The first living creature called the white horse in 6:1 by saying "come," the second living creature called the red horse by saying "come" in 6:3, and now the third living creature uses the same word to call the black horse.
Black is the color of mourning and starvation (Lamentations 5:10 KJV). Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand to weigh small amounts of food, which depicts the scales as a symbol of famine.
Leviticus 26:26 When I cut off your supply of bread, ten women will be able to bake your bread in one oven, and they will dole out the bread by weight. You will eat, but you will not be satisfied.
Ezekiel 4:16, 17 He then said to me: "Son of man, I will cut off the supply of food in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair. 17For food and water will be scarce. They will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin.
It is not clear whose voice John heard coming from among the four living creatures. It is not inconceivable that it came from the throne.
These instructions indicate that they would receive a small amount of food for a full day's wages. A quart of wheat was considered a one day's supply for one soldier and a denarius was one day's wage for an agricultural laborer. It means that a worker's entire earning would be consumed on his allotment of bread.
If one considers that the price of bread seems to have been about one-eighth of a denarius, it reflects an 800 percent inflation in grain prices. Because of the famine the lack of grain would inflate the price of wheat and barley.
Famine can be brought on by natural causes such as drought or infestation, but, here, with the preceding riders it is more likely that it is brought on by war, disrupting trade and transportation.
Deuteronomy 28:49 - 51 The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, 50a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. 51They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine or oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined.
II Kings 6:24 Some time later, Ben-Hadad king of Aram mobilized his entire army and marched up and laid siege to Samaria. 25There was a great famine in the city; the siege lasted so long that a donkey's head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels.
The black horse and rider with the scales bring famine and mere subsistence rations, but the Lord would also have mercy in these terrible times, by not withholding wine and oil, being used for food, medicine, and enjoyment.
Habakkuk 3:2 LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.
I Kings 17:14 - 16 For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.' 15She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family 16for the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.
John 6:9, 13 "Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?" 13So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
God's providential judgments are limited as his patience delays his final judgment at the end of time.
II Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Romans 2:3, 4 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment. 4Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?
Limitations of various kinds distinguish restricted, anticipatory expressions of the wrath of the Lamb throughout history from the unrestrained display of his judgment at the end of time. Here famine affects the grains but does not harm the oil or wine.
We see that the rider of the fourth horse will only be able to bring death to one-quarter of the earth, at the sounding of the first four trumpets only one-third of the earth will be afflicted, and so on.
This feature of limited judgments is an interpretive key and an encouragement to besieged churches. When we see in John's visions restrained and partial judgment, we are being shown symbols of the course of ordinary history between the first and second comings of Christ. The dangers and disasters that shatter and dismantle arrogant civilizations, which are symbolized in the four horsemen and most of the trumpets, are the Lamb's providential instruments of prewrath wrath and prejudgment justice, foreshadowing the end when God's victory over his enemies will be total.
As Christians see societies crumble and collapse, our response should not be terrified alarm, as though our security were bound up with a fragile human network of law and order, but anticipation and confidence: the Lamb is now on the throne with God's plan for history firmly in hand.
Wine and oil used as food, medicine and enjoyment:
Genesis 14:18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High.
Ezra 6:9, 10 Whatever is needed--young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem--must be given them daily without fail, 10so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons.
Luke 10:34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.
Proverbs 21:17 He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.
This is the last of the four living creatures and he too calls the pale (ashen) horse and his rider forward by calling out "come." The first four seals belong together, as will the first four trumpets and bowls in later series. Two features link the first four seals with each other, namely, first the call of the living creatures, "come", and second, in each case the horse and its color appear first followed by its rider and his significance.
Some translations render this horse's color as ashen, but we see later in this Book that the color that John actually sees is green, and when applied to people's appearance, green, or more accurately, 'pale greenish gray,' signifies the pallor of illness or even death. So, it's perhaps more accurate to render the fourth horse's color as pale, as meant to have the appearance of someone who is gravely ill or already dead.
The rider's name was Death and following close behind was the grave to harvest the works of the rider. In this vision they are linked together for the Son of Man has the keys of death and Hades and thus the authority to liberate their prisoners. This final horse and its rider portray the grisly effects of the preceding three.
The sword represents the second rider and Famine had just ridden forth on the third, black horse. Pestilence, like famine, is war's toxic byproduct, spreading death among those who survive the bloodshed. The same collection of deadly afflictions were predicted by Jesus to reassure his followers that their occurrence will not mean that the end is imminent.
Luke 21:9 - 11 When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away. 10Then he said to them: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven."
The word 'sword' represents more than one Greek word used for sword, such as machaira and romphaia. No significant difference in meaning should be sought. The Greek word used in all passages referring to 'sword' is machaira, which refers to the sword that proceeds from the mouth of Christ, symbolizing his Word, except in this passage, where romphaia is used to emphasize the allusion to Ezekiel 14:21.
Ezekiel 14:21 "For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments--sword and famine and wild beasts and plague--to kill its men and their animals!"
A quarter of the earth's inhabitants would be destroyed by these calamities. By the sword, meaning war and violence; famine and the diseases that it causes; pestilence, which results in mass, rapid deaths; and finally, attack by wild beasts complete the quartet of Death's weapons. This list echoes God's threat of inescapable judgments in
Ezekiel 14:12 - 21 The word of the LORD came to me: 13"Son of man, if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its men and their animals. 14Even if these three men--Noah, Daniel and Job--were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign LORD. 15"Or if I send wild beasts through that country and they leave it childless and it becomes desolate so that no one can pass through it because of the beasts. 16As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, even if these three men were in it, they could not save their own sons or daughters. They alone would be saved, but the land would be desolate.
17"Or if I bring a sword against that country and say, 'Let the sword pass throughout the land,' and I kill its men and their animals. 18As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, even if these three men were in it, they could not save their own sons or daughters. They alone would be saved. 19"Or if I send a plague into that land and pour out my wrath upon it through bloodshed, killing its men and their animals. 20As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, even if Noah, Daniel and Job were in it, they could save neither son nor daughter. They would save only themselves by their righteousness. 21"For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments--sword and famine and wild beasts and plague--to kill its men and their animals!"
Not even the presence of righteous men such as Noah, Daniel, and Job, could protect a treacherous people from God's covenant curses of famine, predatory beasts, sword, or plague. How much more would the Lord's judgment be fulfilled when he sends his four severe judgments into the world. These four are the Lord's weapons against lands and cities that defy his authority.
The churches of Asia must realize that through his sovereignty over all things, from galaxies, stars, and rulers to atoms, microbes, and bacteria, Christ will send all sorts of limited, providential judgments on the Roman imperial system, exposing the emptiness of its politico-military confidence and its religious pretensions.
And, yet, even after such as stern judgment, God's mercy and patience preserve some to come forth from the calamity.
Ezekiel 14:22, 23 Yet there will be some survivors--sons and daughters who will be brought out of it. They will come to you, and when you see their conduct and their actions, you will be consoled regarding the disaster I have brought upon Jerusalem--every disaster I have brought upon it. 23You will be consoled when you see their conduct and their actions, for you will know that I have done nothing in it without cause, declares the Sovereign LORD.
These four seals represented things on earth and the riders went forth to do God's will on earth.
When Christ opens the fifth seal, the vision shifts from earth to heaven. The altar, mentioned here for the first time, is an important item of furniture in the sanctuary of God, for approach to God is impossible without sacrifice. The Old Testament tabernacle and temple foreshadowed the throne room of the Most High and the Old Testament tabernacle was made exactly as God prescribed that it should be.
Exodus 25:9, 40 Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you. 40See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.
Numbers 8:4 This is how the lampstand was made: It was made of hammered gold--from its base to its blossoms. The lampstand was made exactly like the pattern the LORD had shown Moses.
There are seven references to the altar in the book of Revelation, of which only one, in Rev 11:1 refers to the altar in Jerusalem.
It is an interesting image that is revealed to John here, namely, that the souls of the saints are under the altar. The reason that it is given in this way, is that the blood is the soul of a person, and when they were sacrificed for the sake of Christ, their blood poured over the side of the altar, so to speak, and collected under the altar. And thus, it is a reflection of the horror of these sacrifices and murders that the saints are shown as 'under' the altar.
Leviticus 17:11, 14 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life. 14Because the life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, "You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.
But these souls under the altar who petitions God to revenge their blood, are not only from the martyrs, but also from those who suffered because of their perseverance in Christ and died as a result of that.
Matthew 10:39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Philippians 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
II Timothy 4:6 - 8 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Mark 10:29, 30 "I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields--and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life."
Psalm 84:11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.
Matthew 5:11, 12 "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
John 16:22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
Philippians 3:8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.
James 1:2 - 4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds. 3Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
I Peter 4:12 - 16 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you, 13but rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
The Old Testament tabernacle and temple had two altars, one in the courtyard for the offering of slain sacrificial animals, and then, within the Holy Place, the altar of incense immediately before the veil into the Holiest Place.
John, however, sees a single altar, which serves the purposes of both altars in the earthly shadow sanctuary.
From this heavenly altar incense, symbolic of the church’s prayers, rises, but this altar has also witnessed the shedding of blood of Jesus’ martyrs.
Here the altar appears as the altar of sacrifice and John sees the souls who had been slain for God’s word underneath the altar. Although the Greek word translated with ‘soul,’ psyche, can sometimes refer to the principle of life in animate creatures, here, however, it refers to human beings’ inner, immaterial, conscious identity, which is distinguished from our bodies and continues after the death of the body.
The souls express the longing of the church of Christ in their petition, that their suffering should be revenged so that it will be clear that they did not suffer in vain.
Romans 12:19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.
Deuteronomy 32:35 It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.
Psalm 94:1 - 3 O LORD, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forth. 2Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve. 3How long will the wicked, O LORD, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
Nahum 1:2, 3 The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies. 3The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet.
Jesus is addressed as "Sovereign Lord" which unequivocally states his majesty and power as lone Ruler over all. The souls who petition the Lamb for revenge are not doing so for personal revenge, but they are pleading for the ultimate authority and judgment over the devil's henchmen.
John will see the souls of the martyrs in heaven again in his vision of their thousand-year reign, which we will deal with in chapter 20. Whereas the emphasis in Rev 20 is on the dominion of the martyrs, here, in the fifth seal, we hear their appeal for vengeance and vindication expressed as a psalm of lament: ‘How long?’ over God’s long-suffering toward his enemies.
Even before the end of time, even before the final destruction of the devil and all his cohorts, they receive the sign of victory, as a sure sign that they have already overcome and received their glory. Their sure sign is Jesus Christ, whose promise is sure and definite. Just as the first rider on the white horse received a crown as a sure sign of his victory, because God is the guarantor of that sign, so the souls under the altar receive their sure sign of which God is the guarantor. Their white robes are not just mere white pieces of cloth, but it is the clothing with which they cover themselves, clothing washed in the blood of Christ. Truly garments of praise, to be worn until the final of the number has come in.
Isaiah 61:3 And provide for those who grieve in Zion--to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
Zechariah 3:3 - 5 Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4The angel said to those who were standing before him, "Take off his filthy clothes." Then he said to Joshua, "See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you." 5Then I said, "Put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by.
These words contain a comfort and a promise. A comfort because the promise was of a limited nature and that they will see justice. A promise because the words 'wait a little longer' indicates that there will be an end to their rest and then their petition will be answered. These passages do not allude to a doctrine of a 'soul-sleep' but rather a patient waiting upon the fulfillment of God's justice.
The Lord’s response to the martyrs’ appeal for speedy justice is a gift and a strange word of hope. As the riders of judgment horses were given a crown, a sword, and authority to kill, so each of these sacrificial victims under the altar is given a white robe, symbolic of victory through faithful purity. When we see this multitude of martyrs again in the interlude between seals 6 and 7, their multiethnic character will be evident, but also their song will have shifted from the minor key of lament to the major chords of celebration for the salvation won by the Lamb.
There is a set number of people who would die for their faith and they, too, will join the souls under the altar, and only once each and every one of them has been killed, will their petition be granted and will the Lamb revenge their blood.
II Peter 3:9, 10 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
Isaiah 46:13 I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel.
Habakkuk 2:3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.
Luke 18:7, 8 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
Romans 9:22 What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction?
I Timothy 1:16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
Hebrews 10:37 For in just a very little while, "He who is coming will come and will not delay."
II Peter 3:15 Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.
They are comforted by the words 'wait (rest) a little while longer' anticipating the second of Revelation’s seven benedictions, which pronounces in
Revelation 14:13 Then I heard a voice from heaven say, "Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them."
The mixed experience of the church on earth – liberated, consecrated, and crowned by the Lamb but also assailed by enemies – is reflected in the words '…until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed."
The Lamb will return to avenge his witnesses’ blood just as soon as the very last martyr lays down his or her life. More familiar to us and more pleasant is the prerequisite to his Second Coming that Jesus announced in
Mark 13:9, 10 "You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10And the gospel must first be preached to all nations."
God delays not because he is late but because he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance? (II Peter 3:9; Romans 2:4.)
Accompanying the worldwide spread of God’s good news, however, is the prolonged affliction of the church that bears this joyful message. The days on God’s calendar are marked off, one by one, in the blood of the martyrs.
The sixth seal indicates the arrival of the end that will come, when there will be unspeakable suffering and an increase of wickedness.
Matthew 24:7 - 14 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8All these are the beginning of birth pains. 9"Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other. 11And many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
11"The days are coming," declares the Sovereign LORD, "when I will send a famine through the land--not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. 12Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it. 13In that day the lovely young women and strong young men will faint because of thirst."
The theological significance of the earthquake is rooted in Old Testament precedent. In previous biblical narrative and imagery, the earth was set to quake at the coming of the Lord in his holiness to establish justice. God’s descent to Sinai to deliver his law to Moses for the people was accompanied by an earthquake (Exodus 19:18).
Frequently the creation shakes before the Lord’s majesty and awesome power, just as John witnesses it here.
The sixth seal carries us suddenly to the end of history, when, as Scripture interprets Haggai 2:6 and 7, which reads
Haggai 2:6 "This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,' says the LORD Almighty.
with the words of
Hebrews 12:26 - 29 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." 27The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken--that is, created things--so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. 29For our "God is a consuming fire."
We clearly see the contrast between the impermanence of earth and the heavens and the eternity of their Creator in the citation of
Psalm 102:25 - 27 In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 26They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. 27But you remain the same, and your years will never end.
Hebrews 1:10 - 12 He also says, "In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 11They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. 12You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end."
Ezekiel 38:19, 20 In my zeal and fiery wrath I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel. 20The fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, every creature that moves along the ground, and all the people on the face of the earth will tremble at my presence. The mountains will be overturned, the cliffs will crumble and every wall will fall to the ground.
Joel 2:10, 31, 32 Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 31The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 32And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls.
Ezekiel 32:7, 8 When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. 8All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you; I will bring darkness over your land, declares the Sovereign LORD.
Isaiah 13:10, 50:3 The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. 50:3I clothe the sky with darkness and make sackcloth its covering.
Amos 8:8 - 13 "Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn? The whole land will rise like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink like the river of Egypt. 9In that day," declares the Sovereign LORD, "I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping. I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads. I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day."
Seal five explained the restraint of the judgments of seals 1-4, showing that the evil will not come until all martyrs have died. Now seal 6 provides the balancing assurance that the end will come certainly and suddenly. The breaking of this seal precipitates an earthquake of unparalleled magnitude, reaching up into the heavens, blackening the sun, bloodying the moon, shaking the stars loose to fall to earth like figs in the wind, ripping the sky open like rolled papyrus, and then returning to earth to toss mountains and islands from their places.
The imagery used here is rooted in Old Testament prophecies: sun darkened and moon turned to blood, as we have read in Joel 2:31; stars falling like figs in the wind and sky rolled like a scroll, mountains and islands displaced.
Isaiah 34:4 All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.
All symbols of steadfastness in creation are moved or destroyed, dislodged from their familiar places and all things are changed.
Everything stained by the dragon’s touch and human sin is swept aside before the face of God and the wrath of the Lamb, and rebels from every stratum of society – from king to slave – try in vain to hide from the great day of their wrath. The terrified sinners ask a desperate, rhetorical question, 'who is able to stand?' assuming that no one can survive the coming cosmic trauma.
The sixth seal carries us beyond the present period of limited, providential judgments on earth and the martyrs’ rest in heaven. This destruction falls not on a portion of rebellious humanity or a fraction of the spheres that touch human life but on the whole of the earth and the sky. It falls specifically on those light signs (sun, moon, stars) placed into the firmament at creation’s dawn to separate light from dark, day from night, and to mark time’s passage as long as the first heavens and earth endure. But before the end is revealed, John sees the surprising and positive answer to the rebels’ question 'who is able to stand?'
Here Scripture lists seven elements that describe all of mankind: kings, princes, generals, rich, mighty, slaves, and free men. Princes here do not necessarily mean those of royal descent but rather those who are in power close to the king.
Revelation 16:14 They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.
Revelation 17:2, 18 With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries. 18The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.
Revelation 18:3 For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.
Revelation 19:19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army.
Revelation 19:18 So that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great.
Mark 6:21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.
Esther 1:14 And were closest to the king--Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memucan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.
Ezekiel 39:18, 20 You will eat the flesh of mighty men and drink the blood of the princes of the earth as if they were rams and lambs, goats and bulls--all of them fattened animals from Bashan. 20At my table you will eat your fill of horses and riders, mighty men and soldiers of every kind,' declares the Sovereign LORD.
Revelation 2:9 I know your afflictions and your poverty--yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
Revelation 3:17 You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
Revelation 13:16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead.
Hosea 12:8 Ephraim boasts, "I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin."
Zechariah 11:5 Their buyers slaughter them and go unpunished. Those who sell them say, 'Praise the LORD, I am rich!' Their own shepherds do not spare them.
Luke 6:24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
I Samuel 17:46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.
Jeremiah 19:7 "'In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth
II Chronicles 14:11 Then Asa called to the LORD his God and said, "LORD, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O LORD our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. O LORD, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you."
Job 34:20, 24, 41:25 They die in an instant, in the middle of the night; the people are shaken and they pass away; the mighty are removed without human hand. 24Without inquiry he shatters the mighty and sets up others in their place. 41:25When he rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before his thrashing.
Slaves and free men. This encompasses all the others who were not included in the above. We have taken time to distinguish between these seven elements to show that everybody will seek refuge in the mountains. Everybody, that is, who has to fear the coming of the Lord.
 Reworked from Triumph of the Lamb by Dennis E. Johnson.