The First Five Seals
Jesus is the God/man. By being both God and man, Jesus takes hold of heaven and earth. He is the link that binds sinful humankind to our Holy Heavenly Father. He is the ladder that Jacob saw in his dream, with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth (see Gen. 28:10-22). The top of the ladder is secured by His divinity – the bottom is secured by His humanity. By coming “down from heaven” (Jn 3:13), Jesus anchored humanity to heaven by becoming human. By descending to earth Jesus takes part in our humanity. By ascending to heaven, we take part in His divinity. ascending up into heaven, Jesus is able to lift mankind up to heaven. Jesus said: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (Jn. 12:32). Jesus is between heaven and earth. It is this unique position – between heaven and earth – that ‘qualifies’ Jesus, and is part of what makes Him ‘worthy’ to be the Judge of mankind, and the One who has been ‘found’ who can open the book with seven seals.
At present Jesus is standing at the top of the ladder, and His next task is to bring mankind up to His level – to make mankind suitable to dwell in heaven. As He breaks the seals, progress towards this goal is recorded. The goal is to produce a people who will ‘stand’ during the time of trouble – the 144,000.
The seals are covering the same time periods as the seven churches. Therefore, they are repeating and enlarging upon much that has already been presented in the seven churches. However, as we progress through Revelation the end is emphasized more than the beginning. [The last series of seven, the seven last plagues, does not even deal with the beginning – the plagues are all about the future and the end].
The Book and the Seals
The book has to be opened. It is opened by breaking the seals one after another. Each time a seal is broken it introduces events in the history of God’s people as that history unfolds. Some of that history parallels that already mentioned in the seven churches and some of it is new – this is in keeping with the repeat and enlarge principle.
John was told that he was seeing things “which must shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1). He was specifically told this again at the introduction to the seals, “Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter” (Rev. 4:1). What follows is the vision of the seven seals. John was not shown the contents of the book. Rather, he was shown what happens to God’s people after each of the seals was opened. Therefore, it would appear safe to assume that what John saw concerning the seals, pertains to events that had to occur from his time onwards. The book deals with history from the beginning of time, to the end of time – but the seals deal with events, from the time of John, to the end of time. The first seal therefore, begins with John’s generation and the others follow chronologically until with the last seal we arrive in heaven.
The Four Horsemen
At the breaking of the first four seals, we are introduced to what are often called, ‘the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’ Riders carrying different kinds of accoutrement are riding different colored horses. Each of these horses and riders are introduced by one of the four living creatures.
If we use the principles of interpretation, we find that the prophet Zechariah, sees in vision, four horses and riders. It would appear that the principle of type and anti-type is applicable here used in the book of Zechariah, and it would appear that the horses and riders in Revelation are the antitypes for types that appear in Zechariah. In order to understand the full significance and understand the symbolism correctly, we need to understand the message and purpose of Zechariah’s visions and prophecies.
Horses and Riders in Zechariah
Zechariah and the prophet Haggai were contemporaries. They both lived in the uncertain times when the Jews were permitted to return from exile in Babylon, to Judea and Jerusalem. Those who returned encountered much opposition not only in their homeland but also in the corridors of power back in Babylon (see Ezra 4:1-5; Dan. 10:12,13). God raised up the prophets Zechariah and Haggai, to encourage and guide the people through their troubles and trials. God wanted to teach His people that the way to overcome their difficulties was to rely on, and trust in Him – this was Zechariah’s mission and message.
Zechariah had a series of eight visions, and they are recorded in the first half of his book. They are all about heavenly agencies acting for and on behalf of God’s people on earth. The key verse occurs in the fifth vision, where Zechariah sees the golden candlestick and the two olive trees (4:1-14) – the explanation for this vision is declared to be:
Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts. Zech. 4:6.
In other words, the work of restoring the nation of Judea was not to be done through trusting in their own power, but by trusting in the guiding power of God’s Holy Spirit.
The point that God wants make through Zechariah is that the whole of heaven is mobilized to help in the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem. Everything that Zechariah sees in vision are spiritual representations of realities in heaven. For example, Zechariah is told that the two olive threes represent “the two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech. 4:14). Two of Zechariah’s visions involve horses. There are horses and riders (see Zech. 1:7-17). And there are chariots and horses (see Zech. 6:1-8). Ezekiel is told that:
These are the four spirits of the heavens which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth. Zech. 6:5
The four spirits before the Lord are the four living creatures before the Lord in the Book of Revelation. The four horses with riders and chariots, that Zechariah saw are the type, the four horses with riders in Revelation are the anti-type.
The prophet Ezekiel also saw these, very same, ‘living beings’ in vision, at least twice (Eze. 1:4-28; 10:1-22). Three times Ezekiel is told that these living beings are controlled by the Holy Spirit (Eze. 1:12, 20; 10:17). These same living creatures, were represented in the sanctuary layout on earth, in the orderly way, that the tribes of Israel, camped around the sanctuary.
This is further supported, when we note, that the breaking of each of the first four seals [which are the four horsemen] is introduced by each one of the four living creatures in turn (see Rev. 6:1, 3, 5, 7). But the living creatures do not introduce the next three seals – and the next three seals do not include horses with riders.
The four living creatures, and other heavenly beings are: “…ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb.1:14).
The explanation given to Zechariah about the horsemen that he saw in his first vision was that they were sent by the Lord “to walk to and fro through the earth” (Zech. 1:10). The same was said of the chariots and horses (see Zech. 6:7). These same horses and chariots succeeded in their mission to the ‘north country’ and ‘quieted’ the Lord’s spirit there. The north country is Babylon. And this mission to Babylon is similar, and almost certainly, the same event recorded by Daniel (Dan. 10:11-13) – when the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” withstood the angel Gabriel for twenty-one days, and heavenly reinforcements were called in to assist. The struggle was undoubtedly over the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild the nation of Judea – the same struggle that Zechariah was called to assist with. Thus, the “ministering spirits” are actively involved, and are instruments for achieving God’s will on earth.
Another aspect to the “walking to and fro through the earth” by these “ministering spirits” is the work of recording and reporting the events that occur on earth. When these ministering spirits are symbolically portrayed, one thing that is prominently mentioned is the multiplicity of ‘eyes.’ When Ezekiel saw the four living beings, he described them as having wheels with rims that “were full of eyes” (Eze. 1:18; 10:12). When John saw the same heavenly beings, he described them as being “full of eyes before and behind” and “the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within” (Rev. 4:6, 8). In the vision that Zechariah had of the candlestick with seven lamps, he was told that the seven lamps represented “the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth” (Zech. 4:12). It is these heavenly beings that operate and function as “the eyes of the Lord” – going to and fro throughout the whole earth, recording and keeping a record of all the events on earth – and reporting on these events, in heaven. It would seem apt and natural that these heavenly agencies are in attendance during the opening of the book – after all it would appear that, they are playing a major role in putting heavenly records together.
The First Seal
The breaking of the first seal reveals a “white horse” and the rider has a “bow” and a “crown,” and “he went forth conquering, and to conquer” (Rev.6:2). White symbolizes purity, and it is Christ’s color (see Rev. 19:8). Here in this first seal, we have a symbolic representation of the Apostolic Church, directed by Christ, going forth “conquering and to conquer.” Jesus gave His disciples the “great commission” when He said to them, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). And soon after receiving this commission Paul was able to say, that the gospel had been “preached to every creature which is under heaven” (Col.1:23). It is this success that is encapsulated within the symbolism of the first seal. This same symbolism is used of the triumphant conquering Christ at His second coming:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and his head were many crowns… And he hath on his vesture, and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. Rev. 19:11,12, 16. Thus, the first seal introduces the same period as the first church – the period of the Ephesus Church.
The Second Seal
The second church, the Church of Smyrna, was the persecuted Church. Therefore, when the second seal is broken, the heavenly beings report back that: “peace was taken from the earth” (Rev. 6:4). Thus, the horse is colored red – the color of blood – symbolizing the shedding of blood, and identifying the attacker – Satan [Satan’s color is red, see Rev. 12:3; 17:4; Isa. 1:18]. And the rider has a “great sword” symbolizing the taking of peace from the earth and the death of God’s people, during this period of the Church’s history.
The Third Seal
The third church is the Church of Pergamos. This was the time when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Ahab was marrying Jezebel again – the iron was mingling with the clay. The Roman Emperors needed a religion that would unite all citizens of the empire. Therefore, a synchronistic religion was required – a religion that would appeal to all. Such a religion would have to have elements within it, that would incorporate all the major beliefs of the empire. Thus, true Christianity was compromised and corrupted – for political necessity. This was a time when apostasy took root and began to flourish.
Therefore, the prospects for the success of the gospel during this period have turned ‘black’ – symbolized by the black horse. The rider is holding “a pair of balances in his hand.” The Greek word, for the phrase, “a pair of balances” is, ‘zugos.’ This word literally means ‘yoke’ – and refers only to the crossbeam of a balance. [Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines zugos as, “a yoke, serving to couple two things together”]. This is an apt symbol for the coupling together of church and state that occurred at this time. It is simply another way of stating that the iron was mingling with the clay [a repeat and enlargement].
This third horse and rider parallels the period of the Pergamos Church. Pergamos was universally acknowledged as being the premier pagan center. It was the location of the temple of Zeus, the head of the pagan Greek pantheon. It was biblically acknowledged as well. John was told that it was the “seat of Satan” (see Rev. 2:13). This is where the Babylonian priesthood, had relocated, after their homeland had been lost to the Medes and the Persians. This is the time, when Rome absorbed Pergamos into its empire, the Babylonian priesthood moved again – this time to Rome – where they eventually assimilated with the Christian Church.
The Apostle Paul, when he was exhorting the believers to remain separate from the world said, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness” (2 Cor. 6:14). This advice was ignored at this time – and the ‘zugos’ in the hand of the rider was symptomatic, of the greater apostasy to come.
There was also famine in the land at this time because prices of food were very expensive: “a measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny” (Rev. 6:6). The Scripture does not tell us why the famine has occurred, but it is undoubtedly because of drought – caused by inadequate rain. Rain is a symbol for the Holy Spirit – and the type in the Old Testament, for this kind of drought, is the experience of Elijah when there was no rain for three and a half years. There was no rain because Ahab had married Jezebel. And this is exactly what was happening again – the iron was mingling with the clay – the church was marrying the state. Therefore, this famine is not referring to literal food, but spiritual food. Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4) – Jesus is referring to spiritual food. And it was spiritual food that began to ‘dry up’ at this time. The Holy Spirit was not ‘raining’ down as formerly – apostasy was increasing and the ‘Truth’ became more difficult to find – there was a famine for the Truth in the land.
“And see thou hurt not the oil and the wine” (Rev. 6:6). The “oil and the wine” was not hurt by the drought because the oil and the wine are symbols for God’s people. Just as the oil and the wine were the ‘fruits’ of the people’s labors in their vineyards, so too, are God’s people the fruits of the Holy Spirit’s labors in the Lord’s vineyard. Although few in number they continued to be nourished spiritually by the Holy Spirit, just as Elijah was nourished literally by God, during his tribulation.
When Ellen White was counseling those in the Church, who felt compelled to reform others, she pointed out their first duty was to reform themselves and secondly, that any attempt to reform others must be done in the spirit of the Master. In the course of this discussion she identifies for our own edification what the “oil and the wine” represents:
In view of the infinite price paid for man’s redemption, how dare any professing the name of Christ treat with indifference one of His little ones? How carefully should brethren and sisters in the church guard every word and action lest they hurt the oil and the wine! 5T 614.
The Fourth Seal
When the fourth seal is broken a pale horse rides out, with a rider whose name is “death” and death has an associate called “hell.” “And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8).
The marriage of church and state that began with the church of Pergamos reached its ultimate pinnacle of power during the 1260-year period of the Thyatira church. We can think of Pergamos as being the period when a virus such as HIV enters the body of the Church and we can think of Thyatira as being the period when the HIV develops into full-blown AIDS. It was during this period that the full weight of the state was brought to bear, by the apostate church, to persecute and kill all who dared to resist her. Her reach extended from Europe to Central and South America and to parts of Africa and Asia – to a “fourth part of the earth” (Rev. 6:8). It is during the reign of this church that the people experience “the depths of Satan” (Rev. 2:24). For God’s people this was a time of “death” and “hell” on earth. And if the time period of the pale horse had not been ‘shortened’ none of God’s people would have survived (see Matt. 24:21, 22).
The color of this fourth horse is not a real color – more like a bleached color – representing the absence of life. One can imagine a covering, being left on a lawn, for many days. When the covering is removed, the bright green color of the grass will have turned a deathly shade of pale yellow or even white, representing near death. This is the state of this fourth period of the church – a state of near death – the Holy Spirit has deserted the church – there is little restraining power to prevent the “depths of Satan” being perpetrated. The situation is a repetition of the state of the Jews when they rejected Christ. The pronouncement at that time was: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matt. 23:38). The presence of God was not in their midst.
The Fifth Seal
When the fifth seal is opened a change occurs. There are no more horses and riders. Instead there is an appeal for judgment: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). The events revealed in the previous seals are so horrendous that an appeal goes out for God to put an end to it all. The fifth seal appears to be a time of reflection about what has occurred in the past.
After Cain slew his brother Abel, God said to Cain: “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). Symbolically, the injustice done to Abel is declared to be represented by his shed blood, crying out for justice to be done. Here too, the blood of the martyrs is crying out symbolically, for judgment to be declared in their favor and against the perpetrators of persecution and death.
Like the people of God before them, they are looking forward to the judgment. They want to see their faith and their ultimate sacrifice vindicated. This is why John was anxious to see the seals broken and the book opened. He knew the history of the church. He had witnessed friends and fellow apostles martyred for their faith, he too wanted to see the judgment come. But both John and the symbolic martyrs were encouraged to be patient:
And it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled. Rev. 6:11.
The ‘great controversy’ was not yet over – there was more to come – there would be more martyrs and the judgment of the wicked – the perpetrators of these atrocities could not yet begin.
It seems appropriate that the cry from under the altar should be heard at this point. The fourth church and the fourth seal represent the persecuting beast. When the fifth seal is opened the persecuting power has [or is about to] receive its ‘deadly wound.’ Those who have suffered from its hand are now free to ‘voice’ their complaints and publish its crimes.
This fifth seal therefore, corresponds accurately with the fifth church. The fifth church is the Church of Sardis, which we already know represents the Protestant Churches. A Protestant is someone who actively [or ought to] protest against the Roman Catholic Church. It was the work of the Protestant Churches to voice their complaints against the Catholic Church and publish its crimes. It was the Protestants who pointed their finger at the Catholic Church and said: ‘that’s Babylon the Great – that’s the whore riding the beast – that’s the woman drunken with the blood of the saints (see Rev. 17:1-6). The early Protestants knew and understood their mission and message – they were pronouncing the present truth of this fifth period – they were the ‘voice’ of the souls under the altar.
It would appear that the souls under the altar act like a summary of all that has gone before. The true church of God has just come through its greatest test – the 1260 years of persecution. This persecution has now temporarily ceased. The church is therefore symbolically portrayed as looking back and appealing for justice for their fallen fellow servants. It is almost akin to halftime in the journey, where the church pauses, contemplates the past, and is informed about the second half of the journey.
What has happened in the past will be repeated. The experience of the early church is a type that will be repeated anti-typically to the latter Church. The souls under the altar are told to be patient because their fellow servants were to be killed as they were. The deadly wound that the persecuting power received would be healed, and it would rise up, to persecute God’s people again. It is a mistake to believe that serious persecution including death will never happen again (see Rev. 20:4).
Ellen White helps us to understand the fifth seal. She also understands it in the sense of being a watershed – a watershed between two periods of persecution:
When the fifth seal was opened, John the Revelator in vision saw beneath the altar the company that were slain for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. After this came the scenes described in the eighteenth of Revelation, when those who are faithful and true are called out of Babylon. MS 39, 1906.
The work of calling God’s people out of Babylon has been going on since the Protestant Reformation first started. This work will receive a special impetus at the time of the end when the fourth angel of Revelation chapter eighteen joins together with the three angels, previously mentioned in the fourteenth chapter. Under the influence of the fourth angel, the end time message swells, great light floods the earth and tribe after tribe joins the Advent movement. This enrages the beast and persecution again is kindled against God’s church. This is the time that “their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled” (see Rev. 20:4).
The first four seals share a common thread. They are each have a horse and rider, and each of them is introduced by one of the four living creatures. These seals correspond historically with the first four churches. The fifth seal signals a departure from the previous pattern, but it still corresponds historically with the fifth church – if this pattern continues we should expect the sixth church to correspond with the sixth seal. The Philadelphia Church should correspond with the second coming of Christ.