Harry Whittaker
Revelation - A Biblical Approach

Chapter 11 - The First Four Seals - A.D. 70 (6:1-8)

It is now time to consider the Seals in detail. It is important always to have in mind the triple fulfilment of this part of Revelation, which has been argued for in the two preceding chapters:

a. A.D. 70. The Fall of Jerusalem.
b. The “continuous-historic” application (“Eureka”).
c. The Last Days and the Coming of the Lord.

In what follows the second of these will be omitted. It has already been excellently done elsewhere. (For those without the time to give detailed consideration to the three large volumes of “Eureka,” “Notes on the Apocalypse” by C.C.W. will be found most valuable. It is an admirable digest of the bigger work.)

As details in the Seals are expounded attention will focus chiefly on the fulfilment in and around A.D. 70, for the very simple and obvious reason that it is far easier to make a job of expounding a fulfilled prophecy than one, which is yet to be fulfilled. Where a future fulfilment is concerned, precision and fullness of detail in the exposition are hardly possible - at least, not with the confidence one could wish. The Holy Spirit’s gift of “interpretation” is not, alas, extant in these days.

“The four horsemen of the Apocalypse” introduce the first four Seals. These are the angel-drivers of the cherubim-chariots of the Lord - “the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof” (2 Kings 2:11, 12, 6:17; 13:14; 1 Chronicles 28:18; Psalm 18:10). Here, immediately, is a strong suggestion that these visions have reference to dramatic events connected with Israel.

The cherubim-chariot was seen by Ezekiel (ch. 1) at the beginning of the Captivity in Babylon, and by Zechariah (6:1-8) at the end of the Captivity Do not these facts suggest that the mention of the four horsemen again in Revelation 6 is intended to direct interpretation to the beginning and end of Israel’s “captivity” in the times of the Gentiles?


In the waste howling wilderness of varied and contradictory interpretations of Revelation, Seals 2, 3 and 4 stand out as an oasis of some sort of unanimity. The same can hardly be said for the First Seal. So, for the sake of having feet on terra firma at the start, a beginning is made here on Seal 2.

When the second of the four cherubim says “Come” (for the reading “Come and see” is doubtful) there appears a red horse, “and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another.” Symbolic of this war-like character is the “great sword” that was given him.

Difficulty in accepting the application only to the Jewish War in Palestine during the First Century, may be occasioned by the words: “to take peace from the earth;” the phrase seems to require a much wider fulfilment. Luke 21:23 elucidates: “There shall be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people” i.e. in the Land of Palestine. The word used here is identical with the word “earth” which comes several times in Revelation 6. Thus “the wild beasts of the earth” may be the (figurative) wild beasts of Palestine - these to be interpreted later - and “the kings of the earth” may be the kings of Palestine - as will also be shewn in due course. This ambiguity about “earth” and “land” is really a Hebraism carried over from the Old Testament where eretz can likewise bear either of these two meanings.[19]

“It was given to him that sat on the red horse to take peace from the Land, and that they should slay one another.” The tumult, rapine and savagery, which filled Palestine from end to end from A.D. 67 to 70, were more than adequate fulfilment of the divine judgement foretold here. It has been well observed that the phrase: “that they should slay one another” carries with it a probable implication of civil war - every man against his fellow. And so in truth it was during those years of madness and misery, as Josephus abundantly testifies. The Jews suffered more from the hands of their own countrymen than they did from the Romans. Vespasian’s words when the Roman armies had begun their campaign were: “If we stay a while we shall have fewer enemies, because they (the Jews) will be consumed in this sedition.” This was said after his commanders had themselves agreed “the providence of God is on our side, by setting our enemies at variance against one another” (B.J. 4.6.2).


The black horse of the Third Seal signifies Famine. So also does “the pair of balances (weigh scales) in his hand.” The voice accompanying the rider’s appearance reinforces this impression: “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny.” The penny here is, of course, the Roman denarius (whence the d. in £. s.d.), which in those times carried a much higher value than it does today. A comparable sum in these days would be £3 or more (Matthew 20:2).

The cry indicates famine prices for food, at something like ten to fifteen times the normal prices for those days. Once again the finest commentary on these words is the narrative of Josephus. When a vast number of Jews was shut up by Vespasian’s armies inside Jerusalem, there were no fears of shortage of food, such were the stocks stored away in the city But the rival factions of Eleazar the son of the high priest and John of Gischala and Simon the captain of the Idumeans were so bitter in their mutual enmities that they burnt one another’s stocks of grain The ensuing famine was one of the horrors of world history. Josephus, although himself a hard-bitten campaigner, accustomed to all kinds of revolting sights and experience, was obviously much distraught by the evidence which came to him in the Roman camp outside Jerusalem of the maniac excesses of the defenders and of the bitter extremes of suffering which they brought upon themselves not only by the unrelenting fierceness of their opposition to the Roman armies, but even more by their mad internecine hatreds. The reader should most certainly consider Leviticus 26: 24-26, Ezekiel 4 and the extracts given in chapters 18, 20, and 22 from Josephus’ “Wars of the Jews.”

But whilst this Seal speaks of wheat and barley at famine prices, it goes on to say, “see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.” The use of “hurt not” in ch.7: 3 and 9:4 requires here the meaning that there shall be no lack of oil and wine. But in the literal sense there certainly was a lack of these commodities in Jerusalem at the time spoken of. Nor will it do to regard these words as an indication that only the poor would suffer and not the rich, for Josephus makes plain that the rich suffered, if anything, more than the poor, through being suspected of hoarding.

Scripture suggests a different approach. “Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup (of wine) runneth over.” The Samaritan Saviour poured oil and wine on the wounds of the one he came to save. Thus the words of the Seal indicate that its rigours were not to come upon the elect in Christ in this time of trouble. One need now only mention the familiar fact of the escape of the Christians from beleaguered Jerusalem to indicate the fulfilment. “Friends of Jesus, they alone to Pella fled.” Here is another parallel with the Olivet prophecy: “When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies ... then let them which be in the midst of her depart out ... “ (Luke 21: 20, 21). “When ye shall see the abomination of desolation stand in the Holy Place, then let them which be in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15, 16; cp. Job 5:19).


The Fourth Seal describes, “a pallid horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed after him.” The colour of the horse is deathly, and this is the character of the rider’s work - he is the Angel of Death, called in chapter 9:1I Abaddon or Apollyon, that is, the Destroyer.

“And power was given unto them to kill with sword, and with famine, and with pestilence (R.V.m.), and with the wild beasts of the earth.” The very language used here is confirmatory of the restricted Jewish application which is now being suggested for this part of the prophecy, for - as already observed - the words are verbatim from Ezekiel 14:21 LXX which describes “my four sore judgements on Jerusalem.” These same four judgements are also set out in Moses’ catalogue of curses to come on disobedient Israel - the sword, pestilence, the enemy, and famine (Leviticus 26:25, 26; cp. also 2 Samuel 24:13). With all this compare Matthew 24:22: “And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved.” The student will be interested to observe that in the restoration of Israel to divine favour these are the very curses which are singled out as being now ended: Ezekiel 34:28, 29 and 36:14, 29, 30.


The figures given by Josephus of those who fell in the struggle against the Romans, and especially in the siege of Jerusalem, appall even the modern reader, accustomed as he is to the violence of the Twentieth Century. Even case-hardened Titus, the Roman general, was aghast and, raising his hands to heaven, called God to witness that it was none of his doing but brought rather upon the Jews by their own fanatic folly; Isaiah 28:17,18 and 5:13,14.

The finest commentary on the First Century fulfilment of Seals 2, 3, 4 is unquestionably Josephus’ “Wars of the Jews.” The reader is strongly urged to read in connection with the foregoing brief exposition Books V and VI of that masterpiece of ancient literature.


The problem of the First Seal, apparently so much out of character with those that follow, can now be considered: “And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2).

In the primary fulfilment of this prophecy there are three alternatives, which suggest themselves, each of which is attractive in its own way.

1. Bullinger points to the identity of language here with Revelation 19:11, 12 which describes Christ going forth as the conqueror of his enemies: “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself” (Revelation 19:11, 12). Stress is then put on the parallel between the Seals and the Olivet Prophecy. If, says this expositor, Seals 2, 3, 4 find their counterpart in Matthew 24:6, 7, then the First Seal corresponds to Matthew 24:4, 5: “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.” In other words, the First Seal is a prophecy of spreading apostasy in the early church or of some false Messiah of the First Century. And since that era is notorious for the number of false Messiahs who appeared in Jewry, this explanation becomes very attractive.

2. A second possible explanation also is supported by arguments of some consequence:

the other seals expounded thus far represent judgements upon Israel, and their introduction by the cherubim strongly reinforces the suggestion that the First Seal must be like the others in this respect.

“A crown was given him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer.” These words, with which the preceding explanation does not harmonize too obviously, now take on very considerable point if the rider on the white horse represents Vespasian.

When the Jewish rebellion broke out, Vespasian was given command of the punitive expedition organized by the Romans. The campaign was barely begun when Nero died by his own hand. There followed the short disturbed period of Galba, Otho and Vitellius, and then the Roman army pressed Vespasian to accept Imperial dignity. So leaving Titus in charge of the Roman army in Palestine, he went off to Rome to assume the reins of government. Meantime Titus concluded the campaign successfully and thus brought much initial lustre to the new reign: “a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering and to conquer.”

The chief difficulties in the way of this interpretation are (i) it gives no weight to the designed resemblance to the picture of Christ in ch. 19:11; (ii) the lack of any suitable fulfilment of the First Seal on similar lines in the Last Days.

3. The two objections just raised become the strength of this third interpretation-that the white horse and its rider represent the Gospel going forth conquering Judaism in the First Century.


There can be no question that the Gospel’s biggest enemy in the very earliest days was not Rome but Jerusalem. The fanatical hatred of entrenched Judaism was a constant source of anxiety and pain to Paul and his fellow apostles. It ranks as the main problem in Acts, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy and also John’s Gospel. To this list may be added several of the Letters to the Churches in Revelation.

One of the major results of the destruction of Jerusalem was that Judaism ceased to be the powerful obstacle to a successful preaching of the Gospel, which it had been thus far. “Conquering, and to conquer” - when the Jewish War began, much headway had already been made by the Truth against recalcitrant Jewry; after the war was concluded, opposition dwindled away, for the chief stronghold - the temple - was gone overnight. “If ye have faith and doubt not ... ye shall say to this mountain (Mount Zion and its temple), Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and it shall be done” (Matthew 21:21). It was!

There can be no objection to interpreting the rider on the white horse as being Christ himself, for what was done by his men was really being done by him; compare: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” See also Matthew 10:40.

This suggestion, that the First Seal symbolizes the Gospel’s conquest of Judaism, is in harmony with the exposition of the next three Seals already suggested, since - like them - it constituted a divine judgement on Jewry.

The other detail, not yet considered - “he that sat on him had a bow” - also finds a ready interpretation on this line. Let it be remembered that whilst Revelation is written in Greek it is essentially a Hebrew book, packed with Hebrew idiom (e.g. in Seal 2: “to him that sat thereon it was given to take peace from the earth” is a normal Hebraism for “to him it was appointed ...”). In Hebrew the word for “law” and the word for “teacher” are both derived from the verb, which means, “to fire arrows.” Hence, the bow would appear to the Hebrew mind as a fit symbol for the teacher or instructor. This idea is illustrated by the following: “They bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words” (Psalm 64:3); “he bade them teach the children of Judah the song of the bow” (2 Samuel 1:18). The fitness of this idea in this third explanation of the First Seal will be immediately obvious.[20]

In harmony with this also is the word by which these Seals are introduced: “And I heard as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four living creatures saying, Come” (as already mentioned, the reading “Come and see” must be disallowed on textual grounds). That the voice is “as it were the noise of thunder” identifies it as a divine invitation (John 12:29; Exodus 19: 16, 19, and many more). Is this the beckoning of God to the instruments of His judgement that they are to hasten with their fell work7 Or is it the last divine appeal to a nation which has hardened its heart and stiffened its neck, determined to live and die in complete reliance on its ability to save itself, both politically and spiritually? The preaching of the Gospel was the proclaiming of the Spirit’s message through the Bride; and that message was: “whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” The very period, which saw the climax of the divine judgements on the Jews, saw also-the climax of the divine appeal to Jews by means of the gospel to use their opportunity of salvation before it was too late. The poignant suffering endured by the Jews throughout that terrible war with Rome concluded the most intense divine appeal to be made to them for hundreds of years.


This review of the first Four Seals might appropriately conclude with an observation of some importance for the understanding of later sections of Revelation.

The Seals - and, as will be seen by and by, the Trumpets also - are not necessarily to be read as having successive fulfilment. This is in fact suggested by the different order of the same four horses in Zechariah 6. So far as the first (and third) fulfilments of Revelation are concerned, there can be little doubt that the Seals are to be regarded as being fulfilled together, particularly in the period A.D. 67-70. It is felt necessary to stress this point because the thinking of many on this middle section of Revelation has tended to be dominated by the idea of successive visions with chronologically successive fulfilments. Whilst this approach may yield good results for the “continuous historic” interpretation the point needs to be emphasized that such a view of the Revelation visions is not required by any explicit statement of the prophecy, nor is the idea necessarily implicit in it. The Seals are given in order, one to seven, because from the very nature of the case it would have been impossible to describe them all simultaneously.

In Zechariah 12-14 the phrase “in that day” is repeated fifteen times. It requires only a cursory consideration of these prophecies to realize that this is the prophet’s way of introducing a series of “snapshots” of dramatic happenings, which will take place at the time of the end. But the expositor has yet to be found who would insist that the various segments of these three chapters will find their fulfilment in the chronological order in which they appear. Similarly in Revelation there should be no attempt to force the interpretation into the straitjacket of chronological development. As the exposition proceeds a good deal of Biblical evidence will come to light to prove the importance of this assertion.

[19] The Greek word ge is translated in the New Testament "land" more than 40 times and in the LXX O.T. more than 1,000 times.
[20] Expositors who insist that the rider had a bow but no arrozos are being too clever. Of course bow implies arrows, otherwise why mention it? If a man is described as wearing black shoes, does this mean he has no shoelaces?
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