1. And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, Come.
The opening of a sealed document means that what it contains is now to be enacted, whether it be legislation or a deed or a will. The act of opening it sets it into motion.
2 And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and he that sat thereon had a bow; and there was given unto him a crown: and he came forth conquering, and to conquer.
3. And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, Come.
4 And another horse came forth, a red horse: and to him that sat thereon it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slay one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
In Rabbinic tradition, the white horse is the horse of orse is the horse of judgement. In particular red was symbolic of Edom, an ancient enemy of Israel and the name given by some of the Jews of the first century for Rome. Thus, these verses describe the conquest of Palestine by Rome.
5 And when he opened the first seal, I heard the third living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and behold, a black horse; and he that sat thereon had a balance in his hand.
6 And I heard as it were a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, A measure of wheat for a shilling, and three measures of barley for a shilling; and the oil and the wine hurt thou not.
7 And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, Come.
8 And I saw, and behold, a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death; and Hades followed with him. And there was given unto them authority over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The next two horses are the “fruits” of Roman conquest -- inflationary prices and ultimately martyrdom for the Christians.
9. And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
The souls of martyrs are especially dear to God- they are eternally very close to him. In the middle ages this idea was transferred to earth where the especially pious were buried within the Church as near the altar as possible.
10 and they cried with a great voice, saying, How long, O Master, the holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
Perhaps the call for judgement is a little harsh for our sensitive modern ears. But the desire that enemies be punished for their rebellion against God is a reality that every Christian under persecution feels.
11 And there was given them to each one a white robe; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little time, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, who should be killed even as they were, should have fulfilled their course.
There are a number of documents written around the same time as Revelation which describe the idea that there are a certain number of martyrs which must be killed for the faith. The meaning is that the enemies of God “may come this far, and no farther”. Their power is not unlimited; rather, they are limited by the will of God.
12 And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon became as blood;
In the Old Testament such things are evidence of God’s presence. For the suffering Christians of Asia Minor in the first century this is a message of comfort -- God is near, not far away.
13 and the stars of the heaven fell unto the earth, as a fig tree casteth her unripe figs when she is shaken of a great wind.
The “stars” are angelic beings which will enter into the battle for the people of God.
14 And the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
When God acts, the world moves.
15 And the kings of the earth, and the princes, and the chief captains, and the rich, and the strong, and every bondman and freeman, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains;
16 and they say to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17 for the great day of their wrath is come; and who is able to stand?
Though Domitian and his servants believe themselves above the rules of humanity, there is still one who will judge them: God. And they too will be called into judgment.
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