Revelation 6:1-17: The wild ride begins. The sealed scroll is opened.
When the Lamb opens each of the seals, horrifying events occur on earth. Those who interpret Revelation as predicting the long-range future have attempted to identify these with historical catastrophes, either those already past (various wars, earthquakes, and plagues) or those that are about to happen in the interpreter’s own time. However, John is not predicting particular events that will occur generations or centuries later, but presenting images of the troubles the world will experience just before the return of Christ, which he sees as coming soon. He thus places the troubles and persecution already being experienced by the church of his day in a meaningful context within the framework of God’s plan for history. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
As the Lamb breaks each seal, terrible catastrophes occur on the earth, representing the judgment of God that precedes the final establishment of God’s just rule. These images rightly constitute a main problem for many reader, who ask how (or whether) God can be so portrayed. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible) This writer elaborates on how we might understand the violent imagery in Revelation.
• John’s thought began not with visions about future suffering but with the fact of suffering in his own time. Apocalyptic thought gives suffering a meaning by placing it in a transcendent context, functioning as interpretation of the present and not as speculation about what is to come in the future…. Even then, cries for revenge are not personal, but a plea fro the justice of God to be made manifest publicly.
• John did not devise this violent language and imagery himself. In both form and content, most of it was adopted and adapted by him from his Bible and from his Jewish and Christian traditions.
• The violence in chapters 6-16 is not literal violence against the real world. Rather it is violence perceived through visionary foresight about the future, expressed in metaphorical language…. As when watching a violent movie that “turns out right in the end,” the violent scenes are not dwelled on as something significant apart from the context.• The violent imagery repeatedly expresses John’s conviction of universal human sinfulness.
• The violent imagery is presented within a Revelation that also has scenes of universal salvation.
• Revelation does not advocate a theology of revenge or resentment but one of justice.
Reading Revelation is a complex matter. Certainly the violent imagery here has been put to unfortunate use. It has functioned to foster resentment and revenge. We must take great care in reading, but as with all the Scriptures we should not simply neglect what we find difficult. We should read with intelligence, and with a heart open to how God’s Spirit might speak to us in surprising ways and places as we read.
The strong word “Come” echoes the cry of Christians for Christ’s coming to establish God’s dream for the world. Some of the imagery associated with the first four seals is found in Zechariah. The rider of the white horse is am imperial figure coming to conquer. The rider of the red horse brings war. When the black rider comes, injustice is rampant. The rider of the pale green horse brings with him famine, war, pestilence, plague. That these four horsemen continue to ride so freely in our day and time says something about human beings and human social arrangements. If such events are a prelude to the coming of God’s dream for the world in Christ, that coming is always just around the corner. Part of John’s message is that God’s persistent presence and working for good remain even in the face of such tragedy. Our task is to choose to be a part of God’s work for justice and a transformed world – even when the four apocalyptic horses and riders run rampant.
When the fifth seal is opened, a different kind of vision appears – a vision of persons who had lost their lives for their faith. While the number of Christians who had done so at this time may not have been great, there were nevertheless stories of martyrdom, and stories of Jews who had lost their lives for their faith. We admire persons who stand up for their principles of faith even when the odds are strongly against them, even when death looms – Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Oscar Romero. “Their cries are not for personal vengeance, but for divine justice” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The language about numbers “portrays a set number of martyrs that must die before the end will come. It is not to be taken literally, but is a way of saying the present sufferings fit into God’s plan, that things are not out of control” (New Interpreters Study Bible).
The tale of woe moves from earthly disaster – war, famine, pestilence, hunger, injustice, and then persecution of the faithful – to cosmic disintegration – stars falling, the moon changing colors, mountains and islands and skies vanish. Not even the rich and powerful are immune from this cosmic house cleaning. God wants to start a new creation and is clearing the old one out. The image of God is rather frightening here, but it is tempered both by what happened when the fifth seal was open (God hears the cries of God’s people), and by the next chapter, in which multitudes of people from every nation, tribe, peoples and languages are a part of God’s saving work.
The force of John’s words are intended to encourage people to keep the faith even if it seems as if the sky itself were falling. By the way, the earthquake image has both a literary and historical root. In Judeo-Christian tradition, earthquakes were often seen as “acts of God” for some purpose. Asia Minor was also prone to earthquakes. In 17 CE twelve cities had been leveled by an earthquake.
Revelation 7:1-8: Chapter 6 ends with a question – who is able to stand in the midst of such catastrophe? Well, with God, many are so able, and this chapter testifies to that.
Only one more seal to go, but there is a dramatic pause. In this pause, God seeks to mark, to seal God’s people. The earth here is depicted as flat, and the writer has a vision of devastating winds that can wreck havoc on that earth. God asks for a time out so that God’s people can be identified. The image of being sealed has two connotations. “Sealing” was language the early church used in relation to baptism. Slaves were also sometimes marked or sealed with a brand or tattoo so their owner could be identified.
The number 144,000 is significant in several ways. It was a large number for the time, and would have helped the listeners think of themselves as part of a large movement. The number symbolized completeness or wholeness. Its symbolism echoes with the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. However, “it is not clear why the vision makes a distinction between the symbolic number of 144,000… and the innumerable multitude from every nation, tribe, people and tongue whose white garments have been washed in the blood of the Lamb” (Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 789).
Revelation 7:9-17: Here we have the second part of the vision already alluded to. Here the number of those who are part of God’s people is “a great multitude” – and it is a multi-cultural celebration! “Everyone was there – all nations and tribes, all races and language” (The Message) That the church has justified segregation, and limited the participation of groups of people runs directly counter to the openness of such a vision. The song of God is a song to be sung in many tongues, with many languages and dialects. The singers will reflect the beautiful rainbow of God’s people. All kinds of people will come through the difficult time John envisions and will celebrate together in a festival of song, a feast. Some of the worship language would have been familiar as language which was used to extol the empire. Salvation belongs to God, and not to the empire. The inclusive vision here as distinct from the imperial vision of a more rigid social hierarchy. The vision here is of people being sheltered by God. It is a vision where the hungry are fed, the thirsty find drink, shade is given to those in need, springs of living water gush forth, the Lamb is a caring shepherd and the mysterious God seated on the throne wipes tears from eyes. This is God’s dream for the world, and we are invited to work for it even in the midst of the difficult circumstance of this life. To do so is to live life marked by Jesus, to have the living garments of our lives soaked in his life (“above all, clothe yourselves with love” – Colossians 3:14).