Upon his arrival before the Throne, immediately the Lamb began to open the seven seals of the sealed scroll.
Often the forces unleashed by the “seven seals” are linked to the horrific calamities many expect to occur before the return of Jesus, and especially so with the first four seal openings, popularly described as the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Supposedly, with His patience exhausted, God plagues rebellious humanity in a last-ditch effort to bring men to repentance.
Before we can hope to understand the seal openings, certain questions must be addressed. When are the “seven seals” opened? Who opens them and why? Are the images “literal,” and do they portray past, present, or future realities?
- (Revelation 6:1-2) – “When the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, I heard one of the four living creatures saying, as with a voice of thunder: Go! And I saw a white horse, and he that was sitting thereon holding a bow; and there was given to him a crown, and he went forth conquering, and that he might conquer.”
It was the “slain Lamb” who was declared “worthy” to open the scroll, and immediately, he proceeded to do so. He was “worthy” because he gave his life to redeem men from every nation for the kingdom of God.
Thus, beginning with the first seal opening, it was the “Lamb” who acted by breaking open each seal. In the narrative, there is no hint of any delay or passage of time between the enthronement of the “Lamb” and the commencement of the seal openings.
The first four seals form a distinct group characterized by horses and riders. The first four seal openings released “riders” on colored horses that executed their assigned tasks on command, but only after the Lamb opened each seal. Collectively, they afflicted the “fourth of the earth, with sword, and with famine, and with death, and with the wild beasts of the earth.”
As Jesus “opened” each of the first four seals, a voice summons its “rider” to “be going.” In each case, the Greek verb rendered “opened” is in the aorist tense, representing a past action, but the tense of the verb rendered “go” is a progressive present, that is, an action in progress. The language suggests historical processes put into motion by the past action of the “Lamb.”
The unleashing of the fourth “rider” is followed by a summary statement applicable to all four “riders”:
- “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.”
The “authority” for the riders to act was given by the “Lamb.” Their actions impacted only the fourth part of the earth, within the limits set by Jesus; and thus, he remains in firm control over the whole process.
The “fifth seal” revealed martyred souls underneath the “altar” where they were to remain until the full number of their fellow martyrs had been gathered. No time-lapse is indicated by the text between the first four and the fifth seals. Their sequence is literary, not chronological.
The “sixth seal” caused a great earthquake and celestial upheaval as the “Day of the Lord” arrived, the time of the “wrath of the Lamb and He Who sits on the Throne.” Thus, the “sixth seal” signified the arrival of the final judgment and the reconfiguration of the created order, presumably, in preparation for the New Creation – (Joel 2:28-32, Revelation 6:12-17).
Before the “seventh seal” was opened, the series of seal openings was interrupted for the “sealing of the servants of God,” which occurred before the “four winds of the earth” could be released on the earth. The “sealing” enabled His servants to endure whatever the “four winds” represented, and thus, “to stand” before the “Lamb and the Throne.”
In context, the “four winds of the earth” refer to the first “four seals” and their “riders.” The placement of the sealing of the servants between the sixth and seventh seals should caution us against assuming that the “seven seals” are presented in neat chronological order – (Revelation 7:1-17).
The “interruption” between the sixth and seventh seals is a literary pattern used several times in Revelation. Likewise, the “seven trumpets” were “interrupted” between the sixth and seventh trumpets by several visions. Like the first “four seals,” the first four trumpets were distinguished from the final three, which were labeled the “three woes.” And like the “seven seals,” the “seven trumpets” culminated in the “Day of the Lord” and a judgment scene at the end of the age – (Revelation 11:15-19).
The opening of the “seventh seal” produced “silence” in heaven while the prayers of the saints ascended as “incense” upon the altar before the “throne.” The “seventh seal” also transitioned the narrative to the next literary section, the series of “seven trumpets” – (Revelation 8:1-6).
The “seven seals” concluded with “claps of thunder, voices, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake,” the same phenomenon seen and heard previously before the “throne” – (Revelation 4:1-6, 8:1-5).
Thus, whatever the opening of the “seven seals” represents, the sevenfold series covers the entire period between the enthronement of the “Lamb” and the “Day of the Lord.”