A Study In Revelation Chapter Six
By Jonathan Mitchell
1. Then I saw when the little Lamb opened one from out of the seven seals; and I heard one from out of the midst of the four living ones repeatedly saying, as a sound (or: voice) of thunder, “Come (or: Be coming; or: Go; Pass on)!”
2. And I saw, and consider! A bright white horse, and the One (or: He) continually sitting upon it is constantly holding a bow. And a victor’s wreath was given to Him, and He came forth (or: went out; passed on) repeatedly overcoming (continuously conquering),even to the end that He may overcome (conquer; be Victor).
3. Next, when He opened the second seal, I heard the second living one repeatedly saying, “Come (or: Go)!”
4. And so another horse, fiery (fiery-red; of the character or color of fire), came forth (or: went out), and to the One continually sitting upon it, to Him it was given to take the peace out of the Land (or: earth; territory; ground) so that they would slaughter (kill) each other. And a great sword was given to Him.
5. Then, when He opened the third seal, I heard the third living one repeatedly saying, “Come (or: Go)!” And I saw, and consider! A black horse, and the One continually sitting upon it [is] constantly holding a pair of balances (or: a balance bar) in His hand. 6. And I heard a voice within the midst of the four living ones repeatedly saying,
“A small measure (a choenix: about a quart) of wheat [for] a denarius (a silver coin equivalent to a day’s pay), and three small measures of barley [for] a denarius; and you may not act unjustly to (wrong; harm; violate; injure) the olive oil and the wine.”
7. And when He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living one repeatedly saying, “Come (or: Go)!”
8. And I saw, and consider! A pale, yellowish-green (pallid; ashen; colorless) horse, and the name for Him [Who is] continually sitting upon it [is] Death, and the Unseen (Greek: hades) has been following with Him. And authority (lawfulness; permission; jurisdiction from out of Being) was given to Him upon the fourth of the Land (or: earth) to kill within broadsword, and with famine, and within death, even by the little animals (little beasts) of the Land (or: earth; ground).
9. Then when He opened the fifth seal, I saw, down under the altar of burnt-offering, the souls of the folks having been slaughtered [as in sacrifice] because of the Word of God (or: God’s message), and because of the witness (testimony; evidence) which they were holding (or: continued to have).
10. And they uttered a cry with (or: by) a great (loud) voice, repeatedly saying, “Until when (How long), O Absolute Owner (Sovereign Lord; Master), the Set-apart (Holy) and True One, are You not deciding (separating and judging) and maintaining right for (operating out of the way pointed out; avenging) our blood, out of those habitually having an abode (dwelling) upon the Land (earth)?”
11. And a brilliant white robe was given to each of them, and it was declared to them that they may rest themselves (permit themselves to cease from any movement or labor in order to recover strength) a little time longer (yet a short time) while (or; until) also [the number of] their fellow-slaves, even their brothers – those continually being about to be killed, even as they [were] – may be fulfilled (filled up; made full).
12. Next I saw when He opened the sixth seal, and there came to be a great shaking. And the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair. And the whole moon became as blood.
13. And the stars of the sky (or: heaven) fell into the Land (or: earth), as a fig tree is casting her winter (i.e., unseasonable) figs, while being continuously shaken by a great wind.
14. And then the sky (or: atmosphere; heaven) was parted away, as a little scroll being progressively rolled up, and every mountain (or: hill) and [every] island were moved out of their places.
15. And the kings of the Land (or: earth), and the great ones, and the commanders of thousands, and the wealthy (rich) folks, and the strong ones, and every slave, and every free one, [all] hid themselves into the caves and into the midst of the rocks of the mountains,
16. repeatedly saying to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall upon us and hide us [Hos. 10:8] from the Face of the One continuously sitting upon the throne, and from the inherent fervor (natural impulse and propensity; internal swelling and teeming passion of desire; or: anger, wrath and indignation) of the little Lamb."
17. Because the great Day of their [other MSS: His] inherent fervor (internal swelling emotion, teeming and passionate desire; impulse; or: anger, wrath and indignation; or: natural bent) comes (or: came), and who (which one) is continuously able (or: continues having power) to be made to stand (or: to be established)?
"In the first section of the visions, 6:1-8, the AV consistently follows a form of the Gr. text which makes each of the four living creatures say: 'Come and see!' (vs. 1, 3, 5, 7). In all the best Gr. manuscripts it is simply, 'Come!' as translated in the RSV. This is not an invitation to John to come and see; it is a summons to the four horses and their riders one by one to come forward ..." (William Barclay).
The message given in the opening of the seven seals is normally concluded to be a message of Divine judgement. Of what or whom is a much debated subject. But let us return to the question of to whom was this message first delivered. Did this vision have significance to their situation? The "Preterist" viewpoint would see this "exclusively in terms of its first century setting, claiming that most of its events have already taken place" (NIV Study Bible). I think that those who first read this chapter would have seen practical applications of these figures in their lives and times. But let's first look to the OT for some background. "We note that the origin of this vision is in Zech. 6:1-8.
Zechariah sees four horses which are let loose upon the earth to deal out vengeance on Babylon and Egypt and the nations which have oppressed God's people." (Barclay). This setting will be the type: what we are looking for is the antitype, the literal fulfillment.
Zechariah first sees various colored horses in ch. 1:8, then in vs. 9 says, "What are these, my lord?" The messenger tells him in vs. 10, "These are those whom Yahweh sends to walk in the earth." They report to the Messenger of Yahweh, "We walk in all the earth, and behold! all the earth is sitting and is quiet." (vs. 11) The setting is at the end of the seventy years of judgement & exile of Judah (vs. 12), "the time of the Jewish restoration from Babylonian captivity." (NIV Study Bible) Now, in vs. 16, "Therefore thus says Yahweh: I return to Jerusalem with compassions; My house shall be built in it, (averring is Yahweh of Hosts), and a tape shall be stretched out on Jerusalem." [this picture is echoed in Rev. 11:1-2]
Zech. 2:1-2 continue this same theme with the figure of a man with a measuring line in his hand, obviously one of the craftsmen of ch. 1:20-21. Thus we see that the Lord's purpose is to build His house, His body, and that the horses have been involved. The building theme is seen in Zech. ch 4:10 when it speaks of the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.
Back to the horses, Zech. 6:1-3 present four chariots coming out from between two mountains — mountains of brass (figure of judgement). The horses pulling the chariots are of similar color, but the order is different: 1st) fiery red, 2nd) black, 3rd) white, and the 4th) diversely colored (e.g., dappled, or iron-gray). These are identified in vs. 5 as "four spirits of the heavens faring forth from stationing themselves with the Lord of the entire earth." (CVOT). These horses are sent out in the four cardinal directions, "so they went throughout the earth (land)" (vs. 7). The Lord's Spirit was given rest when the black horses brought judgement in the land of the north (primarily Babylon), vs. 8.
If we keep in mind that God's main purpose, the theme that threads through these eight visions, is the restoration of His people from Babylonian captivity, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and His temple, then we will have a clue to the purpose of the judgement and dealings of the four horses in Rev. 6. With this is mind, lets return to the Unveiling.
In vs. 2, the picture is One riding a white horse, and His purpose is stated: "and He came forth continuously overcoming, even to the end that He may overcome." The bow He is holding is a symbol of battle. "In the O.T., the bow is always the sign of military power. In the final defeat of Babylon her mighty men are taken and their bows — i.e., their military power — destroyed (Jer. 51:56). God will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel (Hos. 1:5)" (Barclay). "Your arrows, sharpened, [pierce] the breast of the King's enemies; peoples fall at Your feet" (Ps. 45:6, Tanakh). "Stripping off the sovereignties and authorities, with boldness He makes a show of them, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:15). Then in I Cor 15:25, "It is necessary for Him to continuously reign until He may place all His enemies under His feet."
Recall ch. 3:21 "To him who is continuously overcoming ... as I also overcome." The identity of this Rider in ch. 6:2 is made completely clear in ch. 19:11, for as Malcolm Smith says, "the code must be consistent." Here we have the Rider of the white horse identified:
"And I saw the heaven having been opened, and behold! a bright white horse, and the One continuously sitting upon him being called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He is continuously judging and is continuously making war (doing combat) .... (vs. 16) and upon His cloak and thigh He has a name written: King of kings and Lord of lords." "HE IS REIGNING NOW! HE IS RIDING NOW!" (Ray Prinzing) "Seeing that it is the era for the judgment to begin from the house of God. Now if first from us what is the consummation ..." (I Pet. 4:17 CLNT) Note: He is given a victor's wreath!
"GOD IS PREPARED TO DO BATTLE IN YOU! Whatever warfare is necessary, still He purposes to redeem you, to cleanse, purify, transform, until IN YOU He hath 'made all things new.' He who wrestled with Jacob 'until the breaking of the day,' (Gen. 32:24) will wrestle with you for however long it is necessary, until HE WINS.... It is essential that first He RIDES IN YOU, before you ride WITH Him.
"All of this is working to bring forth 'a revelation of Jesus Christ' to us, in us, and through us. 'It pleased God ... to reveal His Son in me ...' (Gal. 1:15-16)" (Prinzing).
With the opening of the second seal (vs. 3), we see a fiery-red horse. This color is from the root pur which means "fire." Call to mind that "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29). "He will immerse you within Holy Spirit and Fire .... but the chaff He will consume by inextinguishable Fire." (Matt. 3:11,12)
"For, lo, Jehovah as fire cometh, and as a hurricane His chariots, to refresh in fury His anger and His rebuke in flames of fire. For by fire and by His sword doth Jehovah do judgment with ALL FLESH and many have been Jehovah's pierced ones" (Isa. 66:15-16, Young). See also Mal. 3:2-3, "He is like a refiner's fire ...He shall purify ... and purge."
"Remember, all of this serves to bring forth another expression of 'the revelation of Jesus Christ.' And He said, 'Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother ... and a man's foes shall be they of his own household' [Matt. 10:34-36]." (Prinzing).
So to this One on the fiery horse it was given to take the peace out of our personal earth (our bodies): He was given the great sword to use on us. There is a season in our lives when He swears "they shall not enter My rest" (Heb. 3:11 & 4:3) "because of [our] incompliance (disobedience, unbelief)" [Heb. 4:6] and because we may be "hardening [our] hearts, as in the incitement to bitter feelings from the day of the putting to the proof in the desert" (Heb. 4:8).
As Israel in their desert testing, sometimes we are "led astray (caused to wander) by the heart" (Heb. 3:10). So He ruffles our nest and removes peace from our situation [remember we are to "let the peace of Christ be arbitrating (presiding) in your hearts" Col. 3:15] and then He, the living Word of God becomes "operative and more cutting above every two-edged sword, even passing through as far as a dividing of [our]soul and spirit ... even able to discern [our] thoughts and intentions of [our] heart" (Heb. 4:12). Eventually this same sword will be beaten (transformed) into a plowshare (Isa. 2:4) to plow up our hard earth so that a new crop (seed of the Word) may be planted on our burned-over field (Heb. 6:4-8). It all depends upon what He sees that is needed in our lives to make us "good soil" (Matt. 13:8).
With the opening of the 3rd seal (vs. 5) we see the emergence of a black horse whose Rider holds a set of balances in His hand. One obvious purpose that can be seen here is that He intends to bring balance into our lives. "Why does He 'set men in depression?' (Ps. 90:3, Fenton). Why this BLACK MOOD that settles upon some? Why the dark night of the soul? Because in divine wisdom He incorporates the night with the light, and calls it 'a day.' 'And THE EVENING and the morning were the day one' (Gen 1:5). And the sequence is most proper — for however dark the night might be, yet the process ends with the dawning light of that perfect day. 'For His anger endureth but a moment; in His favor is life: weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning' (Ps. 30:5). Through it all He brings a balance to the inner man." (Prinzing)
"HE RIDES WITH A BALANCE IN HIS HAND — 'Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all FLESH shall see the salvation (deliverance) of the Lord.' (Luke 3:5-6). ...The black horse rides for this!" (Prinzing)
"Even darkness, it is not darkening to You, and the night, as the day, is giving light; darkness is as light." (Ps. 139:12, CVOT).
The churches in the first century would likely have seen this Rider on a black horse as being sent to accomplish the same thing as did the symbolic black horses in Zechariah's day: to bring judgment in the land of the north — Babylon. But now, in their day, once again the "Faithful City" had become a prostitute (with Rome, politically, and by incorporating the concepts of "eternal punishments" from the pagan religions of the countries with which they had been in contact: Egypt, Greece, etc. — See Gary Amirault's "The History of the Doctrine of Eternal Torment" — their traditions had made His Word to them to be ineffectual and lifeless, not producing children of the kingdom), and we later find her called "Mystery Babylon." Thus would they see here a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish polity that was persecuting them. Yet we should not presume that they could not also see the need for setting things right (judgment) internally, within themselves, and would not see that this was the fierceness of His love, for His judgment to begin in them who had now become the House of God.
In vs. 6 we have wheat and barley being sold. This, like most things in this book, has been seen in various, and opposing, ways. One view is that this speaks of famine, for the small measure of grain is sold for the equivalent of a days wage, for the working man. A man's daily earnings would only buy enough wheat to feed just himself, or, if he bought barley (a cheaper, though less nutritious grain) he could feed himself plus two others. A picture of survival, but nothing more. A prediction of AD 70.
An opposing view is presented by Malcolm Smith: 1) there are luxury items — oil and wine; 2) there is wheat and barley — if you've got the money!; 3) care is to be taken to not injure or do injustice to these luxury items. His conclusion: this is economical persecution.
In 2 Kings 6:24 & 25 the king of Aram laid a siege to Samaria which lasted so long that there was a great famine. The 7th ch. gives Elisha's prophesy that "about this time tomorrow, a seah [about 7 qts.] of flour will sell for a shekel [about the normal cost of flour] and two seahs [14 qts.] of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria" (vs. 1, NIV). This figure of the end of the famine, and thus the end of the siege, was literally fulfilled the next day (vs. 16). This would seem to lend weight to the "famine" interpretation of the situation in Rev. 6:6, but let us remember that this is a book of figures. Consider Amos 8:11, "Behold! the days are coming (averring is my Lord Yahweh), that I will send a famine into the land, not a famine for bread, nor a thirsting for water, but rather for hearing the Word of Yahweh." Here, then, could be a word to us.
Ray Prinzing sees another aspect to this picture, "Jesus said to Peter 'Satan hath desired to sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.' (Lu. 22:31,32) Why the sifting? To sift out all the uneven particles — the doubt, the unbelief, the self-will, etc. until only 'fine flour' remains. We get so tossed and shaken we think all balance is gone — but all of this is working that He might bring us into HIS balance."
Consider also Dan. 5:26 & 27, "... an accounting has God made of your kingdom and He balances it; ... weighed are you on the scales and found lacking" (CVOT). But Ray brings out that "'He maketh peace thy borders, and filleth thee with the finest of wheat.' (Ps. 47:14). He is the One that 'bindeth up our wounds, pouring in oil and wine' (Lu 10:34)."
If we consider all of the above considerations of the black horse, the set of balances, the cost of food, and the protection of the oil and the wine, I think we can draw a few more conclusions:
- The black horses in Zech. seemed to speak of God's judgment of His peoples enemies. His enemy within us is the minding (disposition) of the flesh (Rom. 8:7). His judgment is for purification and cleansing (Mal. 3:3,5). The Jews had positioned themselves as enemy of Christianity, up to AD 70.
- If the weighing out of food speaks of famine, or oppression, then perhaps we can see something in the type of the Law: Lev. 26:21-26, "If you go contrary to Me ... then I will add smitings to you sevenfold according to your sins. I will send the animal of the field against you .... I will bring the sword on you .... I will send the plague .... When I break the stock of bread for you then ten women will bake your bread in one stove and return your bread BY WEIGHT so that you will eat and not be satisfied." So the balances weighing out the wheat and the barley could speak of the Lord's judging His people, His house (I Pet. 4:17): the Jews, then; the church, now.
- that the oil and the wine are to be protected would speak of His concern for the healing of His people (Lu. 10:34, binding up the wounds). Further, it could suggest that the anointing of the Spirit is yet present, and that new life (the new wine) will come of this.
- the idea of "a pair of balances" is only suggested in the text, for the Gr. is only "a balance beam, or bar." This lends weight to the presentation by Ray Prinzing that His main purpose is to bring us into balance.
In vs. 8 we come to the fourth horse. The color, or lack thereof, would seem to suggest the sickness and fading of life which precedes death. Thus we are told that Death rides this horse, and the Unseen (Hades) follows with Him. This is the ultimate call of the cross, for on this we die, and in this we experience oblivion and can see nothing until His morning awakes us. Note that only 1/4 of our land is killed with the Sword of the Spirit: He doesn't do it all at once. Crucifixion is a drawn-out process!
Now famine is mentioned specifically, but I think this is when He restricts His voice from us, and on our cross we too cry, "Father, why have You forsaken me?" As John Bevere has said, "Welcome to the wilderness!" We experience to the full this state "within death" that we are in. We experience emptiness, nothingness. Even the little animals He sends to torment us (like barking dogs!) — remember Lev. 26, above — or the mean spirits in people, their carnal, unChristlike attitudes and behaviors [Ps. 49:20, "A man (Adam), though wealthy, who discerneth not has made himself a by-word: he is compared to senseless cattle and is like them."].
Ray Prinzing suggests that where it mentions that "the fourth part of the earth" is killed (this being the fourth & final horse of this scene) that this is the concluding blow which finishes His process in us. That this dealing is really of Him, remember Rev. 1:18, "I ... continuously hold the keys [hold & control the power] of Death and the Unseen."
"See now that I, I am He, and there is no other elohim (god) with (beside) Me: I Myself put to death, and I make alive, I have smitten, and I heal ..." (Deut. 32:39) "Go, and we will return to Yahweh, our Elohim, for He tore to pieces, and He will heal us: He was smiting, and He will bind us up." (Hos. 6:1) "Fire and hail, snow and fume, tempestuous wind, performing His word." (Ps. 148:8) "... no glorifying of negative forces — because HE IS IN CONTROL." (Prinzing) Again, he continues, "It is by death that death is rendered powerless, and there shall arise a new life — His....' that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil ...' (Heb. 2:14).
"He is able to marshal the bestial nature of men about us, so that they are His instruments to put to death in us that which is not pleasing to Him. They might well be termed 'vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.' (Rom. 9:22), but they are under His control. 'For Thou, O God, hath proved us: Thou hast tried us, as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the net; Thou laidest affliction upon our loins. THOU CAUSED MEN TO RIDE OVER OUR HEADS; we went through fire and through water: but Thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.' (Ps. 66:10 – Prinzing). First the natural, afterwards that which is spiritual. First the death at AD. 70, now they become a type and shadow for us.
A thought on the opening of the little scroll: a scroll when closed is rolled up. Before it can be unrolled, all the seals (7 in this case) must be broken. So what we see here in the opening of the seals is a process of breaking. The 7 seals being opened, or broken, is one process which will allow the scroll to be opened. Remember that 7 is an idea in this book: completeness; an entire process. As the visions of this book are not necessarily successive on some time-line, let us consider that the same may be true of the opening of these 7 seals. They may each simply describe a specific aspect of the entire process.
With the opening of the 5th seal (vs. 9), we have a change in the metaphor. No longer do we see horses proceeding into our earth, we see the result of the work of those four. The picture is the brazen altar of sacrifice. "The souls of those who had been slain were there beneath the altar. That picture is taken directly from the sacrificial ritual of the Temple. For a Jew the most sacred part of any sacrifice was the blood; the blood was regarded as being the life and the life belonged to God (Lev. 17:11-14, 'the soul of the flesh is in the blood'). Because of that, there were special regulations for the offering of the blood. 'The rest of the blood of the bull the priest shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering' (Lev. 4:7). That is to say, the blood is offered at the foot of the altar. This gives us the meaning of our passage here. The souls ... are beneath the altar" (Barclay).
In Phil. 2:17 Paul said, "But even more, if I am also repeatedly poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering and public service pertaining to your faith (or: of the trust pertaining to you folks), I am constantly rejoicing (or: glad) – even continually rejoicing (glad) together with all of you!
In 2 Tim. 4:17 he said, "But even if I am continuously being poured out as an offering upon the sacrifice and public service of your faith, I am glad and am rejoicing with all of you."
Rom. 12:1, "Consequently, brothers, I am repeatedly calling you folks alongside to exhort, implore and encourage you, through God's compassions to stand your bodies alongside (or: to set or place your bodies beside) [the] Well-pleasing, Set-apart (Holy), Living Sacrifice by God (or: in God; for God; to God; with God), [this being] your sacred service which pertains to thought, reason and communication (or: your rational service; your logical and Word-based service).”
Phil. 3:10, "to intimately and experientially know Him, and the ability (and: power) of His resurrection – even the [other MSS: a] common sharing (participation, partnership and fellowship) of His experiences (which include passions and sufferings) being a man that is being continuously conformed to (being brought together with the form of; being configured to) His death,”
In regard to the particular context of 1 Cor. 15:31, Paul figuratively says, "Daily I am repeatedly facing death!"
Matt 16:24-25 “At that point Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone continues intending (purposing; willing; wanting) to come on behind Me, let him at once deny, reject and disown himself, and then in one move lift up his execution state (cross), and after that proceed to be by habit continuously following after Me!
"You see, whoever may intend (or: should purpose; might set his will; happens to want) to keep his soul-life safe (to rescue himself; to preserve the interior life that he is living) will loose-it-away and destroy it. Yet whoever can loose-away and even destroy his soul-life (the interior self) on My account, he will be finding it!”
These have been slaughtered because of God's Word, and because of the witness and testimony which they were continuously holding. They were His WITNESSES. The cry which they uttered in vs. 10 was a cry from their souls. "How long?" "Till when?"
"For we are aware that the entire creation is groaning and travailing together until now. Yet not only so, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruit of the Spirit, we ourselves also, are groaning in ourSELVES, awaiting the sonship, the deliverance of our body." (Rom. 8:22,23, CLNT).
And what are these martyrs crying for? The separating, the judging, and the maintaining right — operating out of the way pointed out — for their blood, their lives, their souls; and this, out of the ones who live their lives in the earth realm, the carnal. Do not we also cry out for His judgements to come in the land? "For [only] when Your judgments are in the earth [will] the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness" (Isa. 26 :9, AOT). Our hearts cry out for this for our world, and for ourselves. And what is the Righteousness that is learned? "Christ Jesus, Who became to us wisdom from God, besides RIGHTEOUSNESS and holiness and deliverance ..." (I Cor. 1:30, CLNT) Yes, when His judgements come, the inhabitants of the world will learn Christ. We too, as He sits to refine us, to burn out of us that part of us which is still dwelling upon the earth — instead of in the heavenlies— we also "come to know Him by experience" as we are formed together (constructed) by His death.
In vs. 11 white robes are given to each of them. This is one of the rewards of the overcomer (Rev. 3:5). Note that these have entered into rest, for they are to rest themselves a little time longer. This rest is something that we, too, should be endeavoring to enter into (Heb. 4:11). This short time of resting is while their fellow-slaves and brothers are being fulfilled, or made full, or, as Vincent says, "shall have fulfilled their course." All things must be done according to His plan and purpose. There is a "[time] before-appointed (predetermined) by the Father" (Gal. 4:2) for all things. All appointments must run their courses, "to know experientially the love of the Christ which surpasses experiential knowledge in order that you may be filled up to the measure of all the fullness of God" (Eph. 3:19, Wuest).
When the 6th seal is opened God brings a great shaking. "Yet once I am shaking not only the earth but also the heaven" (Heb. 12:26). He explains this in the next vs. (27) "... so that the things not being continuously shaken may remain." We are next counselled to be "continuously taking to our sides an unshaken kingdom, we may be continuously holding grace, through which we may be continuously serving, well-pleasingly, to God ... for, also, our God [is] a continuously consuming fire." (vs. 28).
Shakings, in the physical manifested as earthquakes, are a "move" of God upon His creation. A shaking can be a sifting to remove the chaff. It can be a destruction to remove a structure or a kingdom. It definitely changes the status quo. It interrupts our routine and gets our attention.
Next we see signs in the heavenly realm. In vs. 12 - 14 we have:
- the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair
- the whole moon became as blood
- the stars of the heaven fell into the earth, as fruit falls from a tree in a storm
- the heaven was parted away, as a scroll being rolled up
- every mountain (or, hill) and island were moved out of their places
These are O.T. images, so let's look at some of these, beginning with Joel 2:28-32 [the Tanakh, and Ferrar Fenton (who states that he followed the original Heb. division) have these verses as a separate chapter, giving Joel 4 ch's. instead of 3].
The context preceding these verses says the God will "repay you for the years which the locust devoured, the grub and the beetle and the larva, MY GREAT ARMY which I sent among you.... and you shall praise the name of Yahweh.... you shall know that within Israel am I.... and My people shall not be ashamed for the eon" (vs. 25-27, CVOT). So here we see a time of God's people, having gone through one of His periods of judgment, and now entering a period of His blessing ("He will bring down ... the former rain and the latter rain as at first," vs. 23) and also promising an age with no shame (vs. 26 & 27).
"And it comes to be afterward, I shall pour out My Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons & your daughters shall prophesy .... in those days shall I pour out My Spirit. And I will give signs in the heavens above and signs on the earth: blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke, the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the coming of the great and manifest (clearly viewable, LXX) day of Yahweh. And it comes to be that everyone who shall call in the Name of Yahweh shall be delivered (saved), for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem, deliverance shall come to be, just as Yahweh says; and among the survivors are those whom Yahweh is calling" (Joel 2:28-32)
In this context it would seem that the signs, though ominous, are associated with blessings, the outpouring of the Spirit, deliverance and the calling of God. This all follows the period of devastation which He had sent among His people. The figures of blood, fire and the pillars of smoke are echoes of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the sacrifices and the presence of God, along with how He led Israel during that time.
In Joel 2:10-11 (LXX), "Before them the earth shall be confounded and the heaven shall be shaken: the sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their light, and the Lord shall utter His voice before His powerful ones, for His camp is very great, because the deeds of His words are strong (mighty); in as much as the day of the Lord is great; exceedingly illustrious! And which one shall be fit for it?" Here we have the stars mentioned as part of the signs in the heavenlies, and it is in association with the actions of God's army and the workings of His words.
In Isa. 13 we see a pronouncement against Babylon, but here find the same heavenly signs associated with God's anger and judgment. Vs. 9-11, "Lo the day of Yahweh comes: fierce, with wrath, and heat of anger, to make the land become a desolation. Yes, its sinning ones He destroys from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations cause their light to not shine. The sun has been darkened in its going out and the moon is not brightening with its light, and I check over all [its – i.e., the land's] habitance for its evil... and I eradicate the pomp of the arrogant and the pride of the terrifiers am I abasing."
Isa. 34:4 uses the figure of a scroll being rolled up, "Then shall be dissolved all the hosts of the heavens, and the heavens shall rollup as a scroll – yea all their hosts shall fade – like the fading and falling of a leaf from a vine, and like what fadeth and falleth from a fig tree" (Rotherham). This is in a context of a word of wrath and indignation to all the nations and races (vs. 1-3) – the promise of judgment soon coming to them.
So what did these figures and pictures mean to the 1st century Christians? Did the sun and the moon and the stars speak to them of their fathers, mothers and brothers – as they did to Joseph and his family (Gen. 37:9,10)? Or did these folks see their worlds falling apart or their families dying? Or, did it simply mean that a change in the order of their world was coming – that there was coming a fall of that which had ruled their society? The preterist view would see this as prophetic of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Some see this as pointing to everything changing in the realm of spirit. Are there new seasons coming with nothing to give direction (provided in that day by the celestial bodies in the sky), and now only faith and hope and His Word as an anchor to the soul? Kingdoms were to be disrupted (mountains moved). Private worlds (islands) were to be moved into a new place by the hand of God.
All these could be personal applications of what God is doing to prepare you for the destiny He has recorded for you which has been written within the tiny scroll, but first the seals must be broken.
That which we looked at in Joel 2, Peter quoted in Acts. 2:17-21 and applied to the move of God upon the called-out at that time. Perhaps the Spirit is here speaking through John to the 1st century communities in the same way – to remind them that what they were then experiencing (and us, of what we may be now) is the work of the same Spirit. Jesus spoke in similar terms in Matt. 24:29 in prophesying about what was to come in AD 70. But if these signs speak of judgment, let us recall Isa. 26:9, "For when Your judgments are wrought on earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness" (Tanakh). Furthermore, remember "For a little while I forsook you, but with vast love I will bring you back. In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you; but with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love.... for the mountains may move and the hills be shaken, but My loyalty shall never move from you, nor My covenant of friendship be shaken – said the LORD, Who takes you back in love" (Isa. 54:7-8,10, Tanakh).
Concerning the figure of sackcloth, in Matt. 11:21 Jesus used it of repenting, changing their minds. In Jonah 3:5 the people of Nineveh used it for the same reason. In this context I suggest that it is a figure of a time of grief, mourning or despair, which may then lead to repentance and believing the Word of the Lord. It is a day of humility and situations that are the extreme opposite of glory.
Proceeding to vs. 15-17, we see humanity's reactions to what has happened in vs. 12-14. No matter one's status in life, the flesh wants to hide or even seek self-destruction. The paradox of "swelling emotion" or "wrath" from a little Lamb cannot be faced. Here He is more like what we saw in the first chapter of this book. Who is able to stand? Job felt this way and even cursed his very existence – even though recognizing it being the hand of God as the source of his miseries.
"Judgment is God's strange work. He uses it as a tool in His redemptive and restorative processes. Men make it the end. But judgment is always a MEANS to an end – never THE END!.... All judgments are limited – confined to a day, or to the limitations of prescribed ages. 'Because He hath appointed A DAY, in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained' (Acts 17:31). 'And the smoke of their torment [literally: hard times and testing] doth go up to AGES of AGES [or: indefinite time periods pertaining to the ages]; and they have no rest DAY and NIGHT [time periods, here on earth], who are bowing before the beast and its image...' (Rev. 14:11, Young's Literal; brackets added by Jonathan).... God's great goal lies BEYOND THE AGES. ".... the wrath of the LAMB [Who takes away the sin of the World].... is that stern and tender hand of God which makes the Lion and the Lamb dwell together in the saints" ("Looking for His Appearing: Part 37 – Coming in Judgment," Preston Eby).
Let us prayerfully consider the significance of these apocalyptic figures as we seek understanding of the message of the Unveiling of and from Jesus Christ.