12 And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake and the sun became black as sackcloth, and the whole moon became as blood. 13 And the stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree throws off its ripe figs when it is shaken by a great wind, 14 and the sky was split open as a scroll being rolled up and every mountain and island they were moved from their place. 15 And the kings of the earth, and the people of high status, and the high-ranking officers, and the wealthy, and the strong, and every slave and free man, they hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains. 16 And they say to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall upon us and hide us from the face of the One sitting upon the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath came, and who is able to stand?”
We’ve seen the four riders go out to conquer, remove peace and instigate war, create poverty, and spread pestilence. While this is going on, the martyred saints look out from the heavenly throne room upon their persecuted and suffering brethren and cry out, “How much longer?” The sixth seal is, I believe, the answer to that prayer. This is it. The Day of the Lord. The Final Day. “The Apocalypse,” according to our cultural understanding of the term. There are earthquakes, there is chaos in the skies, disruption of land masses, and general calamity. Could this be just a period of intense tribulation? There are a couple of reasons why I think not. First, this seal appears to be something we’ve been building toward. While I don’t think there has necessarily been a timeline for the seals so far, we’ve established that the first four happen around the same time, and the fifth seal is going on while the first four are happening. What we see in the sixth seal, and in chapter seven, naturally progresses from these first five seals. The martyrs want to know when the Lord will bring judgment and honor the blood of those who suffer for His name. The Lord tells them to wait until their number is complete. Next we see a vision of devastating turmoil upon the earth and the godless running in fear of the Lord. And then a picture of the church, redeemed, clothed in righteousness, and spiritually protected from the judgment brought upon sinful mankind [spoilers–that’s chapter 7!].
Another reason is the fact that the pictures and symbols in this vision have their roots in Old Testament prophecy that speaks quite directly about this “Day of the Lord,” and day of final judgment. We read from Isaiah 13:1-13; Isaiah 24:1-23; Ezekiel 32:2-8; Joel 2:1-11. Further, in the New Testament, Jesus appears to give us a template for the end times, and speaks of the end times using similar imagery (see Matthew 24:29-31 and Mark 13:24-27). Notice that Jesus speaks of these events happening “after that tribulation,” which, I suggest, refers to what’s happening during the activity of the four riders. This “tribulation” has been going on since the Resurrection (Revelation 5, the appearance of the slain Lamb), and will continue until the Lord returns–the final Day.
The image of the sun turning black and the moon becoming blood might appear as natural phenomena–we have solar eclipses, and also “blood” moons. Could these “apocalyptic” events be natural occurrences? Are these strictly symbols, or should we be looking for these signs as an indication of the end? Some have suggested that the cosmic cataclysm described here is the result of, say, a nuclear war, or perhaps what will eventually happen as a result of global warming, or man trying to mess with the atmosphere. There may be some truth to this, but we should also note that these are images of things unknown to us. Yes, we may have seen solar eclipses and blood moons–but at the same time? Along with stars falling from the heavens and earthquakes? Sure, the passage might be conflating into one day things that happen over a period of time, but it doesn’t read that way.
When faced with powerful imagery like this in Revelation, we must remember this is a vision, and the meaning behind the symbols must always be our first concern, more than the symbols themselves. Regardless of whether we take the vision literally, or figuratively, or a mixture of both, we can’t escape the fact that what John sees bears striking resemblance to the description of the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament prophets. And that’s the important connection. The point is, what John is seeing is the Day of the Lord as promised in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel, and as affirmed by Jesus in the Gospels. God is faithful, and His promises will come to pass. There is a day coming when He will bring judgment to the nations, and final redemption for His people. Hundreds of years had passed between the time of the Old Testament prophets and the writing of Revelation, during which God’s people had to endure severe testing. What He showed to the prophets, and is now replaying for John with the added clarity of the Gospel, is the fact that He does have a plan, and in His timing, His plan will be accomplished.
The fact that it is Christ who executes the Day of the Lord (he’s the one opening the seal, after all), and that the Lord has planned this Day since before time began, should bring comfort to the believer. Whatever happens on that traumatic day, it is for the glory of the Lord, and the blessing of His people. God’s people should take heed, however, that this is not a reason for complacency. We have our rest in Christ, and we are spiritually covered by his blood (see the fifth seal), so we need not fear any tribulation or, indeed, the Day of the Lord and the wrath of the Lamb. But we need to recognize that when that Day comes, there will be no turning back. There will be no more opportunity for evangelism. Our responsibility to spread the Gospel and reach out to the lost with the message of God’s saving grace will end. This means we need to be fervent in carrying out the Great Commission right up until that Day. While we acknowledge that it is up to the Lord to save those He wishes to save, let us be sure we honor God with our obedience to His command to be ambassadors of the Gospel while it is still called “today.”
There were some other interesting points in the passage. In verse 14, it says the sky was “split open.” The verb there could also be translated “vanished” or “disappeared.” So either the sky split apart like a scroll with the two halves rolling up, or it disappeared like a scroll hides its contents when it is rolled up. Either translation is plausible, though I favor the first. If the sky is hidden, would we be able to see the sun turn black and the stars fall? This is a vision, so we can’t rule out anything–but I think the sky splitting fits better, both visually, and dramatically.
In verse 15 John lists off various types of people who are running to the hills: the kings of the earth, those of high status, high-ranking officers, the wealthy, the strong, slaves, and free-men. This brings to mind passages such as Psalm 2:2 and Isaiah 34:12, where kings and rulers are subject to the Lord’s judgment. One particular list that is strikingly similar is in Isaiah 2:12-22. John doesn’t identify particular kings, strong men, or leaders. Rather, those listed represent all the godless upon the earth from all sectors of society. Just as God has a chosen people from all tribes, nations, people, and tongues, so the rest of sinful mankind is found all over the earth, from the loftiest official to the lowliest slave. And all of them are running and hiding in fear. These that once mocked and persecuted Christians are now hiding, trembling, in the face of the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb. This recalls Philippians 2:10-11, where we are told every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus is Lord–including unbelievers. Not that they will be saved, but they will come to a point when they will acknowledge Christ’s lordship, even as they perish. Here we have that presented to us quite graphically as the godless cry out to the rocks that they might fall upon them and hide them from the wrath of the Lamb. A bit like the scene in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve tried to hide from the Lord after their disobedience.
Finally, note that the godless want the rocks to fall on them to hide them, not necessarily to crush them (see Hosea 10:7-8 for an interesting parallel). They don’t want to face the One on the throne and the wrath of the Lamb–yet another clear declaration of Christ’s divinity in Revelation. This Day is referred to as “the great day of their wrath”–not simply “the Lord’s wrath.” All the Old Testament passages we looked at concerning the Day of the Lord are assumed to refer also to Christ here. He is the one who sets off the events of this Day (he opens the seal), and it is the wrath of the Lamb that the people fear. There is no question in John’s mind who this Lamb is.
Verse 17 ends with a question similar to the one in Joel 2:11 that we read earlier: who is able to stand? I believe chapter 7 answers that question.
Next Time: The Sealing of the 144,000.