When each of the first
four seals was opened, John heard one of the four living creatures in
his turn saying "Come." (The King James Version says, "Come
and see.") and in each case John saw a horse and its rider -- the
first horse, white; the second, red; the third, black; the forth, pale.
The horse was anciently used principally in war, and became a symbol
of war. Hence, these seals represent warfare of some kind -- evidently
involving the Roman Empire, of which the province of Asia was a part,
where the seven churches of Revelation were located. Therefore, it was
warfare that would involve the fortunes if not the participation of
the saints. It is at this point that out most difficult task of interpretation
begins. The four seals appear to be related and though likely following
in chronological order, most probably the second, third and fourth overlap
considerably, as will be indicated in the following notes.
1. The First
Seal (vs.1-2): "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." This symbolically represents the initial event
of the future disclosed by opening the respective seals of the book
sealed with seven seals. There have been two principal interpretations
of it with which we shall be concerned -- one that it symbolizes spiritual
warfare, and the other that it represents carnal warfare.
The former interpretation
equates the foregoing scene with Chapter 19:11-16, where there is a
white horse whose rider wears many crowns, is called Faithful and True,
The Word of God, and King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and is followed
by armies of heaven on white horses. In both instances, the horse is
white, signifying victorious warfare. In the first, the rider is given
a crown and comes forth conquering and to conquer. In the second, the
rider is a crowned warrior who would smite the nations with a sword
and rule them with a rod of iron. Hence, to one class of interpreters
the first seal is: "A symbol of Christ's victorious power"
(Godet). "A symbol of the conquering Gospel" (Alford). "The
Rider is Christ" (Archdeacon Lee in Speaker's Commentary). "It
is our Lord riding prosperously" (Dr. William Milligan of Anerdeen).
But the only
similarity between the two warriors is that they ride white horses and
wage successful war. The one of the first seal is known only from his
description, which has been variously interpreted, as already indicated:
the other from his titles, which indicate him to be divine and Christ.
The first had a bow, the second a sword -- which proceeded out of his
mouth, and therefore was not carnal, but was the word of God -- whereas
the bow was not associated with the first rider's mouth, and so was
likely carnal and symbolic of carnal war, waged by an entity that was
not divine. The single crown of the first was a stephanos, a symbol
of victory, whereas the second wore many crowns, which were diadems,
kingly crowns -- he being "King of Kings and Lord of Lords."
Of the second it was said that "in righteousness he doth judge
and make war" of the first it was not so stated. Therefore, to
another school of interpreters the first seal represents: "The
Roman Empire. The Persian Empire was symbolized by a ram (Dan. 8:3);
the Macedonian Empire by a goat (Dan. 8:5), and here the Roman Empire
by a white horse and his rider" (Elliott). "The prosperous
period of the Roman Empire extending from the Emperor Nerva to the end
of the Antonines (Barnes).
Nerva ruled only
two years(96-98 A.D.) and was succeeded by his adopted son Trajan, who
ruled 98-117 A.D., and was followed by Hadrain (117-138 A.D.) the "Antonines"
were the Antonius Pius (138-161 A.D.), his adopted son Marcus Aurelius
(161-180 A.D.), and the latter's son Lucius Commodus (180-192 A.D.).
According to the interpretation now being considered, the first seal
would cover from about the time of Nerva and Trajan and through the
reigns of Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius, to but not including that
of Lucius Commodus, who was of a decidedly different character.
this seems so compelling that it is adopted in these notes, with all
seven seals as a whole (not simply the first) considered as a significant
part of secular history affecting the church. And a significant primary
source is the monumental history of Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall
of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes 1776-1788). Albert Barnes
says of him that "sceptic as he was, (he) seems to have been raised
up by Divine Providence to search deeply into historical records, and
to furnish an inexhaustible supply of materials in confirmation of the
fulfillment of the prophecies and of the truth of revelations."
In the opening
sentence of his work, Gibbon says" In the second century of the
Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the
earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind ... During a happy
period (A.D. 98-180), of more than fourscore years, the public administration
was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrain,
and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and the two succeeding
chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and
afterwards from the death of Marcus Antonius, to deduce the most important
circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever
be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth."
And later, in Chapter 3: "If a man were called to fix a period
in history during which the condition of the human race was most happy
and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed
from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus" -- between
which the five afore favorable mentioned emperors reigned.
of the first four seals are likely representative of significant epochs
rather than specific individuals. And the first seal obviously represents
one of conquest and prosperity. Yet conquest was mostly under Tarjan,
who extended the borders of the Roman empire to its greatest extent
-- "every day the astonished senate receiv(ing) the intelligence
of new names and nations, that acknowledged his sway" (Gibbon)
-- but domestic peace and prosperity, which characterized his reign
as well as that of Nerva, continued through the reigns of Hadrain and
the two Antonines. Trajan in particular was entitled to wear the victor's
crown. And even the bow may have special significance. As Johnson, in
his Notes points out: "Before this age the emperors were all of
Roman stock, and until the death of Nero they were of the line of Julius
Caesar. Nerva , the founder of a new line of Caesuras, was of Greek
descent, and is said to have been of Cretan stock. The Cretans were
a race of bowmen, the most famous in the ancient world. Some have seen
this pointed out in the bow." The national weapons of the Romans
were the javelin and the sword, not the bow, though there were bowmen
in their armies who were not native Romans. Hence, the First Seal and
the history of the Roman empire shortly after the giving of Revelation
coincide perfectly. This seems to provide solid ground for interpreting
the other seals.
2. The second
Seal (6:3-4); 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."
This also suggest war, but of a different kind.
Peace would now
be taken from the earth -- the Roman earth or empire -- and the land
drenched in blood. During the time of the first seal, Roman generals
waged triumphant war beyond distant frontiers while peace reigned within
the empire. But during the time of the Second Seal there would be civil
war" they would "slay one another." And a "great
sword" would indicate great carnage, which indeed occurred and
has been described as the most prolonged and bloody in human history.
son and successor of the second Antonine, Marcus Aurelius, who ascended
the Roman throne upon the death of his father in 180 A.D., was a dissolute
and contemptible tyrant, and conditions in the empire degenerated precipitously.
Many efforts were made to assassinate him, until finally, in 192 A.D.,
on orders of his advisors, he was given poisoned wine by a concubine
and strangled by a wrestler. That ushered in a calamitous period of
92 years, lasting till 284 A.D., during which 32 emperors and 27 pretenders
alternately hurled each other from the throne by incessant civil war.
The successor of Commodus was murdered after only 86 days. Just two
emperors (in addition to the 32) did not die violent deaths. And one
of these died the same year he became emperor.
The imagery of
a prophetic vision could hardly be more strikingly fulfilled than that
of the Second Seal in the history of the Roman empire.
3. The Third
Seal (6:5-6): "Behold, a black horse; and he that sat thereon had
a balance in his hand. 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 shelling; and the oil and the wine
hurt thou not."
The black horse
and the balance (scales) in the hand of the rider must have a still
different significance in connection with war. And the time of the seal
likely overlaps a part of the preceding one, but may not be confined
Black is a symbol
of mourning. And the balance, when used for weighing food, indicates
scarcity (Leviticus 26:26; Ezekiel 4:16-17). Together they would indicate
serious famine. Jeremiah 14:1-6 describes such as the result of a great
drought, with verses 1 and 2 reading as follows: "The word of Jehovah
that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought. Judah mourneth, and the
gates thereof languish, they sit in black upon the ground; and the cry
of Jerusalem is going up."
The famine of
the Third Seal, however, is associated with war rather than drought,
and would therefore result from excessive taxation, rapine and oppression,
land lying uncultivated and so on. The prices mentioned were famine
prices: "A measure of wheat (about a quart, enough for one person
for a day) for a shilling (a day's wage); and three measures of barley
for a shilling." There are 32 quarts in a bushel, making that amount
of wheat of three bushels of barley to cost about a month's wages. (Some
represent the shilling as then ordinarily purchasing 15 or 20 measures.
See Halley's Bible Handbook, 24th edition, 1965. p.712.)
that one of the usual emblems of the Roman procurator or questor, of
which he shows a picture, "(had) a balance as a symbol of exactness,
and an ear of grain as a symbol employed with reference to procuring
of exacting grain from the provinces." And this could account,
at least partially, for the balance being employed symbolically in the
Third Seal. In Hosea 12:7, the balance is also referred to in connection
with fraudulent exaction and oppression ("balances of deceit"),
which were not uncommon in the Roman empire during the period under
oil and the wine hurt thou not" may represent a governmental directive
not to diminish the yield of the oliveyards and vineyards in order to
avoid excessive taxation of confiscation of their produce. Barnes cites
the following as an example of such: "If any one shall craftily
feign poverty in order to avoid a fair assessment, he shall, upon detection,
suffer death, and his property be confiscated" Cod. Theod. 1,13,lib.
Also, cited by
Johnson in A Vision of the Ages from Lactantius is the following: "Swarms
of extractors sent into the provinces, filled them with agitation and
terror, as though a conquering enemy were leading them into captivity.
The fields were separately measured, the trees and vines, the flocks
and herds, were numbered, and an examination made of the men. ... The
sick and weak were borne to a place of inscription, a reckoning of the
age of each was made, years were added to the young and subtracted from
the old, in order to subject them to the higher taxation than the law
imposed. The whole scene was filled with wailing and sadness."
(Cited also in Barnes, who has it "in order to subject them to
a higher taxation than the law imposed" -- in which case the "extractors"
would keep, and would be allowed to keep, the difference.) NOTE: Lactantius
(260-340 A.D.) was a Latin tutor, teacher of rhetoric, a celebrated
author and Christian apologist, converted during persecutions of Christians,
and an important source of Gibbon as well as other historians. The New
Columbia Encyclopedia (1975) states that his writings are "a chief
source for the history of the persecutions."
Again from Lactantius: "In the course of this history, we
shall be too often summoned to explain the land tax and capitation,
and the heavy contributions of corn (wheat), wine, oil, and meat, which
are exacted of the provinces for the use of the court, the army, and
the capital." And from Gibbon (Chapter 6, covering the years 208-235
A. D.): "The rest of his (the emperor Caracalla's) reign was spent
in several provinces of the empire, particularly those of the East,
and every province was by turns the scene of his rapine and cruelty
... The most wealthy families were ruined by partial fines and confiscations,
and the great body of his subjects oppressed by ingenius and aggravated
So, beyond question,
the conditions indicated by the Third Seal were a reality in the Roman
empire during a part of the period of the Second Seal and beyond. And
so would those be in the Forth Seal.
4. The Forth
Seal (6:7-8): "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 a fourth part of the earth, to kill with the
sword, and with famine, and with death (margin: Or, pestilence), and
by the wild beast of the earth."
here is descriptive of the pallor of death. The rider of the pale horse
was also named "Death," representing an appalling result,
directly and indirectly, of the calamitous period represented by the
previous two seals. "Hades" is the place of departed spirits
between death and the resurrection, and is represented as following
immediately behind Death in order to swallow up the killing spirits
of the dead. "Death," as also used above in the sense of killing
by death, refers to death in great numbers, as by epidemic or plague.
That there was such a period in the Roman empire is graphically described
in Gibbon (Chapter 10, covering years 248-268 A.D.):
>"But a long
and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the
inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the
produce of the present, and the hope of the future harvests. Famine
is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of scanty
and unwholesome food. Other causes must however have contributed to
the furious plague, which, from the year two hundred fifty to the year
two hundred and sixty five, raged without interruption in every province,
every city, and almost every family, of the Roman empire. During some
time five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns, that
had escaped the hands of the barbarians, were entirely depopulated."
(Mention of "barbarians"
gives occasion to mention that near the close of the period under consideration,
with the empire weakened by civil war and its concomitants, barbarians
from the north invaded, even as far as Italy, almost bringing the empire
to its knees. But it was rescued by a series of valiant princes, including
Diocletian, to be referred to later.)
"We have the knowledge of a very curious circumstance, of some
use perhaps in the melancholy calculation of human calamities. An exact
register was kept at Alexandria, of all the citizens entitled to receive
the distribution of corn. It was found that the ancient number of those
comprised between the ages of forty and seventy had been equal to the
whole sum of the claimants, from fourteen to fourscore years of age,
who remained alive after the reign of Gallienus. Applying this authentic
fact to the most correct tables of mortality, it evidently proves that
above half of the people of Alexandria had perished; and could we venture
to extend the analogy to other provinces, we might suspect that war,
pestilence, and famine had consumed, in a few years, the moiety of the
The word "moiety"
means one of two equal parts, or one-half. Gibbon's analogy of Alexandria,
however, may not have been applicable to all other provinces. And the
language of the fourth Seal specifies only a "fourth part."
Also, Gibbon does not mention another contributing factor to death in
the empire as being "wild beast," listed under the Fourth
Seal. But other sources do, speaking of the scourge of ravenous wild
beast which multiplied owing to colossal loss of population in great
Thus ends the four
seals dealing with carnal war beyond and later within the borders of
the Roman empire, and the calamitous circumstances connected therewith,
symbolized by the four horses and their riders. The next seal is of
a different sort, pertaining to persecuted saints within the empire.