Next we come to the opening of the Seals. Revelation 6 has a character of completeness about it, with this only exception, that the seventh Seal is the introduction to the Trumpets in the beginning of Rev. 8. This does not call for many words. The Seals open to us God's preparatory steps, but in this fixed order, and springing from natural causes. They were secret, and they needed to be opened. "And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as a voice of thunder, Come. And I saw; and, behold, a white horse, and he that sat upon it having a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he came forth conquering and that he might conquer. And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, Come. And another, a red horse, came forth; and to him that sat upon it, to him it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slay one another; and there was given to him a great sword. And when he opened the third seal, I heard the living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and, behold, a black horse, and he that sat upon it having a balance in his hand. And I heard as a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, A choenix of wheat for a denary, and three choenixes of barley for a denary; and the oil and the wine injure not. And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the fourth living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and, behold, a pale horse, and he that sat upon it, his name death, and hades followed with him; and authority was given to them over the fourth of the earth to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and by the beasts of the earth."
Surely it is plain enough that we ought not to have here, and after the other three horses, the words "And see." They are wanting in the best text* for all these passages. In every one of the cases the sentence ought only to be "Come." The difference comes to this, that "Come and see" would be addressed to John; whereas according to the better MSS. "Come" is addressed by the living creature to the rider upon the horse. Clearly this makes all possible difference. It is not the elders here; but one of the living creatures steps forward when the first Seal is opened, and says, Come; and at once comes forth a rider upon a white horse, etc. An elder explains as to Christ, or those that are His if liable to be misunderstood; a living creature acts from God for events in His providence. Let us inquire into the force of each Seal severally; but before we do, may we not notice the strange fancy that one of the living creatures saying "as a voice of thunder" could be a cry to the Lord Jesus to come? Not only would it be wholly incongruous with these cherubs, but quite out of harmony with the context.
* Yet in every instance the Sinai MS. supports the inferior copies against the Alexandrian, the Rescript of Paris, and the Porphyrian Uncial, with the better cursives, etc. The Sinaitic is often careless, especially in the Revelation.
"I saw, and, behold, a white horse: and he that sat upon it had a bow; and a crown was given to him: and he went (or, came) forth conquering and that he might conquer." It is the answer to the call. The first then advances, and the character of his action is prosperity in conquest. Every trait shows this. It is the earliest state that the Spirit of God notices as then to be brought about in the world. A mighty conqueror shall appear here below. This has been applied to a great variety of things and persons. It has been held to mean the triumphs of the gospel! by some Christ's coming again! by others Antichrist, and one knows not what. But we may safely gather from the first Seal that God judicially employs a conqueror who is to carry everything before him. A crown was given him. This would be the notable event among men, which is the first to happen on earth after the translation of the glorified to heaven at Christ's coming, in fact after Rev. 4 and 5. How absurd to talk of it as "victory for God's church and people"!
"And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, Come. And another came forth, a red horse; and to him that sat upon it, to him it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slay one another; and there was given to him a great sword." The difference is here marked. It is necessarily by bloodshed in the second Seal, which implies carnage if not civil war. The rider is not on a white horse, the symbol of victory; but mounted on another, a red horse, with a great sword, he has a commission to kill. Aggressive power which subjugates is meant by the horse in every colour; but in the first case that power seems to subject men bloodlessly. He had a bow, emblematic of distant warfare, not close or hand to hand. The measures are so successful - the name itself carries such prestige with it - that it becomes one onward career of conquest without necessarily involving slaughter. But in the second Seal the great point is that the peace of the earth is taken away, and "that they should slay one another." It may be the horror of civil warfare.
In the third Seal it is the colour of mourning. "And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and he that sat upon it having a balance in his hand. And I heard as a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, A choenix of wheat for a denary, and three choenixes of barley for a denary; and the oil and the wine do not injure." A black horse is not an emblem of prosperity. The price was a rate of scarcity. The ordinary price not long before we know to have been incomparably less; for notoriously a denarius would have procured as much as fifteen choenixes. Now it is needless to say that so great a rise in the price of wheat would make a serious difference. However this may have been, the rate current in St. John's day, or rather some time after, is not a question easily settled. Naturally rates differ. The increase of civilisation and other causes tend to make it somewhat fluctuating. That it is hard to ascertain with nicety the prices at the supposed epoch is plain, from the fact that men of ability and conscience have supported every variety of opinion; but is it worth while to spend more time on the point? The colour of the horse decisively proves what the nature of the case must be. Mourning would be strange if it were either a time of plenty or one governed by a just price; black suits a time of scarcity. Some will be surprised to hear that each of these views has had defenders. There are but three possible ways of taking it; and each one of these has had staunch support. There is no certainty in man. The word of God makes the matter plain to a simple mind.
The unlettered in this country or any other cannot know much details about the price of barley or wheat of old; but any one sees that the black colour is significant of gloom, especially as contrasted with white, that it is not indicative of joy or justice, but naturally of distress; and therefore one takes this with the other points to judge of the third horse and its rider.
"And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and, behold, a pale horse and he that sat upon him, his name death, and hades followed with him; and authority was given to him over the fourth of the earth to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." The fourth Seal shows a pale or livid horse, the hue of dissolution. It is a mixture of God's ordinary chastisements, falling concurrently on the earth, in the last of these four Seals to a limited extent. It is apparent that all the four are homogeneous.
It is not three and four of the seven, as with the churches; the first four Seals have a common external character. The fifth bears on God's people in suffering to blood, and thus introduces things deeper in His eyes; and so the four living creatures, active as to ordinary affairs in providence, are now silent.
"And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those that had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held; and they cried with a great voice, saying, How long, O Sovereign, the holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on those that dwell on the earth? And there was given to them, to each one a white robe; and it was said to them that they should rest yet a little while, till both their fellow-bondmen and their brethren who were about to be killed as they too should be fulfilled."
Under the altar are disclosed the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God, and for their testimony; yet they cry aloud for vengeance to the Sovereign Master, and are vindicated before God, but must wait. Others, both their fellow-servants and their brethren, are about to be killed (as they were) ere that day comes. But they rest meanwhile. Many a person thinks that those in question are Christians. But if we look more closely into the passage, we may learn that this again confirms the antecedent removal of the church to heaven. Is theirs a prayer or desire according to the grace of the gospel? Reasoning is hardly needful on a point so manifest. He who understands the general drift of the New Testament, and the special prayers there recorded by the Holy Ghost for our instruction, would be satisfied but for a false bias. Take Stephen's prayer, after our blessed Lord the pattern of all that is perfect. On the other hand we have similar language elsewhere: but where? In the Psalms and the Prophets. Thus we have all the evidence that can be required. The evidence of the New Testament proves that these are not the sanctioned prayers of the Christian; the evidence of the Old Testament, that just such were the prayers of persons whose feelings and experience and desires were founded on Israelitish hopes.
Does not this exactly fall in with what has been already seen? that once the glorified saints shall have passed out of the scene, God will be at work in the formation of a new testimony with its own peculiarities. It is not of course that the facts of the New Testament are obliterated, but the souls of the saints will be then led into what was revealed of old, because God is about to accomplish what was then predicted. For the time will be at hand for God to rule the earth under the Lord's direct rule. Of this the Old Testament is full, the earth blessed under the reign of the heavens: as the N.T. views Christ as head of both. The earth, and the earthly people Israel, shall rejoice with the nations, all then enjoying the days of heaven here below. Accordingly these souls show us their condition and hopes; they pray for earthly judgments. They desire not, when suffering even to death, that their enemies should be converted, but that God would avenge their blood on them. Nothing can be simpler or surer than the inference.
The departed are told that they are not the only faithful to be given up to a violent end: others must follow later. Till then God does not appear for the accomplishment of that judgment for which they cried. They must wait therefore for the further and, as we know, more furious outburst of persecution. After that God will deal with the earth. Thus we have here the latest persecution in prospect, as well as the earlier one, of the Apocalyptic period distinctly given. The apostle Paul had spoken of himself as ready to be offered up: so these had been, and their souls are seen therefore under the altar in the vision. They were renewed indeed, and understood what Israel ought to do; but they were not on the ground of Christian faith and church intelligence as we ought to be. Of course it is a vision, but a vision with weighty and plain intimations to us. If they had not the indwelling Paraclete as we have, they had the Spirit of prophecy, which is the testimony of Jesus (Rev_19:10). Judgment yet lingers till the predicted final outpouring of man's apostate rage, when the Lord will appear and put down all enemies for the establishing of God's kingdom everywhere.
The next Seal lets us know that God was not indifferent meanwhile; for the sixth Seal may be regarded as a kind of immediate consequence on the foregoing cry. "And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth hair, and the whole moon became as blood; and the stars of the heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree shaken by a great wind casteth its untimely figs. And the heaven was removed as a book (or, scroll) rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places." This furnished the appearance before the seer in the vision We are not to suppose that heaven and earth will be physically confounded when the prediction is fulfilled. He saw all this before his eyes as signs, of which the meaning has to be considered. We have to find out by their symbolic use elsewhere what is intended here by the changes which passed over sun, moon, stars, and the earth in the vision.. The result of course depends on our just application of scripture by the teaching of the Holy Spirit. But no one is entitled to read into this Seal the Lord's advent without one word from God to justify it. The context also renders the notion untenable and impossible, if we hold fast what is written. It dislocates the structure of the book.
To help us we have plain language, not figures. "And the kings of the earth, and the grandees, and the chiliarchs, and the rich, and the strong, and every bondman, and [every] freeman, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and they say to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: because the great day of his wrath is come; and who is able to stand?" This it is well to heed, because it would be evident that if the heaven literally was removed as a scroll, and every mountain and island moved out of its place, there could be no place to hide in. Thus to take it as other than symbolic representation would be self-contradictory. Such then is not the true force. If heaven really disappear, and the earth be moved according to the import of these terms in a pseudo-literal way, how could the various classes of terrified men truly say to the mountains, "Fall on us and hide us"? Plainly therefore the vision, like its predecessors, is symbolical. The prophet indeed beheld these objects heavenly and earthly in utter confusion; but the meaning must be sought on the ordinary principles of interpretation. It is a complete revolution of authority high and low, an unexampled convulsion of all classes of mankind, within its own sphere; the effect of which is to overturn the foundations of power and authority for the world, and to fill men's minds with the apprehension that the day of judgment is come.
It is not the first time indeed that people have so dreaded; but it will be again worse than it has ever been. Such is the effect of the sixth Seal when its judgment is accomplished, after the risen saints are taken to heaven, and indeed subsequent to a murderous persecution of the saints who follow us on earth. The persecuting powers and those subject to them will be visited judicially, and there will ensue a complete disruption of authority on the earth. The rulers will have misused their power, and now. a revolution on a vast scale takes place. Such seems to be the meaning of the vision. The effect on men, when they see the total overturning of all that is established in authority here below, will be that they imagine the day of the Lord is come. But it is an error to confound their saying so with God's declaration of it. Not He but they say that the great day of the Lamb's wrath is come.
There is no excuse for so mistaken an interpretation: it is only what these frightened men exclaim. The fact is that the great day does not arrive for a considerable space afterward, as the Revelation itself clearly proves. But men are so alarmed by this visitation that they think it must be His predicted day, and they say so. It is sure and evident that the great day of His wrath is not yet come. For a considerable time after this epoch our prophecy prepares for that day, revealing it in Rev. 14, 17, and describing it in Rev. 19. When it really comes, so infatuated are men in that day that they will fight against the Lamb; but the Lamb shall overcome them. Satan will have destroyed their dread when there is most ground for it.