The seven seals are not distinguished from each other
by specifying the time of them. They swiftly follow the letters
to the seven churches, and all begin almost at the same time.
By the four former is shown, that all the public occurrences of
all ages and nations, as empire, war, provision, calamities, are
made subject to Christ. And instances are intimated of the
first in the east, the second in the west, the third in the
south, the fourth in the north and the whole world.
The contents, as of the phials and trumpets, so of the seals,
are shown by the songs of praise and thanksgiving annexed to
them. They contain therefore "the power, and riches, and
wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing,"
which the Lamb received. The four former have a peculiar
connexion with each other; and so have the three latter seals.
The former relate to visible things, toward the four quarters
to which the four living creatures look.
Before we proceed, it may be observed,
No man should constrain either himself or another to explain
everything in this book. It is sufficient for every one to speak
just so far as he understands.
We should remember that, although the ancient prophets wrote
the occurrences of those kingdoms only with which Israel had to
do, yet the Revelation contains what relates to the whole world,
through which the Christian church is extended. Yet,
We should not prescribe to this prophecy, as if it must needs
admit or exclude this or that history, according as we judge one
or the other to be of great or small importance. "God seeth not
as a man seeth;" therefore what we think great is often omitted,
what we think little inserted, in scripture history or prophecy.
We must take care not to overlook what is already fulfilled;
and not to describe as fulfilled what is still to come.
We are to look in history for the fulfilling of the four first
seals, quickly after the date of the prophecy. In each of these
appears a different horseman. In each we are to consider,
first, the horseman himself; secondly, what he does.
The horseman himself, by an emblematical prosopopoeia,
represents a swift power, bringing with it either,
A flourishing state; or,
Scarcity of provisions; or,
With the quality of each of these riders the colour of his horse
agrees. The fourth horseman is expressly termed "death;" the
first, with his bow and crown, "a conqueror;" the second, with
his great sword, is a warrior, or, as the Roman termed him,
Mars; the third, with the scales, has power over the produce of
the land. Particular incidents under this or that Roman emperor
are not extensive enough to answer any of these horsemen.
The action of every horseman intimates farther,
Toward the east, wide spread empire, and victory upon victory:
Toward the west, much bloodshed:
Toward the south, scarcity of provisions:
Toward the north, the plague and various calamities.
1: I heard one - That is, the first. Of the living
creatures - Who looks forward toward the east.
2: And I saw, and behold a white horse, and he that sat
on him had a bow - This colour, and the bow shooting arrows afar
off, betoken victory, triumph, prosperity, enlargement of
empire, and dominion over many people.
Another horseman, indeed, and of quite another kind, appears on
a white horse, (Re 19:11). But he that is spoken of under the
first seal must be so understood as to bear a proportion to the
horsemen in the second, third, and fourth seal.
Nerva succeeded the emperor Domitian at the very time when the
Revelation was written, in the year of our Lord 96. He reigned
scarce a year alone; and three months before his death he named
Trajan for his colleague and successor, and died in the year 98.
Trajan's accession to the empire seems to be the dawning of the
seven seals. And a crown was given him - This, considering his
descent, Trajan could have no hope of attaining. But God gave
it him by the hand of Nerva; and then the east soon felt his
power. And he went forth conquering and to conquer - That is,
from one victory to another. In the year 108 the already
victorious Trajan went forth toward the east, to conquer not only
Armenia, Assyria, and Mesopotamia, but also the countries beyond
the Tigris, carrying the bounds of the Roman empire to a far
greater extent than ever. We find no emperor like him for making
conquests. He aimed at nothing else; he lived only to conquer.
Meantime, in him was eminently fulfilled what had been prophesied
of the fourth empire, (Da 2:40,7:23), that he should "devour,
tread down, and break in pieces the whole earth."
3: And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the
second living creature - Who looked toward the west. Saying,
Come - At each seal it was necessary to turn toward that quarter
of the world which it more immediately concerned.
4: There went forth another horse that was red - A colour
suitable to bloodshed. And to him that sat thereon it was given
to take peace from the earth - Vespasian, in the year 75, had
dedicated a temple to Peace; but after a time we hear little
more of peace. All is full of war and bloodshed, chiefly in the
western world, where the main business of men seemed to be, to
kill one another.
To this horseman there was given a great sword; and he had much
to do with it; for as soon as Trajan ascended the throne, peace
was taken from the earth. Decebalus, king of Dacia, which lies
westward from Patmos, put the Romans to no small trouble. The
war lasted five years, and consumed abundance of men on both
sides; yet was only a prelude to much other bloodshed, which
followed for a long season. All this was signified by the great
sword, which strikes those who are near, as the bow does those
who are at a distance.
5: And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the
third living creature - Toward the south. Saying, Come. And
behold a black horse - A fit emblem of mourning and distress;
particularly of black famine, as the ancient poets term it.
And he that sat on him had a pair of scales in his hand - When
there is great plenty, men scarce think it worth their while
to weigh and measure everything, (Ge 41:49). But when there
is scarcity, they are obliged to deliver them out by measure
and weight, (Eze 4:16). Accordingly, these scales signify
scarcity. They serve also for a token, that all the fruits
of the earth, and consequently the whole heavens, with their
courses and influences; that all the seasons of the year, with
whatsoever they produce, in nature or states, are subject to
Christ. Accordingly his hand is wonderful, not only in wars
and victories, but likewise in the whole course of nature.
6: And I heard a voice - It seems, from God himself.
Saying - To the horseman, "Hitherto shalt thou come, and no
farther." Let there be a measure of wheat for a penny - The word
translated measure, was a Grecian measure, nearly equal to our
quart. This was the daily allowance of a slave. The Roman
penny, as much as a labourer then earned in a day, was about
sevenpence halfpenny English. According to this, wheat would
be near twenty shillings per bushel. This must have been
fulfilled while the Grecian measure and the Roman money were
still in use; as also where that measure was the common measure,
and this money the current coin. It was so in Egypt under
Trajan. And three measures of barley for a penny - Either barley
was, in common, far cheaper among the ancients than wheat, or
the prophecy mentions this as something peculiar. And hurt not
the oil and the wine - Let there not be a scarcity of everything.
Let there he some provision left to supply the want of the rest
This was also fulfilled in the reign of Trajan, especially in
Egypt, which lay southward from Patmos. In this country, which
used to be the granary of the empire, there was an uncommon
dearth at the very beginning of his reign; so that he was
obliged to supply Egypt itself with corn from other countries.
The same scarcity there was in the thirteenth year of his reign,
the harvest failing for want of the rising of the Nile: and that
not only in Egypt, but in all those other parts of Afric, where
the Nile uses to overflow.
7: I heard the voice of the fourth living creature - Toward
8: And I saw, and behold a pale horse - Suitable to pale
death, his rider. And hades - The representative of the state
of separate souls. Followeth even with him - The four first seals
concern living men. Death therefore is properly introduced.
Hades is only occasionally mentioned as a companion of death.
So the fourth seal reaches to the borders of things invisible,
which are comprised in the three last seals. And power was
given to him over the fourth part of the earth - What came single
and in a lower degree before, comes now together, and much more
severely. The first seal brought victory with it: in the second
was "a great sword;" but here a scimitar. In the third was
moderate dearth; here famine, and plague, and wild beasts
beside. And it may well be, that from the time of Trajan
downwards, the fourth part of men upon the earth, that is,
within the Roman empire, died by sword, famine, pestilence,
and wild beasts. "At that time," says Aurelius Victor, "the
Tyber overflowed much more fatally than under Nerva, with a
great destruction of houses and there was a dreadful earthquake
through many provinces, and a terrible plague and famine, and
many places consumed by fire." By death - That is, by pestilence
wild beasts have, at several times, destroyed abundance of men;
and undoubtedly there was given them, at this time, an uncommon
fierceness and strength. It is observable that war brings on
scarcity, and scarcity pestilence, through want of wholesome
sustenance; and pestilence, by depopulating the country, leaves
the few survivors an easier prey to the wild beasts. And thus
these judgments make way for one another in the order wherein
they are here represented.
What has been already observed may be a fourfold proof that the
four horsemen, as with their first entrance in the reign of
Trajan, (which does by no means exhaust the contents of the four
first seals,) so with all their entrances in succeeding ages,
and with the whole course of the world and of visible nature,
are in all ages subject to Christ, subsisting by his power, and
serving his will, against the wicked, and in defence of the
righteous. Herewith, likewise, a way is paved for the trumpets
which regularly succeed each other; and the whole prophecy, as
to what is future, is confirmed by the clear accomplishment of
this part of it.
9: And when he opened the fifth seal - As the four former
seals, so the three latter, have a close connexion with each
other. These all refer to the invisible world; the fifth, to
the happy dead, particularly the martyrs; the sixth, to the
unhappy; the seventh, to the angels, especially those to whom
the trumpets are given. And I saw - Not only the church warring
under Christ, and the world warring under Satan; but also the
invisible hosts, both of heaven and hell, are described in this
book. And it not only describes the actions of both these
armies upon earth; but their respective removals from earth,
into a more happy or more miserable state, succeeding each other
at several times, distinguished by various degrees, celebrated
by various thanksgivings; and also the gradual increase of
expectation and triumph in heaven, and of terror and misery in
hell. Under the altar - That is, at the foot of it. Two altars
are mentioned in the Revelation, "the golden altar" of incense,(Re 9:13); and the altar of burnt - offerings, mentioned here,
and (Re 8:5,14:18,16:7). At this the souls of the martyrs
now prostrate themselves. By and by their blood shall be avenged
upon Babylon; but not yet, whence it appears that the plagues in
the fourth seal do not concern Rome in particular.
10: And they cried - This cry did not begin now, but under
the first Roman persecution. The Romans themselves had already
avenged the martyrs slain by the Jews on that whole nation. How
long - They knew their blood would be avenged; but not immediately,
as is now shown them. O Lord - The Greek word properly signifies
the master of a family: it is therefore beautifully used by
these, who are peculiarly of the household of God. Thou Holy
One and true - Both the holiness and truth of God require him to
execute judgment and vengeance. Dost thou not judge and avenge
our blood? - There is no impure affection in heaven: therefore,
this desire of theirs is pure and suitable to the will of God.
The martyrs are concerned for the praise of their Master, of his
holiness and truth: and the praise is given him, (Re 19:2),
where the prayer of the martyrs is changed into a thanksgiving:
Thou holy One and true: "True and right are thy judgments."
How long dost thou not judge and avenge our blood?
"He hath judged the great whore, and hath avenged the blood of his servants."
11: And there was given to every one a white robe - An
emblem of innocence, joy, and victory, in token of honour
and favourable acceptance. And it was said to them - They were
told how long. They were not left in that uncertainty. That
they should rest - Should cease from crying. They rested from
pain before. A time - This word has a peculiar meaning in this
book, to denote which, we may retain the original word chronos.
Here are two classes of martyrs specified, the former killed
under heathen Rome, the latter, under papal Rome. The former
are commanded to rest till the latter are added to them.
There were many of the former in the days of John: the first
fruits of the latter died in the thirteenth century. Now, a
time, or chronos, is 1111 years. This chronos began A. C. 98,
and continued to the year 1209; or from Trajan's persecution,
to the first crusade against the Waldenses. Till - It is not
said, Immediately after this time is expired, vengeance shall
be executed; but only, that immediately after this time their
brethren and fellowservants will come to them. This event
will precede the other; and there will be some space between.
12: And I saw - This sixth seal seems particularly to point
out God's judgment on the wicked departed. St. John saw how the
end of the world was even then set before those unhappy spirits.
This representation might be made to them, without anything of
it being perceived upon earth. The like representation is made
in heaven, (Re 11:18).
And there was a great earthquake - Or shaking, not of the earth
only, but the heavens. This is a farther description of the
representation made to those unhappy souls.
13: And the stars fell to, or towards, the earth - Yea, and
so they surely will, let astronomers fix their magnitude as they
please. As a fig tree casteth its untimely figs, when it is
shaken by a mighty wind - How sublimely is the violence of that
shaking expressed by this comparison!
14: And the heavens departed as a book that is rolled
together - When the scripture compares some very great with a
little thing, the majesty and omnipotence of God, before whom
great things are little, is highly exalted. Every mountain
and island - What a mountain is to the land, that an island is
to the sea.
15: And the kings of the earth - They who had been so in
their day. And the great men and chief captains - The generals
and nobles. Hid themselves - So far as in them lay. In the rocks
of the mountains - There are also rocks on the plains; but they
were rocks on high, which they besought to fall upon them.
16: To the mountains and the rocks - Which were tottering
already, verse 12. (Re 6:12)
Hide us from the face of him - Which "is against the ungodly,"(Ps 34:16).