When the seals are opened by the Lamb things begin to happen. The first four seals are rightly called by others the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” (apocalypse is anglicized from the Greek word for revelation). Okay.
When each of the first four seals is opened, when one of the four living creatures speaks, the vision is of a horseman coming forth. The point of the signs is to show that a sequence of events is now unfolding with the opening of the seals in heaven — things begin to happen in quick succession. These events though viewed in heaven, are to take place upon the earth.
The first seal: “A white horse and he who sat upon it had a bow and a crown was given him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” Many commentators suggest this represents the conquering Christ, the church, or both. Christ is portrayed as a warrior in Rev. 19:11-16. The first seal likely refers to Christ in his Kingdom (the Church) conquering the nations following his resurrection through the giving of the Word of God out to the world.
The second seal: “A red horse…and he who sat upon it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another, and there was given unto him a great sword.” The removal of peace from the earth. Some believe it signifies the removal of peace from the church, of factions or war within the body of Christ: a variety of persecutions. These are also things that followed in the churches. Others refer it to the advancing armies of Rome. I suggest that restricting the sign to the church is improper – this sign denotes struggles on the earth, and does not indicate anything about the church. These struggles surround people’s daily lives and it is indistinct here as to the point of origin. In prophecy, a reference to a sword signifies power or strength, and in the prophetic scriptures it is not necessarily symbolic of war or actual battles. A crown is a sign of authority or regality. It all means judgment is coming, and as this is a great sword, it is a mighty weapon with a very strong and royal hand wielding it. Strife is coming, and peace will be gone.
The third seal: “A black horse… and he who sat upon it had a pair of scales in his hand.” This sign is generally conceded to signify famine or pestilence. Judgment is coming and I can easily relate it to the decimation of the land by advancing legions of Rome.
The fourth seal: “A pale horse and the name of him who sat upon it was death and Hades rode with him,” is identifying death in every form. It should be remembered that death is separation from God, no matter how it overtakes anyone, the outcome is always the same.
The first four seals represent the beginning of the unfolding of God’s purpose (which began when the Lamb, who was found worthy because he had been slain, and who has loosed the seals). It is not pretty and will not be comfortable. Obviously, the reference is to events that began after Christ had ascended to the heavens. This is another important point in dating the book as the signs start following the ascension of Christ. Things are looking bad. The forces that allow men to continue to strive in godlessness are working overtime. The Lamb ascended and is given all power and authority in both heaven and in the realms of men. Only he is “worthy to loosen the seals;” and it all begins when he is glorified (crucified “a lamb as though it had been slain”). The seals signify the loosing of forces under the control of Christ, which go forth into the world to work the bidding of God. The purpose of these events is explained further in the avenging of the apostles and prophets. It is worked by God through the hands of men. It always has been and will be until judgment.
The fifth seal: the cry of the martyrs. “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” This scene is critical and at the center of all the visions. It recurs throughout the book and the reader is continuously brought back to the cry of the martyrs (Rev.6:6-11; 8:1-5; 11:1; 14:18). In Rev. 18:20, there is thanks given to God for their avenging – “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets for God has avenged you on her.” (see also v.24). The time to pay the bill had arrived. Does it seem reasonable to any reader, that to accommodate the avenging of the Holy Apostles and Prophets, the repercussions for chasing down and killing the people of God in the first century AD would be set off thousands of years into the future?
Thereby, the scene of the martyrs is the most compelling one in the visions. It is the cry of those slain for the testimony of the Word of God, which is continually before God Almighty and the Lamb in these visions; and it is not about numbers, but about caring for Christ’s own. It is in response to the cry for vengeance that God’s plan, as seen in the breaking of the seals, is put into motion. The revealing, this revelation, is the plan God had for retribution against those who persecuted his servants in the early years of the church. The persecutions are trials that must be endured to purify these saints, to set them apart. This is to be followed by the avenging of the saints and their reward for obedience. Who might be at the center of this? Rome surely has the “lead part,” even though the judgment of Israel is in it too, as is directly mentioned in the first visions. My opinion is that the visions first deal with the pending destruction of Jerusalem in the start of the persecutions of Rome, and finally, off into the future: to the end of the Roman Empire – to the avenging of the Holy Apostles and Prophets by God, written throughout the visions. Finally, ending off at the end of time with the Judgment. While you may have been taught something else and may see it differently — it is the text that should be the instructor and not this commentator, that writer or speaker, “your” preacher or mine, my favorite teacher or anyone else. So, let us see what it is stated in the text.
The sixth seal: “Behold there was a great earthquake.” This is the time of the showing of the wrath of God, the beginning of the avenging of the apostles and prophets. Who can stand steady when everything is shaking and bouncing up-and-down all around them? That is the picture. You will fall, and you will not be able to get your “balance” or get away. That’s the point. This language is virtually identical to the language of Christ in the prophesy of the destruction of Jerusalem as recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21:5–36. This should also assist the reader (once again), in identifying the time frame as the decades leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It is a time of spiritual and physical tribulation and upheaval where the question is asked, “Who shall stand?” The answer to that question is announced during the interlude prior to the seventh seal being opened. Remember that in this time, Christ is glorified and is returned to heaven, in short order many of the first of the disciples and nearly all Apostles are killed while the tribulation against the servants of God and Christ begins in earnest (as is stated in the book of Acts beginning in chapter 6). This is the time under study as identified by these signs. Again, I suggest it is clearly pointing to the pending destruction of Jerusalem.