Rev. 7:1 – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel rise up from the east, who had the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” 4And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 512,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 612,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 712,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 812,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Benjamin. (HCSB)
Another angel … from the east
In verse 2 John sees “another angel” rise up from the east. He carries “the seal of the living God” and cries out to the four angels, “Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads” (v. 3). This angel is unique in that he comes to seal God’s slaves, while the four others are sent to restrain the four winds. Angels are messengers of God and serve Him in different capacities. Some, like Gabriel, bring messages. Others, like Michael, stand for Israel. Others bring protection, deliverance or judgment. They do not seem to prefer one task over another; they simply obey God when He sends them to earth, and this particular angel is sent to halt the advance of the other four until God’s special mark is upon His slaves.
This angel comes from the east. The direction is significant. The tabernacle in the wilderness faces east (Num. 3:38). The temple in Jerusalem faces east (2 Chron. 5:11-12). It is at the eastern gate of the temple – “the temple gate called Beautiful,” Acts 3:2 – where Peter and John heal the lame man. Perhaps most important, when Jesus returns, He will come from the east: “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27; see also Ezek. 43:1-7). So this angel comes from the east, the direction of the sunrise, to do a great work on the Lord’s behalf, sealing His slaves.
Sealed on their foreheads
The seal of God is placed upon the foreheads of His chosen servants. There seems to be a parallel between this portion of Revelation and what Jesus describes in Matt. 24:30-31. At the end of Revelation 6, the wicked of the earth seek to hide from the wrath of the Lamb, consistent with what Jesus says in Matt. 24:30, “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
Then, at the start of Revelation 7, angels are sent to restrain the four winds until God’s chosen ones are sealed. This seems to fit with Matt. 24:31, “He [the Son of Man] will send out His angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” If Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 and John’s record in Revelation 7 are describing the same events, then God is about to pour out His wrath on the earth. But first He spares the righteous. This could fit a preterist view, in which Jews who heed Jesus’ warnings flee Jerusalem before its destruction in 70 A.D. It could also fit a futurist view, in which a large number of Jewish believers are spared the horrors of the Tribulation. In any case, it appears God delivers a number of His elect before His judgment falls.
Seals in scripture
There are about 60 references to seals in the Bible. Generally speaking, seals are spoken of in two ways. First, a seal is an object – often a small, semiprecious stone with writing cut into its surface, making an impression in clay or wax. Second, a seal signifies the impression itself. In this context, the angel from the east seals the 144,000 – placing God’s mark of ownership on them. At the same time, the 144,000 are sealed, or receive and bear the mark of God.
The seal, John says, is placed on their foreheads. It’s possible the seal is visible, for while John only hears the number of those sealed in Revelation 7, he sees the 144,000 on Mt. Zion in Revelation 14. Also, the Antichrist, the great imposter, requires his followers to receive a mark on their foreheads, perhaps indicating a visible sign. But it may make more sense to see God’s seal as the mark of the Holy Spirit, who seals the believer (Eph. 4:30). If the futurist view is true and the Holy Spirit is removed from the earth at this time, it would take a special act of God to send His Spirit to mark out the 144,000 as His own.
The use of seals in scripture might shed some light on this passage. Harper’s Bible Dictionary points out that seals often render something secure against tampering (Jer. 32:10; Matt. 27:66), to demonstrate authority (1 Kings 21:8; John 6:27), to seal a letter (1 Kings 21:8; 1 Cor. 9:2), to seal a covenant (Neh. 9:38), to delegate authority (Esther 8:8; John 6:27), and to seal documents (Isa. 8:16; Jer. 32:10; Rev. 5:1). The 144,000 are indeed secure from the tampering of the wicked; they are under the authority of the King; they are messengers; they are partakers of the divine covenant, and so on. More important, if this seal is in fact the Holy Spirit, they have the indwelling presence of God and are empowered by Him to carry out His will.
Next: I heard the number … (Rev. 7:1-8)
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)
Rev. 6:9 – When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. 10They cried out with a loud voice: “O Lord, holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” So, a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until [the number of] their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been, would be completed (HCSB).
When Jesus opens the fifth seal, the scene changes dramatically from earth to heaven. The thundering hoof beats of the four horsemen have been heard on earth as their riders conquer, wage war, bring famine and pestilence, and kill. But now we are taken to heaven, where martyred souls at rest cry out to God for vengeance. They are given white robes and told to rest a while longer. The killing on earth is not over yet; the martyrs are told to rest until the number of their fellow slaves and their brothers, who are going to be killed just as they have been, is completed.
Why the shift to a heavenly scene? Who are these martyrs? And why does God permit the wicked to slaughter even more righteous people before He finally does something about it? How do John’s first-century readers understand this passage? And what does it mean to us today?
The fifth seal
As the Lamb opens the fifth seal, giving way to another portion of the message in the scroll, John sees the souls of martyrs under the altar. But the booming voices of the four living creatures do not attend this vision. Rather, John hears the cries of the deceased saints, petitioning the Lord for vengeance. W.A. Criswell points out that the fifth seal is different from the rest of the seven in that we do not see the action itself, but the result of action: “Heretofore and hereafter, as a seal is broken or a trumpet is blown or a vial is poured out, across the state of human history we shall see the judgment develop … But not here…. John sees under the altar the souls of those who have already been slain. Back of those souls that are slain, we must imagine, though it is undepicted and undescribed, the blood and fury and fire of awful persecution, the blood bath in which they lost their lives” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 102).
The translation of the Hebrew and Greek words for “altar” means “a place of sacrifice,” or in the verb form “to sacrifice.” But it’s important to note that there are two altars in the temple:
- The altar of burnt offering (Ex. 30:28), also called the bronze altar (Ex. 39:39) and “the Lord’s table” (Mal. 1:7). As described in Ex. 27:1-8, it is a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It is made of wood, overlaid with plates of brass and ornamented with “horns” (Exc. 29:12; Lev. 4:18). This is where animal sacrifices are made, with their blood poured out underneath.
- The altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10), also called the golden altar (Ex. 39:38; Num. 4:11). It stands in the holy place near the curtain that leads into the Holy of Holies. On this altar sweet spices are burned with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. The high priest offers incense on this altar to begin the morning and evening services. The burning of the incense is a type of prayer (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4).
In this passage in Revelation, it appears that John sees the altar of sacrifice. We are told in Hebrews that the earthly tabernacle and all its trappings are patterned after the one in heaven. Therefore, just as the blood of animal sacrifices on earth pools beneath the altar, the souls of the saints gather in heaven at the foot of the One who was sacrificed for them. “For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed,” Paul writes in 1 Cor. 5:7.
It is clear that this is a heavenly altar, for the “souls of those slaughtered” are gathered there. The soul – essentially the unseen real person consisting of mind, emotion and will – separates from the body at death. The apostle Paul writes confidently that for believers to be “out of the body” (in death) is to “home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). These are real people with real identities and real consciousness. Unlike believers prior to Christ’s crucifixion, whose souls went to a state of rest at Abraham’s side in Sheol, these saints are in the presence of the Lord, meaning that John has a true New Testament vision since the Lamb’s blood already has been shed for them. Some commentators believe that Old Testament saints did not ascend to heaven after death because their sins were only atoned for, or temporarily covered, by the blood of sacrificial animals. But after Jesus died on the cross, fulfilling the sacrificial system and removing believers’ sins once and for all, their souls could pass into His presence in heaven.
But why are these martyrs under the altar? Why not beside it or above it? Perhaps because the Bible depicts faithful Christian service in sacrificial terms. In Rom. 12:1, for example, Paul writes, “I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.” In 2 Tim. 4:6, as Paul faces the looming reality of his martyrdom, he says, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close.” Christians who suffer persecution mirror the sacrificial life of Christ, who notes their service and rewards it. Some interpreters believe there is a special reward in heaven, the “crown of life,” for those who are martyred (Rev. 2:10). The souls of the martyrs are under the altar because they became martyrs when their blood was spilled for the cause of Christ.
“As the blood of sacrificial victims slain on the altar was poured at the bottom of the altar, so the souls of those sacrificed for Christ’s testimony are symbolically represented as under the altar, in heaven; for the life or animal soul is in the blood, and blood is often represented as crying for vengeance (Ge 4:10)” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 6:9).
Next: The souls of those slaughtered (Rev. 6:9-11)
Rev. 5:2 — I also saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look in it. 4And I cried and cried because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it (HCSB).
John sees “a mighty angel” who proclaims in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (v. 2). It is interesting that angels are never numbered in scripture. People are numbered. The elders are numbered. The living creatures are numbered. The elect are numbered. Our days are numbered. Even the hairs of our heads, Jesus says, are numbered. But the heavenly hosts are described as “myriads,” or “countless thousands, plus thousands and thousands.” Why is this? We are not told. However, it appears all angels were created at one time. Since they do not die, and no new angels are being created, this innumerable host remains the same in number today as the day of their creation. No doubt, many angels followed Satan in rebellion against God, although that number is unknown (some commentators suggest one-third of the angelic host rebelled based on a single verse in Revelation).
Angels come in different classes, and a few are called by name. The most prominent of these appears in the Old Testament as “the angel of the Lord,” whom many commentators believe to be the pre-incarnate Christ. Satan once was known as the anointed cherub; he also has more notorious names: the father of liars, the ancient serpent, the Devil, the deceiver, and the evil one. Michael is the only archangel named in scripture. Other angels are named, such as Gabriel, who brought news of the pending birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Then there are cherubim and seraphim, which may or may not be angels but certainly are heavenly creatures. In this passage in Revelation, we are told of a “mighty” or “strong” angel. All angels are strong. They are more powerful than people but not omnipotent. They are more intelligent than people but not omniscient. And they are swifter than people but not omnipresent. But occasionally the Bible describes an angel in a certain way. In this case, John sees him as a “mighty” angel.
Mighty angels appear in two other places in Revelation (10:1 and 18:21). Is this the same angel, who makes three appearances in Revelation? Or are these three different angels? It’s difficult to know with certainty, although in 10:1 the angel descends from heaven, is surrounded by a cloud, and has a rainbow over his head. His face shines like the sun, and his legs are like fiery pillars. While this angel is similar to biblical depictions of the Messiah, likely he is not, for he is described as “another” mighty angel, implying that he lacks the uniqueness of Jesus. In any case, the mighty angel in Revelation 5 is distinguished by his “loud voice,” which is heard from the farthest reaches of glory to the four corners of the earth – and even into the abode of the dead. “Who is worthy,” he cries, “to open the scroll and break its seals?”
Who is worthy?
There is a thundering silence in response to the mighty angel’s question, broken only by John’s agonizing sobs. “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” is able to open the scroll or even to look in it, writes John. Not the four living creatures. Not the 24 elders. Not the countless angels inhabiting the throne room of heaven. Not John, or another apostle, or a prophet, soothsayer or magician, nor anyone else on earth. Not any of the deceased, whose bodies lay “under the earth” awaiting resurrection. Not even the “anointed cherub” who once stood in the very presence of the Almighty. No one across the farthest reasons of the universe is qualified to stand before the Ancient of Days and take the scroll he holds in His right hand.
No doubt John waits anxiously, searching the horizon, listening intently, hoping to feel the subtle breeze of some worthy creature’s robe or wings as he heroically approaches the throne. But to no avail. Just silence, until John breaks it with uncontrollable wailing. God’s hidden agenda for the climax of human history and the destiny of the church must remain just that – hidden. In chapter 4 John is promised a glimpse of “what must take place after this” (v. 1). Could it be – is it even conceivable – that the Son of Man would now break that promise?
Matthew Henry writes: “By what he had seen in him who sat upon the throne, he was very desirous to see and know more of his mind and will: this desire, when not presently gratified, filled him with sorrow, and fetched many tears from his eyes…. Those who have seen most of God in this world are most desirous to see more; and those who have seen his glory desire to know his will. Good men may be too eager and too hasty to look into the mysteries of divine conduct. Such desires, not presently answered, turn to grief and sorrow. Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Re 5:1–5).
But the beloved disciple’s dark gloom is about to lift.
Next — The Lion and the Lamb (Rev. 5:5-7)