The Third Seal of Revelation 6

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Third Seal of Revelation 6 – Audio Version

Assignment: In your own words, retell the account of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelation 6:1-8, and then explain the symbolic meaning of one of the four horseman.

Alright, no small undertaking, but assignment accepted. In this essay I choose to explain the symbolic meaning of the third horseman. Now, how do I go about this? How should I retell The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? What is the best approach? I guess I should strive to be as succinct as possible, and yet provide enough information for a reader who might be unfamiliar with the Book of Revelation.   

Narratively, each one of the four horsemen follows a predictable pattern. The horseman appears only after some sort of documentary seal has been broken open and a majestic summons has been issued to come forth. And then the observer is given just a brief bit of information about the particular horseman in view. Somewhat surprisingly, observers are only given the briefest of glances at each of the four-and-a-half horsemen before the narration moves ahead and the next horseman is revealed. The whole scenario unfolds in a quick, clipped, dream-like manner. The vision “feels” somewhat random; and yet there is obvious organization to it. It leaves a first-time observer a bit bewildered, wondering what possible meaning is intended. And yet, given its cryptic character, the observer knows that the vision is meant to be deciphered.

The backstory to the Four Horsemen involves a sacrificial lamb who alone has the authority to break open the seven seals to a document — a scroll, to be precise. Among all creatures everywhere throughout all of history, the sacrificial lamb alone is worthy to break open the seals of this scroll and reveal its contents. The observer should realize that the sacrificial lamb symbolizes Jesus Christ.

In the first verse of the chapter, the Sacrificial Lamb breaks open the first seal of some sort of historically significant scroll. Upon being summoned thunderously by one of four heavenly cherubim (that is, one of the Living Creatures) to “Come!” the first of four horseman appears, mounted upon a white horse. He, the unidentified first horseman, holds an archer’s bow, and somehow a crown is given to him. And the verse abruptly concludes with, “He went forth conquering and to conquer.” 

And that’s it. That is all the information we are given about the first horseman. 

When the Sacrificial Lamb breaks open the second seal of the significant scroll, another cherub summons the second horseman to “Come!” Then the second horseman appears, riding a red or scarlet horse. The second horseman is permitted to take peace from the earth, “so that they should kill each other.” He, the second horseman on the scarlet horse, is also armed, but with another sort of weapon: a great sword. 

And that is the extent of the information we are given about the second horseman. 

When the Sacrificial Lamb breaks open the third seal of the unidentified scroll, a third cherub summons a third horseman to “Come!” On cue, the third horseman appears, mounted upon a black horse. However, this rider does not carry a weapon, per se. Instead, the rider on the black horse holds a balance, or a pair of scales, in his hand.

The next sentence of the passage has a closing quotation that appears to be directly related to the rider on the black horse. But for a moment, we will skip that closing quotation. Yes, we will just skip it for now. Perhaps it’s not important. Perhaps it’s just incidental, extraneous info. Maybe. Who knows?      

As per the three-peat pattern thus far, the Sacrificial Lamb will go on to break open a fourth seal on the mysterious scroll, after which the fourth and final cherub will summon a fourth and final horseman (actually, twin ghastly riders in tandem) to “Come!” Tellingly, the fourth horse is colored pale green or ashen, that is, the color of a dying person or a corpse. But here I hit the pause button. Rather than continue recounting the rest of the passage about the ghastly twin horsemen, in the remainder of this article I want to take one step backwards and focus intently upon the third horseman, the rider on the black horse. 

For reasons that I shall soon divulge, this third rider might otherwise be called the merchant on the black horse. Now, let’s plunge into greater depth about what this brief passage potentially symbolizes. 

Oh yeah… were you annoyed when I casually skipped over the closing quotation in the third horseman passage? Yeah, that was my intent. I wanted to annoy you so as to pique your curiosity. And here’s what I skipped over: The passage ends with “what seemed to be a voice” — a voice in the midst of the four cherubim, proclaiming, “A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius; but do not harm the oil nor the wine.”    

What “seemed to be a voice” in the midst of the cherubim should be considered God’s own voice, because the cherubim orbit or circle around the throne of God in heaven. 

Tangentially, someone may wonder why I keep referring to the cherubim as the cherubim, considering that they are never actually called “the cherubim” in Revelation 6:1-7. Good question; I’m glad you noticed and asked. My answer is this: I refer to them as the cherubim (plural) or the cherub (singular) because a careful reading of the Book of Ezekiel leads to that conclusion. In Ezekiel 10:20 the living creatures in Ezekiel’s visions are specifically identified as cherubim. Since the Living Creatures in the Book of Revelation ever-so closely resemble the Living Creatures in Ezekiel, they must be cherubim throughout. I suppose there is a remote possibility I could be wrong with this one-for-one equivalence; but all the available textual evidence points thusly. Please go check it out for yourself. 

Moving along, then… on the assumption that it is God’s own voice proclaiming, “A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius; but do not harm the oil nor the wine,” a bunch of questions ensue. The first, most general question being: Huh?

Huh? What does that quotation even mean?

In an effort to make sense of the voice’s proclamation, let’s make some initial observations: Inequity seems to be meant here. For some reason, wheat is inordinately expensive, since a denarius is Roman currency amounting to a full day’s wage. Barley is less expensive, but still expensive. Oil and wine are being prioritized by someone or some group, over basic foodstuffs. That probably means that the rich are somehow swindling the poor. This notion of economic inequity connects directly to the rider (or merchant) on the black horse via the scales in his hand. Together, the quotation and the rider/merchant’s scales depict economic inequity, and probably, rampant oppression. 

But why? Why are we presented with this image of economic inequity? And what is the intended connection with the previous two horsemen?

Deuteronomy 25:13-16

There are two likely explanations for why we are presented with these images of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first explanation is that the Book of Revelation here shows us, its readers, a generalized overview of how human history invariably and repeatedly plays out. These Four Horsemen are thought to be figurative personifications of the universal destructive forces of human history. Commonly, it is suggested that these four destructive forces are 1) conquest of some sort, whether of a political or ideological nature, 2) bloodshed, violence, and especially, open war, 3) famine or economic inequity, and 4) prolonged, dreadful death, especially by epidemic or some variety of pestilence. This understanding of the Four Horsemen may depend upon passages like Jeremiah 15:2-3 and Ezekiel 14:21, which contain comparable tetrads of “disastrous acts of judgment.” The overall theological point of Revelation 6:1-8, then, would be that however horrifying these historical occurrences may be, they are nonetheless under the full control and delegated authority of the meek Sacrificial Lamb, Jesus Christ. 

To which I say, Amen. It is reassuring to know that the Lamb has authority over the outworking of history. And this chapter of Revelation definitely affirms that truth. Yet there is even more to this chapter to be explained. Although I find this first broad-brush explanation compelling and satisfying to a degree, it does not adequately explain everything happening in the sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation. There are quite a few more “incidental” details that need to be explained. And I never have heard those “incidental” details explained particularly well.    

The second, more detailed explanation is that Book of Revelation here symbolically portrays some very specific — and even datable — historical events. Those specific historical events are four of Israel’s “reckonings,” each of which can be plotted with precision on an Old Testament timeline. In this article, I will advocate this second precise “reckoning” explanation, and focus in particular on how this explanation pertains to the rider on the black horse.     

Here is my assertion, in the tersest terminology possible: The third horseman, the merchant on a black horse, symbolizes God’s climatic judgment on the nation of Ephraim, otherwise known as the northern Kingdom of Israel. This “reckoning” can be dated with precision to 722BC/E, which is when Israel’s capital city of Samaria fell to the Assyrians.

Does this sound like a zany, crazy claim? You might wonder on what possible basis I would venture to make a claim with such historical specificity. After all, the language in Revelation 6:5-6 is rather vague.

Actually, no it isn’t. It’s not rather vague. Here the language of Revelation is very exact. And the exactness of the wording is very telling. Revelation 6:5 contains a nearly word-for-word quotation of the opening portion of Hosea 12:7, except for the omitted first word (which, when revealed, is also illuminating). But all of this requires some digging. You have to be willing to do some homework to discover the textual overlap of Revelation and Hosea in these two verses.

For those of you who read Greek, here are the two passages.

If you look up the two verses in English you may recognize a vague resemblance, but definitely not a nearly perfect overlap. That is because in your English language Bible the translation of Hosea was made from Hebrew, and not from Greek. But the original recipients and readers of Revelation would have read Hosea in a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. And the Septuagint rendering of the opening to Hosea 12:7 is very, very close to the relevant portion of Revelation 6:5. It’s so close that it cannot be a coincidence. That should be repeated for emphasis: The textual overlap cannot be a coincidence. Revelation 6:5 contains a quotation of Hosea 12:7. And that makes my Assyrian claim a lot less crazy. In fact, it makes my claim quite plausible, because in context this portion of Hosea is all about how God was about to judge Ephraim by means of Assyria. If you wonder if I have this right, please just read through Hosea 11:1-13:14. But I assure you that this portion of Hosea is all about how God was about to judge Ephraim by means of Assyria. And a key portion of Revelation 6:5 quotes Hosea 12:7. 

Screen Shot from

If that is not enough to convince you, then I encourage you to do a biblical word study of just one word. That word is scales. Sometimes it is translated as balances. You will discover that in the Old Testament the word balances/scales appears in three of the minor prophets when they are condemning an act of grave Torah disobedience — the disobedience of economic exploitation (cf. Hosea 12:7; Amos 8:5; and Micah 6:11). These three minor prophets condemn the covenant people of Israel and Judah for their exploitive use of dishonest scales. These strong prophetic denunciations are aimed directly at the northern kingdom of Ephraim/Israel, which fell to Assyria in 722 BC/E. Therefore, scales serve as an excellent symbol for why God brought a final reckoning upon Ephraim/Israel. This is not an inflated argument. The use of the word scales is relatively rare in the Old Testament. It is significant that the use of word scales “happens” to congregate in prophetic literature around the time that Ephraim/Israel fell to Assyria.

Citations of the word Scales/Balances in the OT.

Finally, if the third rider represents the divine reckoning wrought by Assyria, it all fits neatly in the broader context of Revelation 6. Each of the Four Horsemen represents a divine reckoning in Old Testament history. Each follows in the expected and accurate chronological order: the LORD himself as the rider on the white horse in the Exodus; Edom, as the rider on the red horse, whenever Israel and Judah would backslide into idolatry; Assyria, as the rider on the black horse, symbolizing God’s final means of judging Israel; and Babylon, as the rider on the ashen or pale green horse, symbolizing God’s final means of judging Judah and Jerusalem.

In my next post, I intend to cover the fourth rider, which, as I said, should be interpreted as the reckoning wrought by Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.     

Opus Alienum Dei

Monday, July 19, 2021

Opus Alienum Dei – Audio Version

Opus Alienum Dei translates from Latin as the “alien works of God” or the “strange works of God.” Here I use the phrase in an interpretive sense, where and when it is applied to five pivotal historcial events which, at first glance, hardly seem like God’s own doing, but mysteriously are claimed by God. Since these events were altogether horrifying, they qualify precisely as Opus Alienum Dei. If the Bible were to be set aside or left out of consideration, these five horrifying historical events might not be obviously attributable to God. However, the Bible says otherwise. In the Bible, God unexpectedly assumes at least some degree of responsibility for these terrible events Himself. And that comes as something of a surprise.

The five events to which I refer include 1) the recurring conflict between two neighboring nations that descended from twin brothers named Jacob and Esau, 2) the Assyrian invasion and dismemberment of the Kingdom of Israel, 3) the Babylonian invasion and decimation of Kingdom of Judah, 4) the perpetually unheeded pleas and warnings of genuine prophets, and 5) the brutal and total destruction of the temple complex in Jerusalem by the Romans. Although this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I have a thesis regarding these five historical events: These five events constitute five of the Seven Seals described in the Book of Revelation.

Two of the Seven Seals are non-horrifying exceptions, maybe, probably. The two Seals that might not qualify as Opus Alienum Dei, as strange works of God, are the First Seal and the last, the Seventh Seal, because they are not altogether horrifying in character. They are awe-inspiring, certainly, but not horrifying. So let’s consider all of the Seven Seals in order, except for the last one, which deserves its own (future) post.

With the opening of the First Seal in Revelation 6:2 comes a Conquering Archer on a White Stallion, otherwise and more simply known as the Rider on the White Horse. Whereas once I thought that the Rider on the White Horse might be any of the many false messiahs — yet another political pretender — now I think that the Rider on the White Horse must be the pre-incarnate, occasionally-appearing, Old Testament Divine Warrior. However, I only came to that conclusion in retrospect, by considering the Seven Seals in a mostly-reversed order, from the penultimate Sixth Seal backwards to the first.

On what exact basis did I come to flip my previously held conclusion? On basis of subtle scriptural allusions, and short, yet specifically-worded biblical references, that’s how. In nearly every single one of its verses, the Book of Revelation drops interpretive hints in the form of scriptural allusions, and/or brief inter-textual references, and/or partial quotes. The Book of Revelation itself provides hints as how to interpret it.

As for the relevant allusions and references to the Rider on the White Horse, I counterintuitively start towards the end of the Old Testament, in the short, obscure Prophecy of Habakkuk. There you will find a retrospective historical poem or sonnet in the third chapter, in Habakkuk 3:3-15. Verses 8, 9, and 11 are especially telling and relevant. This passage recalls God as an equestrian, a horse rider — an archer armed with a bow and with arrows of light — who battles the wicked on behalf of God’s people. In verse 3, Habakkuk’s Sonnet specifically recalls the time of Israel’s Exodus sojourn. That matters because if, as I claim, the Seven Seals do indeed recount the entire biblical history of the ancient Nation of Israel, then the First Seal would necessarily occur about the time when Israel was first constituted as One Nation Under Yahweh. This inaugural constitutional event is otherwise sometimes known as the Theophany at Mount Sinai, which coincided with the Revelation of the Law/Torah. Habakkuk’s Divine Archer-Rider is thus situated on the biblical timeline exactly where my interpretation would anticipate — near the begining, at the founding of the ancient Nation of Israel.

With its archer imagery, this passage in Habakkuk also points directly back to the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, which is a Second Song of Moses (or, perhaps, the Swan Song of Moses, since it occurs immediately before his death). In this final Song of Moses, God is portrayed as an invincible, avenging warrior with a flashing, devouring sword, and, notably, with arrows. Where we see arrows, we might think archer. For those inclined to double-check my reading here, the citation is the entirety of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, but especially verse 23, and verses 39-43.  

As far as my suggested interpretation of the Seven Seals is concerned, this close connection to the closing chapters of Deuteronomy carries an immense amount of weight and importance, since Deuteronomy speaks of all the curses that will come upon the fledgling Nation of Israel if it fails to keep the Covenant made at Mount Sinai. I am arguing that the ensuing five Seals are a symbolic portrayal of the historical outworking of Deuteronomy’s Threatened Curses. That is worth rephrasing and repeating: Five of the Seven Seals of Revelation are a symbolic portrayal of the historical fulfillment and outworking of Deuteronomy’s horrifying, contingent curses.    

The two Old Testament passages cited above are enough to establish that God was depicted as an archer at the time of Deuteronomy. In addition, and for what it is worth, God is also depicted as shooting arrows of lightning in a Psalm of David recorded in both 2 Samuel 22:15 and Psalm 18:14 (incidentally, another Swan Song, as it occurs immediately before King David’s death). Thus the Divine Archer motif is known and established within the historical, Holy Writ of Israel.  

As for Revelation 6:3-4 and the Second Seal, the Swordsman on a Red Horse, I am proposing that the Crimson Swordsman represents the neighboring nation of Edom. As the story of Esau and the red stew in Genesis 25:30 establishes, the name Edom means red; and Edom was a name thereafter applied to both Esau and his descendants, the nation of Edom. The fact that Esau’s descendants became the nation of Edom is repeatedly and emphatically stated in Genesis Chapter 36. 

More pertinently, though, the nation of Edom stood against the nation of Israel on multiple occasions, with the first and defining time in Numbers Chapter 20. Notice that in Numbers 20:18 the Edomites specifically threaten to come against the People of Israel with… what? With, and I quote the hostile people of Edom themselves here: with “the sword.” Therefore, the words the sword have an explicit textual connection in Edom’s first and defining confrontation with Israel. I believe that the Book of Revelation deliberately references and uses this initial, defining neighboring-nation confrontation. 

Edom is mentioned another very significant time in 1 Kings 11:14, when God is affirmed to have raised up Hadad the Edomite against wayward, apostate King Solomon. Solomon had failed to keep the monotheistic covenant and had drifted into idolatry. Thus the curses of Deuteronomy began to befall the Kingdom of Israel, which would soon split in two. Do not miss that God Himself is said to have raised up Hadad the Edomite as an adversary to Solomon. God used the nation of Edom as an instrument to judge Solomon and Israel. This Second Seal, then, is a first obvious instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. Here God uses Israel’s historical adversaries as His means of judgment. The curses of Deuteronomy are beginning to occur through hard historical events.

If we were to super fast-forward through time, we would find that the nation of Edom eventually reappears as adversary to the beleaguered Jewish people much later in their history, in the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC/BCE. In Psalm 137:7 the Edomites are said to have enthusiastically encouraged (and perhaps, even assisted) the invading Babylonians in their demolition of the City of Jerusalem. However, this fratricide met with God’s definite disapproval. In response to their role in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Prophecy of Obadiah foretold certain doom upon the Edomites for their unneighborly, unbrotherly treatment of their cousins, the descendants of Jacob.

As for Revelation 6:5-6 and the Third Seal, the Scale-Holding Rider on the Black Horse, I suggest that Sir Skewed Scales represents the imbalanced, oppressive economic situation immediately before the Assyrian invasion of Israel. I make that inference and connection through study of the scriptural occurrences of the word scales, a word which “happens” to often appear alongside the altogether-telling adjectives deceptive and wicked, as in deceptive and wicked scales. Some key occurrences of the word scales appear in three of the minor prophets: Amos, Micah, and Hosea. In particular, see Amos 8:5, Micah 6:11, and Hosea 12:7. These three “minor” prophets were active in denouncing the economic imbalances and oppression present in both Israel and Judah, while they were still allied neighboring nations, and before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely destroyed by the fearsome Assyrians.

The most important and pertinent passage, in my judgment, is Micah Chapter Six, where God foretells of the impending devastation and desolation of Israel. And that is indeed what happened historically. It happened when Assyria invaded, besieged, looted, tortured, and systematically depopulated most of the immediate geographic region. According to the Prophets Micah, Amos, and Hosea this invasion was God’s doing, a judgment against the increase of idolatry and the rampant economic pilfering practiced throughout Israel and Judah. This Third Seal, Sir Skewed Scales, is thus a second instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the merciless, brutal Assyrians to judge both lapsed covenant kingdoms — both Judah and Israel, but especially Israel, which met its end.

As for Revelation 6:7-8 and the Fourth Seal, the Ghastly, Ghostly Tandem Riders on the Pale Horse, I believe that Grim Duo of Death and Hades symbolize catastrophic judgment in the form of the impending invasion of the Babylonians, who did in fact bring death, mass deportation, and nearly total destruction upon the remaining “Covenant Kingdom” of Judah, and its capital city, Jerusalem. I see a clear scriptural connection here to Isaiah Chapter 28, where God says that he will cancel Jerusalem’s corrupt covenant with… death, and overturn their perverse pact with… Sheol. Sheol is otherwise known in Greek as Hades, and in English as Hell. In other words, God asserts that He alone controls the arrival of death and the entrance to hell, regardless of Judah’s attempted confederations, preparations, and arrangements. God insisted that, try though they may, the idolatrous people of Jerusalem cannot “make a deal with the devil” that will protect them and prolong their lives. This Fourth Seal, the Ghostly, Ghastly Duo, is a third instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used Babylonia to judge unfaithful Judah.

As for Revelation 6:9-11 and the Fifth Seal, the Sacrificed Souls Under the Altar, I would say that they represent all the true prophets throughout the entire Old Testament. I get this notion from the account of the stoning death of Zechariah, the priestly prophet, in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, in combination with Jesus’ denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 11:49-51. The Old Testament prophets were always rejected and were sometimes killed for telling the people the truth. The Death of Zechariah the Priest stands as a particularly graphic instance of the kind of violent rejection that met the prophets. Another Zechariah, Zechariah the Prophet, was also one of the last, if not the last of Old Testament prophets. He also may have died as a martyr. Thus, given what Luke 11:49-51 says, and on the assumption that the same passage is alluded to in Revelation 6:9-11, the Fifth Seal encompasses all the (rejected) prophets and their writings throughout the Old Testament. This Fifth Seal is thus a fourth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Prophets to bring judgment upon the People of the Promised Land.   

Finally, as for Revelation 6:12-17 and the Sixth Seal, it speaks both literally and metaphorically of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and its utter destruction. The passage that makes this very clear is Luke 23:26-31, which is when a soon-to-be-crucified Jesus tells the people of Jerusalem to mourn not for him but instead for themselves and their own children. He foretells them that they will call on the mountains to fall on them and plea for the hills to cover (or hide) them. Jesus is foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation of his death by crucifixion. And so it happened. Revelation 6:16 very clearly echoes Jesus’ Via Dolorosa Prophecy. This Sixth Seal is thus a fifth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Roman Legions to climatically judge the unresponsive, unbelieving People of Judæa.      

So there you have it, then: a list of (almost) all the supporting, Revelation-referenced scriptural passages I have found (thus far) to establish my interpretation of the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. I hope you find it altogether convincing and entirely worthwhile. Look for a future post on how I understand the Seventh Seal.