“Anticipation and Crescendo of the Seals” (Part 2)

by Roger McCay
30 January 2022
Sermon Passage: Revelation 6:12-17
Link to Audio Version

Journal entry 18 November 2007, Baghdad:

Got nailed by rockets and mortars this morning. Woke me up. Boom…shook the whole building. The wall did the whole “wave” and “ripple” thing again, and then the sirens went off. For about an hour they just pounded us. We could hear the whoosh and booms. I say “we” because I went out into the hall with the guys and listened to radio reports on an ICOM. I didn’t get a call from Ted about any casualties coming in so I laid low with the guys. There was a lot of small arms fire where the towers were lighting up the guys firing. They were really close to the FOB. We retaliated with the QRF along with tanks, and we saw the Apaches come in. An amazing sound those guys make with the dump, dump, dump – and you can actually hear the rounds slicing the air. Lots of smoke at the POO (Point of Origin) site.

I still hear the Apaches flying around. Like birds of prey.

Got to go preach here in an hour or so.

I am foregoing the DFAC this morning and am going to just eat Pop-Tarts with Gatorade and a protein drink. Hopefully I can brew up some coffee at the chapel.

Last week we looked at the breaking of the fifth seal and considered the souls of the martyrs (under the altar before the Lord in heaven) along with their cry of justice and vengeance (with John witnessing this scene circa AD 65). Jerusalem was the epicenter of the murder of the saints, thus was to be ground zero for the Lord’s wrath. Accordingly, we considered how the Lord would carry out his wrath upon the Land of Israel, beginning around AD 66 (as the four horsemen were unleashed), culminating in the great city’s destruction, in AD 70, bringing about the violent telos of the Jewish nation (completed at Masada in AD 73). All this would be accompanied with world-wide ripple effects, including the vindication of the persecuted Christians.

Today, for us, similar to the martyrs of the fifth seal, the Lord’s people await his return, his final coming in judgment. We wait for him in a world of strife and trouble, and we ask, “How long?” With all the evil, injustice, and suffering of history and today, the Lord’s people long for his justice to come down. We wonder, “How long?” We ache for wrongs to be righted, retribution, with evil judged and punished. We yearn to see our beloved Lord’s face. And we know at his coming, in his presence, all things will be made right.

Thus we search the Scriptures and find hope throughout, no less finding it in the fifth seal and sixth seal of Rev. 6. In today’s passage, the buildup of anticipation of the Lord’s coming wrath reaches its peak, with the sixth seal broken. The birth-pangs (of which Jesus prophesied in his Olivet Discourse) crescendo with a given glimpse of the Lamb of God’s looming wrath (primed for retribution), rearing its head, and with the people of the Land of Israel hopelessly crying out in terror. While this coming was fulfilled in the first century, it serves as a signpost and warning of the Lord Jesus’ final coming. Jesus came then, as he promised (Matt. 24:1-35), and he will come again, as he promised (Matt. 24:36ff), all according to his plan of redemption and retribution.

So let us examine the phenomena accompanying the breaking of the sixth seal.

12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

Here is vivid imagery, which some have interpreted as wholly future, not to be seen until the Lord’s final coming at the end of history. After all, it seems a description of the unravelling of the universe, a de-creation. And if such were to literally happen, the end would have surely come. However, while such conclusions are understandable, they do not fit the historical first century context of “the things that must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1, 3), nor do they fit how the historical context aligns with the literary/textual context of the book of Revelation. Such futuristic and literal interpretations of this passage are, in a word, misguided. We’ve examined the various rationale behind this assertion during our study of Rev. 1-6 over the past year, so I’m not going to rehash it all now. As it is, to be clear, this particular passage is not about the end of the world.

Some have tried to interpret the text as hyperbolic, searching for natural and/or physical fulfillments to the events leading up to and around the time of Jerusalem’s destruction (similar to how I’ve pointed to Vespasian and the armies of Rome as being symbolized in the conquering horseman in the first seal). Various points of contact have been put forth (events recorded as happening during those times such as numerous earthquakes (including a particular one mentioned by Josephus happening not long before the city’s siege by Titus);[1] strange phenomena in the skies prior to the city’s destruction (like, “a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city [of Jerusalem], and a comet, that continued a whole year,” reported by Josephus);[2] even various earth movements of the Roman army that took place during the conquest have been suggested; and so forth).[3] But how does one find a natural fulfillment of the sky rolling up like a scroll? While such natural phenomena should not be excluded (and make for a fascinating study), such fulfillments are not really the main thrust of this passage.[4]

What we see is that John is primarily using symbolic imagery, which corresponds to Jesus’ prophetic teaching in the gospels, particularly in his Olivet Discourse, where he speaks of the coming doom upon Jerusalem. The imagery John uses is also straight out of the Old Testament, practically cut-and-pasted from the prophets, further cluing us in on what is going on in this passage. He’s using familiar prophetic language that symbolizes the import, the seriousness, the awe-inspiring nature of the wrath of the Lord’s judgment coming down. And, in harmony with my previous assertion, Keith Mathison observes,

In the Old Testament such language does not necessarily, or even usually, refer to the end of the space-time universe. The prophets regularly use such metaphorical language to describe judgments that have already occurred without involving the literal end of the world. [5]

So let us consider what the Lord and the prophets had said.

In obvious ways, Rev. 6:12-14 hearkens to Matt. 24:29 of the Lord’s Discourse:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

“The tribulation of those days,” to which Jesus refers, seems a reference to the days when the horsemen trampled the land of Israel, the birth pangs, from AD 66 up through AD 70 into the time of the siege of Jerusalem. The symbolic portents of these passages then follow immediately upon the success of the siege and the events that entailed, heralding the looming wrath of the Lamb to be carried out forthwith, in the form of the Romans battling through Jerusalem, killing and enslaving the inhabitants, and destroying the city and Temple.

In v. 12, John mentions a great earthquake. In the prophets, such can be a symbol of divine visitation of judgment, like in Isa. 29:6. There, Isaiah is describing a coming siege of Jerusalem saying, “you will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.” And of course Jesus mentions earthquakes as part of the birth-pangs in Matt. 24:7.

Following the earthquake representing the Lord’s visitation of judgment upon Jerusalem, John then, in vv. 12-13 says, “the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth.” This is almost a direct quotation of Jesus in Matt. 24:29, with the portents of the sun, moon, and stars. Likewise, it hearkens very closely with Joel 2:10 & 31. There, Joel prophesies a great and powerful people coming down upon Jerusalem (Zion), carrying out the Lord’s wrath. He compares the invading army to horses of war in 2:3, and then says in 2:10, “The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.” Then, referring to “the day of the Lord” (meaning, in the case of Joel 2 like here in Rev. 6:17, a day of destruction to come upon Jerusalem), Joel writes, in v. 31, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”

Do you see the points of contact here to the language used in Rev. 6? Horses of war; celestial portents; even Jerusalem as the target of the Lord’s wrath?

Similar portents are given in Isa. 13:10, referring to judgment on Babylon. Then, in Amos 8:9, the prophet speaks to the sun going down at noon and darkening the earth in broad daylight, concerning the end of the northern kingdom of Israel. And, in Ezek. 32:7-8, the prophet speaks to the darkening of the moon, sun, and stars in a prophecy against Egypt.

The pattern, which I hope you are picking up on, is that the OT prophets use, in various ways, certain hyperbolic and apocalyptic celestial imagery and expressions, for different comings of the Lord’s wrath upon various nations in history. John, like Jesus in Matt. 24:29, is here following in their stead.

Next, there is the reference to a fig tree in Rev. 6:13, hearkening to Jesus’ Discourse in Matt. 24:32, and also Isa. 34:4, which says, “All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.” Isa. 34:4 speaks to the coming wrath of the Lord upon his enemies, and also says, “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll.” Sound familiar? Yes, that symbolic imagery, concerning the Lords wrath against his enemies, is also used in Rev. 6:14.

Finally, the statement that “every mountain and island were moved” hearkens to Jer. 4, speaking to the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, according to the Lord’s wrath, with “the whole land laid waste” (v. 20). In 4:24, Jeremiah says, “I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.” Then there are numerous other passages in the OT prophets with similar symbolic references. As for the question of “islands,” their reference falls in line with the overall thrust of universal upheaval the images express (like with the sun, moon, stars, and so forth), concerning the import of the Lord of all creation’s wrath coming down.[6]

When we look at Rev. 6:15-17, we see much the same thing going on:

15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Verse 15 makes clear that there is no discrimination upon whom the coming judgment will fall, and includes everyone from the greatest (the rulers of the land) to the least (the slaves). On the cusp of Jerusalem’s destruction, in response to their terror at the looming judgment, their actions are also described in terms that find their symbolic prophetic origin in the OT prophets and Jesus’ words. In Luke 23:28-30, Jesus, on the way to the cross, prophecies concerning the coming doom upon the people of Jerusalem saying,

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’”

Jesus uses the same terminology used in Hosea 10:8, where the cries represent the fear of God’s judgment:

“The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed. Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars, and they shall say to the mountains, ‘Cover us,’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us.’”

And then, of course, in Isa. 2:19 & 21, the prophet speaks of the terror of the Lord’s wrath coming down upon Israel:

“And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth.”

Interestingly, while Rev. 6:15-17 is written using familiar apocalyptic, poetic, and prophetic hyperbole (which emphasizes the import and horror involved with the coming wrath of the Lamb upon Jerusalem), history records that people literally hid in caves (i.e. Josephus – particularly as the upper city of Jerusalem fell) trying to escape from the destruction brought upon them by the Roman army, which was the instrument of the Lord’s wrath.[7] So, again, like I said, we should not exclude certain events that happened, which seem to be fulfilments of the hyperbolic language used in the passage. But, like we recognize the nature and intent of the prophets use of such language in the OT, and how we should understand them, we should do so in passages such as this, in the book of Revelation.[8]

So it was that John, in Rev. 6:12-17, used familiar prophetic language in describing the phenomena after the breaking of the sixth seal, symbolizing the import of the Lord’s wrath coming down in judgment upon Jerusalem. This is not a reference to the end of the world. It is specific language, deliberately crafted in harmony with the Lord’s Olivet Discourse, using the Lord’s and the OT prophet’s symbolic, apocalyptic language of prophecy concerning the Lord’s wrath coming down on a nation (at times Israel, Judah, also Jerusalem, and pagan nations). And the symbolism includes the people at ground zero’s response of terror to his looming wrath. Consistent with the Jesus’ Discourse, the event symbolized takes place just after the great tribulation, as the Lord’s wrath crescendos immediately prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

As we visualize the drama of the sixth seal, a picture is flashed of a fleeting moment in time. The hammer of the Lord’s wrath was poised and beginning its descent. The bomb had been dropped. The artillery rounds had been fired and were on their way. And we see the widening of the eyes of the doomed target, the adrenaline spike and terror and futile dodge, when the swing of the lethal strike is sensed just prior to the slice, but too late.

… which is to be paused for an interlude in ch. 7, before the breaking of the seventh seal in ch. 8.

Now, my friends, this snapshot of impending doom and terror should remind us that the Lord’s wrath is very real and very terrible. As we know from the gospel, the Father did not spare his wrath on his own Son, who took upon himself all the sins of everyone who believes in him, paying for those sins as he hung on the cross. And like the Lord did not spare his wrath (the wrath of the Lamb) on the apostate Jews who rejected him, as Revelation lays out, the Lord will not spare anyone whose sins were not punished on his cross, that cross of Christ. It is appointed for a person to die once, and then judgment (Heb. 9:27). With such a fateful audience with the divine King and Judge of all the earth approaching, the only rational thing to do is to trust in Jesus. Follow him in faith and repentance and be saved, receiving forgiveness, eternal life, and all the blessings of his Kingdom. It is so simple. Put your faith in Jesus (the King and Lord of all, who loves you enough to die for you), and live accordingly, freed in the hope and confidence of his love. Fight the good fight. Finish the race. Keep the faith.

Again, the first century coming of the Lamb of God’s wrath should serve as a signpost and warning of the Lord Jesus’ final coming. Jesus came, as he promised, and he will come again, as he promised, all according to his plan of redemption and retribution. The Lord may come back, at any time. He says we’ll get no warning as to the day and time (Matt. 24:36ff.). Are you one of his people that will be saved? Are you ready?

Journal entry 18 November 2007, Baghdad – Afternoon:

The sermon went really well. I think it was well received. They were listening closely.

The XO called me during the service. Told me I needed to run by the BN. So I did straight after the service. Talked with [the commander] – he had a cut on his pinky – thinks it happened by flying glass. The BN HQs was in bad shape – peppered with holes all over the outside, blew a section of the roof off in the back – the doors were blown completely out in the front (and they were behind barriers) – all the windows in the hallway were blown out – and there was a huge crack in one of the walls that looked pretty unstable. They were still cleaning it up when I got there. They were wiping blood off the wall outside the boss’s office – his blood apparently where he had rubbed along the wall with his finger.

Went to the back and checked out the CSM and CDR’s trailer. Looked like it had been picked up and wrung out like a rag. Doors blown off – the trailer was all bent up looking. Everything inside strewn all over the place and turned over. The roof had caved in over the boss’s bed. In the CSM’s room a whole wall was blown out. Insulation and stuff was strewn everywhere.

The interesting thing is – they were not hit directly. The explosion was on the other side of the T-barriers outside their trailer. Fortunately with the 1st blast the boss rolled off his bed onto the floor so when the second blast came and everything caved in on the bed, etc. he was out of the way. CSM was out running so sought shelter in a bunker (I assume).

I find it interesting that the only casualty across the board with 16 or so rockets was the commanders pinky finger.

I told the guys that it was like the Lord was just swatting the falling rockets out of the way with his hand in protection of folks. …

Because the Sovereign Lord’s wrath is holy and just, we must trust his plan of retribution.

[1] Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 4.4.5.

[2] Ibid, 6.5.3.

[3] Cf. Alan James Beagley, The “Sitz Im Leben” of the Apocalypse with Particular Reference to the Role of the Church’s Enemies, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1987), 44. Also cf. Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., “The Seven Seals of Revelation 6,” PostmillenialWorldview.com, pub. 1 Oct. 2019, https://postmillennialworldview.com/2019/10/01/the-seven-seals-of-revelation-6/), where he puts forth some possible specific fulfillments. Gentry provides more details on various physical fulfillments of the sixth seal in The Book of Revelation Made Easy (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2010), 93-98.

[4] Beagley, 44, agrees saying (after listing several suggestions of suggested fulfilments in the first century such as earthquakes, eclipses, and so forth), “Here too, however, we believe that it is important to consider the Old Testament background of these images.” Likewise, Carrington (Philip Carrington, The Meaning of the Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007 – originally published by SPCK, 1931), 135-137), emphasizes the importance of the symbolic prophetic imagery (with explanations as to the nature of such) over various natural phenomena that might be fulfilments of the hyperbolic imagery. But he does not exclude the events they may represent, in contemplating the passage.

[5] Keith A. Mathison, From Age to Age (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), 668-669.

[6] Also cf. Hab. 3:6; Ezek. 26:15, 18; 38:20; Nah. 1:5; and Isa. 64:1, 3; 40:15; 41:5.

[7] For example, Josephus’s record, as Gentry, in “The Seven Seals of Revelation 6,” states: “Josephus frequently mentions that the Jews actually seek refuge underground during the A.D. 67-70 war: “And on this day the Romans slew all the multitude that appeared openly; but on the following days they searched the hiding places, and fell upon those that were underground, and in the caverns” (Wars 3:7:36; see also 3:2:3; 3:7:35; 5:3:1; 6:7:3; 6:9:4; 7:2:1).

[8] Cf. Carrington, 135-137. Concerning the fact that “the prophets in general use a great deal of hyperbole and picturesque exaggeration in the manner of Oriental poetry” (136), he wryly states, “People without sufficient imagination to understand this and enjoy it ought to steer clear of the Apocalypse. Just as a witness has to understand “the nature of an oath,” so the commentator needs to understand the nature of a poem, or even a joke. Many who are deficient in the sense of poetry and a sense of humour have tried their hands on the Apocalypse, and made a mess of it” (137).