The book of the divine counsels being thus lodged in the hand of
Christ, he loses no time, but immediately enters upon the work of
opening the seals and publishing the contents; but this is done in such
a manner as still leaves the predictions very abstruse and difficult to
be understood. Hitherto the waters of the sanctuary have been as those
in Ezekiel's vision, only to the ankles, or to the knees, or to the
loins at least; but here they begin to be a river that cannot be passed
over. The visions which John saw, the epistles to the churches, the
songs of praise, in the two foregoing chapters, had some things dark
and hard to be understood; and yet they were rather milk for babes than
meat for strong men; but now we are to launch into the deep, and our
business is not so much to fathom it as to let down our net to take a
draught. We shall only hint at what seems most obvious. The prophecies
of this book are divided into seven seals opened, seven trumpets
sounding, and seven vials poured out. It is supposed that the opening
of the seven seals discloses those providences that concerned the
church in the first three centuries, from the ascension of our Lord and
Saviour to the reign of Constantine; this was represented in a book
rolled up, and sealed in several places, so that, when one seal was
opened, you might read so far of it, and so on, till the whole was
unfolded. Yet we are not here told what was written in the book, but
what John saw in figures enigmatical and hieroglyphic; and it is not
for us to pretend to know "the times and seasons which the Father has
put in his own power." In this chapter six of the seven seals are
opened, and the visions attending them are related; the first seal in
the second seal in
the third seal in
the fourth seal in
the fifth seal in
the sixth seal in
The Opening of the Seals.
A. D. 95.
1 And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard,
as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying,
Come and see.
2 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.
1. Christ, the Lamb, opens the first seal; he now enters upon the great
work of opening and accomplishing the purposes of God towards the
church and the world.
2. One of the ministers of the church calls upon the apostle, with a
voice like thunder, to come near, and observe what then appeared.
3. We have the vision itself,
(1.) The Lord Jesus appears riding on a white horse. White
horses are generally refused in war, because they make the rider a mark
for the enemy; but our Lord Redeemer was sure of the victory and a
glorious triumph, and he rides on the white horse of a pure but
despised gospel, with great swiftness through the world.
(2.) He had a bow in his hand. The convictions impressed by the
word of God are sharp arrows, they reach at a distance; and, though the
ministers of the word draw the bow at a venture, God can and will
direct it to the joints of the harness. This bow, in the hand of
Christ, abides in strength, and, like that of Jonathan, never
(3.) A crown was given him, importing that all who receive the
gospel must receive Christ as a king, and must be his loyal and
obedient subjects; he will be glorified in the success of the gospel.
When Christ was going to war, one would think a helmet had been more
proper than a crown; but a crown is given him as the earnest and emblem
(4.) He went forth conquering, and to conquer. As long as the
church continues militant Christ will be conquering; when he has
conquered his enemies in one age he meets with new ones in another age;
men go on opposing, and Christ goes on conquering, and his former
victories are pledges of future victories. He conquers his enemies in
his people; their sins are their enemies and his enemies; when Christ
comes with power into their soul he begins to conquer these enemies,
and he goes on conquering, in the progressive work of sanctification,
till he has gained us a complete victory. And he conquers his enemies
in the world, wicked men, some by bringing them to his foot, others by
making them his footstool. Observe, From this seal opened,
[1.] The successful progress of the gospel of Christ in the world is a
glorious sight, worth beholding, the most pleasant and welcome sight
that a good man can see in this world.
[2.] Whatever convulsions and revolutions happen in the states and
kingdoms of the world, the kingdom of Christ shall be established and
enlarged in spite of all opposition.
[3.] A morning of opportunity usually goes before a night of calamity;
the gospel is preached before the plagues are poured forth.
[4.] Christ's work is not all done at once. We are ready to think, when
the gospel goes forth, it should carry all the world before it, but it
often meets with opposition, and moves slowly; however, Christ will do
his own work effectually, in his own time and way.
The Opening of the Seals.
A. D. 95.
3 And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second
beast say, Come and see.
4 And there went out another horse that was red: and power
was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth,
and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto
him a great sword.
5 And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third
beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and
he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
6 And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A
measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a
penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
7 And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of
the fourth beast say, Come and see.
8 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat
on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given
unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword,
and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the
The next three seals give us a sad prospect of great and desolating
judgments with which God punishes those who either refuse or abuse the
everlasting gospel. Though some understand them of the persecutions
that befel the church of Christ, and others of the destruction of the
Jews, they rather seem more generally to represent God's terrible
judgments, by which he avenges the quarrel of his covenant upon those
who make light of it.
I. Upon opening the second seal, to which John was called to attend,
another horse appears, of a different colour from the former,
a red horse,
This signifies the desolating judgment of war; he that sat upon this
red horse had power to take peace from the earth, and that the
inhabitants of the earth should kill one another. Who this was
that sat upon the red horse, whether Christ himself, as Lord of hosts,
or the instruments that he raised up to conduct the war, is not clear;
but this is certain,
1. That those who will not submit to the bow of the gospel must expect
to be cut in sunder by the sword of divine justice.
2. That Jesus Christ rules and commands, not only in the kingdom of
grace, but of providence. And,
3. That the sword of war is a dreadful judgment; it takes away peace
from the earth, one of the greatest blessings, and it puts men upon
killing one another. Men, who should love one another and help one
another, are, in a state of war, set upon killing one another.
II. Upon opening the third seal, which John was directed to observe,
another horse appears, different from the former, a black horse,
signifying famine, that terrible judgment; and he that sat on the
horse had a pair of balances in his hand
signifying that men must now eat their bread by weight, as was
They shall deliver your bread to you by weight. That which
of the voice that cried, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three
measures of barley for a penny, and see thou hurt not the oil and the
wine, has made some expositors think this was not a vision of
famine, but of plenty; but if we consider the quantity of their
measure, and the value of their penny, at the time of this prophecy,
the objection will be removed; their measure was but a single quart,
and their penny was our sevenpence-halfpenny, and that is a large sum
to give for a quart of wheat. However, it seems this famine, as all
others, fell most severely upon the poor; whereas the oil and the wine,
which were dainties of the rich, were not hurt; but if bread, the staff
of life, be broken, dainties will not supply the place of it. Here
1. When a people loathe their spiritual food, God may justly deprive
them of their daily bread.
2. One judgment seldom comes alone; the judgment of war naturally draws
after it that of famine; and those who will not humble themselves under
one judgment must expect another and yet greater, for when God contends
he will prevail. The famine of bread is a terrible judgment; but the
famine of the word is more so, though careless sinners are not sensible
III. Upon opening the fourth seal, which John is commanded to observe,
there appears another horse, of a pale colour. Here observe,
1. The name of the rider--Death, the king of terrors; the
pestilence, which is death in its empire, death reigning over a place
or nation, death on horseback, marching about, and making fresh
conquests every hour.
2. The attendants or followers of this king of terrors--hell, a
state of eternal misery to all those who die in their sins; and, in
times of such a general destruction, multitudes go down unprepared into
the valley of destruction. It is an awful thought, and enough to make
the whole world to tremble, that eternal damnation immediately follows
upon the death of an impenitent sinner. Observe,
(1.) There is a natural as well as judicial connection between one
judgment and another: war is a wasting calamity, and draws scarcity and
famine after it; and famine, not allowing men proper sustenance, and
forcing them to take that which is unwholesome, often draws the
pestilence after it.
(2.) God's quiver is full of arrows; he is never at a loss for ways and
means to punish a wicked people.
(3.) In the book of God's counsels he has prepared judgments for
scorners as well as mercy for returning sinners.
(4.) In the book of the scriptures God has published threatenings
against the wicked as well as promises to the righteous; and it is our
duty to observe and believe the threatenings as well as the
IV. After the opening of these seals of approaching judgments, and the
distinct account of them, we have this general observation, that God
gave power to them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with
the sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the
He gave them power, that is, those instruments of his anger, or those
judgments themselves; he who holds the winds in his hand has all public
calamities at his command, and they can only go when he sends them and
no further than he permits. To the three great judgments of war,
famine, and pestilence, is here added the beasts of the earth,
another of God's sore judgments, mentioned
and mentioned here the last, because, when a nation is depopulated by
the sword, famine, and pestilence, the small remnant that continue in a
waste and howling wilderness encourage the wild beasts to make head
against them, and they become easy prey. Others, by the beasts of
the field, understand brutish, cruel, savage men, who, having
divested themselves of all humanity, delight to be the instruments of
the destruction of others.
The Opening of the Seals.
A. D. 95.
9 And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar
the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for
the testimony which they held:
10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord,
holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them
that dwell on the earth?
11 And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it
was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little
season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that
should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
12 And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo,
there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as
sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig
tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty
14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled
together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their
15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich
men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every
bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in
the rocks of the mountains;
16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us
from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the
wrath of the Lamb:
17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be
able to stand?
In the remaining part of this chapter we have the opening of the fifth
and the sixth seals.
I. The fifth seal. Here is no mention made of any one who called the
apostle to make his observation, probably because the decorum of the
vision was to be observed, and each of the four living creatures had
discharged its duty of a monitor before, or because the events here
opened lay out of the sight, and beyond the time, of the present
ministers of the church; or because it does not contain a new prophecy
of any future events, but rather opens a spring of support and
consolation to those who had been and still were under great
tribulation for the sake of Christ and the gospel. Here observe,
1. The sight this apostle saw at the opening of the fifth seal; it was
a very affecting sight
I saw under the altar the souls of those that were slain for the
word of God, and for the testimony which they held. He saw the
souls of the martyrs. Here observe,
(1.) Where he saw them--under the altar; at the foot of the
altar of incense, in the most holy place; he saw them in heaven, at the
foot of Christ. Hence note,
[1.] Persecutors can only kill the body, and after that there is no
more that they can do; their souls live.
[2.] God has provided a good place in the better world for those who
are faithful to death and are not allowed a place any longer on earth.
[3.] Holy martyrs are very near to Christ in heaven, they have the
highest place there.
[4.] It is not their own death, but the sacrifice of Christ, that gives
them a reception into heaven and a reward there; they do not wash their
robes in their own blood, but in the blood of the Lamb.
(2.) What was the cause in which they suffered--the word of God and
the testimony which they held, for believing the word of God, and
attesting or confessing the truth of it; this profession of their faith
they held fast without wavering, even though they died for it. A noble
cause, the best that any man can lay down his life for--faith in God's
word and a confession of that faith.
2. The cry he heard; it was a loud cry, and contained a humble
expostulation about the long delay of avenging justice against their
enemies: How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and
avenge our blood on those that dwell on the earth?
(1.) Even the spirits of just men made perfect retain a proper
resentment of the wrong they have sustained by their cruel enemies; and
though they die in charity, praying, as Christ did, that God would
forgive them, yet they are desirous that, for the honour of God, and
Christ, and the gospel, and for the terror and conviction of others,
God will take a just revenge upon the sin of persecution, even while he
pardons and saves the persecutors.
(2.) They commit their cause to him to whom vengeance belongeth, and
leave it in his hand; they are not for avenging themselves, but leave
all to God.
(3.) There will be joy in heaven at the destruction of the implacable
enemies of Christ and Christianity, as well as at the conversion of
other sinners. When Babylon falls, it will be said, Rejoice over
her, O thou heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God hath
avenged you on her,
3. He observed the kind return that was made to this cry
both what was given to them and what was said to them.
(1.) What was given to them--white robes, the robes of victory
and of honour; their present happiness was an abundant recompence of
their past sufferings.
(2.) What was said to them--that they should be satisfied, and easy in
themselves, for it would not be long ere the number of their
fellow-sufferers would be fulfilled. This is a language rather
suited to the imperfect state of the saints in this world than to the
perfection of their state in heaven; there is no impatience, no
uneasiness, no need of admonition; but in this world there is great
need of patience. Observe,
[1.] There is a number of Christians, known to God, who are appointed
as sheep for the slaughter, set apart to be God's witnesses.
[2.] As the measure of the sin of persecutors is filling up, so is the
number of the persecuted martyred servants of Christ.
[3.] When this number is fulfilled, God will take a just and glorious
revenge upon their cruel persecutors; he will recompense tribulation to
those who trouble them, and to those that are troubled full and
II. We have here the sixth seal opened,
Some refer this to the great revolutions in the empire at Constantine's
time, the downfall of paganism; others, with great probability, to the
destruction of Jerusalem, as an emblem of the general judgment, and
destruction of the wicked, at the end of the world; and, indeed, the
awful characters of this event are so much the same with those signs
mentioned by our Saviour as foreboding the destruction of Jerusalem, as
hardly to leave any room for doubting but that the same thing is meant
in both places, though some think that event was past already. See
1. The tremendous events that were hastening; and here are several
occurrences that contribute to make that day and dispensation very
(1.) There was a great earthquake. This may be taken in a
political sense; the very foundations of the Jewish church and state
would be terribly shaken, though they seemed to be as stable as the
(2.) The sun became black as sackcloth of hair, either
naturally, by a total eclipse, or politically, by the fall of the chief
rulers and governors of the land.
(3.) The moon should become as blood; the inferior
officers, or their military men, should be all wallowing in their own
(4.) The stars of heaven shall fall to the earth
and that as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken
of a mighty wind. The stars may signify all the men of note and
influence among them, though in lower spheres of activity; there should
be a general desolation.
(5.) The heaven should depart as a scroll when it is rolled
together. This may signify that their ecclesiastical state should
perish and be laid aside for ever.
(6.) Every mountain and island shall be moved out of its place.
The destruction of the Jewish nation should affect and affright all the
nations round about, those who were highest in honour and those who
seemed to be best secured; it would be a judgment that should astonish
all the world. This leads to,
2. The dread and terror that would seize upon all sorts of men in that
great and awful day,
No authority, nor grandeur, nor riches, nor valour, nor strength, would
be able to support men at that time; yea, the very poor slaves, who,
one would think, had nothing to fear, because they had nothing to lose,
would be all in amazement at that day. Here observe,
(1.) The degree of their terror and astonishment: it should prevail so
far as to make them, like distracted desperate men, call to the
mountains to fall upon them, and to the hills to cover them; they
would be glad to be no more seen; yea, to have no longer any being.
(2.) The cause of their terror, namely, the angry countenance of him
that sits on the throne, and the wrath of the Lamb. Observe,
[1.] That which is matter of displeasure to Christ is so to God; they
are so entirely one that what pleases or displeases the one pleases or
displeases the other.
[2.] Though God be invisible, he can make the inhabitants of this world
sensible of his awful frowns.
[3.] Though Christ be a lamb, yet he can be angry, even to wrath, and
the wrath of the Lamb is exceedingly dreadful; for if the
Redeemer, that appeases the wrath of God, himself be our wrathful
enemy, where shall we have a friend to plead for us? Those perish
without remedy who perish by the wrath of the Redeemer.
[4.] As men have their day of opportunity, and their seasons of grace,
so God has his day of righteous wrath; and, when that day shall come,
the most stout-hearted sinners will not be able to stand before him:
all these terrors actually fell upon the sinners in Judea and Jerusalem
in the day of their destruction, and they will all, in the utmost
degree, fall upon impenitent sinners, at the general judgment of the
Matthew Henry "Verse by Verse Commentary for 'Revelation' Matthew Henry Bible Commentary".