First Four Seals - Overview

OVERVIEW - The Lamb began to break open the first four seals, thus releasing destructive forces on the earth – Revelation 6:1-8

Four Horses Photo by David Wheater on Unsplash
Following his enthronement, immediately the “
Lamb” began to open the “seven seals.” His authority to do so was based on his sacrificial death. The first four seal openings released riders on variously colored horses, with each to inflict harm on the earth, but only within the limits set by Jesus - the “Lamb” remained in firm control. None of the “riders” could proceed until “it was given to him”, and then could only inflict injury on “a fourth part of the earth.” - [Photo by David Wheater on Unsplash].

The opening of the “seven seals” is part of a larger literary unit that began with chapter 4, the vision of the Throne, the “sealed scroll,” and the enthronement of the “Lamb.” and his authorization to open the scroll. The “Lamb” was enthroned to reign from the Throne after his sacrificial death.  Like the seven letters to the churches of Asia, the series of “seven seals” is subdivided into smaller literary units.

The first six seal openings occurred in an uninterrupted sequence. Within it, the first four, and the fifth and sixth seals, formed two distinct groups.  The first four were characterized by the four “riders” that unleashed destructive forces on the earth. The fifth seal revealed the “souls of martyrs” underneath the “altar.” The sixth seal ushered in the “Day of the Lord.” The seventh seal was separated from the first six by the “sealing of the servants of God.” The final seal opening produced “silence in heaven,” then introduced the next sevenfold series, the seven trumpets.

It is the “Lamb” who opened each seal and revealed the “things that must come to pass.” Upon his enthronement, immediately he began to implement the contents of the “sealed scroll.” He reigns from the heavenly throne, but the results of his decisions unfold on the earth.

The contents of the first four seals were released simultaneously. This is indicated by the summary statement; collectively, the four riders were unleashed to kill a “fourth of the earth.” They were modeled on the four chariots from the book of Zechariahthe “four winds of heaven” sent to the four corners of the earth - (Zechariah 1:8-11, 6:1-8).

The same passage lay behind the “four winds of heaven” that were held back by angels standing at the four corners at the earth prior to the opening of the sixth seal. The “four winds” were not released until after the “servants of God” were sealed (“that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree”) - These forces were released simultaneously and at the proper time - (Revelation 7:1-3).

In Zechariah, the colors of the four groups had no significance beyond representing the winds that emanate from the four points of the compass. However, in Revelation, the color of each horse symbolized the nature of its rider; white represented conquest, red warfare, black economic scarcity, and pale-green pestilence. In Zechariah, the riders patrolled the earth; in Revelation, they unleashed destruction on certain of its inhabitants.
  • (Revelation 6:8) – “And I saw a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death; and Hades followed with him. And there was given to them authority over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The second half of this verse summarizes the effects of all four riders - death, famine, bloodshed, pestilence. Nothing positive results from their “ride.” The plural pronoun “them” refers to all four riders, not to “Death and Hades.” It cannot refer to the latter; “Death” is the name of the fourth rider, and “Hades” follows in his wake.

Them” refers to the group that was “given” the license to kill a “fourth of the earth,” whether by sword, famine, plague, or by the “wild beasts.” The same verb was applied to each of the four riders - each was “given” authority to inflict harm. Further, the four causes of death corresponded to the afflictions unleashed by the riders: “wild beasts” (white horse), sword (red horse), famine (black horse) and plague (pale-green or the “livid” horse).

This final clause borrows imagery from the book of Ezekiel - “For thus says Yahweh, How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four sore acts of judgment, swordfamine (limos)beasts (thérion), and pestilence (thanatos), to cut off from it man and beast.  The Greek Septuagint version uses the same Greek words for three of the four items that are listed in Revelation:  famine (limos), wild beasts (thérion), and plagues (thanatos). – (Ezekiel 14:13-21).

The same Greek term rendered “wild beasts” is applied to the two earthly agents of the “Dragon” - the “wild beast” from the sea, and the “wild beast” from the earth. Both use deception and persecution to make “war” on the saints. The description of the “wild beasts of the earth” in chapter 6 is the same phrase applied to the “False Prophet” - (“another beast ascending out of the earth”) - (Revelation 13:1-15).

The four riders are only authorized to destroy a “fourth of the earth.” This reflects the Lamb’s sovereignty, even over malevolent forces.

Verse 8 also serves to transition the narrative to the fifth seal opening when John saw the souls of martyrs “underneath the altar.”  No explanation is given as to how or when they were slain. The context answers this - the martyrs were victims of the hostile forces unleashed by the first four seal openings.


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