Revelation 6. The title deed to the kingdom of God is opened: 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 in his discourse on the Mount of Olives. The visions in Revelation 6-14 make good the omission, while in 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 has two parts: one is 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 [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 is that persecution of the messengers of the new covenant will end in the Jews being held accountable for all the innocent blood shed since Creation (Matt 23:34-36), and that this will 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 words in Matthew as pertaining to the destruction of the Temple. The warning about a second ‘abomination of desolation’ in the temple precinct is one element of Jesus’ answer to the second part.
The second part is answered on the Mount of Olives, the place where Yahweh himself will set his feet at the end of the age when 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 the Messiah. 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 in the countries where the Jews were subsequently dispersed 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’.
The travail of an expectant woman is a key metaphor, and its reference is twofold: first, to the suffering of Israel before the resurrection of Israel’s forbears (Micah 5:3), and second, to the suffering of all the earth before the redemption of God’s other children (Isa 13:8, Rom 8:22, I Thes 5:3).
|Nation will rise against nation||1st seal: A rider with a crown, bent on conquest|
|… and kingdom against kingdom||2nd seal: People kill one another|
|Famines||3rd seal: Staple foods unaffordable except oil and wine|
|… 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|
Like the warrior at the end of the period encompassed by the seals (Rev 19:11), the conqueror 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 (though both are symbolic of war, Hos 2:18). 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. Rather, he symbolises an episode of military empire-building, in contrast to the conquering exemplified by the Lamb, who shed his own blood (5:5). In their triumphal processions Roman generals were awarded a laurel crown and rode on chariots drawn by white horses.
In itself, empire-building 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 all the way from the 7th to the early 20th century.
If we accept that the opening of the first seal is no earlier than the church at Laodicea, then the conquests here are those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The obvious starting point 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 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, Belgium, Portugal and newly unified Italy and Germany to conquer Africa. In addition, the Russian Empire pressed into central Asia. These European countries were all in competition, but after the Franco-Prussian war they sought to increase their military, commercial and industrial might by taking over as many countries as possible outside Europe rather than fighting each other. 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.
“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’s listeners would have been familiar. The First and Second World Wars are an unambiguous 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. The deadliest disease was Spanish flu, which in the three years 1918-1920 killed 18–39 million people worldwide, the highest death rate in Britain being among 25-45 year-olds. In the second 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, fought on land, on the sea, under the sea and even in the air. Although the main field of conflict was Europe, other countries sucked in included 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 seem now far in the past, and in Europe we have enjoyed a long period of peace and security. In retrospect they seem like a false alarm.
In his discourse, Jesus speaks 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 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. Correspondingly, the First World War was the direct consequence of Europe’s pre-war imperialism.
A denarius was typically a day’s wages and would buy around 16 quarts of wheat or 30 quarts of barley. Here, whether because prices rise or earnings fall, basic foodstuffs become unaffordable. In the context of the Apocalypse, famine is implied on a catastrophic scale.
|1932-1934||USSR, Ukraine||4.5–8 million|
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%. For 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’ (Paxton 1997; Pinilla & Ayuda 2007). Europe was also the main market for olive oil, as it continues to be. 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 the oil. There was consequently no shortage in the interwar years (Ramon-Muñoz 2013).
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 harming olive trees and vines at a later stage.
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 (see on 1:16); the modern equivalent might be the rifle, or the machete.
|1947||Soviet Union||1–1.5 million|
|1974||Bangladesh||Up to 1.5 million|
‘Pestilence’ is thanatos, the normal word for ‘death’, as in the previous sentence. 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. Asian flu (1957-58) killed an estimated 2–4 million, Hong Kong flu (1968-1969) 1–4 million, Russian flu (1977-78) around 700,000. Most of the viruses originated from ‘beasts’, that is, battery-farmed ducks and chickens, pigs and now, with the coronavirus, traded wild animals. HIV/AIDS, starting in the Congo in 1960, has killed more than 30 million.
So there are four horses. They evoke the vision given to the prophet Zechariah of four chariots emerging from between two 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 and the fourth by grizzled horses. Only two directions (relative to Judah) 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 land and report back. All the countries were at rest. Then, 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 bring distress upon the nations. The whole earth is disturbed.
Earthquakes are also among ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’ but are not mentioned among the evils brought by the horsemen. Whether they have been more frequent in the last 150 years is impossible to gauge. The worst quake in human history was the one that triggered the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, killing 230,000 people. In 1997 a series of quakes damaged the basilica of St Francis in Assisi, including its famed Giotto frescoes. In 2016 an earthquake destroyed the basilica of St Benedict in Norcia, birthplace of the founder of European monasticism, to whom more than anyone Europe owed its regeneration as a Christian civilisation.
God reserves final judgement until the resurrection, so in this age of the gospel we should be loath to characterise such disasters as signs of his displeasure. 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), Canaan (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, after society had become so corrupt that nothing good remained in it. They were illustrations of the judgement to come, recorded so that we might not now spurn the Son of God and outrage his grace.
The wars, famines, epidemics and earthquakes of the 20th century were symptoms of a general disorder, their immediate causes natural and human. God willed them, for the horsemen came at the command of his cherubim, the creation reflecting back man’s disorder, but they were not judgements specific to the people who perished in them. Man is forced to confront the nature of a world where God is absent.
The prime cause was godlessness, but Europe saw the disasters as confirmation that there was no God. The kind of Christianity taught in the churches in the days when most people went to church did not enable them to cope with the horrors. At first, doubts concerning the foundations of the Christian account of reality – concerning Creation, the existence of Satan, the historicity of the biblical narrative, the ability of God to foretell the future – were 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. Man’s wisdom and God’s wisdom were assimilated (cf. I Cor 3:19f). 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. Perhaps we have become like Sodom and Egypt?
‘Sword, famine, noxious animals and pestilence’ are God’s four noxious judgements (Ezek 14:21). Yet more extreme expressions of evil and disorder are to come. Faith in the goodness of God will be tested.
In contrast to the previous seals, the opening of the fifth seal refers not to a new development but to persecution that has been 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.) Not previously noticed, the altar 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 testimony of the martyred Christians is the ‘testimony of Jesus’, the gospel, 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 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 (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). On the other hand, Stephen, as he was stoned to death, 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 will instruct an angel to release plagues killing a third of mankind (9:15) and to throw those who hate God into the winepress of his wrath. Voices from the altar affirm the truth and justice of his judgements (16:7). Here is the first indication of a reason why wrath is coming on the earth: God will avenge their blood.
According to the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity 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 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. Fulani herdsmen cry “Allahu akbar!” as they surround Christian villages in northern Nigeria, then cut the adults and children down 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.
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 his 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.
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). 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 hours of darkness when Christ himself experienced the wrath of God. The light of the world hides his face, and the Church’s light is reddened by martyrs’ blood. This is the first time that wrath is mentioned in Revelation, and it is attributed to the Lamb. This is the first time that wrath is mentioned in Revelation, and it is attributed to the Lamb. ‘Stars’ here denote asteroids, non-luminous bodies detectible only with a telescope, not the stars of the Galaxy. Stars proper 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.
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, to say nothing of 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 created 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 they 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 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.
Even the heavens will be shaken, as they were when the windows of heaven were opened at the time of the Cataclysm. God’s wrath culminates, according to Revelation, 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.