SYNOPSIS: Upon his arrival before the Throne, the Lamb commences immediately to open the Seven Seals of the Sealed Scroll.
The malevolent forces unleashed by the opening of the Seven Seals are linked often by Bible commentators to the horrific calamities expected to occur shortly before the return of Jesus in glory at the end of the age. This is especially so with the first four seal openings, the so-called “four horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
In this popular reading, the seal openings become divine punishments and plagues inflicted on the unrepentant final generation of mankind. The patience of God exhausted, He sends harbingers of the eternal punishment awaiting the rebellious inhabitants of the earth prior to the arrival of the actual thing, perhaps to torment the impenitent during their final days.
Is this the picture presented in the book of Revelation? The key issues include the timing of the seal openings – When do they occur – And the identity of the one who opens the seals. What is his purpose in doing so? And do the results from the seal openings portray past, present, or future realities?
(Revelation 5:1-5) – “And I saw upon the right hand of him that was sitting upon the throne a scroll; written within and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a mighty messenger, proclaiming with a loud voice—Who is worthy to open the scroll and to unloose the seals thereof? And no one was able in heaven or on earth or under the earth to open the scroll, or to look thereon. And I began to weep much, because no one worthy was found to open the scroll, or to look thereon. And one of the elders saith unto me—Do not weep! Lo! the lion that is of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, hath overcome, to open the scroll and the seven seals thereof.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
(Revelation 6:1-2) – “And I saw, when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying, as with a voice of thunder—Go! And I saw and lo! a white horse,—and he that was sitting thereon holding a bow; and there was given unto him a crown, and he went forth conquering, and that he might conquer.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
John saw an opened door in the heavens and heard a voice issue the command – “Come up here.” Then, having “came to be in the spirit,” he saw a Throne at the center of the Cosmos on which sat a glorious figure. The Throne was surrounded by twenty-four smaller thrones on which sat twenty-four elders, and around the Throne were four living creatures full of eyes, before and behind (Revelation 4:1-11).
Next, John saw in the right hand of the One on the Throne a “scroll, written within and behind, sealed with seven seals.” An angel asked – Who is “worthy” to open the Sealed Scroll and its seals? John looked but no one in heaven, on or under the earth was found who was worthy to do so (Revelation 5:1-4).
John wept profusely until one of the twenty-four elders ordered him to desist. Then he heard the voice declare – “Behold, the lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, conquered to open the scroll and its seven seals.” In response, he looked, however, what he saw was “a lamb standing, having been slain.”
Jesus is the messianic “Lion of the tribe of Judah,” but he fulfills that role as the “slain lamb.” Beginning with the seal openings, it is the “Lamb” who acts, not the “Lion.” He is called “lion” only once in the entire book of Revelation but “lamb” twenty-eight times. The Seven Seals are broken open by the “slain Lamb,” not by a vengeful God, a roaring “lion,” let alone by Satan.
Immediately, the lamb approached the Throne and took the Sealed Scroll. As he did so, a myriad of voices from throughout the Creation declared him “worthy” to take and open the Sealed Scroll, “Because he was slain and by his death purchased to God men out of all tribes and tongues and peoples and nations.” His redemptive act achieved via his death, more than qualified him to take possession of the Scroll and begin his reign over the Cosmos (Revelation 5:5-14).
Upon receipt of the Sealed Scroll, the Lamb began to open its Seven Seals, starting with the first four as a group distinct from the final three seals. There was no hint of any delay or passage of time between his enthronement and the commencement of the seal openings (Revelation 6:1-8).
It must be remembered it is the Lamb who opens each of the Seven Seals (“I saw when the Lamb opened one from among the seven seals”). The opening of each of the first four seals releases a “rider” who executes his assigned task when commanded by one of the four “living creatures,” but only when the Lamb breaks opens each seal. Collectively, the first four seal openings afflict the “fourth of the earth – to slay with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
The opening of the fifth seal reveals martyred souls underneath the “altar” where they must remain until the full number of their fellow martyrs has been gathered. The sixth seal causes a great earthquake followed by celestial and terrestrial upheaval and the arrival of the Day of the Lord.
The seventh seal produces “silence” in heaven while the prayers of the saints ascend as “incense” upon the altar before the “Throne.” The series of the Seven Seals concludes with “claps of thunder, voices, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake,” the same phenomenon seen previously before the Throne (Revelation 4:1-6, 8:1-5).
The first four seal openings unleash troublesome times on the earth. As the Lamb “opens” each seal, a voice summons each “rider” to “be going.” In each case, the Greek verb rendered “opened” is in the aorist tense – A past action. And, in each instance, the tense of the Greek verb rendered “go” is a progressive present tense, that is, an action in progress. The rider is in the process of “going” forth at the command of the Lamb. The language suggests historical processes, not single events at specific points in History.
The unleashing of the fourth “rider” is followed by a summary statement applicable to all four – “Authority was given to them over the fourth of the earth to kill with sword and with famine and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” Their “authority” is given by the Lamb, but their actions impact only a fourth of the earth, within the limits set by the Lamb. He remains in firm control over the whole process.
Likewise, the fifth seal is opened by the Lamb. No time-lapse is indicated between the first four seals and the fifth one. The sequence is literary, not chronological. The martyred souls under the altar ask – “How long…are you not judging and avenging our blood from the inhabitants of the earth?” The martyrs are told to rest a “little while” until the full complement of those “who are going to be killed even as they” were assembled. This also suggests a historical process, however long or short (Revelation 6:9-11).
The opening of the sixth seal produces terrestrial and cosmic chaos. Heaven is parted and the geography of the earth is altered, and radically. Men of every rank seek refuge in caves and under rocks from “the face of the one sitting upon the throne and from the wrath of the lamb.” It is “the great day of their wrath, the day of the Lord,” which is indicated by verbal allusions to a prophecy about the “Day of the Lord” from the book of Joel. The sixth seal signifies the arrival of the final judgment and the reconfiguration of the created order in anticipation of the promised New Creation (Joel 2:28-32, Revelation 6:12-17).
Before the seventh seal is opened, the series of seal openings is interrupted when the servants of God are “sealed.” This occurs before the “four winds of the earth” can be released upon the earth. The “sealing” enables His servants to endure whatever the “four winds” represent and, subsequently, “to stand” before the Lamb and the Throne. Next, John “heard” the number of the sealed servants, one hundred and forty-four thousand men from the twelve tribes of Israel. However, when he looked, he “saw” an innumerable multitude of men and women from every nation coming out of the “great tribulation” to stand before the Lamb and the Throne (Revelation 7:1-17).
The seventh seal is not opened until Chapter 8. When opened by the Lamb, it results in “silence in heaven for about half an hour.” During the silence, the prayers of the saints ascend like “incense” from the golden altar before the Throne. The seventh seal also serves to transition the narrative to the next literary section, the series of seven trumpets (Revelation 8:1-6).
The “interruption” between the sixth and seventh seals is a literary pattern used several times in the book of Revelation, as is the subdividing of the Seven Seals into smaller groups of four, two, and one. Likewise, the series of Seven Trumpets is “interrupted” between the sixth and seventh trumpet by the visions of the “Little Scroll,” the “Measuring of the Sanctuary, and the “Two Witnesses.”
The first four trumpets form a group distinct from the final three, which is labeled the “three woes.” The first two “woes” unleash “plagues” on the “inhabitants of the earth,” the last “woe” or sounding of the seventh trumpet produces the final judgment and the victory of the Kingdom of God. Like the Seven Seals, the series of Seven Trumpets culminate in the Day of the Lord at the end of the age (Revelation 11:15-19).
Thus, whatever the opening of the Seven Seals represents, the seven seal openings cover the entire period between the enthronement of the Lamb and the Day of the Lord at the end of the age.