Notes on Chapters 6:1-8
Cecil N. Wright

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.

 Evidence for 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.

 The horsemen 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.

 Lucius Commodus, 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 to it.

 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.)

 Barnes mentions 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 consideration.

 "And the 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. xi, seq.).

 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 taxes."

 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."

 "Pale" 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.)

Gibbon continues: "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 human species."

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 provinces.

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.