If you have not already done so, I encourage you to read the Prologue to this study, as it provides the framework for understanding the rest of it. Remember that Revelation consists of seven visions which state the same theme of Jesus as Lord.
Third Vision: Seals & Trumpets (Revelation 6-11)
This is the starting point for many who read Revelation, which is an absolute travesty. There has already been a wealth of revelation to the extent that if the visions had stopped at this point, then Revelation would still be a beautiful and powerful book. The worst part, though, is that, without the preceding context from previous visions, speculation runs heavy in this dynamic vision, and there is a lot of content to cause confusion.
Many scholars choose to break this section down into smaller segments, and for deeper exegesis that can be useful (so long as the central theme of the book is maintained). However, deeper exegesis of Revelation is for another time. In the interest of continuity as well as brevity, this vision will be reviewed in a single block rather than in separate portions.
John’s perspective shifts from the unending worship of the Lamb, and so we transition from the second vision to the third. On the Scroll are seven seals which only Jesus was deemed worthy to open. Rather than getting lost in esoteric speculation and prophetic conjecture, the primary purpose is instead to show the sovereignty of God in action.
The first seal shows a conqueror on a white horse, which I believe to be Jesus, as He appears elsewhere on a white horse in the book. In Jesus’ obedience on the cross, He defeated the Enemy and reclaimed what was lost.
The second seal releases a second horseman depicting war. Wherever Jesus goes, there is conflict (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”). Whether it’s in the form of persecution or simply in rebellion to the Gospel, War in some form rides in the wake of evangelism. Just ask any missionary.
The third seal releases a third horseman with a set of scales in his hand, a common tool for merchants at the time. It’s usually referred to as “famine,” but the exorbitant price of food is really an example of economic turmoil of any kind. Whether rich or poor, every man has to eat, and the lack of the basic commodity of food is a simple indication of an upset in the system at large. Christian tradesmen would’ve been very familiar with this predicament, as they were the victims of price-gouging and blackballing when they weren’t being outright murdered.
The fourth seal releases a horseman personifying Death itself, who is dragging nothing short of Hell itself (Hades, the repository of dead souls). Decimation was a Roman tactic of killing one in ten people in order to weaken their ability to mount a resistance against Roman rule in a region; Death would more than double that in this vision.
When the fifth seal was broken, John was shown a mass of martyrs before the throne who were consoled and rewarded for their faithfulness.
The sixth seal, by contrast with the previous five, is significantly longer than the rest. Much attention is given to the precise details; however, one should not miss the forest for the trees. The perspective has always been what is happening in Heaven, and these earthly perils must be viewed in that light. In Heaven, God is on the throne, worshiped and adored by every power and authority, and Jesus is unveiling the ‘mystery of God’ for all to see. The form that has taken on earth is all hell breaking loose with war, want, persecution, and the end of life as the believers had known it, but it’s all simply proceeding according to the plan ordained from the beginning. The confusing chaos on earth is no more than the wax seals falling from the scroll of God’s ordained will for the ages.
Remember the Problem of Evil/Pain mentioned in the Prologue? This vision is the first to address that concern: how can an omnipotent and all-loving God not resolve the existence of suffering and evil in this world? The answer is that He has resolved it: the solution is immediate in eternity, but must run its course in the physical world. Fortunately, eternal acts are permanent, whereas present (temporary) suffering and evil are not.
Many scholars consider chapter seven to be an interlude, but I assert that it is, in fact, part of the sixth seal. The horrifying events—the sky rolling up like a scroll, stars (much bigger) crashing into earth, mountains turning upside down—culminate in the salvation and redemption portrayed in chapter seven. It is a visual summary that encapsulates the utterly hopeless and inescapable ruin that the original seven churches were experiencing and that many, many Christians have known since.
The prevailing opinion within Western Christianity is that this portion is speaking of a future period of time, perhaps at the end of the world, which is referred to as the “Great Tribulation,” due to the statement, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation.” A future period of tumultuous tribulation is an unnecessary addition to the context because the original readers were already facing tribulation that is unfathomable to many of us today—Christian tradesmen who refused to participate in the pagan commerce of their city (such as refusing to forge an idol or brand a product with the symbol of the local pagan temple) would be blackballed by their trade guild, which was a virtual death sentence. This was, of course, when they weren’t being thrown to the lions.
The six seals thus far served to summarize every form of suffering that the believers had endured for their faith in Jesus and respond to it with this: God wasn’t surprised by these obstacles, as they were part of the Plan! The same is true for all of us—none of the trials we face in life, ministry, or in our personal walk with God are unexpected. God has already made provision for them. Perhaps a future “Great Tribulation” will come as many expect, but this passage does not require it. As Jesus said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Once again, I wish to reiterate that there is deeper exegesis to be found in this portion of Scripture. My aim is to simply provide the proper perspective of the preeminence of Jesus Christ as the constant theme of Revelation.
As the sixth seal culminates with the overcomers receiving their reward—an assurance that, should we lay down our lives, we will find new life in Christ—the focus shifts forward. The seventh seal is broken, and once again there is silence in Heaven, sort of a reverse-alarm demanding close attention to what follows. If the sixth seal was long, then the seventh is even longer, as it’s a series of seven trumpets.
The trumpets follow the seals as a magnification of what was just revealed, as they are themselves the seventh seal.
The first trumpet involves fiery hail destroying a third of the vegetation; then a fiery mountain destroying a third of the seas; then a falling star destroying a third of the fresh water streams and springs; and then a third of the heavenly bodies (primary sources of light and navigation) are darkened before an eagle warns that the trumpet blasts are just warming up. In short, there is absolutely nothing in all Creation that is not addressed by one of the first four trumpets—everything is brought to heel before the unveiling of God’s will.
Note that despite the horror of the events depicted, there is restraint—in fact, the majority portion (two-thirds) remains of anything afflicted thus far. As distraught as things seem to be in the natural realm, God is still in control inasmuch that He withholds the worst of possible destruction.
The next two trumpets are spiritual in nature. Whereas the first four speak to natural calamities, the ante is upped when demonic oppression is added to the mix. Terrible images of demons as an unstoppable plague of pestilence and an invincible army afflicting humanity paint a picture that is difficult for John to bear.
Here is shown a mighty angel, possibly a picture of Jesus in His stature as captain of the angelic armies of Heaven, declaring in full the mystery of God—something that John, when he hears it, is instructed not to write down. Instead, John is urged to continue recording the vision despite his sensory and spiritual overload.
In the midst of this chaos, John is instructed to measure off the dimensions of the temple, establishing that the covenant of God on earth is intended to be a bubble of protection against the virulent corruption laying waste to God’s once perfect Creation. This is akin to the same instructions given to Ezekiel amidst one of his visions. What is to follow, therefore, is to be seen in the context of the people of God, as opposed to general, broad-sweeping edicts on a cosmic or global level. In other words, these events are transpiring primarily in the spiritual realm and only secondarily in the physical realm. The following events are unlikely to ever appear in newspaper headlines.
John sees two witnesses preaching from this spiritual safety zone in the chaos, giving testimony to God under His protection. He clearly identifies them with the olive trees from the vision in Zechariah 4, in which rather than men, the witnesses are spiritual offices. By their personification as two men, we are shown a model of what we are to be—the Scriptures are more than just historical records and rules of life; they are embodied in the people of God, namely, us.
The several time spans mentioned in this portion are likely not fixed in any way except in relation to each other. For example, in the Jewish 30-day/12-month calendar, three and a half years comes out to exactly 1,260 days, which is also the same time span as 42 months and “a time, times, and half a time” (or 3½ years). In other words, all of these seemingly different events are actually the same event portrayed from different angles and levels of magnification.
Within the context of the persecution against the ministry and covenant of God on earth, the two witnesses lie dead for a brief period of time relative to the time of their service. In a nod to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the formerly persecuted witnesses are not only resurrected to the awe of everybody, but they ascend on high to Heaven. Their ascent was followed by many of the same elements as portrayed in the breaking of the seals on the scroll—yet another example of the established theme of repetition.
When the seventh trumpet is sounded, all of Heaven erupted in fanfare with praises to God and a summary of the vision thus far: By establishing His Kingdom on earth, Jesus’ reign had begun; the nations raged and protested, but God pressed back and reclaimed it all. These are not predictions of isolated future events or an invitation for prophetic speculation, but a singular vision in the Scroll of Heaven showing forth the divine mandate over Creation for all ages and proclaimed by the angelic trumpets: resist as they might, the enemies of God are doomed; perish though they may, the saints of God will overcome.