SUMMARY.--The Warrior on the White Horse. The Warrior with the Great Sword. The Black Horse and He that Had the Balances. The Pale Horse, Death and Hades. The Fifth Seal, the Seal of Persecution. The Sixth Seal Opened. A Period of Judgment.
Note the correspondence, John in round numbers states that one-fourth of the people of the Roman Empire would perish; Gibbon furnishes data for suggesting that one-half perished. John assigns four causes for this awful mortality: the sword, hunger, pestilence and wild beasts. Of these four Gibbon names in the last sentence of the above quotation three, and writers of the period itself speak of the fourth, the scourge of ravenous wild beasts which had multiplied owing to the depopulation of great provinces.
The first four seals, the Seals of the Horses, are associated. These have now been considered. The first, described in Revelation 6:1 Revelation 6:2 , I have pronounced the seal of the Triumphant prosperity, the age of Trajan and the Antonines. The red horse of the fourth verse is the seal of civil war, fulfilled in the awful convulsions that began around A. D. 186, and agitated the whole civilized world. The third seal, the black horse and balance of the fifth verse , is the seal of want, while the next, the pale horse of the eighth verse , is the seal of death.
It is evident from the entire change of imagery, that, after the fourth seal, the subject of prophetic vision is entirely changed. The horse now disappears, and is seen no more in connection with the opening of the seals. Along with the horse the armed warriors sweep out of sight. The next vision is that of suffering saints.
9-11. I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God. These are clearly Christians who had suffered martyrdom. They had died "for the word of God." They were under the altar. Since the temple is typical of the church, the altar, the center of worship, points to the church and its worship. The brazen altar stood at the door of the tabernacle, and at the bottom of it all the blood of the offerings was poured ( Lev. 4:7 ). Their position probably points out that their own blood was poured out for Christ. 10. And they cried with a loud voice. Their cry denotes that the church had suffered long and severely, and they raise a cry for deliverance. 11. And white robes were given unto every one of them. The robes of justification and victory. They are assured that the day when "they will be avenged" will soon come, but that they must wait a little season. Others must be added to the number of the martyrs before the number is fulfilled. It is a time of persecution. The fifth seal is the seal of persecution, and it evidently marks some notable era in the history of the Church, when more fiercely than ever before it felt the intolerant hand of "them who dwelt upon the earth." The fulfillment is to be sought in a war of extermination waged against Christianity. Again we ask if, following the events already described, history records events that fulfill this prophecy?
THE FULFILLMENT.--The ninety-two years of civil turmoil began A. D. 192 with the death of Commodus. They ended in A. D. 284. In that year Diocletian ascended the Roman throne, and his reign was distinguished by the most terrible, most prolonged, and most general persecution known in the history of the ancient Church. The Church had often been persecuted before, but no persecution had ever been so universal, so long continued, and so terrible. The Emperor was not by nature a persecutor, but the great men of the empire, especially Galerius, whom he had associated in the duty of government, were alarmed at the astonishing progress of the new religion, and demanded its extirpation. At last Diocletian yielded, and became the leader in the effort to root out the religion of Christ from the very face of the earth.
Early in A. D. 303 secret councils were held in Nicomedia, concerning the destruction of Christianity. "Perhaps," says Gibbon, "it was represented to Diocletian, that the glorious work of deliverance of the empire was left imperfect so long as an independent people (the Christians) were permitted to subsist and multiply in it." On the twenty-third of February, the first blow was struck. An armed force was sent to destroy the great church of Nicomedia, and to burn the sacred books, so carefully preserved in that day when the printing press was unknown. This was the signal for beginning a persecution which was, by the consent of all historians, the longest, the most general, and the fiercest ever waged against the Church. It is a remarkable fact that a chronological era, dating from the time when Diocletian began to reign instituted not for religious, but astronomical purposes, and used until the Christian era was introduced in the sixth century, has received its name from the persecution, and has been called the era of martyrs.
With regard to this period I make a quotation from Gibbon, Vol. II., page 69: "The resentment, or the fears of Diocletian, at length transported him beyond the bounds of moderation, which he had hitherto preserved, and he declared, in a series of cruel edicts, his intention of abolishing the Christian name. By the first of these edicts, the governors of the provinces were directed to apprehend all persons of the ecclesiastical order; and the prisons, destined for the vilest criminals, were soon filled with a multitude of bishops, presbyters, deacons, readers and exorcists. By a second edict, the magistrates were commanded to employ every method of severity, which might reclaim them from their odious superstition, and oblige them to return to the established worship of gods. This rigorous order was extended, by a subsequent edict, to the whole body of Christians, who were exposed to a violent and general persecution." This terrible persecution, conducted with such vindictive fury that sometimes church buildings were surrounded by soldiers, the doors locked and the congregations burned in them, continued for over ten years.
In the answer to the martyrs ( verse 11 ) there are three things that are noteworthy. First, it is said that they must await the great judgment, which would not be until another distinct set of martyrs was slain. These are evidently the martyrs slain, not by pagan Rome, but by anti-Christ. Second, they must wait "a little season." This season is to be measured by God's standard, and not by ours. Third, there were given unto them white robes. White robes are a symbol of justification and of triumph. "The white robes are given to him that overcometh." These souls are not in the inner sanctuary, the type of heaven; but under the altar of the outer court, the type of the world. The white robes, therefore, imply their triumph and justification upon the earth. This came within twenty-five years of their suffering, through the formal acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire.
12-17. There was a great earthquake. The symbol of political or moral agitation and upheaval. The sun became black as sackcloth. The sun, moon, and stars are symbols of earthly dignitaries, great lights in the political or religious heavens. In the dream of Joseph, which so maddened his brethren, these terms are used in this meaning, as well as by the ancient prophets. In the East it was common to liken the king or emperor to the sun, and the stars as the symbols of princes or rulers. For the use of the term we refer the reader to Dan. 8:10 . The blackness of the sun and the bloody hue of the moon point out scenes of mourning and bloodshed among rulers and princes. The falling of the stars would indicate the downfall of those who had high places on the earth, or rather within the Roman Empire. 14. The heaven was removed as a scroll. The old religions, supposed to be of heavenly origin, pass away. Every mountain and island were moved. Mountain and island are used to denote earthly rulers and kingdoms, the latter referring more especially to European provinces which are often called "the isles of the sea" in the Bible. From the period of Diocletian, the great persecutor, the title, "Your Eminence," or, in other words, "mountain," was bestowed upon princes. As a mountain stood above the plain, so the rulers of the earth were exalted. 15. And the kings of the earth, and the princes . . . hid themselves. This implies great terror among "them that dwell on the earth;" their belief that terrible judgments were impending from God; that the wrath of the Lamb was manifested, and their efforts to escape.
THE MEANING.--Many have explained this startling symbolism to describe the closing scenes of the world and the personal coming of Christ to judgment. This cannot be the meaning, for the series of visions continues on until the seventh seal is opened, and all it contains is exhausted. Others have supposed that the rush of the northern race which overthrew the Roman Empire is meant. I believe that it refers to great events which have long since taken place. The various phenomena in earth and sky, the earthquake, the falling stars, the heavens rolled away, the mountains and islands moved out of their places, all foreshadow a violent, bloody, remarkable upheaval of systems, rulers, governments, kingdoms, and the establishment of a new order upon the earth. It is on earth, it is in history that we are to look for the fulfillment of the prophecy. And since the "earth" that is present to the mind of John is the civilized world known to the ancients, the Roman Empire, it is within its boundaries that we must look for the fulfillment. There can be no doubt that this is the seal of revolution.
THE FULFILLMENT.--Several circumstances help us to fix the meaning. 1. The time. It follows immediately after the great persecution indicated by the fifth seal, which closed in A. D. 311. These events occur, then, near that time. 2. It is a time of blood and mourning. Who are the mourners? Kings, great men, rich men, bondmen and freemen. Are these Christians? They are enemies of the Lamb, who fear his wrath and mourn over his power. The mourners are the opposers of the Church.--( Verse 16 .) 3. The seal is followed by a period of great joy and prosperity on the part of the Church.--(See chapter 7 .) An innumerable multitude are sealed with the seal of the Lamb, of which the next chapter gives record. Have we, near A. D. 311, the time when the great persecution closed, a period of mighty revolution, that filled the unbelieving world with mourning, and which was followed by a time of triumph, prosperity and glory to the Church of Christ? In the year 312, leaving Britain, marching through Gaul, Constantine launched his armies upon Italy. The Church watched his progress with singular interest; for although he had, as yet, made no profession of Christianity, his mother, Helena, was a Christian, and it was felt that he was favorable to his mother's faith. The Italian emperor opposed to him, Maxentius, was a firm Pagan, and around him centered the interests of the Pagan faith. Indeed, he gave public assurance that he would extirpate the Christian religion, and vowed to Jupiter that, in the event he was successful, he would make his worship universal on the ruins of Christianity. In three great battles Maxentius was defeated and in the last was slain, and Constantine became the ruler of Rome. In the East another emperor, Licinius, a Pagan and a persecutor, still held the reins of power. Wars, truces and battles followed, until in A. D. 324 he was crushed and put to death. In this period of conflict, lasting about sixteen years, six emperors in all strove for the pre-eminence, of whom Constantine remained the sole survivor.
But these are not the most remarkable changes of this period. Let us note these: 1. The votaries of the old Paganism had rallied around the enemies of Constantine, because he was felt to be its unrelenting foe, who would compass its destruction. When he was seated in triumph upon the ruins of six imperial thrones, there was great mourning from the enemies of the Cross. They felt that theirs was a doomed religion. They were right. 2. In the year 319, before his final triumph, he had decreed that his mother's religion should be tolerated as an acknowledged faith of the empire. 3. In 321 he decreed that Sunday, the sacred day of Christianity, should be observed in all the cities by the cessation of trade and labor. 4. In 325 he abolished by decree the bloody combats of the gladiators, where men killed each other to amuse the populace, a Roman institution that had existed for a thousand years. 5. He convoked, by imperial authority, a great council of Christian bishops, the one known in history as the Council of Nice. 6. In 331 he decreed that the Pagan religion should exist no longer, and that all the heathen temples should be leveled, or converted into churches. 7. At the same time the old Roman laws were remodeled according to the precepts of the Christian religion, and a Pagan empire was transformed into an empire of the Christian faith, under new institutions. Surely the old heavens were moved away as a scroll is gathered together. But this is not all. I name another wonderful change of this age of revolution. In 324 he determined to shake the Roman world to its very center, and to deprive the imperial city of the crown worn for eleven centuries, by removing the capital from Italy to a new city upon the banks of the Hellespont, that should henceforth be called Constantinople, from his own name. The mighty mountain of the West is moved from its place. Not only do these revolutions, the greatest in the history of the world, fulfil the imagery, but the mournings of the heathen in that age almost adopted the language of Revelation in describing this period. The ruin of the Pagan religion is described by the Sophists, says Gibbon, "as a dreadful and amazing prodigy, which covered the earth with darkness, and restored the ancient dominion of chaos and night."
Those who insist that the opening of the sixth seal portrays the end of the world should bear in mind, not only the chain of events continues on through the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th chapters , and that it is only when the Seventh Angel sounds his trumpet ( 11:15 ) that the proclamation is made that "the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ," but they should keep in mind also that the scenes beheld by John are not literal pictures of the events, but symbolic visions. The interpreter should ask himself not, What would be the literal fulfillment of the visions? but, What do the symbols signify? The earthquake, the blackened sun, the falling stars, the moving mountains and islands of the sixth seal are not to be regarded as literal any more than the pale horse in the fourth seal.