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…