Imprecatory Prayers?

With all of the study that takes place each week in the lead up to teaching a section of scripture, I often stumble across really good teaching by theologians and pastors whose mind is far more developed than my own. I greatly admire men like G.K. Beale, James Hamilton, Tom Schreiner, and D.A. Carson to name a few. I may not agree with them on every point, but often their wisdom and insight into passages of Scripture is very edifying.

The past few weeks/months I’ve been reading and studying closely the book of Revelation. In my notes on this site I’ve shown how the prayers of the saints in chapter six (the 5th “Seal”) actually serve as a catalyst for the judgments that God sends upon the earth. The power of prayer, and God’s ordination of it as a means through which He works, is plainly seen in these verses. But it leads to an interesting question: should we pray these kinds of imprecatory prayers? And if so, how ought we to think about and go about this?

In his commentary on Revelation, James Hamilton provides some wonderful insight that has been profitable for me, and perhaps would be worth your time to consider:

If you have ever wondered whether you should pray the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms, let me encourage you to look again at the way the martyrs pray for God to “avenge” their blood in 6:9-11. You bet you should pray those imprecatory prayers. Pray that God would either save His enemies, those who oppose the gospel and the people of God, that He would bring them to repentance, or if He is not going to do that, that He would thwart all their efforts to keep people from worshiping God by faith in Christ. Pray that God would either save those who destroy families and hurt little children or thwart all their efforts and keep them from doing further harm. Those prayers will be heard. Pray that God would either redeem people who are right now identifying with the seed of the serpent, or if he is not going to redeem them, that he would crush them and all their evil designs. God will answer those prayers.

Amen!

 

Revelation 6: The 5th and 6th Seals

Here are my study notes from yesterday morning which covered Revelation 6:9-17, namely the 5th and 6th seals, as well as some more general notes on recapitulation as a literary form in the book.

The Fifth Seal

6:9-11 When 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.

George Ladd says, “Here John appears to have in mind all Christian martyrs of every age, perhaps those of the end time in particular.” I don’t know that I agree with his futuristic bent, but I do think it accords with all Christians – and not simply those who were physically killed for the name of the Lord, but all those who died in their faith having stood firm against the devil. In other words, for all saints who are identified with the slain lamb.

Beale makes a good case that these men and women are to be identified with all Christians who have died in Christ by pointing to the rewards, which correspond to those in chapters 2-3. Ladd says that in a very real sense we are all called to die to ourselves and put on the Lord Jesus as His followers. Therefore we take up our cross, which is a way of saying that we take up the mantle of suffering which is ours as Christians.

The life of a Christian is often one of suffering. Jesus said this:

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, [22] and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:21-22)

Later on in Matthew we see that Jesus lays before us the complex idea that in His sending of prophets to the people in the OT, He knew they would be killed and He orchestrated these things in order to lay the case against the wicked:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, [35] so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23:34-35)

What is wrapped up in this saying is the same thing that applies to those in the New Testament and to us today. In the deeds of the righteous and their/our proclamation of the truth of God, we are both God’s instruments of salvation and also His instruments of judgment.[i] Not that we judge anyone, but that God’s words convict the world of His righteousness and their sinfulness. Therefore the gospel acts as a separating fire (Luke 12), which burns up the chaff and refines the gold.

Beale is likely right to note the special NT emphasis due to the “witness” being associated with these men. As someone who has studied John’s gospel I can personally attest to (no pun intended) the importance of the word and concept “witness” in John’s writing. Perhaps a similar emphasis is intended here. If so, that means that the witness these folks “bore” is that of identification with the Lord Jesus.[ii]

6:10 They 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?”

This cry mimics the words in Zechariah 1, which follow the vision of the horseman in that book as well:

Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ (Zechariah 1:12)

The idea here is that these saints have been killed by the tribulations of the four horsemen. These are the faithful Christians who have stood for the Word of God throughout the ages, and cry out for the Lord to bring about the final word of justice.

Their appeal is to the character of God. He is the “sovereign Lord” and is both “holy and true” and therefore will not wink at sin.

The appeal is a type of imprecatory prayer upon the earth dwellers who have persecuted Christians, and rebelled against the sovereignty of God. They seem to be saying, “Since you are sovereign over all things, you must carry out justice Lord, in accordance to your holy character.”

This reminded me greatly of that important passage in Exodus 34 where God declares His name to Moses:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. [6] The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7)

These saints are not spewing bitter vengeance, but a love for the reputation of God. And they know that the only way for God’s character to be upheld is for justice to be carried out. For all sin must be punished. You are either covered in the blood of the lamb, protected as it were, by the altar of His sacrifice, or you are naked and defenseless to bear the wrath of God for all of your sins.

The warning is made strikingly clear by the author of Hebrews who says:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” [31] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:29-31)

What is the takeaway? May we have a similar regard for the reputation of the Lord we serve.

6:11 Then 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.

The idea here is that these saints have been killed by the tribulations of the four horsemen. These are the faithful Christians who have stood for the Word of God throughout the ages, and cry out for the Lord to bring about the final word of justice.

We can tell they are believers because they are described as those “slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” Furthermore they are given “a white robe” which often signifies the reward of those who have died in Christ. Lastly we see their position as being “under the alter” and Beale recommends that we see this not as the Brazen alter of sacrifice, but as the alter of incense which is before the throne of God. This fits well with the reality that only Christ has occupied that Brazen alter in an ultimate sense. Ladd disagrees and sees no real issue with combining the idea of the sacrificial death of saints with the brazen alter.

Either way, the image conveys to us that these saints are being poured out as an offering to the Lord through their witness and identification with the slain lamb. They are protected under the altar of the holy temple, which is in the midst of the throne of God.

What is interesting to me is that on earth we long for the return of Christ – we are plagued by sin and by tribulation. Yet even here in heaven we see that there is a longing for the Lord’s return, and for His vindication. These saints are in a place of rest, yet God is telling them that the time is not yet ready for the end.

The message of the 5th seal is that troubles in life are not meaningless. And, like in the rest of the book, Christians are given hope and encouraged that God is sovereign over all the circumstances in our lives and in the world in general.

We are told to endure for the sake of His name. We are to “take up our cross daily” as Jesus exhorts in the Gospels (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23), and to endure the tribulation brought on by the four horses.

Therefore, Christ the Lamb is the One will one day come back in great glory to renew the earth and heavens and judge the quick and the dead. It is that Day of Judgment which John describes next…

The Sixth Seal

6:12-17 When 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, [13] and 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. [15] Then 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, [17] for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Now at the opening of the sixth seal John sees a vision of the final judgment, which the saints from the previous seal had longed to see. He sees the great and mighty Day of the Lord – the Day described as one in which no one could stand against the wrath of God.

Like so many other images in Revelation, these verses are steeped in OT imagery – especially from Isaiah 34. Beale actually cites Isaiah 13:10-13; 24:1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Ezekiel 32:6-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15-16; and Habakkuk 3:6-11 among others.[iii]

The images include:

  • A great earthquake
  • Sun becomes black
  • The Moon becomes like blood
  • Stars fall to the earth
  • Sky vanishes like a scroll
  • Mountains and islands were completely moved
  • All people (great and small) who dwell on the earth hide and long for suicide

The Isaiah 34 passage states:

Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. [4] All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. [5] For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction. (Isaiah 34:3-5)

Its nobles—there is no one there to call it a kingdom, and all its princes shall be nothing. (Isaiah 34:12)

Another key passage is found in Joel 2:

The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. [32] And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:31-32)

The sum total of these things is a cataclysmic day in which God announces His presence in a very “earth shattering” way. The final judgment, the Day of the Lord, the great coming of our Lord Jesus has shaken the very foundations of the earth. The idea here is to show the fear of all of those who dwell on the earth at the time of the Day of the Lord.

This also parallels Jesus’ Olivet discourse, especially Matthew 24:29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29)

Therefore what this scene is showing us is the final judgment and second coming of our Lord. For Jesus then goes on to say:

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. [31] And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31)

Recapitulation Reminder

So here we are at the end of chapter 6, with still 16 other chapters to study, and we’re already reading about the final scene of the judgment of God. How can this be? Well, as I have mentioned before, Revelation is a book that contains a series of visions – they are recapitulated over and again to reiterate for us different aspects of the same scene. Like multiple cameras setup at a football game to capture different angles of the action, these snap shots showcase different perspectives on the same scenes. We might think of Jesus who taught continually about the kingdom of God, yet in the Gospel accounts we find Him using different analogies that emphasize many truths and realities upon which that kingdom is founded. Many perspectives on the same truth. Many ways to get at the same reality.

As I was driving to the hospital with my good friends Mike and Tracy yesterday, on our way to visit a loved one, and our discussion tended toward the importance of “retelling the old story” of the redemptive plan of God for mankind. Not simply the Romans road, but the whole of the story from Genesis through Revelation and how it all fits together. We decided that it is in retelling the story that Christians gain strength and are encouraged in all God has done for us in Christ.

Could it be that this retelling of the story again and again in Revelation is essentially getting at the same thing? Jesus wants to show us in manifold ways the old old story, and to showcase His plan of redemption again and again for us so that we won’t forget and so that we’ll learn to treasure His plan and so that we’ll take comfort in the truth that He’s in control of said plans.

Literal or Figurative?

There is a lot of debate about whether these images are figurative or literal. I tend to think of them as figurative because in the context of this passage we’ve read about the four horses and those slain as being under the alter, among many other figuratively styled literary conveyances of ideas. These devices seem to be bound up together in continuity with the rest of the passage, not suddenly changed in these verses to accommodate a different literary form – which would seem odd. Beale gives OT application to the argument, but I am not an OT scholar. However, I am a student of literature, and to go from reading the previous verses symbolically to reading these in some other way, would seem inconsistent.

So I think these images are conveying a deeper meaning – deeper in that its mysterious to some, but to those who carefully study these things, and know their OT, and have wisdom from God, they are made clear. And in their clarity there is richness that would not be there save for this style of conveying the point.

NOTE: There are several evidences for believing these things continue to be figurative, and Hendriksen points out that even if one considers the stars falling to earth, that would never work physically/literally because many such stars would be bigger than the earth.

Therefore the question is what do these images convey? I think they convey great dread at the second coming of our Lord.

Some Concluding Thoughts

One of the things that struck me while reading the passage was how John is here shown the absolute dread that will be upon anyone dwelling on the earth who do not belong to Jesus (note especially verse 32 in the Joel passage).

The reaction of the people who are left on the earth is telling – first they want to hide. But since they obviously can’t hide, they realize that there is no hope. Adam and Eve, who tried to hide after their sins (Genesis 3:9) realized this truth quickly. And throughout the prophets we read of men on the earth who call on the rocks and caves to hide their idolatry (Hosea 10:1-3, 8, 11:2; Jeremiah 4:23-30; 5:7 – cf. Beale Pg. 400 who makes the case well).

Beale explains, “The unbelievers’ idol-refuge, the earth, muse be removed because it has been made impermanent by the pollution of their sin, but the eternal home of believers with their God will remain.” What he is getting at is that humanity “has become perverted and has worshiped the creation (cf. Romans 1:21-25; Revelation 9:20).”[iv]

Therefore this is the crux of the matter. There are two main points here:

  1. This will be a day in which the truth that weighs down every man or woman who doesn’t acknowledge God subconsciously, will now be brought to light in such a way that no one will escape its reality: there is no hope apart from Jesus.

There is no escape without the help of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God – He is the only hope. Caves will not hide you from God’s wrath, only the altar of the sacrifice of Christ who covers us in His blood will sufficiently protect us from the holy wrath of God on that day.[v]

  1. The suffering of the elect is not meaningless. God has a purpose in all of these things – a purpose which leads to our refinement and His glory.

As Tim Keller says, “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”[vi]

Now, John is shown another vision that concerns the elect. That will take up the entire focus of chapter 7 and some label this an interlude. Chapter 7 will almost be as if to say, “Now that you’ve seen the terrifying day of the Lord, you are probably wondering about those saints from the 5th seal. How will they survive these things? What will be their end? Well, check this vision out.”

The vision in chapter seven serves to answer the final question of verse 17, “the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Footnotes

[i] See also the example of Noah from Hebrews 11: “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Hebrews 11:7)

[ii] We shouldn’t press this NT angle too far in my opinion, for the saints of old looked forward in anticipation and having now been united to Christ due to the sacrifice of Jesus they would also be identified as witnesses, albeit from heaven (see Hebrews 11 and Moses’ identification with Christ). Still, these people were identified as those who died as witnesses while presumably on earth, which makes the NT emphasis legitimate.

[iii] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg. 396.

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 402.

[v] I realize that Beale says there is some protective nature/sense of the altar here in chapter 6 and I agree with that. However, that the altar protects us from the wrath of God is a conclusion I have arrived at on my own, taking the imagery to its rightful conclusion (I believe).

[vi] Tim Keller, Pg. 30, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. As quoted from: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/20-quotes-from-walking-with-god-through-pain-and-suffering

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Chapter 6

Chapter six takes us to the next stage of John’s vision with the scroll and its seven seals. Let us recall that the book/scroll represents the future destiny of mankind. Unlike the scroll of Ezekiel which emphasized judgment, this scroll speaks to both judgment and reward.

Historic pre-millenialist George Ladd puts it this way:

The book itself contains two things which complement each other; the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the fathering of his saints into His kingdom; and the judgment of God upon the evil demonic powers which have oppressed his people.[i]

He rightly calls it the “book of destiny.” And this book is only able to be opened by the slain Lamb, that is, the Son of God Jesus Christ.

This is why we begin chapter six verse one with the opening of the seals by the Lamb, which Douglass Kelly tells us, “The Lamb is in charge of history” and “He is behind the unleashing of historical forces that bring devastation and munificent changes in our lives and in the history of the world; the Lamb is behind them, for Rev. 6:1 show him opening ‘one of the seals’ that controls the future.”[ii]

There are various interpretations as to what we are about to read about – especially as to when these things are to take place.

But I think that Revelation 4-5 provide the backdrop for Revelation 6-8 and the breaking of the seals. Remember that chapters 4-5 celebrate the victory of Christ’s defeat over death, his victorious resurrection and his ascension to the throne.

With this in mind, also keep in mind that the images and storyline in Revelation is informed by what the prophets already predicted – specifically Zechariah 6, Ezekiel 5 and 14, Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 32, Jeremiah 15&16 and of course Daniel 7. Additionally, in the case of chapter six, there definitely a parallel in the synoptic gospels to the Olivet Discourse (esp. Matthew 24).

Therefore, as James Hamilton says, “I think this presentation of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is a kind of schematic that represents the flow of history – inspiring rulers that leave wars and devastation in their wake.”[iii]

I’ll get into the summary of this view after we look at the verses specifically.

But before we do that, let’s examine the OT and NT context for this passage…

OT Parallels and Synoptic Parallels

Like the other parts of Revelation, John’s vision is informed by things Jesus has already taught during His time on earth, and the principles embodied in OT imagery.

Hamilton, Beale, Mounce, Ladd and other see a definite parallel between the Olivet Discourse and what is going on here in Revelation 6. Hamilton says, “I think that Revelation 6 in Matthew 24 are complementary presentations of world history between the first and second coming of Christ.”

Some of the key verses in Matthew 24 state:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” [4] And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. [5] For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. [6] And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. [7] For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. [8] All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. [9] “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. [10] And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. [11] And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. [12] And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. [13] But the one who endures to the end will be saved. [14] And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)

You can see the parallel here with false Messiah’s (the white rider), with famine, pestilence, war and tribulation. All of these things are described by the four horsemen.

There is also significant OT imagery that forms the backdrop. Beale says:

Most obvious background is Zachariah 6:1–8. There four groups of horses of different color or commission by God to patrol the earth and punish those nations that they see a person God’s people (Zechariah 6:5-8). These nations were raised by God to be a rod of punishment to his people, but they inflicted more tribulation on Israel than they should have. God will punish them for their transgressions as a vindication of his jealous love for Israel (Zechariah 1:8-15). Therefore, the horses in Revelation 6:1–8 signify that the natural and political disaster throughout the world are caused by Christ in order to judge unbelievers who persecute Christians and in order to vindicate his people. This vindication will demonstrate his love for his people and his justice, and already maybe anticipated an answer to the cry for vengeance in 6:9–11.[iv]

That passage goes as follows:

Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. [2] The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, [3] the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. [4] Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” [5] And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. [6] The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.” [7] When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he said, “Go, patrol the earth.” So they patrolled the earth. [8] Then he cried to me, “Behold, those who go toward the north country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country.” (Zechariah 6:1-8)

Beale says, “Ezekiel 14:12–23 is also formative for this section (cf. deut. 32:23-25). Ezekiel 14:21 is explicitly quoted in Revelation 6:8b, where it functions as a general summary of the preceding trials of conquest, sort of, and famine, the first two of which include ‘death.’”

That passage goes like this:

And the word of the LORD came to me: [13] “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, [14] even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord GOD. [15] “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, [16] even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate. [17] “Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, [18] though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered. [19] “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, [20] even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness. [21] “For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! [22] But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. [23] They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 14:12-23)

Beale explains, “The point of Ezekiel 14:21 is that all Israelites will suffer persecution because of rampant idolatry (14:3-11). The purpose of the trials is to punish the majority of the nation because of rampant idolatry and simultaneously to purify the righteous remnant by testing their faith (cf. 14:14, 16, 18, 20, 20-23). The same dual-purpose is likely in mind in Revelation 6, except now the church community is the focus of the judgments. The faithful will be purified, but those who compromise through idolatry and become disloyal to Christ will be judged by the same tribulations.”[v]

“Therefore, the segments from Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Leviticus provide The compositional paradigm for Revelation 6:1–8…Revelation 6:1–8 deals not only with judgments on the world of unbelief but also with persecution of Christians, since this is a theme shared by all three versions of the synoptic apocalyptic discourse (e.g. Luke 21:12-24).”[vi]

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

6:1 Now 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!”

What we see here is that the four living creatures, that is, the Cherubim, repeatedly say, “Come!” and once they say this each successive horse comes forth in action. These angels are before the throne of God and obey His commands. In Ezekiel we read of how like lightening they fire off throughout the earth obeying the commands of the Holy One (cf. Ezekiel 1:14, 19, 20).

What this means is that the judgments brought on by the horses are all directly ordained by God. He has decreed these things for a purpose. In point of fact, this sequence of events shows that as the Lamb is the one breaking the seals, it is the Lamb who is ordaining that all of these things take place.

6:2 And 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.

There seems to be three interpretations of who this white rider is, and two of them are mainstream and shared by most commentators. Either the rider is Jesus coming to conquer (as in chapter 19), part of Satan’s forces of evil – a messianic pretender, of sorts (as in Matthew 24), or a third interpretation is that it is the proclamation of the gospel (as in the sword of the spirit and the conviction of the word – Christ coming to “cast fire on the earth” etc.).

Hendriksen and Ladd make good cases for this being Christ, due to the white garments, the nature of the word “conquer” and the parallel with chapter 19. But Mounce, Beale and Hamilton look even more in-depth at this and rule this interpretation out. Their extensive investigation convinced me that it is best to interpret this rider as part of the whole – all four describing simultaneous events occurring in history between Christ’s first coming and His return.

As Mounce says, “The arguments against Christ as the writer of the Whitehorse, however, are of sufficient strength to make the identification unlikely. A comparison of chapter 6 and 19 shows that the two writers have little in common be on the fact that they are both mounted on white horses.”[vii]

Furthermore, the parallel with Matthew 24 and the false messiah’s Jesus mentioned in that discourse is striking.

Hamilton says, “Let’s think for a moment about messianic pretenders. This first horseman looks like Jesus, the rider on the white horse in chapter 19, but he isn’t Jesus. Remember, those who do not worship the one true and living God who ever exists in three persons, the same in essence, equal in power and glory, will worship false gods. They may not call what they worship “god/s,” but they will worship themselves or money or success or sports team or video game or learning or power or per prestige or some utopian vision of the good life. Humans will worship.”[viii]

Beale cites 2 Corinthians 11 and says:

Therefore, the first rider represents a Satanic force attempting to defeat and oppress believers spiritually through deception, persecution, or both (so 11:7; 13:7). The image of the rider may include reference to (1) the antichrist, (2) governments that persecute Christians, or (3) the devil’s servants in general…”white” elsewhere in the book does not primarily connote victory but the persevering righteousness of Christ in the Saints. Here white male referred to the forces of evil as they try to appear righteous and thus deceive by imitating Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).[ix]

That Corinthians passage goes like this:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. [14] And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. [15] So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)

There are several other great reasons for believing this is part of the whole – not the least of which are literary concerns for the summing up of the four horsemen as all part of one unit (see Beale’s notes on verses 7-8).

6:3-4 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” [4] And 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.

This is part of the idea of wars that will occur during the time between Christ’s first coming and His return. There likely aren’t specific wars in mind, but rather wars in general.

Beale says, “…the idea of Nations battling one another and the attendant conditions of such warfare are not primarily thought of, although they are included. Uppermost in the mind are the antagonistic actions of Satan’s forces aimed at the communities of both faith and unbelief. Therefore, the fourfold Old Testament formulas concerning the judgment of literal warfare has been expanded by John to include woes of spiritual warfare.”[x]

6:5-6 When 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. [6] And 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!”

It is commonly accepted that this black horse deals with famine, which is normally the result of wars upon the earth, though it is not necessarily limited to a condition of war.

The economic situation here is one of severe inflation. As Beale explains:

A denarius was a day’s wage (cf. Matthew 20:2), and a quart of wheat was about enough for one person for three days, although three quarts of barley was enough for a typical family for one day. The prices listed here are about 8 to 16 times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time. Therefore, those suffering from the famine will only be able to buy limited food quantities for their family, and there will be nothing left over to provide for any of the other necessities of life such as “wine and oil.” That the trees and vines producing oil and wine are not affected further emphasizes the limited aspect of the famine.[xi]

Some say that the leaving out of wine and oil as part of the pestilence and famine indicates that there will be inequity between rich and poor. That could be true, and I think that it may be the case. But I like how Mounce reasons that it would be an odd thing for the Lord to declare for this to specifically be the case. As he says:

The warning about the oil and one has been variously interpreted. Some feel it was added to underscore the social inequities existing in a time of scarcity. It is the poor, not the rich, who suffer. Oil and wine, however, were not luxuries, but part of the basic commodities of life. It would also be difficult understand why the lamb – the voice “in the midst of the four living creatures” – would issue an order favoring the rich and aggravating the plight of the poor…It is simpler to take it as a natural limitation to the famine.[xii]

6:7-8 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” [8] And 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.

These verses serve as a sort of summary of the preceding verses. Death is the natural end to all of the afflictions of the first three horses. False prophets, war, famine all lead to death. Therefore these are a sequence of chronological events, but a description of the multifaceted threats to life that we face – both believers and unbelievers – while living upon the earth.

Beale rightly says, “These final four plagues have a partial effect, since the last horseman summarizes the previous three and the disaster he brings is limited to “a fourth of the earth.” The four woes do not harm every person without exception.”[xiii]

As you see the different trials and tribulations that are poured out upon the earth you start to see how Jesus is showing John the familiar imagery of the OT, while more specifically using the Olivet Discourse (what He had already said during His time on earth) as the template for his teaching. Therefore, we see a consistency between the teaching of Jesus during His time on earth, and what John sees in this vision.

Conclusion

These judgments describe what Daniel described in chapter 7 of his prophecy when he spoke of the four kingdoms of the earth. They describe all the evil that will come upon the earth in the time between the two advents of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus has been resurrected, His ascension and reign are described in chapters four and five, and He controls all of world history. In the time before His second coming Jesus ordains all manner of evil, wars, plagues and tribulation showing that He alone is in control of all things as the potter is with the clay, and He is moving human history along toward a definite goal.

Why would the Lord do these things? Why would He ordain that evil should come upon the earth? Hamilton explains:

Why would God allow these things? I think that God wants a clear contrast between what results from embracing his rule and what results from rejecting it. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the true God and embrace false gods. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the rightful king, The Lords Messiah, Jesus, and replace them with some chump who looks good and speaks well. So God let’s these fools have their day in the sun, and he lets all the mayhem and ruin that results from their pride and folly to defile this world. God let’s all this happen so that his wisdom, his power, his righteousness will be seen clearly. God wants people to know that only he can bring peace, justice, security, and happiness. God wants to be worshiped as God, and he wants people to embrace the rule of king Jesus, the Messiah.

Beale concludes[xiv]:

In summary, through his death and resurrection, Christ has made the world forces of evil his agents to execute his purposes of sanctification and judgment for the furtherance of his kingdom. This is most clearly seen in the reference to Jesus is sovereignty over “death and Hades” in 6:8, which is a further development of chapter 1: Through his death and resurrection Christ has power over, “death and Hades” (1:18) and now he uses them as his agents to carry out his will. God intended that the suffering of the cross should have both the redemptive and a judicial purpose (i.e., with respect to the latter, the cross becomes a basis of judgment for those rejecting it’s saving significance).[xv]

 

Footnotes

[i] Ladd, Pg. 95.

[ii] Kelly, Pg. 111.

[iii] Ladd says, “As the lamb breaks each of the first four seals, for horses right forth on the earth as instruments of the divine purpose: the first is white, the second read, the third black, and the fourth pale. The background for the symbolism is found in Zachariah 6:1 where the prophet is given a vision of four chariot strong by horse of different colors: red, black, white, and dappled gray. These four chariots right out to the four winds to patrol the earth as instruments of God’s wrath upon the enemies of his people.” Page 96

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372

[v] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372-373

[vi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 373. I am deeply indebted to the way in which both G.K. Beale and Jim Hamilton exposited this chapter. Their in-depth work has been so very helpful that I couldn’t have fully come to my own conclusions without their wisdom. Ladd, Mounce, and others were, of course useful, but Hamilton and Beale really logically think through every option to the point where one is able to judge better what to make of the passage.

[vii] Mounce, Pg.153

[viii] Hamilton, Pg. 178

[ix] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 377

[x] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 383

[xi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 381

[xii] Mounce, Pg. 156

[xiii] Beale, Longer commentary, Pg. 385

[xiv] On page 388 of the longer commentary, Beale goes on to address some of the concern of God being the “author of evil” as some say this passage must indicate or somehow avoid etc. Here is what he says: Some commentators do not think there is a theological problem, since they do not view Christ as the immediate cause of the judgments. The problem is sometimes avoided by adopting secondary textual variants that view John as the recipient of the address “come,” while on the other hand, Christ is sometimes conjectured as the recipient of the address (see on 6:1). Those rejecting these two alternatives offer theological presuppositions about God’s holiness in love in order to deny the direct link, and there is the consequent assertion that Christ only “permits” or “tolerates” the four Horsemen to execute their woes. But not only do the commands issued to the horseman by the chairman argue against such an idea, but the major Old Testament passages behind 6:2–8 without exception have God is the ultimate cause of the judgments (so Zachariah 6:1–8; Ezekiel 14:21; Leviticus 26:18-28).

[xv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 385