What is the most difficult situation you’ve gone through in your life?
As the Lamb breaks the seals of the scroll in heaven, events correspond that appear to affect people on earth. The first four are tied to one another through the horsemen imagery; the fifth and sixth trumpets prepare the way for an interlude in chapter 7 that reveals the 144,000 sealed saints of God. The seals conclude in 8:1.
Horsemen are also found in Zechariah’s prophecy (1:7-11) who patrol the earth. These horses here, however, do not find the earth a peaceful place, but instead bring conflict, famine, and death.
1. The first seal breaks and a rider on a white horse overcomes. The word for overcoming here is the same as that used for the Lamb in ch 5, and the congregations in chs. 2-3 who are asked to overcome. The white horse further suggests the purity of the experience, and the bow suggests a back-line role in battle, rather than a front-line position. Ellen White in Acts of the Apostles foretells that the first disciples “would go forth conquering and to conquer.” (A.A. p. 23). This suggests that the white horse represents the experience of the early church and it’s conquests against the kingdom of Satan. But the church is still a militant organization against Satan’s kingdom, and the rider still goes out. Perhaps it describes your individual experience, too.
2. The second seal reveals a fiery horse, and a rider with a sword who takes peace from the earth. Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:32-39 come to mind here: “I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.” In response to the conquering of the early church, the fires of persecution began to burn. James the brother of John was “put to death by the sword,” and Stephen was stoned. Though armed with internal peace from Christ, externally, the church faced persecution. This experience has continued throughout time, and continues in many places in the world today. When individuals make a choice for Christ, the result is often familial division, and ostracizing from friends. Thus this describes a first-century event, a historical experience, and a personal one.
3. The third horse—a black one—carries a rider who bears a scale. The color black is ominous, the color of darkness and night. The scales apparently measure barley and wheat, which sell for astronomically high prices: a day’s wages (a denarius) for enough seed to make one loaf of bread. The scales and measurement recall Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:2: you will be measured by your standard of measure, and judged by your standard of judgment. Wheat and barley, the main source of food for Israelites, becomes scarce, perhaps a parallel to the Word of God becoming rare, either literally or lived out. Historically, when the fires of persecution failed to quell the growing ranks of the conquering church, the Word of God was taken from people. The Great Controversy has an entire chapter called “an era of spiritual darkness” that describes the results of taking scripture from people during the dark ages.
4. The fourth horse is commonly called “pale,” but the Greek is “chloros,” or “green.” Its rider is named death, suggesting the greenish-color is the color of a Jewish or Roman dead body. As grotesque as the imagery is, it gets worse. One fourth of the earth dies by four means, which just happen to be the covenant curses from God for Israel’s disobedience. The result of removing God’s word brings spiritual death. Thus God’s people die by persecution and the rest die spiritually.
To what degree do the seals parallel your own personal Christian experience? Have you noticed that when you experience victories in Christ that life around you can get harder rather than better?
5. The fifth seal recalls the story of the death of Abel. As his blood cried out from the ground because of an unjust death at the hands of his brother, so these “souls under the altar” are pictured as sacrificed and their blood poured out at the base of the altar (Deut. 12:27). Since the life is in the blood, the symbolic life is demanding the covenant-keeping God to keep His promise take care of them. They ask Him how long before He acts, before He judges their murderers and avenges their wrongful deaths. A similar question is asked about God today: if God is good and loving, and all-powerful, why doesn’t He end suffering of the innocent? The answer isn’t a great one—“here’s a white robe, and you must wait a while.” The good news is that there is a final number past which God will not allow things to proceed.
6. The sixth seal brings heavenly events that recall the Old Testament Day of the Lord and signs given by Jesus that would precede his coming. These were fulfilled in a partial way at the death of Jesus with darkness and an earthquake, followed by the pouring out of God’s Spirit as Peter notes in his sermon in Acts 2 (quoting Joel’s prophecy). But the language here goes beyond that of the crucifixion. The stars fall, the sky recedes, and the earth is altered. Many scholars note the language parallels immediate signs of the judgment and/or second coming. The focus here is on the wicked, rather than the righteous under the 5th seal. Their fear of the God they have wronged is clear, and they conclude with a question: who can stand in the presence of an angry God and an angry lamb (a humorous picture if taken literally)? Chapter seven will answer their question as it shows people “standing” in the presence of the lamb.
Why is it so hard to wait for God to bring justice? What is it about suffering that we seem unable to bear up against? How can God make amends for the suffering of innocent people?
As Christ breaks the seals on the scroll, the people of God go through a spiritual experience that, though it may end in their physical deaths, leads to their own personal sealing experience. Chapter 7 will give us a glimpse of this sealed multitude.