The Second Seal of Revelation 6

Thursday, June 30, 2022

3 When he broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come!”

4 And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it (= the rider), it was granted to take peace from the earth/the land, and that [people] would kill one another; and a large/mighty sword was given to him.

Revelation 6:3-4
The Land, Not The Earth
No, Don’t Imagine The Planet Earth in Revelation 6:4!

To do justice to these two verses I need to walk my readers through multiple Old Testament passages. Yes really, I do. But to start, I want to focus your attention on just one word in verse 4. That would be the word earth (from the original Koiné Greek word γῆς), which I would vigorously insist should be translated as land in this present context. It matters because of what probably pops to mind when Bible students nowadays encounter the word earth. Most will immediately imagine our brilliant blue marble hanging in space: Planet Earth. But no, no, no… that is entirely misleading, an errant assumption, the wrong image. Instead, imagine the rolling, rocky hills of Israel. The correct word and most accurate image for this verse is land. Imagine a Middle Eastern landscape, not a globe. On this point, I must be emphatic because what a Revelation reader imagines will determine how these verses are interpreted. More on this point soon; but please take a brief glance at the fiery red stallion and its menacing rider. 

Notice that the rider on the red horse carries a sword. While the archer on the white horse in verse 2 carries a bow, the Red Rider receives another weapon: a sword — a large sword, a great sword, or perhaps, a mighty sword. At first glance the adjective large might seem superfluous, but it matters because the word serves as a subtle hint. It points readers back to a passage in the Old Testament: Isaiah 27:1, where the “mighty sword” is the LORD’s own sword with which he slays the serpent Leviathan, the monster of the sea. But discussion of that particular passage I will postpone for now. At present our focus is on the blade presented to the Red Rider. Not just any regular sword, this one is mighty. And now, with mighty sword in hand the Red Riding Swordsman has been given license to take peace from the… what? He takes away peace from the land. No, the swordsman on the fiery red horse was not granted permission to take peace from the entire planet. The Crimson Riding Swordsman was only granted permission to take peace from the land of Israel. ’Tis a big, big difference, a crucial difference, actually.

The relevant entry from a Greek-English Lexicon (BDAG, Third Edition): This shows the potential variations of γῆ/γῆς.

But you’re not yet convinced that I’m right about changing the word earth to land; are you? Granted, most, if not all, of the current English translations render the Greek word γῆς as earth, so your reluctance to cede the point is to be expected. You might well wonder on what basis or authority I make the claim — the rather audacious claim — that almost all Bible translators got this particular word wrong. That is a good question. That is indeed the right question to ask here. And so, with trepidation I now cautiously submit my response: I do so on basis of carefully-studied biblical theology. I am a (wanna be) theologian, while they are translators. Their gig is primarily linguistics; mine is primarily in-depth Bible study. Linguistically, the translators made a predictable decision, a decision perhaps by default, because it has a long-standing precedent, even a four-hundred year precedent. Furthermore, they’re not wrong, per se. Yes, the word γῆς does mean earth. Notice though that in both English and Greek the word earth can have several different connotations, one of which is land. Moreover, most of the translators were probably not considering the implicit Old Testament references when they made their translation decision. But if an interpreter does carefully consider the implicit Old Testament references in this passage, it conclusively tips the scales in favor of the translation land (implying something local) and against earth (implying something global), as I aspire to convince you now. 

Let’s look at the relevant Old Testament passages. We will need to figuratively walk through the following passages: Leviticus 26:31-35; Daniel 9:2; 2 Chronicles 36:15-21; and eventually, Zechariah 1:7-13.

To start, here is Leviticus 26:31-35:

31 I will reduce your cities to ruins and devastate your sanctuaries. I will not smell the pleasing aroma of your sacrifices. 32 I also will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to live there will be appalled by it. 33 But I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw a sword to chase after you. So your land will become desolate, and your cities will become ruins.

34 Then the land will make up for its Sabbath years during the time it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies. At that time the land will rest and make up for its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate, it will have the rest it did not have during your Sabbaths when you lived there.

God, in Leviticus 26:31-35

If I have counted correctly, there are a total of one, two, three, four references to “the land” or “your land” in these verses, or, more accurately, seven references — should the pronoun “it” also be counted (as it ought to be). Now, if Revelation 6:3-4 does indeed allude to (or point back to) this particular Levitical passage, then which geographical domain does the passage have in view? Is it Planet Earth in its global entirety or just the Land of Israel? The correct answer is, ding, ding, just the Land of Israel. Therefore “land” might be the better translation in Revelation 6:4. But hang on… does the Revelation passage actually point back to Leviticus 26:31-35? Or am I just jumping to conclusions because it happens to suit my argument? Perhaps we should revisit and contemplate more closely what this Leviticus passage says.

In Leviticus 26:31-35 God is speaking to, or more exactly, threatening someone. God threatens to “devastate the land,” (which land?) and to “draw a sword to chase after you” (which you?); in so doing, God will give the land a period of much-needed rest. By the way, later in Israel’s history, God carries through on this threat, as we shall see. 

Oh my, I almost forgot to mention the sword! As with Revelation 6:3-4, there just happens to be a sword in Leviticus 26:33! What a coincidence! But it is not a coincidence. References back to a combination of recurring key words is how Revelation works, and how Revelation provides crucial hints for its own interpretation. Admittedly, the mere mention of a sword in Leviticus 26: 33 does not clinch this as a definite, intentional intertextual connection; but it does serve to make it more likely. What makes for an even stronger case is the combination of the word land and the word sword together in both passages.

Eventually, the glue that will bring this all cohesively together is the historical identity of the Red Rider with the mighty sword (who, like his brother Israel, was first an individual person and then a nation). And with regard to my overall thesis (i.e., that the Red Rider/Crimson Swordsman represents one particular eponymous historical person-nation), the most convincing passage of all is found in the Book of Zechariah. For now, please just be aware of the desolation and exile foretold in this present Levitical passage regarding the land and people of Israel.

The second passage to consider is Daniel 9:2:

2 In the first year of his [Darius of Persia’s] reign, I, Daniel, understood from the books according to the word of the Lord to the Prophet Jeremiah that the number of years for the desolation of Jerusalem would be seventy.

Daniel, in the Book of Daniel 9:2

Based on a prophecy in the writings of the Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 29:10), Daniel realized that the designated time of Babylonian exile (that is, 70 years) had been fulfilled. Daniel, a Jewish exile working as a government official in several foreign administrations, realized that it was time for his own Jewish people to potentially return to their ancestral homeland. Thus Daniel turned to the LORD in prayer, requesting that God would forgive the Jewish people for their obstinate disobedience. Daniel also prayed for God to restore the desolate City of Jerusalem. In his plea for their forgiveness, Daniel either knowingly or unknowingly fulfills a key stipulation for the return and restoration of Israel, a stipulation that is laid out immediately after our previously discussed passage: that is, in Leviticus 26:40-45. God then answered Daniel’s prayer by giving him what he requested and even more. God gave Daniel several symbolic visions of future events pertinent to the land and people of Israel. The Book of Revelation noticeably makes use of much of the imagery from Daniel’s symbolic visions. I provide all this information to provide feasible “Land of Israel” narrative links from Leviticus 26 through Jeremiah 29 and Daniel 9 to Revelation 6.    

As for the Crimson Swordsman, Daniel may have just barely missed him. While still young, Daniel was one of the Jewish captives that had been sent off to Babylon. Daniel was probably taken away to captivity before the final devastating destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. During that final devastating destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonian conquerers had some enthusiastic supporters. Those enthusiastic fans (or rather, allies) of Babylon were a neighboring nation of Israel, the Edomites, the descendants of Israel’s twin brother Esau (cf. Genesis 36:8). Not for nothing, scripture makes a point of this Edom and Babylon tag-team connection at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction around 586BC/E (cf. Psalm 137:7). In my view, the nation of Edom best qualifies as Revelation’s own Red Rider, the Crimson Swordsman. But I need to tighten up my proposed connection of three words from Revelation 6: red, land, sword.

Screen Shot from Haaretz Newspaper, featuring an article published on June 13, 2021 about Edom’s likely role in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Etymologically, in Hebrew the words for red and Edom derive from the same root. For all practical purposes, we can think of red and Edom as virtual equivalents. Therefore, I want to suggest that whenever Edom appears in the Old Testament, we just might be reading about Revelation’s Red Rider.      

Now we turn to 2 Chronicles 36:15-21:

15 But the LORD, the God of their ancestors sent word against them by the hand of his messengers, sending them time and time again, for he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they kept ridiculing God’s messengers, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the Lord’s wrath was so stirred up against his people that there was no remedy. 17 So he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their fit young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary. He had no pity on young men or young women, elderly or aged; he handed them all over to him. 18 He took everything to Babylon—all the articles of God’s temple, large and small, the treasures of the Lord’s temple, and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19 Then the Chaldeans burned God’s temple. They tore down Jerusalem’s wall, burned all its palaces, and destroyed all its valuable articles.

20 He deported those who escaped from the sword to Babylon, and they became servants to him and his sons until the rise of the Persian kingdom. 21 This fulfilled the word of the Lord through Jeremiah, and the land enjoyed its Sabbath rest all the days of the desolation until seventy years were fulfilled.

The Chronicler, in 2 Chronicles 36:15-21

Although there is no specific mention of Edom in this important summary passage regarding the destruction of Jerusalem, from other biblical sources we know that Edom played some memorable antagonistic role. Like a bad neighbor, Edom left a very negative impression upon the few Jews who survived the destruction of Jerusalem. In passages like Psalm 83:1-8, Psalm 137:7, Isaiah 34:5-10, Ezekiel 35, Amos 1:6-12, and the entire Book of Obadiah we read that the people of Edom enthusiastically allied themselves with the enemies of Israel and Judah. Therefore, God promised to judge Edom severely. In fact, God pronounced an edict of utter destruction against the nation of Edom, specifically because they had betrayed his people in Israel and Judah.

Nevertheless, although this passage from 2 Chronicles 36 does not mention Edom, it still matters theologically. It matters because it shows that destruction of Jerusalem was not merely another tragic historical event. Rather, it was God’s own decree and God’s act of judgment against his own people. Babylon and its allies may have been the human instruments, but God takes responsibility for what happened. This needs to be kept in mind as we consider the Red Rider and the other horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation 6. 

Very importantly, Edom played the role of God’s means of judgment (i.e., the sword of God) at least four times in Israel’s history. 

For example, in Numbers 20:14-20 Edom denied the sojourning people of Israel permission to pass through their land. Significantly, in Numbers 20:18 Edom threatened to attack Israel with a particular weapon: “with the sword.” This refusal-of-passage occurred immediately after Moses the man of God sinned. And it is noteworthy that unlike other times, God did not come to Israel’s aid. Edom withstood Israel on this occasion.

Centuries later, after King Solomon sinned by allowing his pagan foreign wives to coax him into idolatry, God raised up an active adversary against him. That adversary was Hadad the Edomite (cf. 1 Kings 11:14). The text is crystal clear that it was God’s own doing: “God raised up against Solomon an adversary.” 

Later, in 2 Kings 8:16-22 Edom successfully rebelled against Judah during the reign of Jehoram, the wayward son of the good King Jehoshaphat.

And finally, as we have already noted, Edom allied itself with Babylon during the siege and destruction Jerusalem around 586BC/E. Babylon was God’s own prophesied means of judgment.    

From the Book of Amos

So we see that over and over in its history, Israel and Judah found Edom to be a problematic neighbor — a neighbor that sometimes became an outright enemy. And yet, God takes at least partial responsibility for Edom’s periodic belligerence. Edom served as the instrument of divine judgment — “the sword of God” — at key times in Israel’s history. And Revelation 6:3-4 symbolizes Edom in that historical role as the Red Rider, the Crimson Swordsman.

To be continued…

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.