Rev. 6:12 – Then I saw Him open the sixth seal. A violent earthquake occurred; the sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair; the entire moon became like blood; 13 the stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its unripe figs when shaken by a high wind; 14 the sky separated like a scroll being rolled up; and every mountain and island was moved from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the nobles, the military commanders, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 because the great day of Their wrath has come! And who is able to stand?” (HCSB)
When Jesus opens the sixth seal, terrifying natural disasters take place on the earth and in the heavens. There is a violent earthquake. The sun turns black and the moon turns blood red. The stars – perhaps meteors – fall to earth. The sky parts and the land masses shift. But these are not merely natural calamities; they are God’s judgments, and the wicked on earth know this. Rather than repent of their sins, however, they hide themselves in the earth and call upon the rocks and mountains to shield them from the wrath of God.
When do these events occur? What is the great day of God’s wrath? And why do the wicked refuse to repent? How do John’s first-century readers understand this passage? And what does it mean to us today?
The sixth seal
The sixth seal matches a portion of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25. Just as the second and third seals – portending sword, famine and pestilence – echo Jesus’ words in Matt. 24:6-7; and just as the fifth seal – describing martyrdom – matches our Savior’s prediction in Matt. 24:9-10; so the sixth seal – foretelling cosmic calamity – is eerily similar to Christ’s words in Matt. 24:29: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the celestial powers will be shaken.”
What follows in Matthew 24 is Jesus’ return “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (v. 30). The people of the earth will mourn, He says, a fitting match to the response of the wicked who know the day of God’s wrath has come. “Fall on us and hide us,” they cry to the rocks and mountains, “from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16).
The sixth seal previews the destruction of the first heaven and earth, some commentators say (see Rev. 20:11; 21:1). Others argue that this seal describes God’s judgment on Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D. Perhaps both views are true since there are times when prophecies in scripture have both a near-term and long-term fulfillment. In any case, John’s words have terrifying relevance to his first-century readers. Most of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3 experienced devastating earthquakes in the century prior to John’s Apocalypse. Christians in these cities may graphically envision the day of God’s wrath. What’s more, earthquakes in scripture often announce the terrifying arrival of the Lord in His glory (Ex. 19:18; Ps. 97:5; Ezek. 38:19-20). But His final coming shakes both heaven and earth.
Let’s look more closely at what occurs:
- “A violent earthquake” (v. 12). While many commentators take this literally, as a great seismic shaking, some interpret this religiously (the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem) or politically (the crumbling of the once-unshakable Roman Empire).
- “The sun turned black like sackcloth make of goat hair” (v. 12). Again, some see this as a natural, God-ordained occurrence such as a total eclipse of the sun or, perhaps, the smoke from a violent earthquake masking the sun’s light. Others see this from a political posture as the light goes out on the leaders of Judaism and the Roman Empire.
- “The entire moon became like blood” (v. 12). Atmospheric conditions can change the color of the moon, making it appear a dark red. But for those viewing this event figuratively, this is a reference to “lesser lights” in Jewish and Roman leadership positions.
- “The stars of heaven fell to the earth” (v. 13). This could be a reference to a meteor shower – a spectacular night-time show that also results in dangerous debris falling to the earth. Or, as some interpreters insist, these are men of note in Judaism or the Roman Empire.
- “The sky separated like a scroll being rolled up” (v. 14). For the literalist, God is moving the heavens with the ease of a scribe closing a scroll. For others, this is the end of Judaism’s great era, or the end of the Roman Empire’s chapter in world history.
- “Every mountain and island was moved from its place” (v. 14). All of creation is shaken violently in preparation for its renovation into new heavens and a new earth, although some see this in figurative terms as the dramatic end to the times of the Jews and/or the Roman Empire.
While there may be good reason to see these events in figurative terms, parallel passages in the Old Testament seem to favor a more literal interpretation. Note:
- Isa. 13:9-10: “Look, the day of the Lord is coming – cruel, with rage and burning anger – to make the earth a desolation and to destroy the sinners in it. Indeed, the stars of the sky and its constellations will not give their light. The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shine.”
- Isa. 34:2-4: “The Lord is angry with all the nations – furious with all their armies. He will set them apart for destruction, giving them over to slaughter. Their slain will be thrown out, and the stench of their corpses will rise; the mountains flow with their blood. All the heavenly bodies will dissolve. The skies will roll up like a scroll, and their stars will all wither as leaves wither on the vine, and foliage on the fig tree.”
- Joel 2:30-31: “I will display wonders in the heavens and on the earth: blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and awe-inspiring Day of the Lord comes.”
Note how R.B. Sloan helps set the stage for the rest of Revelation: “The earthquake is a consistent sign in Revelation for the destruction that immediately precedes the end (see 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18–19) of history and the appearance of the Lord. The repeated references to the earthquake at strategic spots in Revelation do not mean that history itself repeatedly comes to an end but that John employed the well-known literary technique of ‘recapitulation’ (see Gen. 1–2), that is, the retelling of the same story from a different ‘angle’ so as to focus upon other dimensions of and characters in the same story.
“Thus, in Revelation we are repeatedly brought to the end of history and the time of Christ’s return. But John withheld his final (and fullest) description of this world’s end until the end of his document (19:1–22:5). In the meantime he used the literary technique (among others) of retelling to prepare his readers for both the traumas and hopes of human history” (“The Revelation,” in D. S. Dockery (Ed.), Holman Concise Bible Commentary, p. 672).
Next: The kings … hid in caves (Rev. 6:12-17)