The First Six Seals. 1* Then I watched while the Lamb broke open the first of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures cry out in a voice like thunder, “Come forward.” 2I looked, and there was a white horse, and its rider had a bow.* He was given a crown, and he rode forth victorious to further his victories.a
3When he broke open the second seal, I heard the second living creature cry out, “Come forward.” 4* b Another horse came out, a red one. Its rider was given power to take peace away from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another. And he was given a huge sword.
5When he broke open the third seal, I heard the third living creature cry out, “Come forward.” I looked, and there was a black horse,* and its rider held a scale in his hand. 6I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures. It said, “A ration of wheat costs a day’s pay,* and three rations of barley cost a day’s pay. But do not damage the olive oil or the wine.”c
7When he broke open the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature cry out, “Come forward.” 8I looked, and there was a pale green* horse. Its rider was named Death, and Hades accompanied him. They were given authority over a quarter of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and plague, and by means of the beasts of the earth.d
9When he broke open the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar* the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God. 10They cried out in a loud voice, “How long will it be, holy and true master,* before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” 11Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to be patient a little while longer until the number was filled of their fellow servants and brothers who were going to be killed as they had been.
12* Then I watched while he broke open the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; the sun turned as black as dark sackcloth* and the whole moon became like blood.e 13The stars in the sky fell to the earth like unripe figs* shaken loose from the tree in a strong wind. 14Then the sky was divided* like a torn scroll curling up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place.f 15The kings of the earth, the nobles,* the military officers, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person hid themselves in caves and among mountain crags. 16They cried out to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb,g 17because the great day of their* wrath has come and who can withstand it?”
* [6:1–16:21] A series of seven disasters now begins as each seal is broken (Rev 6:1–8:1), followed by a similar series as seven trumpets sound (Rev 8:2–11:19) and as seven angels pour bowls on the earth causing plagues (Rev 15:1–16:21). These gloomy sequences are interrupted by longer or shorter scenes suggesting the triumph of God and his witnesses (e.g., Rev 7; 10; 11; 12; 13; 14).
* [6:1–17] This chapter provides a symbolic description of the contents of the sealed scroll. The breaking of the first four seals reveals four riders. The first rider (of a white horse) is a conquering power (Rev 6:1–2), the second (red horse) a symbol of bloody war (Rev 6:3–4), the third (black horse) a symbol of famine (Rev 6:5–6), the fourth (pale green horse) a symbol of Death himself, accompanied by Hades (the netherworld) as his page (Rev 6:7–8). Rev 6:8b summarizes the role of all four riders. The breaking of the fifth seal reveals Christian martyrs in an attitude of sacrifice as blood poured out at the foot of an altar begging God for vindication, which will come only when their quota is filled; but they are given a white robe symbolic of victory (Rev 6:9–11). The breaking of the sixth seal reveals typical apocalyptic signs in the sky and the sheer terror of all people at the imminent divine judgment (Rev 6:12–17).
* [6:1–8] The imagery is adapted from Zec 1:8–10; 6:1–8.
* [6:2] White horse,bow: this may perhaps allude specifically to the Parthians on the eastern border of the Roman empire. Expert in the use of the bow, they constantly harassed the Romans and won a major victory in A.D. 62; see note on Rev 9:13–21. But the Old Testament imagery typifies the history of oppression of God’s people at all times.
* [6:4] Huge sword: this is a symbol of war and violence; cf. Ez 21:14–17.
* [6:5] Black horse: this is a symbol of famine, the usual accompaniment of war in antiquity; cf. Lv 26:26; Ez 4:12–13. The scale is a symbol of shortage of food with a corresponding rise in price.
* [6:6] A day’s pay: literally, “a denarius,” a Roman silver coin that constitutes a day’s wage in Mt 20:2. Because of the famine, food was rationed and sold at an exorbitant price. A liter of flour was considered a day’s ration in the Greek historians Herodotus and Diogenes Laertius. Barley: food of the poor (Jn 6:9, 13; cf. 2 Kgs 7:1, 16, 18); it was also used to feed animals; cf. 1 Kgs 5:8. Do not damage: the olive and the vine are to be used more sparingly in time of famine.
* [6:8] Pale green: symbol of death and decay; cf. Ez 14:21.
* [6:9] The altar: this altar corresponds to the altar of holocausts in the temple in Jerusalem; see also Rev 11:1. Because of the witness,word of God: literally, “because of the word of God and the witness they had borne.”
* [6:10] Holy and true master: Old Testament usage as well as the context indicates that this is addressed to God rather than to Christ.
* [6:12–14] Symbolic rather than literal description of the cosmic upheavals attending the day of the Lord when the martyrs’ prayer for vindication (Rev 6:10) would be answered; cf. Am 8:8–9; Is 34:4; 50:3; Jl 2:10; 3:3–4; Mt 24:4–36; Mk 13:5–37; Lk 21:8–36.
* [6:12] Dark sackcloth: for mourning, sackcloth was made from the skin of a black goat.
* [6:13] Unripe figs: literally, “summer (or winter) fruit.”
* [6:14] Was divided: literally, “was split,” like a broken papyrus roll torn in two, each half then curling up to form a roll on either side.
* [6:15] Nobles: literally, “courtiers,” “grandees.” Military officers: literally, “commanders of 1,000 men,” used in Josephus and other Greek authors as the equivalent of the Roman tribunus militum. The listing of various ranks of society represents the universality of terror at the impending doom.
* [6:17] Their: this reading is attested in the best manuscripts, but the vast majority read “his” in reference to the wrath of the Lamb in the preceding verse.
c. [6:6] Lv 26:26; Ez 4:16–17.
f. [6:14] Is 34:4 / Rev 16:20.