This chapter describes the first six seal events that mark the beginning of the Great Tribulation. The first four are portrayed as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
A Brief Overview of Revelation
In the last chapter, Jesus took the scroll from the Father's hand (5:8). As he opens each of the seals in the throne room of heaven, he sets off a series of events that take place on the earth. Because each of the seals are numbered, I assume that these events take place in chronological order, and that chapter 6 represents the first chronological section of Revelation. After the seven seal events, seven trumpet events take place (Revelation 8 and 11), followed by seven bowl events (Revelation 15 and 16). In addition to these three series of chronological events, additional sections appear at various points throughout the Book of Revelation to give us additional insight and perspective. Let's imagine these three chronological series are like a video drama of the Great Tribulation. Here in chapter 6, Jesus presses 'play'. At the end of the chapter he presses 'pause', we are shown what is going on 'backstage' in chapter 7, and he presses 'play' again in chapter 8. This alternating sequence of 'play' and 'pause' continues throughout the book.

Opening the first four seals releases what are known as 'the four horsemen of the apocalypse'. One intriguing question about these horsemen is what relationship they have to the horsemen in Zechariah's visions. In Zechariah 6:1-8, he described a vision involving four horses with similar colours but in a different order.

1st Seal - White Horse - Antichrist Rides Out to Conquer (v1-2)

Jesus now opens the first seal. In response, one of the living creatures says "Come!" (v1). John looks and he sees a white horse whose rider carries a bow and is given a crown. He rides out as a conqueror, intent on conquest (v2). Prophecy scholars generally agree that this rider is the Antichrist. He rides a white horse as a counterfeit of Jesus who will enter the Battle of Armageddon riding on a white horse (Revelation 19:11). The crown denotes his rise to power over the end-time empire (Daniel 7:24), and the power and authority he receives from Satan (Revelation 13:2). The bow, without mention of arrows, is often understood to imply his offer of a false peace. We know that Antichrist will sign a seven-year peace treaty, but break it after three and a half years (Daniel 9:27). And the Apostle Paul tells us that when people are saying "There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come on them (1 Thessalonians 5:3). However, it is also made clear that this rider on the white horse rides out to conquer, so Christians should understand that this is his intention from the start. In Ezekiel 39:3, where Antichrist is called Gog, God says to him, "I will knock your bow out of your left hand and make your arrows fall from your right hand". So if it is significant that arrows are not mentioned in the first seal, their absence is very short-lived. He soon finds some! Personally I suspect that many prophecy scholars exaggerate the Antichrist's role as a peacemaker. In 1938, Hitler signed a peace agreement with British prime-minister Neville Chamberlain who famously returned to Britain declaring 'peace in our time'. But even then, no-one would have described Hitler as a great diplomat of peace. He signed a concession of peace at a time when he was perceived as a great threat to world peace. Although Daniel says that Antichrist will confirm a treaty, it does not say that he will initiate it. So let's not exaggerate Antichrist's perceived role as a diplomat of peace.

When Islam swept through Yemen during the lifetime of Islam's Prophet Mohammed, a Yemeni Jew called Ka'b al-Ahbar converted to Islam. Ka'b al-Ahbar is known among Muslims for his comparisons of Islam with Judeo-Christian texts and traditions (a practice which Muslims call Isra'iliyyat). He is quoted as saying, "I find the Mahdi recorded in the books of the Prophets… For instance, the Book of Revelation says: “And I saw and behold a white horse. He that sat on him…went forth conquering and to conquer" (see 'Al Mahdi and the End of Time' by ‘Izzat and Arif, p.15). Although Muslims consider the bible to have been corrupted, even since the lifetime of Mohammed they have identified the biblical Antichrist with their awaited Messiah-figure, known as the Mahdi. The Mahdi is expected to be Mohammed's 'rightly guided' end-time successor, almost like a second coming of Mohammed himself, but not literally.

In 628 AD, when the Muslims were still too weak to conquer Mecca, Mohammed attempted to enter the city with 1,400 of is followers to perform pilgrimage. Instead he was humiliated by Mecca's Quraysh tribe, and he conceded to a ten-year peace treaty known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. Two years later, when his following had grown much stronger, he broke the treaty and conquered the city with a following of ten thousand. This treaty provides a historical precedent for peace treaties between Muslims and non-Muslims, and will likely be the precedent for Antichrist's seven year peace treaty (Daniel 9:27). According to this precedent, when Muslims are too weak to conquer, they agree to peace in order to buy time and strengthen their position. Later, when they are strong enough to conquer, and the treaty is no longer to their advantage, they break it. Initially, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah seemed like a great humiliation of Mohammed and Islam, until Mohammed received a Quranic revelation that it was actually 'a great victory' (Quran 48:1). Similarly, whenever Muslims suffer a humiliating defeat, they tend to declare it a great victory, according to this precedent. In practical terms, because the treaty bound the Quraysh tribe to peace with the Muslims, the Muslims were then free to attack Arabia's Jewish tribes, without fear of retribution from the Quraysh. With bounty to be won, this greatly increased the attraction of Islam and accelerated its growth, at the expense of the Jews. Today, Muslims lift up the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah as a great example of Mohammed as a diplomat and peacemaker. They overlook the fact that he used the treaty as a tactic of war, and broke it as soon as it was no longer to his advantage. It appears from Daniel 9:27 that Antichrist's signing of a peace treaty will in some way facilitate a restoration of Jewish temple worship. Like the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, this treaty may appear humiliating, but it will create a facade of Antichrist's peaceful intentions.

From the bible's perspective, which is primarily Israel-focused, the Great Tribulation begins when Antichrist conquers Jerusalem, and sets up the abomination of desolation (Matthew 24:15, Luke 21:20). It is clear from Ezekiel 38-39 that his invasion of Israel takes Israel by surprise. Similarly, 1 Thessalonians 5:3 says, "Now when they are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction comes on them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will surely not escape". Again, the 'labour pains' metaphor relates especially to the fall of Jerusalem (Micah 4:9, 5:3, Matthew 24:8 & 15, Revelation 12:2). However, from Daniel 11:40-45, it seems that Antichrist may not be the one to make the first move. He rides out to conquer in response to being attacked by the 'king of the South' (probably Egypt). As well as counter-attacking Egypt, he uses it as an excuse to invade and conquer many nations, including Israel. My guess is that by conquering Israel, he gains widespread recognition from the Muslim world as their awaited Mahdi, causing most Muslims to unite behind him.

Although from an earthly perspective the Great Tribulation begins with the fall of Jerusalem, from a heavenly perspective it begins with the opening of the first seal. To those on earth, it will seem like all hell has been let loose. But from heaven's perspective, Jesus will be in control, orchestrating events according to his plan and timing.

In Zechariah 6:1-8, the release of white and black horses to the north, and sorrel horses to the south, seems to represent Persia's conquests of Babylon and Egypt in 539 and 525 BC, respectively. These conquests established a period of relative peace throughout the Middle East (Zechariah 6:8), which in turn facilitated the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. The red horses in Zechariah's vision were never released.

2nd Seal - Red Horse - World War (v3-4)
When Jesus opens the second seal, a fiery red horse rides out. Its rider is given permission to take peace from the earth so that people butcher each other, and he is given a huge sword. It is clear from this that the colour red symbolises bloodshed and war. This second seal represents the start of World War III which arises from Antichrist's invasion of Israel. In the vision of Zechariah 6:1-8, Persia's conquests in the 6th century BC established a period of world peace and stability. But here in Revelation, Antichrist's conquests shatter world peace and catapult the world into war.

Zechariah also saw a rider seated on a red horse in Zechariah 1:8. It transpired in that vision that its rider was the Angel of the Lord, an Old Testament guise for Jesus in his pre-incarnate state. He was positioned among myrtle trees in a ravine, which represented that he was standing with Israel at a low point in her history.

It is debatable whether the rider of the red horse here in Revelation 6 should be also be identified with Jesus. Does this represent Christ's declaration of war against Antichrist and his empire? According to Zechariah 14:3-5, Jesus personally intervenes on behalf of the Jews when Jerusalem falls. He appears on the Mount of Olives and splits it in two, creating an escape route through which the Jewish refugees can escape. According to Revelation 12:5, it seems his intervention at this stage is brief, and after facilitating their escape he is snatched back up to heaven until the end of the Great Tribulation. From there, he continues to direct proceedings from heaven, before personally intervening again on earth at the seventh trumpet. Jesus is portrayed as using a sword in his end-time battles (Psalm 45:3, Isaiah 31:8, 34:5-6 and Revelation 19:15). However, his use of a sword seems to fit better with his actions after the seventh trumpet, and not with his actions near the beginning of the Great Tribulation. Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) whose second coming is ultimately to establish peace throughout the earth. In order to establish peace, he must first wage war. But it would be deeply ironic if Jesus were the rider of the red horse who takes peace from the earth. Although it is reasonable to identify the rider of the white horse with a particular individual (the Antichrist), it seems better to interpret the rider of the red horse purely symbolically, representing the outbreak of World War. However, when Jesus appears briefly on the Mount of Olives to help the Jews, it is likely that the Muslim world will attribute it to an appearance of the Dajjal (the Antichrist of Islamic Eschatology).

As Antichrist invades Israel from the north, Ezekiel 38 indicates that he is joined by Persia from the east, Sudan from the south, and Lybia from the west, as well as by many other nations. In other words, Israel is invaded from all directions. Psalm 83 describes an attempt by many of Israel's close neighbours to annihilate them as a nation. It is likely this describes the same invasion but with the camera lens zoomed in to give a more localised perspective. According to Micah 5:5, in which Antichrist is referred to as the Assyrian, God will raise up seven shepherds in response to his invasion of Israel. This represents a coalition of pro-Israel nations that God raises up to oppose Antichrist's empire.

3rd Seal - Black Horse - Famine (v5-6)
The third seal releases a black horse which represents famine. It's rider holds a scale, and the living creatures declare, "A quart of wheat will cost a day's pay and three quarts of barley will cost a day's pay. But do not damage the olive oil and the wine!". The wheat and barley represent basic food commodities. A quart was a dry measure equivalent to about a litre. So a day's ration of food will cost a whole day's pay. As it often the case when there is famine, it is the poor who suffer most, but the rich are still provided with their luxuries, represented by the olive oil and wine.

Famine often follows as a consequence of war, and is sometimes a deliberate tactic of war. In World War I, the Allied blockade of Germany caused about half a million German civilians to die of starvation. Today, Saudi Arabia's blockade of Yemen is producing a famine situation in which millions of civilians may die.

In his message to the Church of Pergamum, Jesus promised to give hidden manna to the Christians who overcome (Revelation 2:17). Similarly, Isaiah 43:20 portrays God's miraculous provision for the people of Israel during their end-time Exodus. During the Great Tribulation, both Jews and Christians will have to rely on God's miraculous provision. This will be especially true of those living within Antichrist's end-time empire, for Revelation 13:7 says that no-one will be able to buy or sell unless they receive the mark of the beast.

4th Seal - Pale Horse - Death (v7-8)
The fourth seal releases a pale green horse. This colour represents sickness and disease. Its rider is Death, and Hades follows right behind. Like famine, disease often follows as a consequence of war. At the end of World War I, so-called Spanish flu killed seventy-five million people worldwide, many times more than those who died in conflict. Recently in Yemen, international aid organisations have been battling to contain outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria, which are indirect consequences of war. The rider's identification as Death, with Hades following right behind, represents the large number of people who will die of sickness and disease. Jesus listed plagues as one of the end-time signs in Luke 21:11.

Death toll during the Great Tribulation (v8)
Verse 8 tells us that they (the four horsemen) will be given authority over a fourth of the earth to kill its population by sword, famine, disease, and by wild animals.

The world's population is currently about 8 billion people. If a quarter of the world's population perishes in these seal events, that is about 2 billion people, leaving about 6 billion survivors. According to Revelation 9:15, another third perish during the trumpet judgments. That would reduce the earth's population to about 4 billion. So at least half the world's population will perish by the time Jesus returns at the seventh trumpet. It is also apparent that a huge number of Christians will be martyred during the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:9, Revelation 6:9-11, 7:9-17, 20:4-6). In addition, two-thirds of the population of Israel will perish (Zechariah 13:8). Let's make an optimistic guess that a billion Christians are still present at the seventh trumpet. If they are all raptured, that leaves Earth with a population of about 3 billion. We are not told what percentage perish in the bowl judgments of Revelation 15 to 16, but the bowl judgments are more severe than the seal or trumpet judgments. Given the progression from a quarter perishing at the seals to a third perishing at the trumpets, let's guess there is a progression to a half perishing in the bowls. That would leave about 1.5 billion survivors. Then at the Battle of Armageddon, it is likely that tens or possibly hundreds of millions will perish. By the end of the age, the world's surviving population is likely to be a small fraction of what it is today, perhaps about a billion or even less. Isaiah 24 suggests an even starker end-time death toll, "1 Look, the Lord is ready to devastate the earth and leave it in ruins; he will mar its surface and scatter its inhabitants…6 So a treaty curse devours the earth; its inhabitants pay for their guilt. This is why the inhabitants of the earth disappear, and are reduced to just a handful of people…13 This is what will happen throughout the earth, among the nations. It will be like when they beat an olive tree, and just a few olives are left at the end of the harvest". Also in Isaiah 13:12, a passage that describes the Day of Judgment, God says, "I will make human beings more scarce than pure gold, and people more scarce than gold from Ophir". I assume the bible is using hyperbole in these passages, but even so it paints an extremely stark picture of the Great Tribulation death-toll.

Those who survive the Great Tribulation will populate the earth at the start of the Millennium. During the Millennium, people will live much longer and in apparently ideal conditions (Isaiah 65:20-25). So it is likely the population growth rate will be high during the Millennium. I guess that Earth's population will be reduced to such a state at the end of this age that Earth will be able to sustain humanity's population growth under millennial conditions for another thousand years.

Earth's population has risen from about 1 billion to 8 billion in the last 200 years. Over the last few decades it has been increasing by a billion every twelve years approximately, and doubling in less than fifty years! It is hard to imagine how Earth could realistically sustain a population of more than about 10 billion. Even with 8 billion, we seem to be causing irreversible catastrophic damage to the planet. So what kind of 'reset' would Earth's population need to allow for another thousand years of growth under ideal millennial conditions? Even if Isaiah's olive tree analogy uses deliberate hyperbole, it suggests that Earth's population will be reduced at least from billions to millions! A very sobering thought!

5th Seal - Martyrs (v9-11)
The fifth seal reveals the souls of those who have been violently killed because of their commitment to the word of God and the testimony they had given. Their location under the altar reflects God's acceptance of their lives as sacrifices offered to him.

The presence of the altar also implies that the throne room, which is the setting for chapters 4 to 6, is located in God's heavenly temple (see also Revelation 7:15). In Old Testament times, God was understood to be enthroned between the golden cherubim on the lid of the ark, which was normally housed within the holy of holies in the tabernacle, and later in the temple. So it makes sense that in chapter 4, when God is enthroned between the four living creatures, he is in the holy of holies in the heavenly temple. When Moses was instructed to make the tabernacle, he was told to make everything according to the pattern that God showed him on the mountain (Exodus 25:40). In other words, the ark and the tabernacle were modelled upon God's heavenly throne and temple. The heavenly and earthly dimensions of God's throne are reflected in Isaiah 66:1 in which God says, "The heavens are my throne and the earth is my footstool".

In verse 10, the martyrs cry out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?" This is a rare glimpse of the souls of dead believers in their heavenly dwelling. Contrary to what Christians sometimes teach about heaven being outside of time, these departed souls have an awareness of time, and seem to also have some awareness of events taking place on earth. Just because a thousand years are like a day to God (2 Peter 3:8) does not mean that heaven is outside of time (see also Revelation 8:1). Their description as souls represents their present heavenly state. Not until the last trumpet will they be resurrected and receive their resurrection bodies (Daniel 12:13, 1 Thessalonians 4:16).

It is also interesting to note that they retain their natural human desire for justice. Justice will be served through God's judgments at the end of this age, and ultimately at the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). In his parable of the persistent widow, Jesus said, "Won’t God give justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?" (Luke 18:7).

In verse 11, the martyrs are each given a long white robe and told to rest for a little longer until their full number has been reached. The long white robes imply that their sins have been washed away and they have been clothed in Christ's righteousness (Revelation 3:4-5, 7:14, 19:8). The word 'rest' is used in various scriptures to describe the state of believers who have died (e.g. Genesis 47:30, Deuteronomy 31:16, 2 Samuel 7:12, Daniel 12:13). Concerning the full number of martyrs, John has a vision in the next chapter of believers from every nation, tribe, people and language worshipping before the throne and the Lamb. They are dressed in the same long white robes as these martyrs, and are before God's throne in heaven. Consequently, during the Great Tribulation we should expect there to be martyrs from every tribe, language and nation. Daniel was told that the Antichrist will rule for three and a half years, and the end of the age will come 'when the power of the one who shatters the holy people has been exhausted' (Daniel 12:7).

6th Seal - Earthquake and Possible Nuclear Explosion (v12-17)
When Jesus opens the sixth seal there is a huge earthquake. But this is much more than just an earthquake. The sun turns dark, the moon turns blood red (v12), the sky looks like a massive meteor shower (v13) and it seems to split apart and roll up. Mountains and islands are moved from their places (v14). Could this be John's attempt to describe the effects of a nuclear explosion? Such a conclusion might be inferred from verse 15, in which everyone attempts to take cover in caves or underground bunkers, especially the rich and most powerful. If this is a nuclear attack, it is most likely a nuclear attack on Saudi Arabia by Iran (see my commentary on Jeremiah 51:8-11). Isaiah 2:10-21 also describes the same scene that John describes here in verse 15, emphasising three times that people will hide in rocky cliffs and holes in the ground trying to escape the dreadful judgment of the Lord and the splendour of his majesty when he rises up to terrify the earth.

In verses 16 to 17 people express a surprising insight, saying to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, because the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to withstand it?" How is it that they have such insight into what is happening 'backstage' in heaven? I would suggest two possible explanations:

1) When Jerusalem falls (corresponding to the 1st seal and Antichrist's conquest), Jesus sets his feet on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:3-5), provides an escape route for the Jewish refugees, and is then caught back up to heaven (Revelation 12:5). Jesus said that his coming will be visible from east to west like lightening (Matthew 24:27). This will certainly be true of his coming at the seventh trumpet, and later when he fights the Battle of Armageddon. But it may also be true of his brief appearance at the start of the Great Tribulation, and of his ascension back up to heaven shortly afterwards. However, that still would not explain how people are aware of God the Father sitting on his throne. During the seal judgments as revealed here in chapter 6, God's throne remains in his temple in heaven, out of view of those on earth. I believe that at the seventh trumpet, God's throne will descend upon a cloud (as in Daniel 7:13-14) and will be visible to those on Earth just as it was visible to Ezekiel above the River Kebar (Ezekiel 1 and 10). At his trial before his enemies, Jesus referred to the coronation scene of Daniel 7:13-14 and said that they will see him sitting at God's right hand and coming on the clouds. But the sixth seal is surely before that, so how are the unsaved aware of God's throne in heaven at this point in time?

2) The more likely explanation is that by the time this event takes place, the Book of Revelation will have become much more widely known and talked about than it is by most people today. Perhaps Antichrist's rise to power and signing of the peace treaty will generate a worldwide revival of interest in the bible and its end-time prophecies. Joel 2:28-29 describes a worldwide outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church some time before the sun is darkened and the moon is turned red as described here at the sixth seal. So when the six seal events are fulfilled in the manner and order portrayed here, perhaps there will be widespread recognition of their fulfilment. In that case, the insight they express here in verses 16 to 17 comes from their knowledge of the bible, gained through the prophetic teaching of the Spirit-filled Church.

The events of the sixth seal, and the statement in verse 17 that 'the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to withstand it?' point us to 'the great and terrible day of the Lord' as described in Joel 2:31 and in Malachi 4:5.

Joel 2:28-32 says, "28 After all of this I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will have prophetic dreams; your young men will see visions. 29 Even on male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will produce portents both in the sky and on the earth – blood, fire, and columns of smoke. 31 The sunlight will be turned to darkness and the moon to the colour of blood, before the day of the Lord comes – that great and terrible day! 32 It will so happen that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered. For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who survive, just as the Lord has promised; the remnant will be those whom the Lord will call."

When people witness the events associated with the sixth seal, the correct response is for them to call upon his name and seek his salvation. Asking the rocks and mountains to hide them from the Lord is similar to Adam and Eve's response after they had sinned (Genesis 3:8).

In Malachi 4:5, God says, "I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives". Although John the Baptist at least partially fulfilled this promised coming of Elijah, is it possible we should expect another end-time appearance of Elijah? This question appears to be answered in Revelation 11 where we are introduced to the two witnesses, one of whom seems very like Elijah.
Places: Heaven, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt
Symbols: Four horses, Seven seals, White clothes, Hades, Sword of Jesus
Tags: Antichrist as the rider of a white horse, Antichrist as a conqueror, Antichrist as Mahdi of Islam, World War, Second coming appearance, Famines, Plagues, Throne of God, Persecution of Christians, Martyrdom, Time in heaven, Sun and moon darkened, Great earthquake, Possible nuclear attack, Men hide in caves, Holy Spirit outpouring, End-time death toll, Survivors of the Great Tribulation, Population of Earth
The Seven Seals
6 I looked on when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a thunderous voice, “Come!”
2 So I looked, and here came a white horse! The one who rode it had a bow, and he was given a crown, and as a conqueror he rode out to conquer.
3 Then when the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come!”
4 And another horse, fiery red, came out, and the one who rode it was granted permission to take peace from the earth, so that people would butcher one another, and he was given a huge sword.
5 Then when the Lamb opened the third seal I heard the third living creature saying, “Come!” So I looked, and here came a black horse! The one who rode it had a balance scale in his hand.
6 Then I heard something like a voice from among the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat will cost a day’s pay and three quarts of barley will cost a day’s pay. But do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”
7 Then when the Lamb opened the fourth seal I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come!”
8 So I looked and here came a pale green horse! The name of the one who rode it was Death, and Hades followed right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill its population with the sword, famine, and disease, and by the wild animals of the earth.
9 Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given.
10 They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?”
11 Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been.
12 Then I looked when the Lamb opened the sixth seal, and a huge earthquake took place; the sun became as black as sackcloth made of hair, and the full moon became blood red;
13 and the stars in the sky fell to the earth like a fig tree dropping its unripe figs when shaken by a fierce wind.
14 The sky was split apart like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place.
15 Then the kings of the earth, the very important people, the generals, the rich, the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.
16 They said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb,
17 because the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to withstand it?”