The Seven Seals

Book of Revelation Series, Part 4

6th Sunday After Pentecost, July 24, 2011

Revelation 6:1-8:5

“So it begins.” This is what people think of when they think of the Book of Revelation. Yes, we’ve had some glory. John saw Jesus in the blinding light of eternal, divine glory. He was taken before the throne of God and he looked upon Him who sits upon that throne, while all around, as the hymn has us sing, “Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea. Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee, Which wert and art and ever more shalt be!”

So much glory! And there is more glory to come in this book. But only out of the shadows; the glory will come out of the deepest darkness. So it begins…

In chapter 5 St. John had seen a scroll held in the right hand of God, sealed with seven seals. And no one could unroll that scroll by breaking the seals. No one…until the Lamb of God stepped into the scene. And there was much rejoicing! Oh, but how the vision changes as each of the seven seals is now opened.

6:1, “I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” Ooh…a white horse, a golden crown, a conqueror? No, it’s not Jesus. It’s what the philosopher called the Übermensch; men of supreme will from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, from William the Conqueror to Napoleon Bonaparte; conquerors who, like Charlemagne, ushered in eras of greatness, or, like Adolph Hitler, poured out woe. Or, it can be an unknown Norwegian madman with a gun.

V3, “When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.” Where the conqueror rides forth, blood, red and flowing in abundance, follows after. Thousands upon thousands will lie slain because this second rider always accompanies the first.

V5, “When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand…” It’s the figure of famine, hunger, and want, which follows war.

And v7, “When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death and Hades was following close behind him.” Death and the grave, death and the domain of the dead, ride to sweep up the carnage left by the first three horsemen.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is one of the most famous images from this book. Throughout the Middle Ages these riders were portrayed in art and literature to capture the ravages of war, pestilence, famine and death, especially during the terrifying reign of the Black Plague.

In your bulletin there is a sheet of images. On the side with 4 images, in the upper left hand corner is perhaps the most famous: the woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, a contemporary of Martin Luther. To its right is a 19th century painting. Below it a modern graphic portrayal using imagery from the American Southwest. And to its left the four horsemen take on a bionic, sci-fi form.

On the other side, in the upper left hand corner is a medieval tapestry portraying the four. To its right and below are two shots from the 1921 silent movie, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” starring Rudolf Valentio, a movie capturing the horrors of WWI. WWII also provided inspiration, the little cartoon. And last of all, the Four Horsemen continue to inspire modern graphic novels and fantasy art. None of the pictures are heart-warming!

What makes all of this hard is that these 4 come from the hand of God! It’s Jesus who is busy breaking open each of the seals and setting the horsemen free to ride. But this also shows that these figures must be seen in connection with Jesus if we are to truly understand their purpose in spreading mayhem across the stage of world history. For the Horsemen do not leave their wake of devastation for no reason. Suffering and death do come upon the earth in any meaningless way. These fearsome images lead directly to the next three seals. They are, in fact, the cross before the resurrection.

V9, The Lamb of God breaks the 5th seal and we are shown the martyrs, “the souls of those who had been slain because of the Word of God.” “How long, O Lord!” they cry out in v10. How long ‘til the riders cry “Whoa”? How long ‘til we are avenged?

The answer comes in v11: “…they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.” This will continue until the last martyr meets his martyrdom. Once again, like the crucifixion of Jesus, the agony must all endure until “It is finished.”

And then comes the sixth seal, like the sixth day, like Good Friday itself…The End. V12, “There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black…the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth…the sky receded like a scroll rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”

The Day of Judgment comes. A Day that will overturn and consume everything of the old creation…in order to give birth to the new. As surely as Easter follows Good Friday. As surely as the resurrection follows the burial. So chapter 6 is very dark…but out of that darkness chapter 7 now rises in all of its glory!

Chapter 7 is the flip side of chapter 6. The devastations caused by the horsemen and by the persecutions of the faithful is the dark backdrop for chapter 7. The End is held back by the angels… v3, “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”

In other words, in the midst of war, famine, pestilence and death of chapter 6 God is very much at work. The 144,000. Not a very big number in view of earth’s billions, but the number is not literal (as so many of the numbers in this book are not to be taken literally). The 144,000 is all of God’s Israel, all His people of faith who will have ever lived on earth. That list in v5ff is not literal, as can be seen by the names listed. V8 lists the tribe of Joseph. There was no tribe of Joseph. Even though he was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, it was Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were named as tribes. But in verse 6 we see Manasseh, but no mention of Ephraim. What’s more, the tribe of Dan is missing as well from the list. The tribe of Dan, in particular, became something of a “Judas Iscariot” in Israel’s history.

The point of the list is not, for example, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who use the number to limit the capacity of heaven to the first 144,000 souls, while everyone else must spend eternity in “Economy Class”! No, it is a symbolic number for all of God’s Israel, like the first vision in chapter 1, those 24 elders, 12 from the Old Testament and 12 from the New. The whole Israel, those who had faith like Abraham before Christ, and those who have the same faith in the time after Jesus appeared. And that number, literally, is beyond counting. Like the stars of the night sky or the sand on the seashore. The number is, v9, innumerable! “A great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people and language.” Not just 144,000!

The hand of God has sealed them, marked their forehead, as we do in Holy Baptism. So that while the horsemen ride by the hand of God, yet the hand of God is preserving those who are His own. Even if they/we fall before the horsemen, become martyrs to the faith…still, v14, they shall come out of this great tribulation. Even though we are trampled by the hooves of these riders, still, v15, we shall stand “before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple.”

Even though famine and pestilence and war and bloodshed leave their mark all over this earth…still there will come the day when, v16, “never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst. The sun shall not beat upon them…v17, the Lamb will be their shepherd; He will lead them [us] to springs of living water. And God shall wipe every tear from their eyes.” From our eyes! Sealed in Christ. Washed in Him. Clothed with Him. Even though we now hear the thunder of approaching hooves!

It’s what St. Paul writes to the Romans today, we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified. “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us…nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It is so hard to hear what John sees in his vision. And the visions are going to get worse. (Yeah, we think we have it bad these days…but the world has seen much worse, and who knows what we may yet see in our lifetime.) This is hard…and we will hear it several times before this book comes to its glorious end. It is the very crux of Jesus Himself, the One who opens these seven seals. Cross and resurrection are always together. Neither the one without the other. It is in the darkness that we see light. And the light is its most glorious when the darkness is its most dark!

We face a perennial temptation by our desire for a God without wrath, who brings people without sin into a kingdom without judgment by a Christ who has no cross, only an Easter. That is the gospel of Antichrist. But John continues to watch so that we too might see, and see clearly, that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us.

And now, the 7th Seal, 8:1. As it is opened a heavy silence hangs over the scene. A profound, awful silence, because, like the Ingmar Bergman movie of that name, another round of violence is now to be cast upon the earth. And like a cosmic game of chess, the players will make their moves…but…once again, checkmate always goes to God. The visions continue…next time.