REVELATION
LAST THREE SEALS

Notes on Chapters 6:9 -8:6
Cecil N. Wright

            THE FIFTH SEAL (6:9-11).

 "And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the alter the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: and they cried with a great voice, saying How long, O Master, the holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on then that dwell on the earth? And there was given to each on a white robe; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little time, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren who would yet be killed as they were, should have fulfilled their course."

            John did not see bodies, but the "souls" of Christian martyrs. They were "under the alter" of the apocalyptic temple. This may have been because they had been sacrificed, as it were, in the service of God. In connection with the earthly tabernacle, there was the alter of burnt-offering, where animal sacrifices were made and the blood of the sacrificial animals was poured out at its base (Leviticus 4:7). This may have provided the symbolism of souls under the alter.

  Souls do not die when the blood of their bodies is shed and the bodies die. Neither are they ever represented as unconscious. So these represented as crying out to God, asking how long it would be before their blood would be avenged "on the earth" - not in eternity, in hell. They were given white robes, symbolizing victory and purity of righteousness, and told to wait a little longer till still others of their brethren should likewise suffer martyrdom.

            The victory symbolized may very well have been not only their own personal victory over temptation to succumb to the opposition of their cause but also the assured victory of their cause itself. For it indeed prospered notwithstanding repeated persecutions, so that Tertullian (who died in 230 A.D.) had remarked that the blood of martyrs was the seed of Christians. He also write: "We are of yesterday. Yet we have filled your empire, your cities, your towns, your tribes, your camps, castles, palaces, assemblies and Senate." By the end of Imperial persecutions and the accession of Constantine as emperor, they are estimated by some to have been numbered one-half the population of the Roman Empire.

            The question of the martyrs heard by John would have been appropriate at any time after there had been the martyrdom of Christians. But its answer makes it most likely to have been toward the end of the [period of Roman history in which there were persecutions of varying durations, intensities and scopes under the following several rulers: Domitian (81-96 A.D.); Trajan (98-117 A.D.); Hadrian (`17-138 A.D.); Marcus Aurelius (138-161 A.D.); Antoninus Pius (161-180 A.D.) Septimus Severus (193-211 A.D.); Maximim (235-238 A.D.); Decius (249-251 A.D.); Valerian (253-260 A.D.); Aurelian 271-275 A.D.); and Diocletian (284-305 A.D.).

            The climax, and bloodiest of all, began under Diocletian in the latter years of his reign, empire-wide, and lasted more than 10 years, till 311 A.D. - "to abolished the Christian name from the earth" - resulting in martyrdoms by thousands and estimated into millions by some - and has itself been called the "Age of Martyrs."

            The "little time" the souls already under the alter would have to wait for the avenging of their blood would likely be till the persecution begun under Diocletian had ended. Or, perchance, it might be till 324 A.D., when the victory of their cause was assured by the victory of their friend Constantine over their enemy Licinius, and becoming sole ruler of the empire. Afterwards there developed an actual reversal of the positions of paganism and Christianity in the empire, with the latter declared by a later emperor (Theodosius, 378-395 A.D,) to be the state religion. Later chapters in Revelation will indeed indicate an avenging "on the earth" of the blood of the martyrs - beginning even with the next seal of this chapter.

 3. THE SIXTH SEAL (6:12-17).

            "And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth. And the whole moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, as a fig casteth her unripe figs, when she is shaken of a great wind. And the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of its places. And the kings of the earth, and the princes and chief captains, and the rich, and the strong, and every bondman and freeman, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains; and they say unto the mountains and to the rocks, fall on us, hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of their wrath is come; and who is able to stand?

            The great earthquake is a symbol of revolution - great agitation and upheaval. The sun, moon and stars are symbols of earthly dignitaries - great lights in the political and religious heavens. Blackness of the sun and bloody hue of the moon indicate mourning and bloodshed among rulers and princes. The falling of the stars evidently represents the downfall of those who occupied high positions in the Roman Empire. The heaven being removed as a scroll likely refers to the old religions, superstitiously supposed to be of heavenly origin. Every mountain and island removed out of their places seems to refer to earthly rulers and kingdoms. The European provinces of the empire were often refereed to as "the isles of the seas." So the symbolic picture is one of great commotion and drastic change, recognized as being the result of the wrath of Jehovah and the Lamb (Christ). And secular history records just such a revolution in the Roman Empire - a synopsis which shall now be given.

            It followed chronologically the "Age of Martyrs" seemingly symbolized by the Fifth Seal. After Diocletian ascended to the imperial throne in 284 A.D., he came to feel that one emperor was not enough to defend the immense frontiers against barbarian invasions, since the empire had been seriously weakened by its long period of civil war. Accordingly, in 285 A.D., he nominated Marcus Aurelian Maximian as "Caesar," worthy of supreme command yet subordinate to himself as Augustus - thus in theory dividing the supreme rule between them, with himself over the eastern part, and Maximian over the western part, of the empire - while in reality he exercised senior status, to which Maximian graciously deferred without any signs of rivalry - which would not necessarily hold true of all successors.

            So a further step was taken in 293 A.D., to fix the succession of the two Augusti, in order to prevent further revolutions and competition for imperial power. They each elected a "Caesar" who would succeed him at death if not promoted to the status of Augustus earlier. Diocletian chose Gaius Valerius Maximianinus (referred to as Galerius), and Maximian chose Gaius Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus (to be referred to as Constantius). The two Augusti would be "brothers" and their "Caesuras" would be their "sons," who would automatically succeed them in case of death or abdication. And each Augustus pledged to retire after 20 years in favor of his: Caesar," who would then appoint a "Caesar" to aid and succeed him in turn.

            Each Augustus was also to give a daughter in marriage to his "Caesar." To add the ties of family to those of law. This, however required that each "Caesar" put away his former companion. (In the case of Constantius, he was obliged to put away Helena, mother of his son Constantine (now 21 years of age, according to some authors), and accept Maximian's stepdaughter Theoodora as his wife, by whom he had three daughters and three sons. And later, when Constantine became a "Caesar" he had to repudiate Minervina, mother of his son Crispus, and marry Fausts (sister of his father's second wife), by whom he had three sons and two daughters.)

            The immense empire was now a "tetrarchy, divided among four dynasts who were to render mutual assistance to each other. Each also chose a residence for himself suitable for the territory he would govern. Caesar Constantius was given Britain, Gaul, and perhaps Spain (though some authorities say it belonged to Maximian); and he chose Trier as his residence, in what is now Germany. His Augustus (Maximian) kept for himself Raetia (south of the Danube and north of Italy), Italy itself with its islands, Africa west of Egypt and Libya (and possibly Spain); and his court was in Milan, in northern Italy. Caesar Galerius received the regions east and southeast of Raetia below the Danube, Illyria, Macedonia and Greece with Crete; and he resided in Sirmium, in Pannonia, in an area that is now part of Yugoslavia. His Augustus (Diocletian) retained Thrace (in Europe), the whole of Asia Minor with Syria and Palestine, and Egypt with Libya (in Africa); and his palace was in Nicomedia, in Bithynia, in Asia Minor, near what is now Constantinople. None made Rome his headquarters, though the Senate was there an it was officially still capital of the empire.

            Although there were technically two Augusti, Diocletian was the acknowledged head of the tetrarchy and invested with the official title of Dominus. Lord, which early Roman emperors had shunned. That was reminiscent of the beastly Domitian and unwelcome to Christians, since it carried with it implications of deity which they could not acknowledge. Diocletian's reign was also otherwise more like that of an Oriental monarch. However, the empire held together without civil war as long as he retained his throne but rapidly disintegrated after his abdication.

            In 305 A.D., however, both Diocletian in the East and Maximian in the West abdicated their power as emperors, and their respective "Caesaras," Galerius and Constantius, became Augusti. And before his death in 313A.D., Diocletian saw the failure of both his tetrarchy and his persecution of Christians begun during his reign, mainly at the instigation of his "Caesar" Galerius. That persecution had been so extreme that it turned the sympathies of many pagans toward Christians and converted them to their religion. And furious rivalry and civil war also broke out among the rulers and would-be rulers of the empire.

            According to the rules of the tetrarchy, when Galerius and Constantius became emperors (Augusti), the office of "Caesar" would have gone to Maxentius, son of Maximian and son-in-law of Galerius, and to Constantine , son of Constantius. But Galerius, who was impatient of becoming Augustus and Lord, and had manipulated the abdication of Diocletian and Constantius, also maneuvered to get Diocletian to name Flavius Galerius Severus and Maxim Dia as the new Caesars. Since these were his own men, to all intents and purposes he would now be master of the empire. For the other Augustus, Constantius, was a long way off in Britain and in poor health, with no grand ambitions, and Galerius thought he could soon put another of his men in his place. But this did not work so smoothly, for neither Constantine nor Maxentius was happy with the new arrangements that excluded them so completely.            

            Constantine, who had been on loan as it were to assist with campaign in the East and had distinguished himself, was sent for by his father, the ailing Augustus Constantius of the West. Augustus Galerius was reluctant to let him go, and kept him almost a hostage. But he escaped. And when his father died the next year (July 25, 306), the army proclaimed Constantine his successor. Yet, according to the rules of the tetrarchy, the "Caesar" of Constantius, who was Severus, should have succeeded him, and Constantine had so apprised a council of high ranking officers. Yet on the day of his fathers funeral he was so vigorously and publicly acclaimed as the new Augustus that he could say he accepted against his will and in order to avoid disturbance. Accordingly he sent to Galerius for confirmation, which was refused, and Severus appointed instead, with Constantine as his "Caesar." Galerius nearly had to do that much for Constantine in order to avoid disturbance and sedition himself.

            And now that Constantine had gotten substantially what he wanted, Maxentius begun to look for opportunity to do so as much for himself. Galerius unwittingly afforded such by imposing new and severe fiscal measures to fill the empty coffers of the empire. Till then Rome had been exempt from taxation, but not now, and its citizens reacted angrily. Maxentius then presented himself as protector of the people, and the Praetorian Guard immediately proclaimed him emperor. (October 27, 306). With Roman Senate, which the tetrarchy had been by-passing, adding its confirmation - Maxentius making it known that as far as he was concerned the tetrarchy no longer existed. Also, to gain the support of the veterans of the army who held his father, Maximian (a former Augustus), in high regard, he offered him that position again (though he had not been on very good terms with him), and he readily accepted.

            Galerius, the Augustus of the East and head of the tetrarchy, then dispatched Severus, whom he had appointed Augustus of the West, to dispose of Maxentius and occupy Rome. His mission was a disaster, however, for his army was made up mainly of veterans of Maximian, who deserted to the defenders of the city out of regard to the latter. Severus escaped to Ravenna, where he committed suicide in February 307. Then Galerius, furious at the turn of events, personally headed a strong expedition to punish the traitors and save the tetratrchy. But when he arrived in Italy he had to abort his mission and retreat in humiliation with greatly diminished forces, for his soldiers, too, deserted by companies and the worst he could do was to leave a scorched earth and ravaged civil population in his wake, which he did with a vengeance as he withdrew.

            In the meantime, Maximian, who had never really trusted his son, Maxentius, visited Constantine and made a deal to give him (1) his daughter Fausta in marriage and (2) the title Augustus (of the West) which had been denied him by Galerius - having himself been Augustus when Galerius was only "Caesar." This, in turn, eventuated in Maximian and Maxentius publicly coming to blows, with the father tearing the imperial robe from his son. And Maxentius, managing to get away with the help of a few bribed soldiers, soon made and executed plans to avenge his insult. This time Maximian had to flee Rome. So, with him gone and Severus dead, Maxentius now declared himself Augustus - on October 27, 307 - the anniversary of his nomination as such by the praetorian guard.

            This meant that hardly two years after the abdication of Diocletian from the tetrarchy, one Augustus (Severus) had been driven to suicide and there were four other Augusti - Galerius in the East and Maximian, Constantine, and Maxentius in the West - and one "Caesar" (Maximin), nephew and subordinate to Galerius - who were all more or less hostile toward one another. So Galerius, Maximian, and Constantine held a consultation meeting with retired Diocletian as to how to preserve and strengthen the tetrarchy, which Maxentius had repudiated. Diocletian advised that Licinius, an intimate friend of Galerius in the East, be made an Augustus in place of the dead Severus, and that Constantine and Maximin be given the title of :Sons of Augusti." Maximian had to give up the title of emperor (Augustus) but was designated consul for the following year as a small compensation. And Maxentius was ignored altogether. So this by no means brought peace for long.

            Only months later, in 308, Maximin (the "Caesar" of Galerius), proclaimed himself Augustus in opposition to Licinius in eastern Europe, and after the dearth of Galerius in 310 he exercised considerable authority - dying, however in 313. Maximian also began to look for ways to restore himself to his original position of Augustus, and resorted to treachery against Constantine (who was only a "Caesar" by title but was more powerful in Europe than Augustus Licinius). Visiting Constantine as a time when the latter was having to leave for northern frontiers to stave off invasion, he attempted to bribe the soldiers who had been left as a garrison to attach themselves to him circulating rumors that Constantine was being defeated at the borders. Hearing of this, Constantine hurriedly returned with his army and Maximian had to flee for his life. After being defeated at every successive endeavor against Constantine, including in the last an attempt to murder him, he was allowed to choose the manner in which he himself would die, and he committed suicide (February 310). That left Maxentius as Constantine's only foe in the West. But before there was any settling of old scores between them, there were other crucial developments in the empire.

            By March of 310, the senior Augusts, Valerius, was suffering severely from an odius venerial disease that became more and more excruciating and debilitating, and took his own life by May 15, 311. Notwithstanding he had been the moving spirit behind the most furious of all persecutions against Christians, they had been without avail except to strengthen their cause and to purge it of many of its ills; so now he began to think that, since the gods of his own empire seemingly could not help him, maybe the God of the Christians would. Reaching the point of whimpering like a child and endeavoring to propitiate Him, he promised to rebuild ruined churches and do penance for his crimes - even asking Christians to pray for him! And on April 30, 311, just days before his death, he issued an Edict of Toleration and had it published in all territories of the empire. The effect was electrifying. Not only did Christians rejoice ecstatically, but many pagans joined in the celebration and "proclaimed the God of Christians great and true" - while others, however, were seized with anger, fear and desperation.

            Also, after the death of Galerius, and Maximin was now his lawful successor as emperor, there was almost civil war between the two Augusti, Licinius and Maximin, over territorial claims. According to the rules of the tetrarchy, all the lands Galerius had governed belonged to Maximin as his former "Caesar." But he grudgingly yielded those in Europe (principally Thrace) to Licinius, while getting to retain Asia Minor, Syria (including Palestine), and Egypt and Lybia in Africa.

            At the same time, Maxentius and Constantine were strengthening their respective lands in the West. Britain, Gaul, Spain, and a small part of Africa, Italy, and the land beyond the Alps to Raetia looked to Maxentius - with eastern Europe except Thrace (including all the Balkan and Grecian peninsula) belonging to Licinius. Maxentius, however, was officially a rebel and usurper in the tetrarchy, and neither Constantine nor Licinius (who were still friends) liked him, though he and Constantine were now brother-in-laws. Likewise, Maximin and Licinius were not on good terms, since the latter had attempted to annex Asia Minor to his territories after the death of Galerius. So Maximin in the East and Maxentius in the West entered secretly into a pact against Licinius and Constantine, making it known by erecting monuments in Rome of Maxentius and Maximin together.

            Maximin was also re-lighting the fires of persecution in his territories, which would give Constantine an opportunity to become the champion of Christians. His father, Constantius, had been tolerant of them and his mother, Helena, with whom he still had close ties, was sympathetic toward them and either had become or else later became one of them.

            Maxentius was also preparing to avenge his fathers, Maximian, against Constantine, who had in effect put him to death though he was a suicide. So he strengthened his military bases in northern Italy in anticipation of war against Constantine and Licinius. Aware of this, Constantine decided not to wait for the attack of Maxentius, but to strike first by surprise and when Maximin would be unable to give speedy assistance. Everywhere in northern Italy, however, the cities were favorable to Constantine and Maxentius lost every attempted battle. So the war would be decided in Rome.

            Constantine is said to have felt the need of divine aid, and decided to put his trust in the God of Christians. He reported seeing in the sky "a trophy in the shape of a dazzling sword in front of the sun and with it a motto saying 'with this sign conquer.'" Which all of his army likewise saw and was seized with wonder; also that while he slept that night "there appeared to him Christ of God with the sign he had seen in the sky, who told him to make standards of that shape to serve as protection of his conflicts with the enemy" - which he did. And when he marched on Rome, Maxentius, who fought under the pagan banner of the "Unconquered Sun" and had every natural advantage, was filled with terror and every move he made seemed to play into the hands of Constantine.

            Losing the battle of Milvian Bridge just north of the city and seeking to flee across the Tiber River, he was dragged down by his heavy armor and died in the mud of the opposite bank. The following day October 28, 312, Constantine made a triumphal entry into Rome, where he was welcomed by most of the populace and acclaimed by the Senate as "First of the Augusti," giving him precedence over Licinius and Maximin. The statues of Maxentius and Maximin were duly destroyed and the famous "Arch of Constantine" was later erected. The latter was dedicated in 315, with the following inscription: "Constantine, the Great, general, Caesar and priest pious and Happy Augustus, because of the guidance of divinity and the loftiness of his own mind he freed with his army the Republic from the tyrant and all his machina-nations at one blow by just force, the senate and Roman people dedicates this worthy arch of triumph."

            After only two months in Rome, Constantine went early in 313 to Milan to celebrate the marriage of his sister, Constantia, to his friend, and now fellow Augustus, namely Licinius. While there they made plans for the empire and among other things, issued the famous Edict of Milan, making Christianity a legal religion throughout the empire, confirming the edict of Galerius in 309, which Maximin in the East had not honored.

            But while Licinius was in Milan, Maximin took advantage of his absence and invaded his territory with intention of wresting it from him. Moreover, he made it a religious war, with word circulated that he had made a vow to Jupiter to destroy Christianity once and for all if granted victory. While Licinius had no real sympathy for Christianity, as would later be demonstrated, for the time being it was to his advantage to champion it, which he did - and won - Maximin fleeing and Licinius pursuing until finally he poisoned himself and died - his territory now belonging to Licinius.

            This left Licinius and Constantine the unchallenged rulers of the empire. And a war-weary people rejoiced at the prospect of peace. But neither Augustus had abandoned hope of an undivided supremacy. In 314 their mounting rivalry had reached the point of war. Due to an act of Licinius that looked like intrigue and treason, Constantine invaded his territory, defeated him, and exacted the surrender of his European territory except Thrace. Licinius then revenged himself upon Constantine's Christian supporters by renewing persecution in Asia and Egypt. "He excluded Christians from his palace in Nicomedia, required every soldier to adore the pagan gods, forbade the simultaneous attendance of both sexes at Christian worship, and at last prohibited all Christians services within city walls. Disobedient Christians lost their positions, their citizenship, their property, their liberty, or their lives." (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, 1944, p.665.) So Constantine now watched for opportunity both to give relief to the Christians of the East and to add the East to his own realm.

            For the greater part of another decade there was tension between the two Augusti, with occasional skirmishes and then shaky truces, with the wife of Licinius, who was Constantine's half-sister Constantia, serving as intermediary and peacemaker as long as she could. Finally, when Barbarians invaded Thrace, adjoining Constantine's territory, and Licinius failed to move against them, Constantine did. But, after he had driven them back, Licinius protested Constantine's entry into Thrace and war between them was renewed. The defender of Christianity, with 130,000 men, met the defender of paganism with 160,000 men. After Constantine was victor in two major battles, Licinius surrendered of condition of pardon, arranged for by his wife, but the next year (324) he was executed of the charge of resuming his intrigues.

            Constantine, the ruler in the west since 313, was now emperor of the East as well - of the entire empire. Not baptized till the last year of his life (337), that all his sins might then be removed, he nevertheless had identified himself with Christianity since October 27, 312. In the Edict of Milan in 313, he granted "to Christians and to all others full liberty of following that religion which each may choose." But he favored Christians in every way - filling chief offices with them, exempting their ministers from taxes and military service, encouraging and helping in the building of church houses, making Christianity the religion of his court, making Sunday (their) day of regular general assembly) a day of rest for the cities (permitting Christian soldiers and slaves to attend church services), and so on; and in 325 he issued a general exhortation to all his subjects to embrace Christianity. Furthermore, because the Roman aristocracy persisted in adhering to their pagan religions, he moved his capital to Byzantium, which was neither East nor West but both, which he embellished and officially designated as New Rome - but which was also called Constantinople, after him. It was the capital of his new Christian Empire.

            As for history, the emperor Julian (361-363), an apostate, sought to restore paganism. His successor, Jovian (363-364), restored Christianity to its favorer status. And Theodosius (378-395) went so far as to make it the state religion. After Theodpsius, however, the empire was permanently divided into Eastern and Western parts, each with its own emperor, with the Western emperor theoretically holding office at the pleasure of the Eastern emperor. But Rome fell to the barbarians from the north in 476, ending the empire of the West, and Constantinople in 1453 fell to the Ottoman Turks, ending the empire of the East, which also had been known as the Byzantine empire from the time of Constantine. But most of the barbarian invaders became converts to Christianity, at least theoretically, and helped spread it in areas to the north from which they had come. And long before that, Christianity had at least theoretically replaced paganism as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. At the end of the 3rd century paganism was still in the ascendant, seeking to "abolish the Christian name" but by the end of the fourth century the civilized world was professedly Christian.

            So, the symbolism of the Sixth Seal in the Book of Revelation is most aptly descriptive of the history of the empire as given above. And Gibbon states that a pagan writer described the matter from his point of view "as a dreadful and amazing prodigy, which covered the earth with darkness, and restored the ancient dominion of chaos and night."

 4. THE SEVENTH SEAL (8:1-6).

            The opening of the Seventh Seal follows an interlude occupying the entire 7th Chapter. It consist of two parts, verses 1-8 and 9-17. The first indicates that the earth (likely the Roman world) was not to be devastated (as later to be described) before the full number of the servants of God in it had been sealed (likely the empire Christianized). The second is a consolatory vision, showing an innumerable multitude of the redeemed from every nation and tribe and tongue standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes (of righteousness) and with palms (of victory) in their hands - having come successfully through great tribulation, with their robes made white in the blood of the Lamb, and are blessed for evermore in the heavenly temple.

            "And when he opened the seventh seal, there followed a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And I saw the seven angels that stand before God; and there were given unto them seven trumpets. And another angel came and stood before the alter, having a golden sensor; and there was given unto him incense, that he should add it unto the prayers of the saints upon the golden alter which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel's hand. And the angel taketh the censor; filled it with the fire of the alter, and cast it upon the earth: and there followed thunders, and voices, and lightenings, and an earthquake. And the seven angels that had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.

            All of this was preparatory to the sounding of the seven trumpets, heralding great devastating fury upon the Roman Empire, which seems to be incorporated in the Seventh Seal. The effects of the seven trumpets seems likewise not to be finished until the emptying of the seven bowls upon the same areas described in connection with the trumpets. If this perspective is correct, the sevenths seal actually takes us to the end of history. But its accomplishments are described in various aspects that take us through Chapter 19, with a long extension of effects described through Chapter 20:6, or till almost the end of history. (See Throne and Closed Book (Notes on Chapters 4 and 5)).

            As for the half hour of silence mentioned in the foregoing text, it may have been for dramatic effect to quicken wonder and focus attention on what was to follow. Or, it may have been symbolized a brief interval before the sounding of the seven trumpets. The burning of incense in heaven in connection with prayers of the saints on earth suggest recognition and approval in heaven of the latter. And the ominous occurrences that follow seem to be portents of the heavy judgments upon the Roman empire that were next to begin.