting at economic inequality.  He sees a link between those who wage war (verses 3 and 4) with those living high off the hog in these verses, those partaking of oil and wine.  Again, we see the inability of the rich and the powerful to esteem those of a lower socio-economic standard than they.

The ‘pale’ horseman arrives in verses 7 and 8.  The word refers to ‘pallid’ and ‘pallor’ — suggesting death.  Note that, as in life, war and famine precede death, and so it goes in this chapter.  Henry sees a two-fold interpretation.  The first is that after war and famine, we have pestilence — disease spread by surviving humans to each other as well as by animals.  He adds that many who are weak with hunger leave themselves vulnerable as prey to wild animals. This will affect only one quarter of the Earth; nonetheless, it will be a devastating time. The other thing to remember is that, for sinners, God’s punitive judgments are mighty and awful.  Evildoers will suffer terribly from disease and attacks by beasts of the earth.  Unbelievers can doubt this all they like, but God will not be mocked.  Many say, ‘I don’t believe in God, therefore, I am exempt from His judgment.’  I wouldn’t be too sure about that.  God created all of us.  He will judge all of us.

Messer says that all — even believers — must share in the physical death (denoted by ‘Hades’) of the pale horseman.  However, believers are not completely forsaken, as they will rise to share a glorious eternity with Christ in His heavenly kingdom.  So, if you’re reading this and you have not yet shared in that wonderful hope that only our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ can bring, pray that the Light of His Word comes to and lives in you.  What will happen to unbelievers after they leave this mortal coil is even worse than what Revelation 6 describes.  The Lord asks repeatedly to repent, for we do not know the day or the hour when He will return.  Ask Him today to be a part of your earthly life so that you may be saved.

Verses 9 – 11 describe the opening of the fifth seal.  With those concerning the four horsemen, each time a different voice called to John to note the vision therein.  Here, no one calls to our apostle.  In this part of the scroll, John envisages the martyrs who met horrible deaths in witness to Christ.  The blood they shed was the Blood of the Lamb.  And whilst their physical selves were destroyed here on Earth, they went on to live with Him in eternal glory.  This is what John sees.  He hears them petition the Lord for vengeance upon their enemies.  They knew they could not take it themselves.  It is written, ‘”Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19-20).  However, the time has not yet come for Him to exact his revenge — sadly, there are more martyrs to come.  When that number has been met, then He will act.  You can believe that when He does, it will be swift and sure.

Messer, a Lutheran, adds a thought about incense, useful for those (I won’t mention the denominations) who detest adiaphora (emphases mine):

The fact that they are seen “beneath” the altar symbolizes that it is the sacrifice of Christ upon the “altar” of the Cross which was their protection and that their prayers rise up like incense to Christ upon the altar. Incidentally, this is why it is NOT wrong or a “Roman Catholic thing” to use incense during the Divine Service. The Christian Church throughout history has used incense because it symbolizes the prayers of God’s people rising up to Him in His House. Also, the OT is filled with examples of incense being used in God’s Holy House (Tabernacle, Temple, Synagogue). Like so many other beautiful customs and traditions, this one has, sadly, fallen by the wayside because of unsubstantiated and uneducated fears of unknowing Christians who think that the use of incense “smells” of Roman Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy).

He also points out that the fact that the martyrs cry out to our Lord is evidence that we will be alive in eternity and not in ‘soul sleep’.  Their white robes signify that they are truly righteous overcomers.  They stood firm and walked true in the faith for His Name’s sake.

Verse 12 begins the description of the sixth seal, the last one to be described in this chapter.  Matthew Henry believes this refers to the destruction of Jerusalem but acknowledges some believe this already happened in 70 AD.  Would there be another?  Does this seal refer to events that happened during the Emperor Constantine’s time a few centuries later?  Henry is certain it relates to Jerusalem and to the Jewish ‘state’.  Remember that he was writing in the 17th century, so the modern state of Israel did not yet exist.

Messer takes a different viewpoint, one which I was taught growing up.  This seal refers to the end of the world.  As he says, it is something that everyone will know about and be affected by.  This isn’t just an event for believers.  Unbelievers will be shaken to their core.  All that seemed enduring and magnificent in nature will collapse.  Our planet and the universe will undergo upheaval never before experienced.  Verse 13 mentions the stars falling to earth.  Henry believes this refers to the collapse of the rich and powerful or to some clergy, not to actual stars in the firmament.

Imagine the sky rolling up like a scroll (verse 14).  I’m not too sure I’d like to be around to see that.  Verses 15 through 17 describe the terror and awe as everyone from all social strata seek shelter.  A dreadful day to be sure for those who are Christians in name only (CINOs) and even worse for those who have scoffed at God or expressed anger with Him.  They will pay a price, and this is only the beginning.  As for believers, He will raise them to eternal glory, as He always promised.

There may be those reading this who think, ‘So what? It’s only John’s say-so’.  Not exactly.  It is often helpful to read this chapter in conjunction with Matthew 24, in which Jesus Himself describes the world as we know it and its awe-inspiring terrible end.  Not many will be happy with their outcome.

Further reading:

Matthew Henry’s Commentary

‘Revelation 6 – The Three Sevenfold Visions’ – The Revd Thomas C. Messer (LCMS)