discussed the first five chapters of Revelation in these columns over the
last fifteen months. Those chapters are in several ways introductory to
the whole book. Revelation 1 told of the preparation of John to receive
the new revelation. Revelation 2 and 3 told the seven churches how to
prepare morally to avoid the horrors of "the hour of trial."
Revelation 4 and 5 described the throne room from which will proceed the
dreaded divine purgings contained in the seven-sealed scroll. At chapter 6
where we begin this month, descriptions of those punishments begin. What
we read about here is a dramatization by way of an "advance
showing" of the Lambís cleansing of a rebellious world.
We call our discussion of Revelation 6 "The
Beginning of Birth Pains," because the first six seals described
therein closely correspond to some events about which Jesus prophesied in
His Olivet Discourse, a sermon delivered on Tuesday of the week of His
crucifixion. As He described these future events in that sermon, He said,
"All these things are the beginning of birth pains" (Matt.
24:8). Taking our title from His statement, we want to elaborate on the
first six seals that cover that same period. In part 1 this month we will
discuss the first four seals; in part 2 next month we will look at the
fifth and sixth seals.
What are the "birth pains" of which Jesus
spoke? A number of times the Old Testament so characterizes a future
period, the one just before the Messiahís coming to establish His
kingdom on earth. It compares the period with a woman in labor just before
giving birth to a child (see Isa. 13:8; 26:17-19; 66:7-9; Jer. 30:6-8; Mic.
4:9-10). Jesus referred to that time of human suffering when He referred
to "birth pains" in His Olivet Discourse. The events to which He
alluded in Matthew 25:1-14óthe same as the events of the first six seals
in Revelation 6ówill be, in His words, "the beginning of birth
pains." These particular agonizing catastrophes will not occupy the
entire period, but will signal when the period has begun to run its
By referring to Jesusís Olivet Discourse once again,
we can apply a biblical name to the entire period of trial just before
Christís return. In Matthew 24:15 He referred to "the abomination
of desolation" which according to Daniel 9:27 will divide the
seventieth week of Danielís seventy-week prophecy into two equal parts.
That seventieth week, each day representing a year, will be the entire
period of human misery resulting from Godís judgment against a world in
rebellion. In other words, it will be the entire period of "birth
pains." Jesus characterized the happenings before "the
abomination of desolation" as "the beginning of birth
pains." Therefore, when looking at the first six seals, we are
learning about events to transpire during the first three and a half years
of that final seven years of misery.
With this orientation in mind, we are ready to examine
the seals, one by one.
The First Seal: Peaceful Conquest (6:1-2)
By demonstrating His worthiness through a sacrificial
death for mankind, the Lamb earned the right and responsibility to open
the seals and divulge the contents of the scroll (see Rev. 5:5-10). When
He opened the first seal, one of the four living beings summoned a white
horse with a rider possessing a bow and a crown. The rider went forth
"conquering and that he might conquer" (6:2). Since the rider
had no arrows to use with his bow, he must accomplish his conquests
without the shedding of blood, i.e., by peaceful means. This was a scenic
representation in the heavenly throne room of the first in a series of
four horses with riders, a representation enacted as a prophecy in
Determination of whom the white horse and its rider
represent must come from observing features of the vision. White, the
color of the horse, stands for righteousness or a feigned righteousness,
depending on whether the rider is a righteous deliverer or not. Some have
taken the rider to be Christ because He appears on a white horse in
Revelation 19:11-16, but this would not agree with the missions of the
riders on the other three horses. All four must have negative impacts on
the world as part of "the beginning of birth pains," because
they are agents of misery in inflicting Godís judgment against the
earth. This rider has no bodily presence like the rider in Revelation
19:11-16. He is the personification of a growing movement to unseat Christ
as the ultimate ruler. Numbered among those who are a part of this
movement will be a counterfeit Christ who will over time rise to lead the
In His Olivet Discourse, Jesus predicted that this
period would see the emergence of many who would come in His name, saying,
"I am the Christ," deceiving many people (Matt. 24:5; Mark 13:6;
Luke 21:8). That prediction corresponds with the symbolic prediction of
the first seal. Through deception, this movement will accomplish world
conquest by peaceful means, but that domination will be only temporary as
an imitation of the everlasting peace that Christís personal rule will
subsequently bring to the earth. It will merely set the stage for severe
developments to come.
The Second Seal: Warfare and Bloodshed (6:3-4)
Following the Lambís opening of the second seal, a
second living being summons a fiery-red horse whose rider had the power to
take peace from the earth, the peace achieved by the first rider. His
possession of a great sword sets the tone for widespread slaughter among
earthís inhabitants. The future events portrayed by this seal will
consist of war, internal strife, and international and civil strife
throughout the world. During His last week on earth Christ predicted the
same conditions in more direct terms: "And you will hear of wars and
rumors of wars. . . . For nation will rise against nation and kingdom
against kingdom" (Matt. 24:6-7a; Mark 13:7-8a; Luke 21:9-10). These
turbulent conditions will follow on the heels of world peace earlier in
the first half of Danielís seventieth week.
The horseís fiery-red color, of course, implies the
nature of the afflictions under the second seal judgment. The period will
be a span of widespread slaughter and bloodshed. The depersonalized rider
represents the forces of war and bloodshed, forces that God allows to
prevail as part of His punishment of a rebellious world. The sword given
to this rider symbolizes a specific period of dreadful carnage in the
future that brings an end to the temporary peace.
The Third Seal: Widespread Famine (6:5-6)
With the Lamb and a third living being filling their
customary roles, the third seal discloses a third horse, this time a black
one. His rider had in his hand a balance for weighing out food supplies. A
voice from among the four living beings revealed the lesson to be learned
from the balance: "A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three
measures of barley for a denarius; and do not hurt the olive oil and the
wine." The blackness of the horse suggests a time of sorrow and
mourning with the balance and its implied lesson furnishing the reason for
sadness. This seal predicts a time when food will be scarce, causing
widespread anxiety. The expense of provisions will mean that only the
wealthy will have enough to eat. This rider is a personification of
The only protected food will be the olive oil and the
wine which were in New Testament times foods for the rich. A denarius was
the average daily wage of a working man in those times; its purchasing
power will be greatly reduced in the future time of "the beginning of
birth pains." Purchasing barley instead of the more nourishing wheat
means that a worker will have barely enough for himself and his family.
The nutritional value will be far less than desirable. Such conditions
picture a great famine to come.
The Fourth Seal: Death to a Fourth of Earthís
The opening of the fourth seal and the usual summons
produces a pale-green horse whose rider was named "Death." The
riderís companion Hades broadens the sealís domain to include the
implications of death for both the material and immaterial parts of man.
This seal marks a conspicuous increase in intensity of judgment by
producing death for one-quarter of earthís population. The
yellowish-green color of the horse appropriately resembles a corpse in the
advanced state of corruption.
Under this seal the first three means of removing human
life are the sword that suggests death by violent means, famine that has
already been encountered under the third seal, and pestilence. Death by
the sword will be more extensive than under the second seal, and that by
famine will mean that shortages will become so severe that many people
will die because of them. Also fatal diseases will be out of control,
bringing death to sizable numbers. Luke 21:11 as part of the Olivet
Discourse records Jesusí reference to these plagues. A fourth agent of
death will be wild beasts who roam the earth, looking for prey and taking
advantage of all who cannot defend themselves. The combination of
terrifying developments will take the lives of one-quarter of earthís
population in a relatively short time.
Perilous and troublesome days lie ahead for this world.
God must punish sin by means of these temporal adversities in order to
prepare the way for Christ to return and assume world leadership. The way
to avoid being trapped on earth while all the turbulence transpires is to
deal with God about sin right now. Trusting Jesus, the Lamb of God who
takes away the sin of the world, is the Bibleís established way to find
Godís forgiveness. Jesus will take all the forgiven ones with Himself
back to heaven before the future period of "birth pains" begins.
Note: For more details
about the first four seal judgments, see my discussion in Revelation
1Ė7 (Moody Press, 1992), pages 413-439. To order this volume, you
may contact Grace Books International at (800) GRACE15 or <www.gbibooks.com>.