Starting in Revelation chapter 6 the organizational structure of the book changes dramatically. Chapter 1 was our introduction. 2-3 gave us a snapshot of the world and the struggles faced by the churches. 4-5 told us of God and the heavenly throne room and the role of Jesus.
Now we come to the part of Revelation most people are most familiar with (or think they are). Chapters 6-7 tell us of the seven seals, the first in three series of 7 apocalyptic woes. If we try to understand these events as a linear series of 21 events we will quickly get confused. Instead we need to understand them as the same cycle of judgment told in three escalating sequences, each one the same events but growing in intensity. They show a series of judgments or woes (the part of Revelation people talk about the most), usually one or more interlude scenes and then they come to a sudden stop before the next series of 7 begins. This cycle of interruption will repeat twice (7 seals and 7 trumpets) before the true conclusion (the 7 bowls).
Our first cycle begins with the classic image of the four Horsemen. This series of judgments is keyed specifically for Roman audiences. Each of the Horsemen represents a very specific fear, some unsteady load bearing pillar Rome is sitting on. This isn’t just a portrait of generic woes but a very specific outline of how a great human empire can come apart at the seams.
The first rider, the White Rider, with his white robe and bow, is the image of the Parthian archer, a specific neighboring country whom Rome was never able to conquer. He is in some ways a parody of our Jesus. Each one conquers but the Parthian rider returns to the old fashioned violent sort of conquest. He represents foreign invasion from beyond Rome’s borders.
The red rider is the collapse of the Pax Romana. He doesn’t just take “peace” as a generic concept. He overthrows Rome’s control over their conquered peoples. The powerful elites of Rome lived in constant fear of the people they conquered, waiting for the day their pain and suffering finally outgrew their fear of the Roman army and they violently overthrew their governors. The White Rider is real War, an outside invasion by an army. The Red Rider is rebellion and violent unrest against Rome.
The black rider is economic collapse. Rome was economically unsteady to begin with. Different segments of the Empire relied on others to produce the goods they needed and the Roman government relied on constant conquest to keep growing its tax and resource base to support the capital and the army. The specific image they give is an ironic kind of famine, the sort caused by a breadbasket province like Egypt rebelling or somehow being lost. The staple foods like breads and grains become wildly expensive while, ironically, oil and wine (luxury items) keep their price. This was even more intimidating than it sounds because imperially subsidized bread was one of the ways the empire controlled the poor masses. In today’s world this might look alot like the 2008 economic woes, where many working class people had great financial losses but the handful at the very top came through relatively unscathed.
And of course the pale rider, death, who was the final and ultimate fear of Rome. This one doesn’t need much explaining. Death sums up the other three riders, together they will devastate a quarter of the known world.
But here we see the weird attention deficit of John’s vision. In the fifth seal he suddenly transitions from these Roman nightmares to a vision of the throne room. Where those who have already been martyred for God await God’s final judgment and resurrection. The “altar” here is Rome’s courts and executioners, their faithful and innocent deaths a lamb-like sacrifice patterned after Jesus. This vision was an important reminder that those who suffered and died were not forgotten but close to God’s heart, the cause of his judgment. If you were a 1st century Christian suffering under violent persecution, seeing friends and neighbors hurt and killed, this vision is an essential assurance that God is not only aware but moved by what happens to those who love Him.
The sixth seal has the markers of theophany, an appearance by God. Strange unnatural events like eclipses and earthquakes accompany God’s presence. Taken together they tell us that God is drawing near, that God is going to make an appearance to put things to their final rest.
Instead of the expected 7th seal, John’s vision pulls us into another aside. The classic figure of 144,000 is not at all mysterious. It uses numbers we are already familiar with multiplied together. This tells us to take their meanings together. In this case we have 12, 12 and 1000. 12 is the number of tribes and disciples, it represents those who worship God under the old and new covenants. 1000 is a multiplier of scale, telling us this is a huge number (not necessarily just a literal 144,000). This is the living church across all the Creation.
Then John pulls back our camera even further. We see not only the living Saints but those who have gone on before them. This is a vision of the church triumphant, the church of all the believers, living and dead, of all nations and peoples and language coming together in worship. This is an important reminder to the early Christians who are persecuted and isolated, seeing that they are a part of a grand church of all God’s people.
Once again we place ourselves in this persecuted 1st century mindset. When you are a suffering, persecuted religious minority under a brutal and idolatrous imperial structure you would feel incredibly alone. In the Southern American context you can usually see another church from the front door of your church. But in this first century world churches are isolated from one another, swimming in a sea of Grecco-Roman paganism. Every community event and celebration would be steeped in pagan religious practices. Not only was there the immediate and tangible fear of outright persecution but also the slow subtle separation that refusing to participate in pagan events would create. This vision John relates reminds these Christians that they are not alone but part of something larger than the suffering they’re experiencing.
Our seventh seal actually extends slightly into chapter 8. We have seen the escalating movement, we see the storm clouds of God’s presence gathering at the edge of Creation. Everything seems about to unfold and then…silence.