October 1: Revelation 8:1-5

Revelation 8:1-5

These five verses describe the opening of the seventh, and final, seal upon the scroll. As such, it mark the final portion of the eschatology represented by the seven seals. Though somewhat obscured by the amount of material remaining in the book, we must keep this idea of finality and completion in mind. It may be said that the seventh seal provides the context and setting for all that follows, from 8:6 to the end of chapter 20, including two more seven-part vision-cycles. This naturally means that the opening of the seventh seal is a matter of great importance, requiring a solemn and ceremonial treatment. There are three elements of the section which need to be studied:

    1. The silence in heaven when the seal is opened
    2. The introduction of the seven trumpets, and
    3. The motif of the golden censer and smoking incense

Each of these will be examined in turn.

Rev 8:1—Silence in Heaven

“And when he opened up the seventh seal, there came to be silence [sigh/] in heaven as (of) [i.e. for] a half-hour.”

The silence accompanying the opening of the final seal marks the awesomeness of the moment. The word sigh/ (“silence”) is rare in the New Testament (elsewhere only in Acts 21:4), though the related verb siga/w is a bit more frequent. Silence is an appropriate response for created beings in the presence of God (Deut 27:9; Job 4:16; Hab 2:20; Zech 2:13), or in expectation of His manifestation (Psalm 62:1; Isa 41:1). The eschatological context of Zeph 1:7 is perhaps close to the idea here in v. 1:

“Be silent from the face of [i.e. before] the Lord YHWH, for the day of YHWH is near…”

There may also be an allusion to the motif of silence at the beginning of creation (i.e. before God speaks), which can also be applied in terms of a new creation which follows the end of the current Age (cf. 2 Baruch 3:7; 2/4 Esdras 6:39; 7:30). A “half hour” here indicates a very short period of time.

Rev 8:2—Introduction of the Seven Trumpets

“And I saw the seven Messengers th(at) have stood in the sight of God, and seven trumpets were given to them.”

Previously in the book, these seven beings were called “Spirits” (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), but it was clear that they were to be understood as heavenly beings or Angels (rather that God’s Spirit as such), and this is made explicit here. The seven trumpets given to these Messengers serve as the framework for the next vision-cycle, unfolding out of the first. The trumpet was used for ceremonial and military occasions, and both of these aspects are relevant here: (1) announcing the appearance of God, and (2) the Judgment expressed in traditional military terms. There is a long tradition related to the trumpet-image in the Old Testament (Exod 19:13-19; 20:18; Lev 23:24; Num 10:8-10; Josh 6:4ff; Psalm 47:5, etc); but it is in the Prophets where it begins to take on an (eschatological) association with the day of Judgment—cf. Isa 18:3; 27:13; Jer 4:5ff; 6:1ff; 51:27; Hos 8:1; Joel 2:1ff; Zech 9:14. Again, it is Zephaniah (1:14-18) which perhaps provides the closest parallel to the context of Rev 8-11 (cf. above on v. 1 and Zeph 1:7). The eschatological significance of the trumpet-sounding is clear from other passages in the New Testament (Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16).

Rev 8:3-5—The Golden Censer and Smoking Incense

“And another Messenger came and stood upon the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] holding a golden vessel for (burning) incense, and much fragrant powder was given to him (so) that he will give it, (along) with all the holy ones’ speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers], upon the golden place of slaughter [i.e. altar] in the sight of the ruling-seat.” (v. 3)

I have translated the noun qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, though it can be used in the more general sense of an “altar” even when no animal sacrifice takes place (such as the altar for burning incense). Clearly, in this heavenly vision, the altar does not involve animal sacrifice, but is limited to the burning of incense which symbolizes prayer (also in 5:8). Only in the reference to the blood of the Lamb, and the blood of the believers put to death for their faith (6:9-11), is there an allusion to animal sacrifice. However, retaining the fundamental meaning of the word (qusiasth/rion) here is, I think, important, as it may allude to the ‘slaughter’ which accompanies the Judgment (cf. Isa 30:25; Jer 7:32; Joel 3:1-2ff, etc). The association of prayer with incense is traditional (Psalm 141:1-2; cf. Luke 1:9-11), and reflects the idea of a purified form of religion (Isa 1:13; Mal 1:11). In the Temple-action by Jesus, as recorded in the Synoptic tradition, the citation of Isa 56:7 (Mark 11:17 par) would seem to give priority to prayer over and against animal sacrifice, suggesting a new role and purpose for the Temple (in this regard, cf. Luke 18:10; 24:53; Acts 3:1; 22:17).

It is interesting to see how the imagery progresses. First we have the incense itself, which is burned upon the altar. Then is emphasized the smoke from the offering:

“And the smoke [kapno/$] of the fragrant powder stepped [i.e. went] up, (along) with the holy ones’ speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers], out of the hand of the Messenger in the sight of God.” (v. 4)

Smoke is an ambivalent image—it can indicate the warmth and protection of fire (here also the soothing fragrance of the burning incense), but also the destructive effects of fire (war, natural disaster, etc). Thus the rising of the smoke serves as an effective transition to the motif of the fire of Judgment, which is the third step in the progression:

“And the Messenger took the vessel for (burning) incense and filled it out of the fire of the place of slaughter [i.e. altar], and (then) threw it into/unto the earth—and there came to be thunderings and voices and flashings and shaking.” (v. 5)

In this regard, just as the seven trumpets serve as the basis for the second vision-cycle (chaps. 8-11), the golden censer filled with fire prefigures the third vision-cycle (in chapter 16). It is useful here to keep in mind the structure of the seven seal vision-cycle. The visions from the first six seals involve: (a) warfare among the nations, (b) persecution/death of believers, and (c) disruption of the cosmic/natural order—all of which is preliminary to the day of Judgment itself. With the terrifying natural phenomena which strike when the sixth seal is opened, humankind is aware that God is present and about to bring Judgment. Now, with the opening of the seventh, final seal, the Judgment begins. This, I think, helps us to understand the framework of chapters 8-20—various ways of describing the nature and character of the coming Judgment. We will begin exploring this as we proceed through the remainder of the book, starting with the trumpet vision-cycle; the first four visions (8:6-13) will be examined in the next daily note.

September 28: Revelation 6:12-17

Revelation 6:9-17 (continued)

Rev 6:12-17

The vision coming from the sixth seal moves us closer to the actual appearance of God’s end-time Judgment. As I noted previously, there is a similar sequence in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, which continues here:

On the last item, the parallel can be extended to include:

    • Similar allusions to the Old Testament Prophets (cf. below)
    • An illustration involving the fig-tree (v. 13, cp. Mark 13:28f)

The signs of severe disruption in nature, here in the vision, begin:

“…and there came to be a great shaking [i.e. earthquake], and the sun came to be black as a cloth of hair (for mourning), and the whole moon came to be as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell unto the earth, (even) as the fig-tree casts (down) her unripe (fig)s (when) being shaken under a great wind…” (vv. 12-13)

The language and imagery is similar to certain passages from the Prophets—cf. Joel 2:10, 31; Isa 13:10; 24:18b ff; 34:4; 50:3. It has ancient roots in the language used to express the idea of nature being affected by the appearance / manifestation of the Deity (theophany, esp. the storm-theophany motif). The earth is said to shake and tremble at God’s approach, affecting all areas of nature (Judg 5:4-5; Nah 1:5-6; Hab 3:5-6ff, etc); this became part of the imagery associated with the “day of YHWH”, a time of Judgment to come against the wicked nations, etc (Isa 13:13; Jer 51:29; Ezek 38:19-23). The darkening of sun and moon was a common motif in this regard (Joel 2:31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Isa 13:10; 24:13; Ezek 32:7-8). This came to be traditional eschatological language, referring to the end-time Judgment, in Jewish apocalyptic literature (Testament of Moses 10:4-6; Sibylline Oracles 5:512ff, etc), and Jesus utilizes it in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:24-25 par). Such natural phenomena were, of course, depicted and interpreted as signs of divine wrath, etc, in many cultures (see, e.g., Ovid Metamorphoses 15.785; Lucan Pharsalia 1.536ff; Koester, p. 402).

The destructive signs in nature continue:

“…and the heaven made space away [i.e. separated] as a paper-roll [i.e. scroll] being coiled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of their places.” (v. 14)

The motif of the heaven/sky “rolling up” like a scroll is found in Isa 34:4, being repeated a number of times in apocalyptic writings (Sibylline Oracles 3:83; 8:233, etc). This could mean that the sky is no longer visible, though the verb a)poxwri/zw literally indicates a separation—i.e. the sky/heaven becoming detached out of its place—which is in keeping with the idea that the mountains and islands are “moved out of their places”. Clearly, this reflects an extraordinary disruption of the natural order. The point of it all is as a sign that the end-time Judgment by God is beginning:

“And the kings of the earth and the greatest (one)s and the (leader)s of a thousand [i.e. military commanders], and the rich (one)s and the strong (one)s, and every slave and free (person alike), hid themselves into the caves and into the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and the rocks: ‘Fall upon us, and hide us from the face of the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and from the anger of the Lamb!…'” (vv. 15-16)

The call of frightened humanity for the hills and rocks to bury them is an echo of Hos 10:8, and is also used by Jesus (in an eschatological context) in Luke 23:30. Death within the very rocks were they are hiding would be preferable to facing God Himself. That this involves the manifestation and appearance of God is clear from the phrase “hide us from the face [pro/swpon] of the One sitting upon the throne”. At once the people on earth recognize the presence of God, and that he is the true Ruler of all. This, of course, relates most definitely to the vision of chapters 4-5, and demonstrates an example of how this central theme is developed and applied in the remainder of the book. While all of humanity is affected (“slave and free”), it is the rich and powerful who face the brunt of the Judgment—their positions of earthly/worldly power are reduced to nothing. This is all the more appropriate, since it is the powerful ones who played leading roles in both the destructive period of warfare (vv. 1-8) and the persecution of believers (vv. 9-11). Readers of the book would immediately have recognized that the Roman imperial government, and the rich and influential in society who chiefly benefited from it, were primarily in view.

Verse 17, in the context of the vision, continues the declaration of humankind, yet it actually functions as an objective statement (by the author/seer), announcing

“that the great day of His anger came [i.e. has come], and who is able to stand?”

A fundamental tenet of early Christian belief was that trust in Jesus, following him faithfully, would enable believers to “stand” in the Judgment. Paul alludes to this a number of times—cf. Rom 5:2; 14:4, 10; 1 Cor 10:12; 15:1, etc. Ephesians 6:11-14 seems to extend this idea, naturally enough, to the faithful endurance of believers, during the time(s) of testing as the end approaches (cf. Mark 13:13 par, etc). Only through faith in Christ can human beings be saved from the coming Judgment; otherwise, as the Scriptures indicate in many places, it is impossible to stand before the presence of God (1 Sam 6:20; Psalm 76:7; Job 41:10; Nah 1:6; Jer 49:19; 1 Chron 5:14; Ezra 9:15); the declaration here in v. 17 is perhaps closest in tone to Malachi 3:2.

It is also interesting to note that, here again, Jesus Christ (the Lamb) has been included alongside of God (cf. the discussion on chapters 4-5), being embedded within the declaration:

    • “the face of the One sitting upon the throne”
      —”the anger of the Lamb”
    • “the great day of His anger”

Early Christian tradition held firmly to the idea that Jesus, as God’s representative (His Anointed One), would judge the earth, when he appeared/returned at the end-time. This is indicated by Jesus himself through the identification with the heavenly/divine Son of Man figure (Dan 7:13-14, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) in Mark 13:26; 14:62 pars. At best, this is only alluded to here in Rev 6:17; it will be expressed more directly later on in the book.

This brings up the observation that, based on a comparison with the sequence of events in Jesus’ “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. above), we would expect, at this point in the book of Revelation, a description of Jesus’ return (Mk 13:26-27 par). After all, when nature itself is falling apart, and humankind realizes that God’s Judgment has come, what is left to narrate? Indeed, the first readers/hearers of the book would doubtless have been expecting this as well; and yet much more is recorded before that moment is reached, building considerable suspense. This is a powerful dramatic (and literary) device, but it also reflects the inspired artistry of the visions of the book. The three great vision-cycles do not simply narrate a straightforward linear sequence of events, but function in parallel, with overlapping elements and details. This will be discussed as we proceed through the remaining chapters.

September 27: Revelation 6:9-11

Revelation 6:9-17

The visions from the first four seals (cf. the previous note)—the horses and their riders—deal with the theme of warfare among the peoples on earth, along with the suffering and death that results from it. The fourth rider was actually identified as “Death”, bringing people down to the grave (the “unseen realm” [a%|dh$] of the dead). Death from the sword (i.e. war) was widened to include death from hunger, disease, and attacks by wild animals (verse 8). Now in the vision from the fifth seal, the death-motif is extended to include believers in Christ who are put to death for their faith.

Rev 6:9-11

“And when he opened up the fifth seal, I saw down below the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] the souls having been [i.e. that had been] slaughtered through [i.e. because of] the account of God and the witness which they held.” (v. 9)

Here the slaughter from the nations at war is replaced by the slaughter of believers in Christ—specifically, those put to death as a result of proclaiming the Gospel (“the account/word [lo/go$] of God”), and acting as witnesses of Christ. This represents one of the earliest instances of the word martu/$ (“witness”, here the related noun marturi/a) in the technical Christian sense of one who is put to death for his/her faith in Jesus (the word[s] being transliterated in English as “martyr”, “martyrdom”, etc). It is described in terms of ritual slaughter—i.e., a sacrificial offering, just as Jesus’ own death was understood as a sacrifice (Passover, sin/guilt offering, or the sacrifice establishing the [new] Covenant). The altar-image seems to draw upon aspects of both altars in the Tabernacle/Temple design—(a) the altar of burnt offering in the sanctuary courtyard, and (b) the altar of incense in the shrine. The allusions for these two aspects are:

    • The position of the souls down at the bottom of the altar (v. 9)—In the ancient sacrificial ritual, blood from the slaughtered animal was poured/thrown down at the base of the altar (Lev 4:7, etc). The souls of the believers put to death are closely connected to this image of blood—since blood was typically understood as representing the life-essence of the person (much like the soul). Moreover “blood” can be synonymous with “death”, regardless of the extent to which a person’s death involved actual bloodshed; violent and/or wicked action leading to death of the innocent could be described simply as “bloodshed”.
    • The cry (i.e. prayer) of these souls (v. 10)—The connection between prayer and incense was traditional, and was established earlier here in 5:8.

The position of the souls (“down below the altar”) may also express the idea of taking refuge (with God) in the holy place. A temple sanctuary often served as a place of refuge or asylum—near the altar, in particular (1 Kings 1:50). For a similar image of souls (of the righteous) waiting in the heavenly sanctuary, cf. 2 Baruch 30:1-2; 2/4 Esdras 4:35; 7:32 (Koester, p. 399).

The cry of “how long…?” (Grk e%w$ po/te, “until when…?”) in verse 10 reflects passages in the Old Testament such as the Psalmist’s lament in Ps 6:3; 13:1; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5ff (cf. also Zech 1:12, etc). It expresses two underlying thoughts: (1) the idea that justice has been denied or was not established during one’s life on earth, and (2) a desire to experience God’s deliverance in time of trouble. Here the emphasis is decidedly eschatological—i.e., waiting for justice to be done (by God) at the end-time Judgment:

“And they cried (out) with a loud voice, saying: ‘Until when, O master, the (One) holy and true, do you not judge and work out justice (for) our blood out of [i.e. from] the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth?'” (v. 10)

The verb e)kdike/w is sometimes translated “avenge”, but it is better here to maintain its fundamental meaning “work out justice” (i.e. on behalf of someone). Justice was not “worked out” for these believers during their time on earth, when they were put to death unjustly; it waits to be established at the end-time Judgment. A basic premise of justice in such instances (murder, bloodshed, etc) is a requital for the death (“blood”) of the innocent. This idea is most ancient, expressed famously in Gen 9:5-6, but was given a new formulation by Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Matt 23:29-35 / Lk 11:47-51)—the blood of the prophets put to death (by Israel) serves as a pattern for the execution of Jesus and his followers (cf. Matt 5:12; 11:12-14 par; Mark 9:12-13 par), and will bring judgment upon the people and the city of Jerusalem (Matt 23:36-39; Lk 13:33-35).

This introduces another interesting parallel between Revelation 6 and the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. In both passages, a period of war among the nations/peoples (Rev 6:1-8; Mk 13:7-8 par) is followed by a reference to the persecution (and death) of believers (Rev 6:9ff; Mk 13:9-13 par). Also in both instances, the reference ends with a call for patient endurance (Rev 6:11; Mk 13:13 par). Here in verse 11, it is a response to the heartfelt cry of believers, longing to see justice done by God:

“And white dress was given to each of them, and it was uttered to them that they will rest up (for) a little time yet, until their (fellow) slaves with (them) and their brothers should also be fulfilled—the (one)s about to be killed off, even as they (were).”

On the significance of white garments, cf. the notes on 3:4-5, 18; 4:4, and further in 7:13-14. It is declared that justice will not be done—that is, the end-time Judgment will not come—until a “little time” (xro/no$ mikro/$) has passed. Based on 11:2-3; 12:6ff; 13:5, it is possible that this is equivalent to the (symbolic) period of 3½ years. In any case, based on the imminent eschatology clearly expressed in the book up to this point (cf. 1:1, 3, 8, 19; 2:16; 3:3, 10-11, 20), this declaration indicates that the end-time Judgment will take place very soon (though not immediately). This is confirmed by the announcement that the other believers, who will join them as martyrs for Christ, are “about [me/llonte$] to be killed”. This time, however short, or whatever the precise length, will be fulfilled when these other believers are put to death, completing their life-mission. On similar (and roughly contemporary) language, see, e.g., 1 Enoch 47:4; 2 Baruch 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 2:41; 4:35-37 (Koester, p. 400).

Clearly, the book of Revelation expresses the idea that the persecution (and execution) of believers is about to intensify and increase. While individual instances are mentioned, or alluded to, elsewhere in the New Testament, there is no real indication in the first century A.D. of widespread persecution. The opposition and attacks of early believers by Jews was most intense in the earliest years, but it was still experienced by Christians in Asia Minor toward the end of the century (as attested in 2:9-10 and 3:9). In terms of action against believers by Roman imperial authorities, this appears to have been sporadic and relatively infrequent. There were, of course, the famous (though very brief) state-sponsored executions under Nero’s reign (c. 64), which almost certainly influenced the imagery in the book of Revelation. However, the extent of persecution in the reign of Domitian (81-96), the period often thought to provide the setting of the book, does not appear to have been nearly so widespread as was often thought. Indeed, the evidence from the letters to the churches here in chaps. 2-3, suggests that executions were relatively infrequent in Asia Minor at the time of writing; imprisonment during interrogation would have been much more common. In the subsequent centuries (mid-2nd through the early 4th) there would be more intense periods of state-sponsored persecution, conducted on a wider scale.

September 26: Revelation 6:1-8

With chapter 6 the great 7-part vision cycles, which form the core of the remainder of the book, begin—the next cycle unfolding out of the seventh vision of the one prior. This triadic (3 x 7) visionary (and literary) structure, is tied back to the seven seals on the scroll at the right-hand of God’s throne (cf. the previous notes on the throne-vision of chaps. 4-5). From a rhetorical, epistolary standpoint, I had mentioned earlier that chapters 4-5 could be regarded as the propositio—the central proposition which is argued or expounded in the body of the letter. The proposition, if you will, might be stated as follows: even though Rome may seem to rule on earth at the present, in its socio-political and economic power, accompanied by corruption and wickedness, it is God and Jesus Christ (the Lamb) who truly rule over the peoples and nations. This “proposition” is implied in the words written on the scroll; the breaking of the seals, making these words known, is the exposition (probatio)—the “proof” of the proposition lies in the fact that the coming events, establishing God’s ultimate rule over humankind, have already been “written” and are destined to take place.

Revelation 6:1-8

Verse 1 shows the connection with the previous vision:

“And I saw (that) when the Lamb opened up one out of the seven seals…”

Interestingly, the visions which follow in chapter 6 do not necessarily correspond with anything written on the scroll as such; rather, they are preliminary, being revealed when each of the seals is broken (“opened up”). Only after the seven seals have been broken, can the scroll, properly speaking, be read. The opening of each seal is accompanied by the voice of one of the four Living Beings around the throne. The voice has the heavenly/divine characteristic of sounding like thunder (bronth/); recall that in Hebrew the common word for thunder (loq) literally means “voice” (i.e. thunder as the ‘voice’ of God, drawing upon ancient storm-theophany). Each Living Being announces “(you must) come! [e&rxou]”, creating a most effective visionary dynamic.

The first four seals (and visions) involve horses (and horsemen)—”see, a horse…and the (one) sitting upon it”—resulting in the traditional designation of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, immortalized in artwork such as Dürer’s famous woodcut:

The first horse is white (leuko/$), and this has caused some confusion among readers and commentators. Because Jesus is depicted as the rider on a white horse in Rev 19:11ff, it is often assumed that he is rider here as well. But that is most unlikely, given the character of these four horses/horsemen when taken together as a group. It is true that white is typically the color associated with the divine/heavenly realm, representing holiness and purity, in particular (cf. the earlier use in 1:14; 2:17; 3:4-5, 18; 4:4). However, it can also symbolize victory (i.e., in warfare other contests), and, indeed, it carries this association in chapters 2-3. Moreover, a victorious military leader was frequently depicted (or presented) on a white horse—cf. Herodotus Histories 7.40; 9.63; Virgil Aeneid 3.537, etc; Koester, p. 393. Thus it is probably best to view this horse and rider as symbolizing military conquest, as emphasized by the double use of the verb nika/w in v. 2—”…and he went out being victorious, (so) that he might be victorious”. It is also suggestive of an overwhelming military strength, or as referring to one destined to conquer. The use of the bow (i.e. by mounted archers) does not appear to have been commonly employed by Roman forces at this time, being more typical of people outside the empire, or on its borders, such as the Parthians and Sarmatians. This likely is intended as a contrast to Roman Imperial control and security (cf. the beginning of the next note), but may also indicate the swiftness of the attack which could be carried out by mounted archers and cavalry units.

I believe that all four of the horses/horsemen primarily relate to the image of warfare; it is worth looking at them in summary:

    • White (leuko/$, v. 2)—military conquest, indicated by both the color, as well as the weapon (bow, to/con) and wreath (ste/fano$) in honor of victory
    • Red (purro/$, v. 4)—violence and death (red connoting blood, etc) as the result of military action (sword); a period of intense warfare is indicated:
      “…and it was given to him to take peace out of the earth, even (so) that they will slaughter each other, and (indeed) a great sword was given to him”
    • Black (me/la$, vv. 5-6)—which I take as symbolizing the darkness which follows in the wake of war, as when the sun turns dark (v. 12, etc) being obscured by smoke, and so forth. Here it seems to be defined in terms of socio-economic distress and oppression, i.e. the disruption of the balance of social order, indicated by the scale-beam (zugo/$) the rider holds in his hand. Verse 6 describes this two ways:
      (a) food shortage, growing in severity—”a choinix of wheat-grain for a denarius, and three choinixes of barley for a denarius”
      (b) the increasingly precious nature of olive oil and wine—”do not take away justice (from) [i.e. injure/mistreat] the olive (oil) and the wine”
      Koester (p. 397) gives the plausible explanation that these references express the burden placed on the populace as the result of constant warfare. The need to provide food for armies, in addition to the effects of war itself (siege/destruction of cities and villages), would result in shortages of food. Funding the military might also require increased production of oil and wine to meet the costs, making these commodities even more precious.
    • Green (xlwro/$, v. 8)—the rider is identified specifically by the name “Death” ([o(] qa/nato$), which, of course, is the most terrifying and traumatic result of war. The association with the color green is not entirely clear; it could be related to death and the dead in ancient tradition, but here more likely it refers to the fear (pale greenish look of the face, etc) with which people respond to death’s approach (cf. Homer, Iliad 7.479; Hippocrates Prognostikon 2, etc; Koester, p. 397). Death is followed by the “unseen realm” (a%|dh$, ‘Hades’) of the Dead, just as death (from warfare, etc) sends countless dead to the grave. In v. 8b, the scope widens from the effects of warfare (“the warfare”) to death from other factors—hunger and disease, and being killed by wild beasts (“under the beasts of the earth”), which could also occur with greater frequency as the result of war. One might also view warring parties symbolically as “beasts of the earth”.

In the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel Tradition, a period of intense warfare is also predicted (Mark 13:7-8 par), at the beginning of the distress and suffering which precedes the coming Judgment—”these are the beginning of (the birth-)pains”. Jesus likewise describes this in terms of constant war involving many different nations and ethnic groups, etc. The visions of the first four seals here in the book of Revelation seem to expand upon this idea, intensifying it further, so that death would come to a fourth of the earth’s territory and population (v. 8b). While this is almost certainly a symbolic number (related to the four Living Beings, seals, and horses/horsemen), it is most striking as an indication of the sheer number of people who would suffer death during this period.

The warfare (and its effects) described in these visions is probably meant as a contrast to the peace and security which was thought to be the beneficial product of Roman Imperial rule. The ideal of Pax Romana, immortalized by the many Imperial shrines (most notably the Ara Pacis Augustae [“Altar of the Augustan Peace”] in Rome), is shattered, even as the rider on the second horse is given the authority to “take peace out of the earth”. The bow held by the rider on the first horse might also allude to warfare/attacks by non-Roman peoples on the surrounding border territories (e.g., the Parthians), which also would threaten the security of the Empire. Ultimately, true peace can be established only through the appearance of Jesus Christ on earth, as the book of Revelation will described in its later chapters.

The visions related to the fifth and sixth seals (vv. 9-17) will be discussed in the next daily note.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).