The scroll and the six seals

Revelation chapter 6. The birth pangs of the kingdom of heaven in the 20th century, and the wrath of God in the 21st.


Of the four gospel writers, only John does not record what Jesus said about the end in parables and in his discourse on the Mount of Olives. The visions in Revelation 6-14 make good the omission, while in their plainer language the synoptic gospels help interpret the imagery. The key passage occurs not long before his death, when the disciples ask, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”

The question is in two parts: one, about when the Temple would be destroyed, the other, about how his followers would know when his return would be imminent. Jesus answers the first in Luke 19:43f: “Your enemies will build a rampart around you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and your children in you, and not leave one stone upon another.” In Matthew and Mark the answer is that persecution at the hands of the Jews will end in their being held accountable for all the innocent blood shed since Creation (Matt 23:34-36), and that this will all happen in their lifetimes, including, by implication, the destruction of the Temple (Matt 24:1-2). Possibly this different answer is displaced, since in Luke it comes much earlier in the narrative (Luke 11:49-51); it is difficult to read any further sayings as an answer to the question. The superficially similar warning about a second ‘abomination of desolation’ in the temple precinct is one element of Jesus’ answer to the second part. It occurs only in Matthew and Mark (though compare Luke 17:31).

The second part is answered on the Mount of Olives, the place where, at the end of the age, Yahweh himself will set his feet on the day he intervenes to rescue his people (Zech 14). Jesus warns, “Many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Christ,’ and ‘The time is near’ ” – false teachers claiming to be either the first or the second incarnation of Christ. There will also be wars. So it has turned out. Orthodox Jews have waited and waited for a Messiah other than Jesus, and Jews claiming to be the Messiah have appeared sporadically throughout history, most catastrophically Simon bar Kochba, leader of a revolt against the Romans in AD 132. Wars have also been recurrent. Followers of the true Messiah are not to be deceived or alarmed, for such troubles are not even the beginning of the ‘birth pangs’.

And I looked as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four animals say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse. Its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering, and in order to conquer.
The birth pangs, the things Jesus said had to happen before his coming, correspond to the events described in Revelation 6, and are foretold in the same order:

Matthew 24,  Luke 21
Revelation 6
 Nation will rise against nation  1st seal: A rider with a crown, bent on conquest
 … and kingdom against kingdom  2nd seal: People slay one another
 Famines  3rd seal: Staple foods except oil and wine unaffordable
 … and earthquakes, and disease  4th seal: Killing by war, famine, disease and beasts
 Followers will be imprisoned and killed  5th seal: People killed for their witness to the gospel
 Signs in the heavens, ‘stars’ falling to the earth  6th seal: Signs in the heavens, ‘stars’ falling to the earth

The first seal is the most difficult to interpret. Like the warrior at the end of the period encompassed by the seals (Rev 19:11), the rider is on a white horse; but he wears a stephanos, a victor’s laurel crown or wreath, rather than many diademata, and his weapon is a bow rather than a sword. Apart from the bow there is nothing obviously portentous in his manifestation. Some interpret him as an Antichrist figure, but the other horsemen symbolise events, not individuals; rather, he symbolises an episode of military conquest, of empire-building. This is a different idea of conquering from that exemplified by the Lamb (5:5).

In itself, empire-building is not an unusual phenomenon. How far back should one go? The Russian Empire arose in the 18th century, the Spanish and Portuguese Empires lasted from the 16th to the 19th century, the Mongol Empire, stretching from eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. A succession of caliphates ruled the Middle East all the way from the 7th century to the early 20th.

If we accept that the opening of the first seal is no later than the church at Laodicea, then the conquests referred to here are those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Historians call the subjugation of North and South America, India, Siberia and Indonesia the first wave of European colonisation. The second was the drive by Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium to conquer Africa. In addition, the Russian Empire pressed into central Asia. All these European countries were in competition, but rather than fight each other they sought to increase their military, commercial and industrial might by taking over as many countries as possible outside Europe. On the continent itself they protected themselves by a network of alliances. Eventually, the tensions became too great. Austria-Hungary, provoked by the assassination of its heir to the throne, attacked Serbia, and its ally, Germany, attacked Serbia’s ally, France. Within weeks most of Europe, including Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, was at war.

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second animal say, “Come!” And there went out another horse, bright red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth, so that people should slaughter one another, and he was given a great sword.

Passchendaele

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Being a sign that the end is approaching, the conflicts imply war on a much larger scale than those with which Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar. The First and Second World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 are an obvious fulfilment. In the first, some 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died, to say nothing of the wounded, or of deaths from disease and famine. In the second, 21–25 million soldiers and 50–55 million civilians died, including 19-28 million from disease and famine. Every town and city has its war memorial. They were instances of ‘total war’, affecting the whole of government, the whole of industry and the whole of society, fought on land, on the sea, under the sea and even in the air. Although the main field of conflict was Europe, other countries were also sucked in, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, India, parts of Africa, parts of south-east Asia, Japan, the Middle East and Russia. Why would one not regard these wars as fulfilling the prediction? But they now seem far in the past, and in Europe we have enjoyed a long time of peace and security. In retrospect they seem like a false alarm.

In his discourse on the Mount of Olives, Jesus simply spoke of wars between nations, without chronological distinction. In Revelation, large-scale slaughter is pictured as occurring in two phases, represented by the second seal and, after an interval, the fourth, corresponding to the First World War and the Second World War. Large-scale famine is associated with the third and fourth seals. The second seal is the only one to be opened without the phrase ‘I looked, and behold’, suggesting continuity with the first seal.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third animal say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse. And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four animals say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius. And do not harm the oil and the wine!”

A denarius was typically a day’s wages and would buy around 16 quarts of wheat; barley was about half the price of wheat. Whether because prices rise or earnings fall, basic foodstuffs become unaffordable. In the context of the Apocalypse, famine is implied on a catastrophic scale.

Although not unique to the 20th century, catastrophic famines do appear to have been more frequent in that period. Those after the First World War include the following (taken from Wikipedia):

 Year  Region  Deaths
 1921-1922  Russia  5 million
 1921-1922  Tatarstan  0.5–2 million
 1928-1930  China  3 million
 1932-1934  USSR, Ukraine  4.5–8 million
 1936  China  5 million

Over time we forget about such horrors, if we were ever aware of them.

The Great Depression began in the United States following the stockmarket crash of 29 October 1929, and soon spread to other countries. Between 1929 and 1933 worldwide gross domestic product fell by some 15%. By comparison, the recession after the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 saw worldwide GDP fall by less than 1%. While prices fell during the Great Depression, so did real income, and unemployment soared (Crafts & Fearon 2010). Drought in the Great Plains of the United States subsequently reduced the land to a dust bowl.

In France – the principal wine producer and consumer at the time – prices were depressed by the United States’ prohibition of alcohol from 1919 to 1933. Perfect weather in 1933 produced the biggest grape crop in French agricultural history. Bumper harvests and increasing cultivation in countries beyond Europe also resulted in a glut. ‘Wine production,’ concluded an official in 1939, ‘is in the process of destroying itself by its own excesses’ (Roberto Paxton, French Peasant Fascism, 1997; Pinilla & Ayuda 2007). Europe was and is also the main market for olive oil. In the principal olive-growing countries – Greece, Italy and Spain – the milling and pressing of olives was increasingly mechanised in the 1920s and 30s, and significant improvements were made to the long-term storage of olive oil. There was consequently no shortage in the interwar years (Ramon-Muñoz 2013).

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth animal say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with dagger and with famine and with pestilence and by the beasts of the earth.

Wars and massacres include the Second World War, the Korean War (2.5 million deaths), the Vietnam War (1.3 million Vietnamese plus many Cambodians and Laotians), the genocides in Cambodia (at least 1.7 million) and Rwanda (0.5-1.0 million), and the civil wars of Angola (0.5 million) and the Congo (5.4 million in the Second Congo War alone). ‘Dagger’ translates rhomphaia; the modern equivalent might be the rifle or the machete.

Famine on a catastrophic scale is explicitly associated with war and other scourges. Famines after the Second World War include the following (taken from Wikipedia):

 Year  Region  Deaths
 1947  Soviet Union  1–1.5 million
 1959-1961  China  30 million
 1967-1970  Biafra
 1968-1972  Sahel  1 million
 1974  Bangladesh  Up to 1.5 million
 1984-1985  Ethiopia  400,000
 1991-1992  Somalia  300,000
 1996  North Korea  600,000
 1998-2000  Ethiopia
 1998-2004  Congo  3.8 million
 2005-2006  Niger

The famine in China was a direct result of the policies of Mao Zedong, vividly described in Jung Chang’s book Wild Swans. Since 1961 most of the famines have occurred in Africa. Some were associated with war and disease, some with destruction of crops by locusts. Famines continue to this day, though international and non-governmental agencies have generally become better at delivering relief.

‘Pestilence’ is thanatos, the normal word for ‘death’, as in the previous sentence of the Greek text. English has an analogous use of the word in ‘Black Death’, referring to bubonic plague. The plague pandemic that began in China in 1894 went on for decades and claimed over 12 million lives, but was most intense before 1912.

So there are four horses. They evoke the vision given to the prophet Zechariah of four chariots emerging from between two bronze mountains. The first was drawn by red horses, the second by black horses, the third by white horses and the fourth by grizzled horses, heading out to the four winds of heaven. Only two directions (relative to Judah) were specified: the chariot with black horses went to the north country, namely Babylonia, followed by the white, and the chariot with dappled horses went to the south country, Egypt. Their function was to patrol the land and report back. All the countries were at rest, and then – with the return of some exiles back to Judah – God’s spirit in the north country was also at rest. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are not explicitly assigned geographical directions, and the second is continuous with the first. The ‘fourth of the earth’ assigned to the last may refer to a fourth of all humanity rather than to a geographical quarter.

 White horse Europe West Imperial conquest 1875-1914
 Red horse Europe West First World War 1914-1918
 Black horse USSR, China North, East Famine 1921-1936
USA West Great Depression, famine 1929-1939
 Pale horse Europe, USA, Russia, China, Japan Global Second World War 1939-1945
Russia, Ukraine Famine 1947
Korea, SE Asia War 1950-1975
China, Africa Famine, war, disease 1959-
The chief point is that the whole earth is disturbed. The deadliest disease was Spanish Flu, which in the three years 1918-1920 killed 50–100 million people worldwide. HIV/AIDS, starting in the Congo in 1960, has claimed more than 30 million lives worldwide. Earthquakes are also among ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’, but are not mentioned here. Whether they have been more frequent in the last 150 years is impossible to say. The worst earthquake in human history was the one that triggered the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, killing some 230,000 people.

God reserves judgement until the end of the age and the resurrection after the end of a person’s natural life. We are all under sentence of death. Life is given so that we seek and find him, and of our own volition choose good rather than evil. The many acts of temporal judgement on entire cities and nations in the Old Testament – Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), Egypt (Ex 12, 14), the Canaanites (Gen 15:16, Lev 18:25), Israel (II Ki 17) and the neighbours of Israel (Ezek 25-32) – came after wickedness had run its course. Society was so corrupt that nothing good remained in it. They were all illustrations of the final judgement, warning us not to treat God’s mercy and forbearance lightly. In the meantime wars, famines, epidemics and earthquakes happen; they are symptoms of a generally disordered world, and we should be reluctant to characterise any such disaster as a sign of God’s displeasure.

At the end of the age, temporal and eternal judgement both impend (Rev11:18, 14:7) and, just as before the judgement on pharaonic Egypt, they are preceded by a series of warnings. In 2016 the late Mark Pilon commented:
The dramatic loss of Christian faith in Europe is historically unprecedented. While some countries are slightly better off than others, the continent as a whole can no longer be described as a Christian civilization. The causes of this loss of faith are numerous – and somewhat mysterious. The consequences are self-destructive and perilous. …
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this radical collapse of Christianity is the fact that it increased rather than reversed or slowed down after two major world wars, especially the Second World War, which devastated most European countries. You might have expected just the opposite effect of that most horrific of wars; that having seen and experienced the devastating consequences of the godless ideology that thrust all of Europe into conflict, the tendency would’ve been to turn back to God as the basis of civilization. Yet just the opposite has taken place.

The kind of Christianity taught in the churches when most people went to church did not enable them to cope with the horror of these wars. Initially doubts concerning the fundamental truths of Creation, the existence of Satan, the historicity of the biblical narrative and the ability of God to foretell the future had been resisted, as witness the opposition to the 1860 issue of Essays and Reviews, published one year after The Origin of Species. But by the end of the 19th century they were commonplace, in the Church herself as well as in society. The Church could not understand what was going on when philosophers and scientists posed the age-old question, “Did God really say…?” She did not wish to acknowledge that there even was a distinction between Church and society. Whenever a consensus emerged that what she had routinely commended, on the authority of the Bible, was in fact wrong, she gave ground, on the authority of those who were in fact her enemies. She wanted peace with society, and to that end continually absorbed its doctrines. When finally people asked, “How can there be a God in the light of such misery?” the Church had little to say, not even after the Second World War, a calamity even more obviously the consequence of an atheistic, God-hostile understanding of reality than the First World War.

The colonial wars, the world wars, the civil wars, the famines and the epidemics were not judgements. They were signs. In a sense God willed them, for the horsemen come at the command of the cherubim. But the immediate causes are terrestrial, natural and human.

Yet more extreme expressions of evil and disorder are to come. Faith in the goodness of a compassionate God will be tested, but but faith in him must transcend the horror.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. And they cried cried with a loud voice, “How long, Master, holy and true, before you judge and avenge our blood on those who inhabit the earth?” And each was given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be fulfilled who were to be killed as they had been.

In contrast to the previous seals, the opening of the fifth seal refers not to a new development but to persecution that is ongoing, and not brought on by any command. The martyrs are described as souls because they have not yet risen. (But the vision is a dramatisation. In reality – I Thes 4:13 – those who die in Christ sleep, they have no existence as disembodied souls, still less are they confined under an altar.) The altar, not previously noticed, is where the servants of God lay their offerings. What we offer is ourselves, living sacrifices, willing even to die if it be his will. The ‘brothers’ of the martyred Christians are the Jews (13:10, 17:6).

The Spirit says, ‘Bless those who persecute you. Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will requite.” ’ ‘Vengeance’ in Greek and Hebrew means the righting of a wrong; there is no sense of exacting more than is due. When Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, lay dying, stoned in the court of Jerusalem’s Temple, he said, “May Yahweh see and avenge!” (II Chron 24:22). On the other hand, when Stephen was stoned to death, he cried, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Persecution reaches such a pitch that the patience of the martyrs is exhausted. It is from the altar that a voice instructs the sixth angel with a trumpet to release the plagues that will kill a third of mankind (9:15), and that an angel commands those who hate God to be thrown into the winepress of his wrath. God will avenge (16:5f, 19:2). Voices from the altar affirm the truth and justice of his judgements (16:7).

The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that since the birth of the Church over 70 million Christians have been martyred. Over half of these were killed in the 20th century under fascist and communist regimes. Since the 1980s the greatest persecutor has been militant Islam. Believers are killed not so often at the hands of the State – though the death penalty is frequently prescribed for conversion to Christianity – as at the hands of a brother or a father who thinks that killing an apostate is a matter of honour (Luke 12:53), at the hands of an incensed mob, or suicide bombers at a church service (John 16:2), or in civil war. Contrasting with the courage of the martyrs is the attitude of leaders who see what can happen to those who criticise Islam and choose to appease it, lest criticism cause offence. Everywhere worship of the true God is being closed down – in Europe and the United States voluntarily, as congregations decline, in the rest of the world by force, as the pharaohs of this world illegalise churches. Those who cry to him day and night will be avenged soon (Luke 18:8). “Nonetheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

This is where we are at the present time. We are not at the climax of this hatred, for these wars and natural disasters – the Great War was more than a hundred years ago – are but ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’:
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. And then many will fall away, and will deliver up and hate even each other. Many false prophets will arise and deceive many. And because lawlessness is increased, the love of the many will grow cold. But if you endure to the end, you will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations. Then the end will come.”
and
“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”

Because of man’s alienation from God, good news can seem like bad news, and warnings of impending wrath are as hard to hear as they are to deliver. They provoke only more hostility.

Later in his discourse on the Mount of Olives Jesus warns, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect”. Although similar to the warning at the beginning of the discourse, these words concern Jews and Christians at the end of the age. False prophets and signs will add to the deception, the tribulation will be intense, and the elect will be desperate for news that the Messiah is coming.

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of heaven fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its unripe fruit when shaken by a strong wind, and the heaven disappeared like a scroll being rolled up. And every mountain and island was moved from its place. And the kings of the earth, the great ones, the generals, the rich, the mighty, every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of his wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

‘The great tribulation’ (7:14) is both intensified persecution of the Church and natural disasters coming down from heaven. Because the events heralded by the trumpets in chapters 8 and 9 are omitted, we come immediately to the point where the door of salvation is closed (Gen 7:16, Luke 13:25, Matt 24:31). The opening of the seventh seal brings only a period of silence.

The sixth seal betokens a series of events: (1) an earthquake (seismos), coinciding with the darkening of the sun and reddening of the moon, (2) a shower of celestial bodies falling to the earth, and (3) another earthquake, so violent that it flattens mountains. This is the first time wrath is mentioned in Revelation, and it is attributed to the Lamb.

The failure of sunlight recalls the 3 hours of darkness, followed by an earthquake, at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Along with the second event, the first takes place just before the resurrection of the just. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Matt 24:29-31) ‘Stars’ here denote asteroids, non-luminous bodies visible only with a telescope, not the stars of the Galaxy. The latter will cease to be visible (Isa 13:10) and will disappear progressively, like a scroll being rolled up (Isa 34:4), or as if sackcloth, the garb of lamentation, were being drawn over them (Isa 50:3).

In our generation, we understand what it means for ‘stars’ to fall from heaven. In 2005 the United States Congress mandated NASA to detect and track potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids down to a diameter of 140 metres. So far, more than 2000 near-Earth asteroids have been detected. In 2018 funds were announced for the construction of two observatories to survey the space above the southern hemisphere.

Prophecy, however, speaks not of the humanly predictable approach of one stray asteroid, but of a ‘strong wind’ suddenly dislodging many. ‘The powers of the heavens will be shaken’ is an allusion to the Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 34:4 (Gk: ‘All the powers of the heavens will melt’, Heb: ‘All the host of heaven will rot away’), which speaks of heavenly bodies falling to earth. A strong wind in outer space could only be a sudden intensification of the solar wind that continually streams from the Sun, an ejection of ionised superhot gas, such as the one that erupted from the far side of the Sun on 19 July 2012. Had that side been facing the Earth, the resultant shock wave would have disrupted power grids and knocked out satellites.

“We have been lucky that we have not been hit by a really big event,” said Juha-Pekka Luntama, head of the European Space Agency’s space-weather team. “We will be hit eventually, the question is, when?”

These things were foreseen by the prophets, not as chance events but as the judgement of God. No longer sealed, their words have been preserved so that we, on whom the end of the ages has come, may take heed.

Isaiah spoke of the end in various places:
In that day men will cast away
the idols of their silver and idols of their gold,
which they made for themselves to worship,
to the moles and the bats,
and will enter the clefts of the rocks
and the fissures of the crags,
from the fear of Yahweh and the glory of his majesty
when he rises to make the earth tremble. … (2:20f)

I will make the heavens tremble,
and the earth will be shaken out of its place,
at the wrath of Yahweh of hosts,
in the day of his fierce anger. (13:13).

The windows from above are opened
and the foundations of the earth tremble.
The earth is utterly broken,
the earth is split apart,
the earth shakes violently.
The earth staggers like a drunkard,
it sways like a hut.
Its transgression lies heavy upon it,
and it falls and does not rise again. (24:18-20)

All the host of heaven will rot away
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host will fall,
as leaves fall from the vine
and figs from the fig tree. … (34:1-4)

A voice cries in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of Yahweh;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley will be lifted up
and every mountain and hill be made low.
The uneven ground will become level
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of Yahweh will be revealed
and all flesh will see it together.” (40:1-3)

“The mountains will depart
and the hills be removed,
but my love will not depart from you [daughter of Zion]
and my covenant of peace will not be removed.” (54:10)
Jeremiah was mainly concerned with contemporary Judah, but he too got a glimpse. The earth would be rendered dark, formless and void of life, as it was before the first day of creation:
I looked at the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
and at the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked at the mountains, and behold, they were quaking
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and behold, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled. (4:23-25)
Joel spoke of the end in these terms:
I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and terrible day of the LORD.

For the day of the LORD is near
in the valley of decision.
The sun and the moon will be darkened
and the stars will withdraw their shining.
The LORD roars from Zion
and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
and the heavens and the earth quake.
Habakkuk also:
He stood and rocked the earth;
he looked and made the nations tremble,
and the eternal mountains were shattered,
the everlasting hills sank low.
Finally, the prophet Haggai:
“Yet once, in a little, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.”

Even the heavens will be shaken, as they were when the windows of heaven were opened once before, at the time of the Flood-Cataclysm. God’s wrath culminates, according to Revelation, with the stars of heaven falling to the earth as the fig tree sheds its unripe fruit when shaken by a gale, and with a ‘great earthquake such as not occurred since man was on the earth’.

These are not metaphors. Nor will they be events that one observes on a screen in the comfort of one’s living room.