Revelation 6: The First Six Seals
As the Lamb opens each of the first four seals, we are presented with the arrival of a new horseback rider who ushers in portents of danger. Koester spends some time arguing against seeing the visions of chapter six as predictions of future events. Many think that this is a chapter issuing predictions of coming disaster. However, it is not right to describe these visions as "predictions" for various reasons:
- The horsemen and seals represent "threats that do not fall neatly on a time line."
- Virtually everyone realizes that the horsemen have a symbolic quality.
- The visions "stand for larger realities" that cannot be confined to any one period: "waves of conquest, outbreaks of violence, and periods of economic hardship have occurred repeatedly in human history, and death finally comes to all."
According to Koester, the primary purpose of Revelation 6 "is to awaken a sense of uneasiness in readers by vividly identifying threats to their well-being so that the understanding reader will cry out, "Who is able to stand?" (6:17). The four horsemen show that one cannot find security or well-being even within the borders of a seemingly secure nation or empire.
- The first horseman with the bow represents threats by foreign powers.
- The second horseman with the sword represents threats from within society.
- The third horseman with the scales represents economic insecurity.
- The fourth horseman is death, whom none can escape.
The opening of the fifth seal results in a vision of "under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne" (6:9). "The martyrs rest in heaven (6:9-11) and the remainder of humanity is disturbed on earth (6:12-17). These visions press readers to give up the idea that they can remain neutral, asking if they identify with the martyrs or with the rest of humanity. There is no middle ground." He also points out that the vision of martyrs is a notice to believers that martyrdom is not meant to be a special event or a rarity, but it is meant to awaken in readers a willingness to identify with those who have suffered for the faith. Notice that again and again Koester returns us to the audience, reminding us constantly to consider the first century response to these visions, and then to apply this to our own lives. For Koester, Revelation should not be read strictly as a devotional work, devoid of context (as the modern reader is prone to do), or as a mere historical document (as the professor within us Reformed types is prone to do).
The opening of the sixth seal presents us with a world full of earthquakes, a blackened sun, stars falling to earth, the sky being "rolled up," and every mountain being "moved from its place." These events "echo prophetic warnings about the coming day of divine wrath, showing how the creation itself responds to the will of its Creator (Isa 34:4; Joel 2:30-31; Amos 8:9)." These are all events which happen by the will of God; they are supernatural events which do not fit within the natural order. Pairing a vision of God's sovereignty with prophetic warnings of coming judgment, the idea is challenged that we can live in society, blend in, and have a compromise of our faith "in order to blend in with the beliefs of the general populace, as some of the readers of Revelation were inclined to do" (88). If we seek refuge in the world and compromise ourselves for safety's sake, we are actually taking shelter with a damned throng who are themselves terrorized by God's might to the point of helplessly cowering under the mountains.
Now, before the seventh seal can be opened, we encounter an images which deserve careful attention. This image is of the 144,000 whose foreheads are sealed. We will encounter this issue in our next post.