And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying…
The Book of Revelation may be said to consist - with the exception of Revelation 2 and 3 - of a vast picture gallery. And this not so much because of the number of the pictures, as their sublimity and extent. Revelation 1. is the portraiture of "the Son of man." Then there is a vast canvas, stretching from Revelation 4 to 11, and representing the judgment and fall of Jerusalem. Then from Revelation 12 to 19 another similar one, representing the judgment and fall of Rome. Then yet another, much smaller, representing the final conflict and overthrow of the enemies of Christ; and then, the last and most precious of all, in Revelation 21. and 22., the glowing picture of the new Jerusalem, the saints' eternal home. Now, in looking at a great picture we need to study it carefully, closely, continuously, and portion by portion. We have tried to do so in regard to the first of these, and also in regard to two most important sections of the second one. In this vast second scene we have viewed the high court of heaven, and the inauguration of Christ's mediatorial reign, which was the subject of Revelation 5. And now we come to another most interesting but unquestionably difficult part of the same great subject - the opening of the seals. Indeed, the interpretation of this book, from the beginning of this chapter onwards, is one concerning which the only certain thing is that absolute certainty concerning any given interpretation is unattainable. It matters little, however, for the profitable reading of the book, that there is and must be this uncertainty as to the actual meaning of the many mysterious symbols with which it abounds; for whether we regard them as telling of the history of the Church in its relation to the world continuously to the end of time; or whether, as surely is the more reasonable way, we take them as telling of those tremendous events which, when St. John wrote, had begun, and were shortly to come to pass, the time being at hand, and by which the Church of Christ was so much affected, - whichever way we read these symbols, their main lessons for us and for the Church in all ages is one and the same; and these, by patient, prayerful study, we may hope to learn. As to this Revelation 6., the sheet anchor for its interpretation is our Lord's discourse in Matthew 24. and its parallel in Mark. No doubt that discourse, as this book, looks on to the times of the end; but as surely it contemplated, as does this book also, events which many of them - not all - were nigh at hand. God's judgment on Judaism and the Jews is its near subject, as the same is of the vision of which this chapter forms a part. And now let us look at -
I. THE SIX SEALS TOGETHER, or rather, at what is disclosed by the opening of them all. And, without doubt, terror is their one badge and mark. The four horses with their riders all tell of terrible things. The souls under the altar, whom we see at the opening of the fifth, cry for vengeance on their murderers, and all horrors seem accumulated in one at the opening of the sixth. The reading of the chapter makes one's heart tremble; our flesh shudders with fear at the visions of distress which, one after the other, are unfolded. There is a seventh and a very different vision at the seventh seal; but the opening of that will not be for a long while, and therefore we first consider these six which are near in time and in character also. And whether we read the pages of Josephus, or whether we regard Gibbon as furnishing the more accurate explanation of these symbols, - in either there will be found more than enough to warrant all that St. John has here portrayed. The dreadful days of the fall of Jerusalem were drawing on, and none who know the history of the horrors that preceded and accompanied that event can question that they were more than enough to fill up all that these vivid and terrible symbols import. Our Lord says of those days that "except they should be shortened, there should no flesh he saved." And yet - and here is the marvel - it is "the Lamb," he who is the Ideal of all grace and love, he it is who presides over, directs, and governs all these events, dreadful as they are. And then the highest, the holiest, and most beloved of his ministers, they who cluster closest round the throne of God and the Lamb, appeal to him and pray him to "Come." At the opening of each of the first four seals one of the four living ones thus appeals to Christ. It is evident, therefore, that they are in full sympathy with him in this matter, and would not have him do otherwise. And it is the same with the whole of that high court of heaven. There must be, then, in all these and in all such things - and this is their lesson for us - a force for the furtherance of God's blessed will amongst men such as less stern methods could not have. True, in one aspect it is all the result of man's wild wickedness and folly.
"Man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,...
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep."
(Measure for Measure.') And to many minds, when you have recited the different events that led on, one by one, to the final catastrophe, you have sufficiently explained the whole; there is no need to bring God, as St. John does, into the matter. But we are distinctly taught that all these things are the working of his will, the carrying out of his high plans and purposes. They are not by chance, nor by the will of man, but of God. And accepting this as true, we are led to the inquiry - Wherefore uses he such means? Various answers may be suggested: so only can the proud, unruly wills of sinful men be humbled; so only can the Church be roused and stimulated to do her proper work; so only can her faith be disciplined, tried, and developed; so only can men be made to know, "Verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth;" and so only can gigantic obstacles to men's good and the extension of Christ's kingdom be got out of the way. All history shows this. But whilst this and far more may be said, it yet remains for us to remember, and that with gratitude, that dark, drear, dreadful, desolating as such events are, and diabolical as are many of the men who are the chief actors in them they yet, all of them; are under the absolute control of him whose love and wisdom and power enable him to know unerringly when to let such events run riot in their rage, and when to restrain them or remove them altogether. And what is best he is sure to do; and always he will make them "work together for good."
II. THE OPENING OF THE FIRST SEAL. (Ver. 2.) The vision of the white horse and its rider bearing a bow, with its sharp arrows ready for conflict, and wearing a crown, the emblem of victory. In Zechariah 1:7-11; Zechariah 6:1-8; Habakkuk 3:8, 9; Isaiah 41:2; Psalm 45:4, 5; we have similar representations of the horseman told of here, and his identity seems settled by Revelation 19:11-16, where he is distinctly called "the Word of God." When the first seal was broken, then there passed across the stage, as it were, this vision. But of whom else can we think as corresponding to the rider of the white horse, than of him of whom we read in Psalm 45., "In thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things. Thine arrows shall be sharp in the heart of the king's enemies; whereby the people fall under thee"? Of the Lord Jesus Christ going forth conquering and to conquer, in spite of, in the midst of, and by means of, all the dread events which are afterwards declared - of him we believe the vision tells. Not of any ordinary human warfare; still less of the prosperous condition of the Roman empire under the Antonines; but of Christ our Lord. And most cheering is it to be taught that, let come what will, however calamitous and distressful the events of life, nothing can stay his course. They cannot bar his way, but will be made by him to further that way. This first vision is, therefore, full of good cheer. And let it not be forgotten that the vision has an individual application as well as a world wide one. It tells every believing soul, "Christ will overrule all that happens; thy trials and crosses, thy disappointments and disasters, shall not hinder his purposes of good for thee. He goeth forth 'conquering and to conquer,' and who can turn him aside?"
III. THE OPENING OF THE SECOND, THIRD, AND FOURTH SEALS. These give the visions of the red, the black, and the pale horses. Cruel war, black famine, and all-devouring death, by pestilence probably, are meant by these visions. And more summarily and distinctly they are foretold by our Lord. "Wars and rumours of wars," "famines and pestilences," - these with other woes he plainly predicts; and his meaning is, we are sure, the meaning of St. John. Famine and pestilence were the common accompaniments of war. But they are not to have unrestrained power. For as in the discourse of our Lord, so here in the vision of St. John, there are plain suggestions that in wrath God remembered mercy. The voice that proclaimed the nearly twelve times enhanced cost of wheat and barley, tells - as does also the blackness of the horse which suggests the black lips, the sign of extreme hunger - of dreadful famine. But that same voice tells also of distress mitigated, not suffered to become utter destitution. This is the meaning of the added charge, "See that thou hurt not the oil and the wine." It is a difficult saying, but coupling it with the express words of our Lord that "for the elects' sake" these dreadful days should "be shortened," we take them as telling that, whilst owing to the ravages of war there should be, as there could not but be, great scarcity in those things which, as corn and barley, depended upon constant cultivation; yet the olive and the vine should still yield their increase, they not requiring to be replanted year by year, and being in various ways likely to be less affected than the level corn lands which lay along the plains, and which therefore became the common camps and fighting grounds of hostile armies, to the utter destruction of all things grown thereon. Moreover, that to death and Hades were given power, not over all the earth, but over only one-fourth part, this seems also to point to the same blessed truth that the instruments of God's judgment are held in and not allowed to do their work a hairbreadth beyond their appointed limit. "He does not willingly afflict nor grieve the children of men," though, as these visions do plainly tell, he will ruthlessly both afflict and grieve when man's sin and folly make it needful that he should. As a loving mother will hold down her own dearly loved child to the surgeon's dreadful knife, if only so it can be saved from death, so will the Lord, the Lamb of God, pour out upon us of his awful judgments, if by our sin we force him thereto. As we read of these visions, this should be our prayer that never may we thus force him to deal in such manner with us. May his love constrain us, never our sin constrain him.
IV. THE OPENING OF THE FIFTH SEAL. Here no living creature cries: "Come," but the appeal comes from the martyred saints themselves. We have had no mention of an "altar" before, but now it is seen as part of the vision which untolded itself before St. John. "They shall deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you" - so had our Lord foretold, and here the actual fulfilment of that word is symbolized. Not to the martyrs under Diocletian, yet less to those under papal Rome, but to those who were, in St. John's own day, fast falling beneath the persecutor's sword, does this vision specially belong. Nevertheless, it is designed for the consolation and support of all Christ's persecuted people in every age and in every land. Hence Milton, with all possible appropriateness, sang concerning the martyrs of the Alpine mountains, whose sufferings righteously roused the rage of their fellow believers here in England —
"Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that roll'd
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their means
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O'er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learned thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe." But this vision tells not alone of martyrdoms, but of the righteousness of God in the avenging of their blood upon the earth. We see it is just and what ought to be. Yet more are we shown that "the Lord is mindful of his own." See the condition of these martyred ones. Not yet perfect or complete, but nevertheless, oh, how blessed! At rest, in victory, sanctity, joy - so their white robes tell, and expecting some even yet better thing in the triumph of Christ and his Church over all evil which in due time shall surely come to pass. What comfort there would be and is in all this, in regard to those who had suffered death! Those who mourned them would know now that blessed indeed are the dead which die in the Lord. And in regard to the mystery of a persecuted Church, would it not teach them that though
"Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt false systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own"? And when they came to face such death themselves, oh, how would this vision help them, as in fact it did, to be faithful unto death, and to face it unflinchingly, unfalteringly, as Christ would have them do.
V. THE OPENING OF THE SIXTH SEAL. (Vers. 12-17.) Nearly every detail of this dread event is given by our Lord (Matthew 24.). And St. John's language is modelled largely on that of the older prophets (Joel 2:30, 31; Isaiah 50:3; Isaiah 34:3, 4; Isaiah 2:12, 19; Hosea 10:8; Jeremiah 4:23-26). And in the great catastrophe by which Judaism was overthrown, and in the fall of Rome, and in the events which usher in the last great and terrible day of the Lord, have been and shall be seen the fulfilment of this awful vision. There is that which is called "the wrath of the Lamb"! Not Scripture alone, but historic fact alike declare this. And it will be poured out on the ungodly when the Lord shall come again. How will that day find us? Confident, or ashamed and dismayed? The answer may be known. How does Christ find us now? Trusting and obeying him, or disregarding and disobeying? As now, so then.
"Lord, in this thy mercy's day,
Ere it pass for e'er away,
On our knees we'll fall and pray,
Have mercy, Lord!" S.C.
Parallel VersesKJV: And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.