The Seven Seals
What is the BIGGEST thing you have ever seen? Have you seen the Grand Canyon? Niagara Falls? The night sky? Ayers Rock? What is the biggest thing that you can imagine?
John is being shown a great vision of what is to come (4:1) and is shown a great heavenly throne room with lights and sounds and angels and elders all looking and surrounding a throne in the centre. In Chapter 4, God is declared worthy to receive honour and power because He is the Creator of all things (4:11). In Chapter 5 there is a scroll with seven seals around it and the question asked: who is worthy to break the seals (5:2). The answer is given: The Lion of Judah is worthy (5:5), but when John looked he saw The Lamb who was slain (5:6-7).
In Revelation 5:9 they sang, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
In Chapters 6-8, the seals are open one by one. These are not a prescription of specific events but a description of the view of all ages from God’s vantage point.
The 7 Seals section of revelation follows a similar pattern to the 7 trumpets (8:6-11:19); the 7 plagues (15:1-8) and the 7 bowls (16:1-21). Reading them all will give the overview of their united theme while reading them individually highlights their nuances. Paul Barnett describes them as non-linear events. The seven items are non-linear and can be thought of as layers of information rather than sequential events. And the four sequences of seven (seals, trumpets, plagues and bowls) are also non-linear. They point to four different themes: tyranny, chaos, persecution and destruction.
Read Revelation 6:1-8:5
What did you see? (Observation)
- Opening seals 1 to 6
- The first seal – conquering (6:1-2)
- The second seal – bloodshed (6:3-4)
- The third seal – famine (6:5-6)
- The fourth seal – death (6:7-8)
- The fifth seal – the cry of the redeemed (6:9-11)
- The sixth seal – Judgement Day (6:12-17)
- The 144,000 – The saved are sealed (7:1-8)
- The uncountable – God’s grace is huge! (7:9-17)
- The seventh seal – It is finished (8:1-5)
Opening seals 1 to 6
The first seal – conquering (6:1-2)
“I watched as the Lamb opened…” I must remind us that this was the Lamb and His credentials were laid out in Chapter 5.
“…one of the four living creatures…” See 4:6,7. The first creature was like a lion.
“…white horse…its rider…was given a crown, and he rode out…on conquest.” Both a great king or an evil king could be described by these words. Psalm 45 (especially Verse 4) give an OT imagery of the anointed King of Israel who is righteous in God’s eyes who goes out to defend truth and such. But John gives us words like ‘conqueror’ and ‘conquest’ to depict a ruler that takes by force.
The four riders are best compared to the four horses depicted in Zechariah 6:1-8. Both sets are commissioned to cause destruction. The horses in Zechariah were commissioned by God to punish nations who have oppressed the people of God. The four horses in Revelation (often called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) must be seen as unleashed by God but not ridden by Him and, as we’ve already said, do not depict a moment in time, but a description of the suffering in this world which points us to the judgment of God. As we’ll see in the 5th seal, we long for these days to be ended and the final judgement of God to come.
The second seal – bloodshed (6:3-4)
“…the second living creature…” He was like an ox.
“…fiery red…take peace…make people kill each other…” The theme of tyranny is clear here. Notice how the rider does not initiate his quest and that he is given power and given the sword. This is also true of the first rider and we’ll see this as we continue.
The third seal – famine (6:5-6)
“…the third living creature…” This had the face like a man.
“…holding a pair of scales…two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages…” The imagery here is of a famine. See Lev 26:26; 2 Kings 7:1; Ezek 4:10,16 for what is on view. It is perhaps a famine brought on by a siege – the food supply is cut off and the only way to survive is to measure out the food and not let anything be wasted.
The fourth seal – death (6:7-8)
“…the fourth living creature…” was the flying eagle.
“…the rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.” We continue to see these images all portraying life outside the garden where death has come.
“…kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” A broad representative of violent forms of death.
The fifth seal (6:9-11)
“…under the altar…” The golden altar of incense described in Exodus 30 and Leviticus 4:7.
“…How long, Sovereign Lord…” The persecuted people of God cry out for vengeance. God has promised that he will take vengeance for His name’s sake. This cry is a familiar one in the Old Testament but this reference is particularly close to Zechariah 1:12ff which is responded to with four horses going out in Chapter 6 to inflict judgement.
The sixth seal (6:12-17)
I cannot expand on the imagery in Verses 12-14 one by one. Each image is a picture of all things coming to an end. Many of them are repeated again in the book (Rev 16:18, 20; 20:11). The sun, the moon and the stars are a common triplet in the Bible as we are reminded that God is above them and not the other way around (Deut 17:2-3; Psalm 148:3; Isaiah 13:10; Jer 31:35; Luke 21:25). Great celestial objects that seem solid and strong in our sky are shaken like figs on a tree and fall. The Sun goes black! The heavens recede and every mountain is removed. Like everything in Revelation, it is picture language but what is described is the undoing of things that appear immovable. The heavens above and the foundations beneath us are gone. Our God is so big.
“For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” See that it is incomaptible for the mountains to be removed from their place and yet kings and generals are now described as hiding in them. A reminder to take each image as a statement and not to build a comprehensive picture in this book.
Verses 12-14 were the undoing of creation and Verses 15-17 is the terror facing humanity. No power or authority is excluded from God’s wrath. “…their wrath…” is perhaps the wrath of God and the Lamb. Some manuscripts have his wrath but it is more likely the text should be their. See Rev 22:3.
The 144,000 – The saved are sealed (7:1-8)
“…four…four…four…” Depicting the entire globe in view – the four corners of the globe – Nth, Sth, Est, Wst etc.
“…holding back the four winds…” An image of complete still is depicted. After the scene of the four horsemen, we now have utter still across the globe – not a leaf is disturbed.
“…having the seal of the living God…” We have not opened the seventh seal yet and there is this long interlude and build up toward it. Look out for these interruptions as the book continues.
“…until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” The mercy of God is to hold back his wrath on the entire inhabitants of earth until His people have been marked out. I notice an irony that in the seven seals there is a seal placed on heads – not sure if there is anything to make of that.
“…I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.” The name Israel became synonymous with God’s people in the story of the bible. It was a literal line of descendants from Jacob but the bible teaches us to think about a true Israel who are not Israel by blood but by promise. The number given and the list that follows is giving us the impression of completeness. It is not simply a role call and a maximum seating capacity of heaven. What follows demonstrates that it is one thing to hear the number called, it is quite another to see.
The uncountable – God’s grace is huge! (7:9-17)
“…I looked, and … a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…” The gospel is for the whole world and every nation. Those who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and given mercy from God’s wrath are many – a great, uncountable multitude. I hope that our vision of heaven is big!
“…These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?” They are washed by the blood of the Lamb. Who washes in blood!! But we know this metaphore don’t we? WE are not cleaned by our works or by looking neat and turning up on time! We are redeemed by the death of the One who would take away our sin! He has done that for us! They came through the tribulation because, despite the mocking, the slandering and even the threat or action of death, they stood by the cross for their protection. They feared God more than they feared men. And they have been washed and clothed in white.
“…they are before the throne of God….wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Compare the grandeur of God with his gentle hand that touches the face of redeemed sinners to wipe away their tear. Psalm 23 is surely alluded to here. And we are saved from the disaster that will befall all who have not come to the Lamb to be robed and cleaned.
The seventh seal – It is finished (8:1-5)
“…there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” The seventh seal appears empty. It seems to follow the stillness of the sixth seal and a quiet before the storm. But the silence is to be associated with divine judgment (see 1 Sam 2:9-10; Ps 31:17; 115:17; Isa 47:5; Lam 2:10-11). What follows is the beginning of the seven trumpets and some have suggested that the seventh seal unleashes the seven trumpets. That suggests a kind of linear event but we’ll leave this thought until we look at the content of the seven trumpets.
“…went up before God…” The pleasing aroma of worship and dependant thankfulness is the flavour of God and his people. Those who repel at this idea are likely to repel at anything to do with the true and eternal God.
“…took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth…” The wrath of God is unleashed.
“…thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and earthquake.” This was first depicted in Chapter 4 Verse 5 and seen again in Rev 11:9 and 16:18 and depicts the final judgement. You may see that what is depicted in Chapter 4 is retold again and again to show the glory of God, the mercy of God, the judge not of God and the eternal peace. This emphasises again that the book is not one unfolding story but a statement on judgement and salvation depicted in many images.
What did we learn? (Meaning)
The world is not a random and chaotic event but is overseen by the Glory of God. The slain Lamb is worthy to open the seals which unleash conflict and judgement in this world. The Lamb is able to set apart a great multitude who will be protected from Judgement. And the Lamb will bring the suffering of this life to an end and wipe away our tears. We live with this hope and we have two ways to respond: to lose hope in suffering, or to cry out to God for Him to come again soon. Will you be among the multitude in heaven because of the blood of the Lamb?
Now what? (Application)
Topic A: Recognise the destruction that is native to this life. The horses remind us of the harshness of this life. Eternity with God will not have any of this! They are a response from God against sin and they ought to bring us to dependence on God in prayer. Wars, bloodshed, famine and death are native to this world only. They are only ‘normal’ in the sense that we have not experienced life without them. Sure, we live in a ‘good’ age where these extremes are out of our sight, but they still exist and we can certainly pray, with the saints, “How long Sovereign Master, holy and true?”
Topic B: Recognise the eternal and highest power that is God’s alone. The calamity depicted in this passage is from the hand of evil men, unleashed by the Sovereign God. I’m reminded of 2 Thessalonians where the evil one is depicted as dangerous only as far as God allows him to be. But all the realities of this world: power, bullying, pain, mountains and stars, are all fleeting. We need to grow our vision and faith in God. He is bigger than all of our fears combined.
Topic C: Praise our God who is both definitive in judgement, mighty to save and gentle in eternity . Judgment day will come and evil will be removed decidedly. Those who have not been clothed by Jesus will not be included in the final count. Now is the time to be sealed by the Lamb for our future. We must not wait to see what happens – Revelation is a great warning to us all. His salvation is as sure as His justice. If you are with Jesus, you will be saved! And our Almighty God is also tender to lead us like sheep and to wipe away our tears. He is as gentle as He is powerful. Our God is worthy of our praise and honour and glory and power and strength forever and ever. Amen!