1. And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals; and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
2. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
Vs. 1, 2.—The apostle “saw when the Lamb” proceeded to disclose the contents of the book by breaking the seals in regular succession. It is not requisite to suppose that each of the seals covers an exactly equal part of the roll. These parts may be quite different in quantity or length. It is obvious, however, that upon the breaking of any one seal, that part of the roll which the seal was intended to cover, would be disclosed to a spectator’s view,—the whole of such part and no more. We shall find as we advance that the several parts of this book are in fact very different in extent. When the seventh and last seal is opened, the whole contents of the book must of course be disclosed: and it will appear that the last of the seals contained a much greater part of the roll than any of the others. To a superficial reader this may be apparent from the circumstance that within the compass of this short chapter, six of the seals exhibit their contents.
By the most learned and sober divines the first six seals are considered as disclosing the events which transpired from the time of the apostle John till the overthrow of pagan idolatry in the Roman empire and the accession of Constantine.
Let us consider the contents of these seals in order: Upon the opening “of one of the seals,” the first of course, “one of the four animals” with a voice like “thunder, said, Come and see.” This was the animal like a “lion,” emblematical of those bold and dauntless servants of Christ who took their life in their hand and “went every where preaching the word,” (Acts viii. 4.) Many expositors, of secular notions and affinities, imagine that some one of the Roman emperors is to be understood as represented by him who rides on the white horse,—Vespasian, Titus, or Trajan. To name such figments is enough to confute them in the mind of such as have spiritual discernment. “White” is not the divinely chosen symbol of bloody warriors or persecutors. It is most frequently the emblem of purity, legal or moral. (Matt. xvii. 2; Rev. iii. 4, 5.) “White horse” may represent the gospel, the Covenant of Grace or the church. In this “chariot,” (Song iii. 9,) or upon this horse, as it were, Christ, “the captain of salvation” in apostolic times, “went forth conquering, and to conquer.” Much opposition from Jews and Gentiles was raised against his gospel, especially upon his exaltation to his mediatorial throne: but the opening of this seal discloses the Father’s purpose to bear out his Son in extending his rightful conquests. (Isa. xlii. 4.) “The Lord gave the word; great was the company of those that published it.” (Ps. lxviii. 11.) The “bow and the crown” as symbols, combine the military and regal character of Christ, indicating his victories and succeeding exaltation. He shall wound the heads over the large earth; therefore shall he lift up the head. (Ps. cx. 6.) He is the “Prince of peace,” and the primary object of his mission by the Father is, to establish “truth and meekness and righteousness” in the earth. Yet he is a “Lamb,” but a Lamb that makes war; and “in righteousness he doth judge and make war.” (Ch. xix. 11.) In this last cited text we have an irrefragable proof of the correctness of our interpretation of the symbols under the first seal. The rider’s name is, “The Word of God,” (v. 13.)
3. And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
4. And there went out another horse that was red; and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
V. 3, 4.—The opening of the “second seal” furnishes occasion for the “second animal” to cry, “Come and see.” It is the customary business of faithful ministers to invite the disciples of Christ to a contemplation of his providential procedure. “Come, behold the works of the Lord.” (Ps. xlvi. 8.) This is the call of the ministry represented by the symbol of a “calf or young ox.” “Patient continuance in well doing” is the special duty of Christ’s servants in times of suffering. And such seems to be the import of the emblem, the “red horse.” By the horse, singly considered, we are to understand a dispensation of providence. So we are to view it as a symbol in Zech. i. 8; vi. 1-8. The prophet said, “O, my Lord, what are these? . . . And the man answered,—These are they whom the Lord hath sent to walk to and fro through the earth.” We speak familiarly of a “dispensation of the gospel,”—the “white horse.” Our attention is now called to a “red horse,”—fiery, as the word imports. The character of the dispensation is thus indicated as bloody. Wars should prevail so as to “take peace from the earth.” “They should kill one another.” The instrument of slaughter is seen,—“a great sword.” Mutual slaughter does not seem to harmonize with the idea of persecution, by which the saints only “are killed all the day long.” History records that insurrections, battles, massacres and devastations of an extraordinary kind took place in the first half of the second century, by which more than half a million of the Jews perished by the hand of the pagans; and a still greater number on the opposite side were slain by the Jews. Thus the two parties who rivalled each other in opposing the gospel and the progress of Christ’s kingdom, were made by him the instruments of their mutual destruction. For he it is who directs the movements and course of providence, the “red horse.” “Behold what desolations he hath made in the earth!” “In this text,” says an eminent expositor, “earth signifies the Roman empire.” . . . “Daniel, . . . whose sealed prophecy is explained by the opening of the Apocalyptical seals, denominates the Roman empire, ‘the fourth kingdom upon earth.’” We humbly suggest, that this does not render the Roman empire synonymous with earth, any more than the Chaldean, Persian, or Grecian. And indeed the monarchs of those empires put forth as extensive claims to universal empire as ever the Caesars did. The word earth is to be interpreted always by the context. Like the term world, it may sometimes signify the Roman empire, as Luke ii. 1. But in other cases even within the compass of the Apocalypse, it is not to be so understood without manifest confusion, as in Ch. xvi. 1, 2. The contents of all the vials are there said to be poured out upon the earth; but earth is afterwards the special object of the first only. It follows that this term cannot be uniformly and safely in this book interpreted as identical with and limited by the Roman empire. The importance of accuracy here may become more apparent in our future progress.
5. And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and, lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
6. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
Vs. 4-6.—The third of the four “animals” calls attention to the disclosures made by breaking the “third seal.” He “had a face as a man,” (Ch. iv. 7,) indicating, as already said, active sympathy, affectionate counsel and seasonable exhortation in calamitous times. Christian ministers need “the tongue of the learned to speak a word in season to him that is weary,” when the judgments of God are abroad in the earth; for some of these press, most sensibly, on the poor. Such is the character of the dispensation symbolized by the “black horse.” Scarcity of bread is the judgment represented here by the combined symbols. “Our skin was black like an oven, because of the terrible famine.” (Lam. v. 10; Zech. vi. 2.)—The rider “had a pair of balances in his hand.” The word translated “balances,” literally rendered, signifies a yoke,—pair,—couple.—In popular use, it came to signify an instrument for weighing commodities, from the counterpoising (double) scales. This symbol indicated famine,—that people should “eat bread by weight and with care;” (Ezek. iv. 16;) and this is confirmed by the “voice in the midst of the four animals:”—“A measure of wheat for a penny,” etc. The quantity of food, and the price, as here announced, would seem to the English reader to express plenty and cheapness. But when it is understood that the “measure of wheat” was the ordinary allowance for a laboring man, and “a penny” the usual wages for one day; a little more than a quart, for about fifteen cents: it may be asked, How could the laboring man procure food and clothing for himself, his wife and children? It is said that three times the quantity of “barley” could be had for the same money; but being a coarser and less nutritious grain, it would reach but little farther in sustaining a family. Famine usually falls heaviest on the middle and lower classes of society. Even in such times the “rich fare sumptuously every day.” Accordingly, “the oil and the wine,”—some of the staple productions of Canaan,—are exempted from the providential blight sent upon the necessaries of life. (Gen. xliii. 11.)
According to history, from the year 138, till near the end of the second century, a general scarcity of provisions was felt, notwithstanding all the care and foresight of emperors and their ministers to anticipate the scourge. The Pharaohs on the throne had no Joseph to lay up in store in the “years of plenty.” But when our New Testament Joseph would thus fight against the persecutors of his saints by the judgment of famine; he gave previous intimation here to his disciples of the approaching calamity, as his manner is to his own. (Luke xxi. 20-22.)
7. And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
8. And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him: and power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
Vs. 7, 8.—“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting,” according to the judgment of the wisest of mere men; (Eccl. vii. 2,) and so we are invited here by a spiritually-minded ministry,—“like a flying eagle.” A scene of lamentation, mourning and woe, is disclosed at the opening of the “fourth seal.”—All the symbols betoken augmented severity in the judgments. There is “pestilence” added to the sword and famine. “The pale horse,” or livid green, is the emblem of pestilence. The Mediator conducts the destroying angel to fulfil the will of God. “Before Him went the pestilence;” and by a combination of awful symbols, the king of terrors,—“death,” is represented as slaying his victims, and “hell followed with him,” satiated with his prey. “Sword, hunger, death and beasts of the earth,” were commissioned to lay waste the fourth part of the then known world.
If we are to interpret the “beasts of the earth” literally, then we may easily perceive how the depopulation produced by the other calamities would make way for their increase and destructive ravages. But if we understand these “beasts” as symbolizing the persecuting powers; then adding these to all the other destructive agencies,—especially to the “pale horse,” the chief symbol in the group; we may readily perceive the force of the combined emblems, a concentrating, as it were, of all destroying agencies. Historians inform us, that “a pestilence arising from Ethiopia, went through all the provinces of Rome, and wasted them for fifteen years.” This, added to the sword of war and persecution, which lasted sixty years, according to some interpreters, or from 211 to 270, would seem to exhaust the events symbolized by the series of the seals, except the seventh, so far at least as the sufferings of the church are concerned. For under the fifth and sixth seals, as will appear, nothing of a calamitous nature befalls the righteous.
9. And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
10. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost them not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
11. And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also, and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
Vs. 9-11.—At the opening of the fifth seal, none of the “four animals” calls attention to its contents. This fact may indicate that no new development of providence is intended, but rather the effects of the preceding three, produced upon the church and saints of God; as the sixth discloses the penalty inflicted on his and their enemies.
John saw the “souls of them that were slain.”—Souls are visible only in vision, (Ch. xx. 4.) These souls were not slain, but they were the souls of them, the persons, that were slain. (Matt. x. 28.) The enemy could kill the body only, an essential part of the human person, although the chief aim was to kill the soul. The ground of their suffering was the same, as that of John, (Ch. i. 9.) And from the first of this honoured class,—Abel, mentioned in the Bible, to the last,—Antipas; the cause is the same, and the distinguished name is the same. They are “martyrs for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” And however tenaciously a person may hold other principles, even though he should die for them, he is not a martyr. The aphorism is true,—It is not suffering for religion, but “the cause that makes the martyr,”—suffering unto death from love to “the truth as it is in Jesus.”
These souls were “under the altar,” in allusion still to the outward means of grace under the Old Testament economy. It is not very material, perhaps, whether we understand the altar for sacrifice or that for incense, the comfortable doctrines, often taught in the Scriptures, are here illustrated. First, That the redemption of the sinner is by the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Second, That after death,—especially by martyrdom, the soul is safe “under the altar,”—in fellowship with the Saviour. Third, That the soul, “made perfect in holiness,” retains a deep conviction, that “vengeance belongs to God,” (Ch. xviii. 20; xix. 1-3.) Fourth, That “the spirits of just men made perfect,” both desire and need instruction relative to the future evolution of the divine purposes. Adoring the infinite perfections of God, acknowledging his holiness and acquiescing in his faithfulness; they cannot but desire a farther display of his vindictive and distributive justice, as indispensable to the manifestation of the divine glory, the vindication of the claims of the divine government, the asserting of their injured rights, and the completing of their eternal felicity. Accordingly, we find their earnest plea admitted. “It was said unto them, that they should rest.”—Their repose can never be disturbed. The “white robes” in which they are arrayed, are not spun out of their own bowels, like the spider’s web, either by their services or sufferings; but they are the well known emblems of the imputed righteousness of their Redeemer,—fine linen clean and white, the only righteousness of saints, (ch. xix. 8). Persecution did not terminate under the preceding seals. Others, their “fellow-servants and brethren, should be killed as they were.” The honorable roll of martyrs was not yet completed. The “little season” is a very indefinite period in our mode of computation. But “with the Lord, one day is as a thousand years,”—(2 Pet. iii. 8.) This “season” seems to comprehend the whole period of persecution. Now, as we shall see, the Roman empire, whether pagan or Christian, is still a ravenous beast,—“devouring Jacob.”
The policy of Rome pagan was to dictate the state religion. The idol gods of the conquered provinces were generally adopted and enrolled among those of the Pantheon. There was a niche for any and every god but “Jacob’s God.” As he would permit no rival, (Exod. xx. 2, 23; Is. xlii. 8;) so the populace “would have none of Him,” (Acts xvi. 19-21.) Such we will find to be the policy of Rome Christian. There is no “communion between light and darkness.”
12. And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake: and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
13. And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind:
14. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places;
15. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bond-man, and every free-man, hid themselves in the dens, and in the rocks of the mountains:
16. And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17. For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?
Vs. 12-17.—The sixth seal is opened, like the rest, by the hand of the Mediator, and here “his right hand teacheth terrible things.” “By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us, O God of our salvation.” (Ps. lxv. 5.) The awful scene disclosed would seem to be a beginning of answer to the importunate cry of the “souls under the altar,” as in the foregoing vision.
Many expositors since the time of Cyprian in the third century, have understood this seal as disclosing the scene of the last judgment. No doubt the symbols here employed are suited to that event; but the series of seals, trumpets and vials, not to speak of events still more remote, wholly precludes such an interpretation. All the symbols under the sixth seal betoken revolution. Such is their established and well known import in other parts of Scripture.
The “earthquake” is more than a shaking of the earth. It is a concussion of the heavens also. As Haggai is interpreted by Paul, we learn the civil and ecclesiastical change of the Jewish polity by the “shaking of the heavens and the earth.” (Hag. ii. 6; Heb. xii. 26, 27.) The day of final judgment is so often referred to as certain, that no special prediction was needed to assure us of that event. Indeed, the description of the day of judgment is commonly employed by the prophets to represent revolutions among the nations. So it is in reference to the overthrow of Babylon, (Is. xiii. 13.)—of Egypt, (Ezek. xxxii. 7, 8,) of Jerusalem, (Matt. xxiv. 7, 29.) The “sun, moon and stars” are emblems of civil officers, supreme and subordinate, as well as of military commanders. Their consternation and despair, now that they are cast down from their exalted position, as heavenly luminaries darkened and hurled from their orbits, betray their apprehension of deserved and inevitable wrath. Indeed we may view the last three verses of this chapter, as exegetical or explanatory of the preceding three. The whole frame of imperial power underwent a change which is commonly called a revolution. And the grandeur of the complex symbols, borrowed from the closing scene of time, was never more appropriately employed by the Spirit of prophecy, than in the present instance, to portray the total overthrow of pagan power, idolatry and tyranny. The most conspicuous instrument in the Mediator’s hand by which this great revolution was effected, is well known in history as “Constantine the Great.” The great lights of the heathen world, the powers civil and ecclesiastical, were not eclipsed, but extinguished, heathen priests and augurs were extirpated and idolatrous temples were closed. Christianity was professed by the emperor himself, and his authority exerted for its recognition and diffusion throughout his dominions. Thus did the God of Israel “avenge his own elect, who cried to him night and day from under the altar;” and thus did he afford unto them a “season of rest.”
Constantine, however, was more of a politician than divine. To the student of history he will appear in many respects a striking prototype of William Prince of Orange, who on a less extended scale answers as an antitype in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Neither of them exemplified in their lives the “power of godliness”. Like Charles the Second, they did not consider primitive apostolic Christianity “a religion for a gentleman.” Constantine combined in his character the properties of the lion and the fox. He was crafty and ambitious. Usurping the prerogatives of Zion’s King, he assumed a blasphemous supremacy over the church, and proceeded to model her external polity after the example of the empire. Among the Christian ministry, he found mercenary spirits who pandered to his ambition,—“having his person in admiration because of advantage.” Advancing these two positions of opulence and splendor, he could certainly rely upon them to support him in his schemes of aggrandizement. Thus the mystery of iniquity, whose working Paul discovered in his time, was nurtured to its full development in Heaven’s appointed time. (2 Thess. ii. 7, etc.) If on such occasions mighty kings and valiant generals are stricken with dismay, what shall be the terror of all the impenitent enemies of the Lord and his Anointed when the heavens and the earth shall pass away and leave them without these imaginary hiding places from “the wrath of the Lamb!”