Revelation 6. The scroll is opened, precipitating the birth pangs of the kingdom 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 his discourse on the Mount of Olives. He must have considered there was nothing to add. The visions in Revelation 7-16 make good the omission by adding material provided nowhere else, whereas chapter 6 recapitulates and enlarges upon what is recorded in the other gospels. There, as he drew his teaching to a close, Jesus warned that one day the magnificent Temple built by Herod would be demolished. In response, his disciples asked him two questions.
The first was, when would the Temple be demolished? Jesus answered in Luke 19:43f: “Your enemies will build a rampart around you [Jerusalem] 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 was that persecution of the messengers of the new covenant would end in the Jews being held accountable for all the innocent blood shed since Creation (Matt 23:34-36), and that this, including, by implication, the destruction of the Temple (Matt 24:1-2), would happen in their lifetimes. Possibly this different answer is displaced, since in Luke it comes earlier in the narrative (Luke 11:49-51).
The second question was, how would his followers know his return was imminent, assuming the destruction of the Temple was not itself the sign? Jesus addressed this question on the Mount of Olives, the very place where Yahweh was to set his feet at the end of the age and rescue his people (Zech 14). Many, he said, would come in his name, saying “I am the Christ,” and “The time is near” – false teachers claiming to be either the first or the second incarnation of the Messiah. There would also be wars, and reports (‘rumours’) of war.
So things turned out. Orthodox Jews have waited almost two millennia 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 war against the Romans in AD 132-35. ‘Reports of wars’ imply a time when when Jews themselves would be absent from Palestine but the land would still be a field of conflict, as when Muslims wrested control of it from the Byzantines, and crusading Europeans later tried to take it back. Such troubles would not even be the beginning of the ‘birth pangs’ (Matt 24:8).
The travail of an expectant woman is a key metaphor. It refers to the day when wrath comes upon the earth (Isa 13:8, I Thes 5:3) and Israel, at the end of that tribulation, sees her forbears rise from the dead (Mic 5:3).
|Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom …||1st seal and 2nd seals: A rider with a crown, bent on conquest; people kill one another|
|3rd seal: Grain in short supply|
|… famines, earthquakes and disease||4th seal: Killing by war, famine, disease and beasts|
|Followers (‘you’) imprisoned and killed||5th seal: People killed for their witness to the gospel|
|Terrors and great signs from heaven, ‘stars’ falling to the earth||6th seal: Signs in the heavens, ‘stars’ falling to the earth|
Like the warrior at the end of the period encompassed by the seals (Rev 19:11), the conqueror sits on a white horse; but he wears a stephanos, a victor’s laurel wreath or crown rather than many diademata, and his weapon is a bow rather than a sword (though both are symbolic of war). Apart from the bow there is nothing obviously portentous in the manifestation. Some interpret him as an Antichrist figure, but the other horsemen symbolise events, not individuals. In contrast to the Lamb, who conquered by shedding his own blood (5:5f), he symbolises an episode of military aggression. In their triumphal processions Roman conquerors were awarded a laurel crown and rode on chariots drawn by white horses.
In itself, empire-building, if that is what is indicated, is not an unusual phenomenon. So 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. Apart from one interruption a succession of caliphates ruled the Middle East from the 7th to the early 20th century. However, in the context of the Apocalypse, what is indicated is the latest such episode, the conquests of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An obvious starting point for these is the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which resulted in the unification of the German states and the almost immediate transformation of Germany into an imperial power.
Historians identify two waves of European colonisation. The first was the subjugation of North and South America, India, Siberia and Indonesia. The second was the drive by Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal and newly unified Italy and Germany to conquer Africa and Indochina. In addition, the Russian Empire pressed into central Asia. All these European countries were in competition, but after the Franco-Prussian war they sought to increase their military, commercial and industrial might without fighting each other, by grabbing as much territory as possible outside Europe. Technological advances in transport, communication and weapons enabled them to spread their civilisation – their commercial practices, technologies, arts, sciences and philosophies – across the world. On the continent itself they protected themselves by a network of alliances. Only China, Japan, Thailand, Turkey, Ethiopia and Iran escaped subjugation.
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. Britain sent troops to defend France and Belgium. Within weeks most of Europe, including Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, was at war.
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Since they are a sign of the approaching end, the conflicts imply war on a much larger scale than those with which Jesus’s listeners would have been familiar. In subsequent history only those of the 20th century offer an unambiguous fulfilment. In the First World War some 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died, to say nothing of the wounded or of deaths from disease and famine. famine. Millions more were slaughtered in Russia’s civil war of 1917-1921. In the Second World War 21–25 million soldiers and 50–55 million civilians died, including 19–28 million from disease and famine. They were instances of ‘total war’, affecting the whole of government, the whole of industry and the whole of society. They reverberated through every level of the created world: under the sea, the surface of the sea, the land, the air. Heaven became a place from which droning and screeching flying machines rained down bombs, pulverising homes as civilians sought shelter under ground.
Although the main field of conflict was Europe, other countries were sucked in: Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, India, parts of Africa, parts of south-east Asia, Japan, the Middle East, Russia, most of them because they were European colonies. Why would one not regard these global wars as fulfilling Jesus’s prediction? But the wars now seem far in the past, and in Europe we have since enjoyed a long period of peace and security. In retrospect they seem like a false alarm.
Wheat, barley, oil and wine were staple foods (II Chr 2:10). A denarius was typically a day’s wages and would buy around 16 quarts of wheat or 30 quarts of barley; hence the better off tended to eat wheat bread, poorer people barley bread. Whether because prices rise or earnings fall, both become almost unaffordable. Catastrophic famine is implied.
|1928-1930||North China||3 million|
|1932-1934||USSR, Ukraine||4.5–8 million|
In Germany, a combination of massive war debts and crippling war reparations led to hyperinflation. A loaf of bread costing half a mark in 1918 cost 200 billion marks by the end of 1923. In the United States the stockmarket crash of October 1929 precipitated the Great Depression and soon spread to other countries. Between 1929 and 1933 worldwide gross domestic product fell by 15%. For comparison, in 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, global GDP fell by 5%, though in all countries the poor suffered more than the rich. While prices fell during the 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 – 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’ (Paxton 1997; Pinilla & Ayuda 2007). Europe was also the main market for olive oil, as it still is. In the principal olive-growing countries – Italy, Spain and Greece – the milling and pressing of olives became increasingly mechanised, and significant improvements were made to the storage of oil. Again, there was no shortage in the interwar years (Ramon-Muñoz 2013). The period also saw rapid growth in the production of other oil-yielding crops. World production of groundnuts, copra and soya beans increased around 95% between 1910 and 1939 (Neumark 1949).
The prophecy is quite specific: some staples, such as wheat and barley, will be in short supply, others, such as oil, will not. It does not exclude harm to olive trees and vines at a later stage.
With the fourth seal the series of the horsemen climaxes, the rider being Death itself. Since Death is here distinct from Hades, riding just behind, it must be the personification of another place, namely Tartarus. According to Homer, Tartarus was a region ‘as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth’. It was where, according to first-hand testimony, the demons could expect to be confined and tormented (Luke 8:31). Hades and Tartarus were also the names of the gods in charge of their respective region.
Twice as many died in the Second World War as in the First, and while the trenches were hellish, the Nazi death camps and concentration camps were even more so. The horsemen kill by every means: war, famine, disease, vermin (Ezek 14:21). ‘Dagger’ translates rhomphaia (see on 1:16); the modern equivalent might be the rifle. ‘Pestilence’ is thanatos, the normal word for ‘death’, as in the sentence preceding. English has an analogous use of the word in ‘Black Death’, referring to bubonic plague. ‘Beasts of the earth’ echoes Gen 9:10, where it refers to all animals apart from birds, insects and livestock; ‘wild’ is not in the Greek. Typhus was transmitted in concentration camps by the human body louse and, as in the Russian Civil War, killed millions.
The world can be likened to a field in which some labourers sow good seed and others sow darnel, which is a weed but resembles wheat (Matt 13:24-30). The darnel comes to fruition independently of the good seed. The history of 19th-century Europe illustrates the parable. Pre-eminently in Britain and North America, the gospel transformed society, giving individuals a new understanding of reality and access to a fountain that, having cleansed the soul, and inspired well-doing. At the same time others were sowing different seed: thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and their disciples. Although in some respects they were children of their time, their ideas disseminated with the force of newly revealed truth. After centuries of Christianity, the discovery (as it seemed) that there was no God opened up new worlds. There was ‘grandeur’ in the idea that natural selection brought about new life; the overthrow of capitalism would usher in a millennial reign of justice and peace, when religion would wither; the death of God would make way for a new Man to emerge, free to choose his own values.
‘What is good?’ Nietzsche asked in The Antichrist. ‘Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.’ A dictator might be ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, it hardly mattered. Russia’s internal war – lasting 30 years off and on – in which Stalin killed tens of millions by execution, starvation, deportation and forced labour was as ideologically driven as Hitler’s determination to restore Germany’s greatness by genocide and foreign war. In this ‘age of social catastrophe’ (Gellately 2007) Europe reaped what it had sown, as it came face to face with the abyss in its own soul. Entire cities were levelled to the ground. Hundreds more were half-ruined. A thousand years of cultural history – palaces, museums, opera houses, churches, hotels, town halls – went up in flames.
In the 6th century BC the prophet Zechariah received a vision of four chariots emerging from between bronze mountains and heading out to the four winds of heaven. The first was drawn by red horses, the second by black horses, the third by white horses, the fourth by grizzled horses. Only two directions were specified: the chariot with black horses went to the north country, Babylonia, followed by the white, and the chariot with dappled horses went to the south country, Egypt. Their function was to patrol the earth and report back. All the countries were at rest. With the return of some exiles back to Judah, God’s spirit in the north country was likewise at rest. The horsemen of the Apocalypse have a different function. They issue forth one by one, separated by time more than by geography, and they bring unrest to the nations. The whole earth is disturbed.
The horses suggest a quick succession of events. The First World War brought to fruition the ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy that inspired the jostlings for power of the previous decades. The causes of the Great Depression are debated, but war debt, protectionism and the reparations imposed on the loser certainly played a part. The reparations caused deep resentment in Germany, and along with widespread fear of Bolshevik revolution enabled Hitler to win electoral support for his extreme solutions and parliamentary support for government by decree. Just 22 years after the armistice acknowledging Germany’s defeat in 1918, France signed another armistice acknowledging its own defeat. The events let loose by the fleet-footed animals took place within a single lifetime.
In the gospels, Jesus spoke of wars between nations without chronological distinction. In Revelation, large-scale slaughter occurs in two phases, that of the second seal and, after an interval, that of the fourth, corresponding to World War One and World War Two. Large-scale famine is associated with the third and fourth seals. The second is the only one to be opened without the phrase ‘I looked, and behold’, suggesting continuity with the first. So World War One was the direct consequence of Europe’s imperialism in the preceding century. After World War Two, the colonial empires crumbled. Bankrupted Europe had neither the strength nor the will to hold on to them.
Earthquakes, though part of ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’, are not mentioned among the evils, and few have been out of the ordinary. Only in the decade 2004-2014 did ‘great’ earthquakes (moment magnitude > 8.0) increase in frequency, before returning to normal levels (Lay 2015). The quake that triggered the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 killed 230,000 people, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 85-220,000 people. The most powerful earthquake ever recorded was the Chilean earthquake of 1960.
The phrase edothe autωi, ‘it was given,’ occurs five times in chapter 6. It indicates something willed, not merely ‘allowed’. God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph 1:11), and the horsemen come at the command of the cherubim. Nonetheless, the wars, famines and epidemics of the 20th century were not so much judgements as symptoms of a general disorder, their immediate causes natural and human.
God reserves final judgement until the resurrection. Until then we are all under sentence of death. Life is given so that we might seek him 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), Canaan (Gen 15:16, Lev 18:25), Israel (II Ki 17), Judah (II Ki 25) and the neighbours of Judah (Ezek 25-32) – came after wickedness had run its course, after society had become so corrupt that nothing good remained in it (Gen 15:16, Jer 13:10). That was not quite the case in the 20th century. The scriptural examples were types of a global judgement yet to come.
Europe saw the Great War as confirmation that there was no God. The kind of Christianity taught in the churches did not enable it to cope with the horrors. Half a century earlier, doubts concerning the foundations of the Christian world-view – concerning Creation, the existence of Satan, the historicity of the biblical narrative, the ability of God to foretell the future – had been robustly countered, as witness the response to Essays and Reviews, published a few months after The Origin of Species (Altholz 1982). By the end of the 19th century such doubts were becoming commonplace, in the Church 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. Man’s wisdom and God’s wisdom were assimilated. 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.
More outbreaks of evil, disorder and hatred are to come. Faith in God’s goodness will be tested even more.
In contrast to the preceding seals, the opening of the fifth discloses not a new development but suffering that has been ongoing. The martyrs are described as souls because they have not yet risen. (The vision is a dramatisation. In reality, those who die in Christ ‘sleep’ or, as Revelation puts it, ‘rest’; they have no existence as disembodied souls, and they are not confined under an altar.) Not previously noticed, the altar is where the servants of God present their offerings. What we offer is ourselves, living sacrifices, willing if necessary to die. The testimony of the martyred Christians is the gospel, the ‘testimony of Jesus’, linked with the word of God also in 1:2, 1:9, 12:17 and 20:4. Their ‘brothers’ are the Jews (13:10, 17:6).
The Lord urges, ‘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 (Luke 18:2-8). When Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, lay dying, stoned in the court of Jerusalem’s Temple, he said, “May Yahweh see and avenge!” (II Chr 24:22). Despite his censorious last words, Stephen cried, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Persecution reaches such a pitch that the patience of the martyrs is exhausted. So it is from the altar that a voice will instruct an angel to release plagues killing a third of mankind (9:13) and one angel will instruct another to throw those who hate God into the winepress of his wrath (14:18). Here is an indication of why wrath is coming on the earth: those who bear him witness are being slaughtered and they cry to him for justice.
Over half of the Christians martyred since the birth of the Church were killed in the 20th century, mostly 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 in twelve states the death penalty is prescribed for leaving Islam – 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. Fulani herdsmen cry “Allahu akbar!” as they surround Christian villages in northern Nigeria, then cut down the adults and children as they flee. Some are kidnapped, enslaved, raped, imprisoned, tortured. Contrasting with the courage of the martyrs is the attitude of leaders who, seeing what can happen to those who criticise Islam, 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.
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.
A little later Jesus counsels, “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.” This warning, similar to that at the beginning of his discourse, concerns 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.
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, Matt 25:10, Luke 13:25). A sevenfold cascade of portents answers the martyrs’ prayers. Persecution ceases because the Church has been removed from the earth (Matt 24:40f).
Persecution of the Church comes to an end because the Church has been removed from the earth (Matt 24:40f): the martyrs’ prayers have been answered.
“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) The failure of sunlight recalls the 3 days of darkness before the death of Egypt’s firstborn, and the 3 hours of darkness when Christ himself experienced desolation. The light of the world hides his face. The Church’s reflection of the light is reddened by martyrs’ blood. This is the first time that wrath is mentioned in Revelation, and it is attributed to the Lamb. Men hide themselves from the sight of God in terror. ‘Star’ before the age of astronomy can be any heavenly body except the Sun and the Moon. Here the stars denote meteoroids and small asteroids, non-luminous bodies detectible, if at all, only with a telescope, not the stars of the Milky Way. Stars proper will disappear progressively, like a scroll being rolled up (Isa 13:10, 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 NASA was mandated to detect and track potentially hazardous asteroids orbiting near Earth. So far, more than 25,000 near-Earth asteroids have been detected, ranging from a few metres in size to several kilometres. In 2018 funds were announced for the construction of two observatories to survey space above the southern hemisphere.
According to the standard account of origins asteroids are leftovers from the natural formation of the solar system. In this century we have photographed them at close quarters and even retrieved samples, adding to the information gleaned from meteorites. But they have failed to confirm the account. Most of the smaller bodies have turned out to be ‘rubble piles’, aggregations of rocks and dust produced when larger bodies collided with one another and shattered. Larger bodies are either also rubble piles or the remains of planets which, shortly before their explosion, differentiated into crust, mantle and core, with correspondingly ‘stony’, ‘stony-iron’ and ‘iron’ compositions. At the time of the Flood-Cataclysm, the ‘windows of the heavens were opened’ (Gen 7:11) and through them asteroids rained down, instruments of God’s wrath. Craters produced by their impacts on the Moon are still visible.
‘The powers of the heavens will be shaken’ is an allusion to Isaiah 34:4 (Gk: ‘All the powers of the heavens will dissolve’, Heb: ‘All the host of heaven will rot away’). Prophecy speaks not of the humanly predictable approach of one stray asteroid, but of a ‘strong wind’ suddenly dislodging many. A strong wind in outer space can only be an intensification of the solar wind that continually streams from the Sun’s corona, such as the spurt of gas that erupted from the far side of the Sun on 19 July 2012.
“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 Israel’s prophets. They will not be chance events. No longer sealed, their words have been preserved so that we on whom the end of the ages has come may take note and repent.
The sun also darkened when the Assyrians overran Samaria. An earthquake shook the land, and men wished that the mountains that shook would fall on them (Hos 10:8, Amos 8:8f). Likewise the inhabitants of Jerusalem when wrath came upon them (Luke 23:29f).
Even the heavens will be shaken. God’s wrath culminates with the stars of heaven falling to the earth like unripe figs (which would not normally drop) and with a ‘great earthquake such as has not occurred since man was on the earth’.
The words are not intended as poetic fiction, and the events will not be entertainment confined to a screen in one’s living room.