John’s imagery of the four horses and their riders certainly had biblical allusions, and most likely would not have been difficult for his original audience to understand. And at first glance, the sixth seal seems largely the same—a preponderance of biblical background supporting each part of John’s vision.
Now, two thousand years later, scholars have much to say on the meaning of this sixth seal.
What time in history could be represented by such cataclysmic manifestations? Some interpret them as marking the fall of paganism and the rise of Christianity, identified with Constantine’s crowning and conversion.
- Earthquake—political and spiritual revolution
- Sun, Moon, Stars—the falling and changeover of rulers, “lights” in their day
- Firmament furled—the book closed on the old western religions.
- Mountains and islands moved—the terror of that time
There is biblical precedent in viewing the sun, moon, and stars as earthly leaders from Joseph’s dream as relayed to his father and brothers:
“Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”Genesis 37:9-10 (NRSV)
A specific time period might be 395, when the Roman Empire was divided into the East and the West. During Arcadius’s reign—portending the collapse of the empire in 476.
Another, broader era might be when the Goths and Vandals overran Rome between 376-418.
Consensus rests among historicists that the sixth seal represents a momentous change from one regime to another, with the permanent passing of the old, and the permanent establishment of the new.
Commentators with this perspective see a direct correlation between Jesus’s prophetic discourse on the Mount of Olives and the final end to Jerusalem, with dramatic language from Malachi,
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?Malachi 3:2 (NRSV)
They point to the precedent of apocalyptic language used in prophecies of other oracles against ancient kingdoms.
In his proclamation against Babylon, the Prophet Isaiah included “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.”
No doubt a double entendre, this massive empyrean event denoted the fall of Babylon’s exalted lords as well as the spiritual demise of Babylon’s gods and a foretaste of the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord’s Wrath to come. Later in this same oracle Isaiah wrote “the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place.”
Prophet Isaiah employed the same metaphors of the sky being rolled up, the allusion of stars falling from the sky, and of fig trees withering in his invective against Edom.
Prophet Ezekiel prophesying of judgment against Egypt spoke of similar darkened heavens, perhaps as a reminder of God’s plague judgments in which three days of darkness descended upon Egypt.
Finally, Jesus used comparable apocalyptic terminology and provocative time stamp in His own prophecy, which preterists see as a prediction of the fall of Jerusalem in 70.
“Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
“… Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”Jesus, Matthew 24:29, 34 (NRSV)
Correspondingly to historicists, preterists also see this celestial scene as analogous to political and spiritual leaders.
The destruction of Jerusalem, subjugation of Judea, and banishment of all Jewish people from their homeland is the closing of an historical epoch which lasted for nearly two millennia, thus deserving of apocalyptic language.
In literal fulfillment of John’s vision, Josephus wrote of Jerusalemites seeking refuge in caves and underground caverns.
So now the last hope which supported the tyrants, and that crew of robbers who were with them, was in the caves and caverns under ground; whither, if they could once fly, they did not expect to be searched for; but endeavored, that after the whole city should be destroyed, and the Romans gone away, they might come out again, and escape from them. This was no better than a dream of theirs; for they were not able to lie hid either from God or from the Romans.Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter 7, v. 3
Alternatively, theologians coming from this position see a prophetic crescendo beginning with the first oracles that spoke of the Day of the Lord, until the amassing of all apocalyptic metaphors show up here, in this sixth seal.
Yet, this depiction is far more than symbolical. These are events that herald the beginning of the end of days.
As happened on Mount Sinai when God first came to the Hebrew people, God will again come physically to the earth, causing all earth as well as earth’s atmosphere to tremble violently, according to the prophet Haggai.
Isaiah portrayed the terror God’s divine visitation will generate.
Enter the caves of the rocksIsaiah 2:19 (NRSV)
and the holes of the ground,
from the terror of the Lord
and from the glory of his majesty,
when he rises to terrify the earth.
Though there is not consensus on which parts of John’s vision are to be understood poetically and which concretely, commentators speak of literal temblors as well as political upheavals throughout the world. Every level of society will be upturned.
Some speak of meteor showers, unusual volcanic activity, atmospheric catastrophe from falling ash and dust causing solar and lunar eclipses. Others warn of a nuclear explosion triggering a domino effect of quakes, tsunamis, eruptions, and stratospheric disaster. Cascades of bombs will seem as “falling stars” to the horrified onlooker, and “nuclear winter” will ensue as every nation releases its warheads in a worldwide thermonuclear war.
The gripping language of John’s oracle only begins to describe the unspeakable desolation to come.
Scholars in this orientation understand the sixth seal as God’s judgment on those who were oppressing John’s original readers, rather than as a depiction of the Last Days. However, Christ’s Second Coming may also be presented.
If the first five seals had to do with social and political movements throughout history—of wars, natural disasters, economic and social ills that come in waves—this seal represents a climax of all these other judgments. There will be two more cycles to come in John’s Revelation of this same course: the trumpets and the bowls, each ending in a climactic act.
Interpreters avoid giving specific designations to John’s sensational panorama, and instead note there are
seven creational constructs:
And seven class categories:
- Commanders of armies
- Those in bondage
This symmetry symbolizes the universal nature of all the calamities John described. It is not so much about exactly what will happen, but rather is about the coming to an end of everything we know as we now know it—the universe will be brought to a close at this final coming of the Lord.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking, for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.”
This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire.Hebrews 12:25-29 (NRSV)
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg