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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Greek Testament

Revelation 6

 

 

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Verse 1

Revelation 6:1. The command or invitation ἔρχου is not addressed to Christ (as Revelation 22:17; Revelation 22:20). If addressed to the seer, it is abbreviated from the ordinary rabbinic phrase (ueni et uide) used to excite attention and introduce the explanation of any mystery. The immediate sequel (omitted only in Revelation 6:4), καὶ εἶδον, does not, however, forbid the reference of ἔρχου to the mounted figures; hearing the summons, John looked to see its meaning and result. The panorama of these four dragoons (“ad significandum iter properum cum potentia”) is partly sketched from Semitic folk-lore, where apparitions of horsemen (cf. 2 Maccabees 3:25, etc.: “the Beduins always granted me that none living had seen the angel visions … the meleika are seen in the air like horsemen, tilting to and fro,” Doughty, Arab. Deserta, i. 449) have been a frequent omen of the end (cf. Jos. Bell. vi. 5; Sib. Or. iii. 796), partly reproduced from (Persian elements in) Zechariah 1:7 f., Revelation 6:1-8, in order to bring out the disasters (cf. Jeremiah 14:12; Jeremiah 21:7) prior to the last day. The direct sources of 6. and 9. lie in Leviticus 26:19-26; Ezekiel 33:27; Ezekiel 34:28 f., and Sirach 39:29-30 (“fire and hail and famine and θάνατος, all these are created for vengeance; teeth of wild beasts and scorpions and serpents and a sword taking vengeance on the impious to destroy them”). An astral background, in connection with the seven tables of destiny in Babylonian mythology, each of which was dedicated to a planet of a special colour, has been conjectured by Renan (472); cf. Chwolson’s Die Ssabier, iii. 658, 671, 676 f. For other efforts to associate these horsemen with the winds or the planets, see Jeremias (pp. 24 f.) and M.W. Müller in Zeitr. f. d. neutest. Wiss. (1907), 290–316. But the proofs are fanciful and vague, though they converge upon the view that the colours of the steeds at least had originally some planetary significance. The series, as usual, is divided into the first four and the second three members. The general contents of Revelation 6:1-8 denote various but not successive phases of woe (only too familiar to inhabitants of the Eastern provinces) which were to befall the empire and the East during the military convulsions of the final strife between Rome and Parthia. The “primum omen,” for John as for Vergil, is a white horse, ridden by an archer.


Verse 2

Revelation 6:2. White = royal and victorious colour, cf. the white horse of the Persian kings (Philostr. Vit. Ap. i.). The triumphant figure of the mounted bowman is by no means to be identified with that of the Christian messiah or of the gospel. It would be extremely harsh and confusing to represent the messiah as at once the Lamb opening the seal and a figure independently at work. The initial period of the gospel was not one of irresistible triumph, and matters have become too acute for John to share the belief voiced in Mark 13:10. Besides, the messiah could hardly be described as preceding the signs of his own advent, nor would he be on the same plane as the following figures. The vision is a tacit antithesis, not an anticipation, of Revelation 19:11 f.; the triumph of the world which opens the drama is rounded off by an infinitely grander triumph won by Christ.— νικῶν κ. κ. τ. λ. John was too open-eyed to ignore the fact that other forces, besides the Christian gospel, had a success of their own on earth. What is this force? Not the Roman Empire, as if the four steeds represented the first four emperors (so, variously, Renan, Spitta, Weizsäcker), but a raid of the Parthians (so most edd. from Vitringa to Erbes, Völter, Holtzm., Bousset, Bruston, Ramsay, Scott), which represented war in its most dreaded form for inhabitants of the Eastern provinces. There is no need to find any definite reference to the raid of Vonones (Wetstein) or of Vologesus who invaded Syria in 61–63 A.D. The simple point of the vision is that the Parthians would be commissioned to make a successful foray, carrying all before them. The bow was the famous and dreaded weapon of these oriental cavalry; νικήτωρ was a title of Seleucus, and νικητής of the Persian satrap. One plausible hypothesis (developed by Erbes) refers the basis of the seal-visions to (a) the triumphs of Augustus and Tiberius, (b) the bloody feuds in Palestine under Caligula, (c) the famine in Syria under Claudius (Acts 11), (d) the subsequent pestilence, (e) the Neronic martyrs, and (f) the agitations of the empire under Galba, etc. (for portents cf. Plin. Ep. vi. 16, 20; Tacit. Hist. i. 4). But a similar collocation of portents is found in the reign of Titus; and apart from the misinterpretation of the first seal, it is arbitrary and jejune to suppose that this prophet’s splendid, free reading of providence was laboriously spelt out from details of more or less recent history.


Verse 3-4

Revelation 6:3-4. The second seal opened: A swordsman representing (red = martial colour) war and bloodshed, “is permitted to make men slay one another”. The allusion to the merciless weapon (Plut. de Iside, 11) of the sword as Rome’s national arm thus places the Parthian and Roman empires side by side ( τῆς γῆς generally, not Judaea in particular), but the vision of war is also connected directly with the two following visions of famine (Revelation 6:5-6) and mortality (from pestilence, 7, 8). The seven punishments drawn up by rabbinic theology (Pirke Aboth, Revelation 6:11 f.) were: three kinds of famine, pestilence, noisome beasts, and captivity or exile.


Verse 5

Revelation 6:5. The spectral figure of Hunger holds a balance or pair of scales ( ζ. literally = the beam, see reff.) for measuring bread by weight, to personify (Revelation 6:6) bad times, when provisions became cruelly expensive. One χοῖνιξ of wheat, the usual rations of a working man for a day, is to cost twelve times its normal price, while the labourer’s daily pay will not command more than an eighth of the ordinary twenty-four measures of the coarser barley. Grain is not to disappear entirely from the earth, otherwise there would be no famine. But food-stuffs are to be extremely scanty and therefore dear (cf. Leviticus 26:26; Ezekiel 4:16). These hard times are aggravated ( καὶ adversative) by the immunity of oil and wine, which are, comparatively speaking, luxuries. One exasperating feature of the age would be the sight of wine and oil flowing, while grain trickled slowly into the grasp of the famishing. The best explanation of this realistic exception is to regard it as a water-mark of the Domitianic date (for details see the present writer’s study in Expos. Oct. 1908, 359–369). In 92 A.D. Domitian had made a futile attempt to injure the cultivation of the vine in the provinces, which led to widespread agitation throughout Ionia. His edict had soon to be withdrawn, but not till it had roused fear and anger. Hence the words hurt not the wine have the force of a local allusion to what was fresh in his readers’ minds. The point of the saying lies in the recent events which had stirred Smyrna and the surrounding townships, and which provided the seer with a bit of colour for his palette as he painted the final terrors. It is as if he grimly said: “Have no fears for your vines! There will be no Domitian to hurt them. Comfort yourselves with that. Only, it will be small comfort to have your liquid luxuries spared and your grain reduced almost to starvation point.” Or, the prophet’s meaning might be that the exemption of the vine would only pander to drunkenness and its attendant ills. The addition of τὸ ἔλαιον is probably an artistic embodiment, introduced in order to fill out the sketch. The cultivation of the olive accompanied that of the vine, and the olive meant smooth times. It is no era of peace; far from that, the prophet implies. But the olive, “the darling of Peace” (as Vergil calls it), flourishes unchecked, so mocking and awry are the latter days. For ἀδικεῖν = “injure” (a country), see reff., Revelation 7:2, and Dittenberger’s Sylloge Inscr. Graec. 557. This Domitianic reference of Revelation 6:6 was first worked out by S. Reinach (Revue Archéolog. 1901, 350 f.) and has been accepted by Harnack, Heinrici, Bousset, J. Weiss, Abbott, Holtzmann, Baljon, and others. There is no allusion to Jos. Bell. Revelation 6:13; Revelation 6:6, or to the sparing of gardens during the siege of Jerusalem (S. Krauss, in Preuschen’s Zeitschrift, 1909, 81–89).


Verse 5-6

Revelation 6:5-6. The third seal opened = famine.


Verse 7-8

Revelation 6:7-8. The fourth seal opened pestilence and mortality.


Verse 8

Revelation 6:8. χλωρός, pale or livid as a corpse.— ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ, for the ordinary ἐπʼ αὐτόν, a grammatical variation which has no special significance. In this Dureresque vignette the spectre of Hades, bracketed here as elsewhere with Death, accompanies the latter to secure his booty of victims. So Nergal, the Babylonian Pluto, is not content with ruling the regions of the dead but appears as an active personification of violent destruction, especially pestilence and war, inflicting his wounds on large masses rather than on individuals (Jastrow, 66, 67). A similar duality of conception, local and personal, obtained in Semitic and Hellenic mythology (cf e.g., Revelation 9:11); only, Death is not here personified as an angel (with Jewish theology, cf. Eisenmenger’s Eindecktes Jud. i. 854 f., 862 f.). As the chief partner in this grim league, he is given destructive power over a certain quarter of the earth ( τὸ τέτ. colloquially); his agents are the usual apocalyptic scourges (cf. Ezekiel 14:21, Ps. Sol. 13:2 f., with Plut. Iside, 47 for the Iranian expectation of λοιμὸς καὶ λιμός as inflictions of Ahriman) against which the Jewish evening prayer was directed (“keep far from us the enemy, the pestilence, the sword, famine and affliction”). War, followed by famine which bred pestilence, was familiar in Palestine (Jos. Antiq. xv. 9) during the first century A.D. Indeed throughout the ancient world war and pestilence were closely associated, while wild beasts multiplied and preyed on human life, as the land was left untilled. In Test. Naphth. 8, etc., Beliar is the captain of wild beasts. Note that the prophet sees only the commissions, not the actual deeds, of these four dragoons: not until Revelation 6:12 f. does anything happen. The first four seals are simply arranged on the rabbinic principle (Sohar Gen. fol. 91), “quodcunque in terra est, id etiam in coelo est, et nulla res tarn exigua est in mundo quae non ab alia simili quae in coelo est dependeat”. The four plagues (a Babylonian idea) are adapted from Ezekiel 14:12 f. Contemporary disasters which may have lent vividness to the sketch are collected by Renan (pp. 323 f.).


Verse 9

Revelation 6:9. The scene changes from earth to heaven, which appears as a replica of the earthly temple with its altar of burnt offering. As the blood of sacrifices flowed at the base of the altar (Revelation 16:7), the blood representing the life, the symbolism is obvious. It was mediated by rabbinic ideas of the souls of the just (e.g., of Moses) resting under the divine throne of glory; cf. R. Akiba’s saying, “quicumque sepelitur in terra Israel, perinde est ac si sepeliretur sub altari: quicumque autem sepelitur sub altari, perinde est ac si sepeliretur sub throno gloriae” (Pirke Aboth, 26). The omission of ἰησοῦ after μ. may suggest that the phrase is intended to include not so much the heroic Jews who fell in the defence of their temple against Rome (Weyland) as pre-Christian Jewish martyrs (cf. Hebrews 11:39-40) who are raised to the level of the Christian church, and also those Jews who had been martyred for refusing to worship the emperor (cf. Revelation 7:9, Revelation 17:6, and Jos. B. J. vii. 10, 1). But the primary thought of the Christian prophet is for Rome’s latest victims in the Neronic persecution and the recent enforcement of the cultus under Domitian. The general idea is derived from Zechariah 1:12, Psalms 79:10, and En. xxii. 5 (“and I saw the spirits of the children of men who were dead, and their voice penetrated to the heaven and complained,” from the first division of Sheol).


Verses 9-11

Revelation 6:9-11. The fifth seal opened.


Verse 10

Revelation 6:10. Like Clem. Rom., John is fond of δεσπότης as implying the divine might and majesty (3 Maccabees 3:29; 3 Maccabees 5:28). This severe and awe-inspiring conception (cf. Philo, quis rer. div. haer. 6) means that God will vindicate his holiness, which had been outraged by the murder of the δοῦλοι for whom he is responsible. In contemporary pagan religions throughout Asia Minor, the punishment of wrong-doing is often conceived in the same way, viz., as the answer to the sufferer’s appeal (cf. Introd. § 2), not simply as a spontaneous act of divine retribution. “How long wilt thou refrain from charging and avenging our blood upon ( ἐκ as in 1 Samuel 24:13, Psalms 42:1) those who dwell on the earth” (i.e., pagans)? The bleeding heart of primitive Christendom stands up and cries, “I have suffered”. For ἐκδικεῖν αἷμα cf. Dittenberger’s Sylloge Inscript. Graec. 816 (1 cent. A.D.) ἵνα ἐγδικήσῃς τὸ αἷμα τὸ ἀναίτιον, etc.; for ἐκδ. ἐκ (= מן) of vengeance, cf. Luke 18:3-8 ( ἀπὸ), a close parallel in thought, though this pathetic, impatient thirst for blood-revenge, which has “the full drift of Psalms 94 below it” (Selwyn) is inferior not only to 1 Peter 2:23 but to the synoptic wail. The Jewish atmosphere is unmistakable (cf. 2 Maccabees 7:36; also Deissmann’s Licht vom Osten, 312 f.), but this does not mean that the passage was necessarily written by a Jew. In that case we should have expected some allusion to the vicarious, atoning power of the martyrs’ death (R. J. 181). The prophet evidently anticipated further persecution, since he wrote on the verge of the end precipitated by the Domitianic policy (cf. on Revelation 2:13). Such persecution follows natural disturbances, as in the synoptic apocalypse (Matthew 24:6-7; Matthew 24:21 f.), but the outline of the fifth seal is taken from Enoch, where (xlvii.) the prayer and blood of the martyred saints “rise from the earth before the Lord of Spirits,” while the angels rejoice that such blood has not been shed in vain. In En. xcvii. 3–5 the prayer of the righteous for vengeance overtakes their persecutors on the day of judgment with woeful issues (xxix. 3, 16). “Persist in your cry for judgment, and it shall appear unto you; for all your tribulation will be visited on the rulers, and on all their helpers, and on those who plundered you” (civ. 3, cf. xxii. 6, 7, where Abel’s pirit complains of Cain).— κατ. κ. τ. λ. always in Apocalypse opposed to the saints, almost as “the world” to “the pious” in modern phraseology. This usage is largely paralleled by that of the Noachic interpolations in Enoch (see Charles on xxxvii. 5), where the phrase has either unfavourable or neutral associations. ἅγιος here (as John 17:11 = Did. x. 3, πανάγιος Clem. Rom. xxxv. 3, lviii. 1) applied by a comparatively rare usage (1 Peter 1:15 and Revelation 4:8 being dependent on O.T.) to God, whose intense holiness must be in antagonism to the evil and contradictions of the world (Titius, 9–11).


Verse 11

Revelation 6:11. The white robe assigned each (Blass, § 32, 4) of these martyr-spirits as a pledge of future and final glory (Revelation 7:9) and a consoling proof that no judgment awaited them (Revelation 20:4-6), is a favourite gift in the Jewish heaven (cf. Enoch lxii. 15 f., and Asc. Isa. ix. 24 f.). The intermediate state was a much debated question in apocalyptic literature, and early Christian thought fluctuates between the idea of a provisional degree of bliss (as here and, e.g., Clem. Rom. i. 3, “those who by God’s grace have been perfected in love possess the place of the pious, and they shall be manifested at the visitation of God’s kingdom”) and a direct, full entrance into heavenly privileges—especially, though neither uniformly nor exclusively, reserved for martyrs (Clem. Rom. v, Polyk. ad Phil. ix. 2, Hebrews 12:23, etc.); cf. Titius, 44–46. A cognate idea is reproduced in Asc. Isaiah 9:6 f., where in the seventh heaven Abel, Enoch and the Jewish saints appear all clothed “in the garments of the upper world” (i.e., in their resurrection-bodies) but not yet in full possession of their privileges, not yet seated on their thrones or wearing their crowns of glory. These are not theirs, till Christ descends to earth and ascends to heaven again.—“And they were told to rest (or wait quietly) for a little while yet,” as they had been doing till the successive shocks of providence stirred them to an outburst of eager and reproachful anticipation. To rest implies to cease crying for vengeance (cf. Revelation 4:8). Gfrörer (2:50) cites a rabbinic tradition that the messiah would not come until all souls in גוּף (an intermediate resting-place of the departed?) were clothed with bodies. ἕως κ. τ. λ., this is closely and curiously reproduced, not so much from ideas preserved in the contemporary Apoc. Bar. xxiii. 4, 5 (where the end of the world comes when the predestined number of human beings is completed) as from the religious tradition also used in Clem. Rom. ii, lix, Justin (Apol. 1:45), and the contemporary 4th Esdras (4:36 f., quoniam in statera ponderauit saecula et mensura mensurauit tempora et non commouit nec excitauit, usquedum impleatur praedicta mensura … quando impletus fuerit numerus similium uobis) which thinks not of mankind but of the righteous (cf. Apoc. Bar. xxx. 2, and Hebrews 11:40). The atmosphere of this belief goes back to the first century B.C., as in Enoch (xlvii, cf. 9:22.) “and the hearts of the holy were filled with joy that the number of righteousness had drawn nigh, and the prayer of the righteous was heard, and the blood of the righteous required, before the Lord of Spirits” (cf. below, ch. Revelation 11:15 f.). The thought is repeated in Ep. Lugd. from this passage (“day by day those who were worthy were seized, filling up their number, so that all the zealous people and those through whom our affairs here had been especially established, were collected out of both churches”). It had been already developed otherwise in 4th Esdras 4:35 f., where the seer’s impatience for the end is rebuked and God’s greater eagerness asserted. “Did not the souls of the righteous question thus in their chambers, saying, ‘How long are we still to stay here? et quando ueniet fructus areae mercedis nostrae?’ And the archangel Jeremiel answered them and said, ‘When the number of your fellows is complete’.” Substituting martyrs for the righteous, the author of our Apocalypse has exploited the idea thus familiar to him as a devout Jew; his first four visions come mainly through Zechariah; for the next he adapts this later post-exilic notion. The Neronic victims and their fellows occupied in his mind the place filled by the early Jewish saints in the reverent regard of contemporary Jews. As Renan notices (317 f.), this thirst for vengeance was in the air after Nero’s death, shared even by Romans; one legend (Suet. Nero, xlviii., Dio Cass. lxiii. 28) told how, as Nero fled to his last retreat, during a thunderpeal the souls of his victims burst from the earth and flung themselves upon him.—As the safety of the physical universe rested on the safety of the righteous, according to the Jewish notion, so any massacres of the latter at once affected the stability of the world. Hence the sequence of Revelation 6:11-12 f. There is no hint that these physical aberrations were temporary. Yet the following catastrophes (7 f.) plainly presuppose a universe in its original and normal condition. It depends upon the theory adopted of the book whether this points merely to such discrepancies as are not unfamiliar in literature (especially imaginative literature), or to recapitulation, or to the presence of different sources.


Verses 12-14

Revelation 6:12-14. The earthquake (reff.), darkening of sun by atmospheric disturbances, (Verg. Georg. i. 463 f., Lucan i. 75 f. 522 f., Compare Ass. Mos. Revelation 10:4 f.: et tremebit terra. Usque ad fines suas concutietur … sol non dab it lumen et in tenebras conuertet se, etc.; for Babylonian background cf. Schrader,3 392 f.), reddening of the full moon as in a total eclipse (cf. reff.), the dropping of stars, the removal of the sky, and the displacement of mountain and island (En. i. 6, see below on Revelation 14:20) are all more or less stereotyped features of the physical situation in apocalyptic eschatology, where naturally (cf. Jos. Bell. iv. 4, 5) agonies and distortions of the universe precede some divine punishment of men (Verg. Georg. i. 365 f.).


Verses 12-17

Revelation 6:12-17. The sixth seal opened (cf. Crashaw’s To the Name of Jesus, 220–234).


Verses 15-17

Revelation 6:15-17. Note the sevenfold description of the effect produced on humanity (Revelation 19:18, cf. Revelation 13:16), the Roman χιλίαρχοι (= tribuni), the riches and rank of men ( ἰσχ. a dramatic touch = defiant authority, like Mrs. Browning’s Lucifer: “strength to behold him and not worship him, Strength to be in the universe and yet Neither God nor God’s servant”; see especially Ps. Sol. 15:3, 4), the distinction of slaves and free as a pagan, never as an internal Christian, division; also the painting of the panic from O.T. models (reff.). Those who are now the objects of dread, cower and fly to the crags and caves—a common sanctuary in Syria (cf. Introd. § 8). Mr. Doughty describes a meteoric shock in Arabia thus: “a thunder-din resounded marvellously through the waste mountain above us; it seemed as if this world went to wrack.… The most in the mejlis were of opinion that a ‘star’ had fallen” (Ar. Des. i. 462, 463). The Hosean citation (cf. Jeremiah 8:3) here, as in Luke, gives powerful expression to the dread felt by an evil conscience; even the swift agony of being crushed to death is preferable to being left face to face with the indignation of an outraged God. To stand (cf. Luke 21:36) is to face quietly the judgment of God (1 John 2:28), which is impossible except after a life which has resolutely stood its ground (Ephesians 6:13) amid reaction and served God (Revelation 6:10-11). The panic of kings, etc., is taken from the description of the judgment in Enoch 62–63, where before the throne of messiah “the mighty and the kings” in despairing terror seek repentance in vain; “and one portion of them will look on the other, and they will be terrified, and their countenance will fall, and pain will seize them,” at the sight of messiah. In Apoc. Bar. xxv. also the approach of the end is heralded by stupor of heart and despair among the inhabitants of the earth, while a similar stress falls (in Sap. 6:1-9) on kings, etc., and (in En. xxxvii.–lxxi. generally) on the earth’s rulers. There is no need to suspect καὶἀρνίου (16) as an editorial gloss (Vischer, Spitta, Weyland, de Faye, Völter, Pfleiderer, von Soden, Rauch, J. Weiss, Briggs); it may be a characteristic touch designed to point the O.T. citation (for αὐτοῦ in 17 or in Revelation 22:3 cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:11, 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17), rather than a scribal or editorial insertion in what was originally a Jewish source.

The great day of God’s wrath has come, but the action is interrupted by an entre-acte in 7, where as in Revelation 10:1 to Revelation 11:13, the author introduces an intermezzo between the sixth and the seventh members of the series. A change comes over the spirit of his dream. But although this oracle is isolated by form and content from its context, it is a consoling rhapsody or rapture designed to relieve the tension by lifting the eyes of the faithful over the foam and rocks of the rapids on which they were tossing to the calm, sunlit pool of bliss which awaited them beyond. They get this glimpse before the seventh seal is opened with its fresh cycle of horrors. The parenthesis consists of two heterogeneous visions, one (Revelation 6:1-8) on earth and one (Revelation 6:9-17) in heaven. The former (and indeed the whole section, cf. the ἑστῶτες of 9) is an implicit answer to the query of Revelation 6:17, τίς δύναται σταθῆναι; it is an enigmatic fragment of apocalyptic tradition, which originally predicted (cf. Ezekiel 9:1 f.) God’s safeguarding of a certain number of Jews, prior to some catastrophe of judgment (“Cry havoc, and let slip the winds of war!”) upon the wicked. The chapter is not a literary unit with editorial touches (Weyland, Erbes, Bruston, Rauch), nor is 9–17 a continuation of 6. (Spitta). Revelation 6:1-8 are a Jewish fragment incorporated ay the author, who writes 9–17 himself (so, e.g., Vischer, Pfleiderer, Schmidt, Porter, Bousset, von Soden, Scott, Wellhausen). The fact that a selection, and not the whole, of the Jews are preserved, does not (in view of 4 Esdras) prove that a Jewish Christian (Völter, J. Weiss) must have written it. The scenery is not organic to John’s proper outlook. After Revelation 6:8 he shows no further interest in it. The winds are never loosed. The sealing itself is not described. The sealed are not seen. An apparent allusion to this remnant does occur (Revelation 16:1), but it is remote; John makes nothing of it; and the detached, special character of Revelation 7:1-8 becomes plainer the further we go into the other visions. The sealed are exempted merely from the plague of the winds, not from martyrdom or persecution (of which there is no word here); one plague indeed has power to wound, though not to kill, them (Revelation 9:4-5). The collocation of the fragment with what precedes is probably due in part to certain similarities like the allusions to the wind (Revelation 6:13), numbering (Revelation 6:11), and the seals (Revelation 6:1 f.). The real problem is, how far did John take this passage literally? This raises the question of the relationship between 1–8 and 9–17; either (a) both are different forms of the same belief, or (b) two different classes of people are meant. In the former event (a) John applies the Jewish oracle of 1–8 to the real Jews, i.e., the Christians, who as a pious remnant are to be kept secure amid the cosmic whirl and crash of the latter days (Revelation 6:12-17, cf. Revelation 3:10 and the connexion of Nahum 1:5-7). The terror passes and lo the saints are seen safe on the other side (Revelation 6:9-17). This interpretation of Christians as the real Israel or twelve tribes is favoured not only by early Christian thought (cf. 1 Peter 1:1, James 1:1, Herm. Sim. ix. 17), but by the practice of John himself (e.g., Revelation 18:4). Here as elsewhere he takes the particularist language of his source in a free symbolic fashion; only, while the archaic scenery of 1–8 suffices for a description of the safeguarded on earth, he depicts their beatified state (Revelation 6:9-17) in ampler terms. The deeper Christian content of his vision implies not deliverance from death but deliverance through death. His saints are not survivors but martyrs. Hence the contrast between 1–8 and 9–17 is one of language rather than of temper, and the innumerable multitude of the latter, instead being a supplement to the 144,000, are the latter viewed after their martyr-death under a definitely Christian light. The O.T. imagery of 1–8 mainly brings out the fact that the true Israel (Galatians 6:16) is known and numbered by God; not one is lost. The alternative theory (b) holds that in taking over this fragment and adding another vision John meant Jewish Christians by the 144,000. The latter identification (so, e.g., Prim., Vict., Hausrath, Vischer, Spitta, Hirscht, Forbes, Bousset) is less probable, however, in view of the general tenor of the Apocalypse (cf. Introd. § 6), for the usual passages cited as proof (cf. notes on Revelation 14:1 f., Revelation 21:12; Revelation 21:24) are irrelevant, and while John prized the martyrs it is incredible that 9–17 was meant to prove that martyrdom was required to admit Gentile Christians even to a second grade among the elect (Weizsäcker, Pfleiderer). A Jewish Christian prophet might indeed, out of patriotic pride, regard the nucleus of God’s kingdom as composed of faithful Jews, without being particularist in his sympathies. Paul himself once held this nationalist view (Romans 9-11.), but it is doubtful if it represented his final position, and in any case the general conception of the Apocalypse (where Christians are the true Jews, and where particularist language is used metaphorically, just because literally it was obsolete) tells on the whole in favour of the view that 9–17 represents 1–8 read in the light of Revelation 5:9 (so, e.g., de Wette, Bruston, Porter, Wellhausen, and Hoennicke: das Judenchristentum, 194 f.). Only, the general description of redeemed Christians in Revelation 5:9 is specifically applied in Revelation 7:14 to the candidatus martyrum exercitus. Here as elsewhere John apparently conceives the final trial to be so searching and extensive that Christians will all be martyrs or confessors. The wonderful beauty of 9–17, whose truth rises above its original setting, requires no comment. It moved Renan (479, 480), after criticising “le contour mesquin” of the Apocalypse in general, to rejoice in the book’s “symbolical expression of the cardinal principle that God is, but above all that He shall be. No doubt Paul put it better when he summed up the final goal of the universe in these words, that God may be all in all. But lor a long while yet men will require a God who dwells with them, sympathises with their trials, is mindful of their struggles, and wipes away every tear from their eyes.”

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicol, W. Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Revelation 6:4". The Expositor's Greek Testament. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/egt/revelation-6.html. 1897-1910.

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