The seals and horsemen are probably some of the more well known symbols of the Apocalypse. Usually they conjure up scary images of horse and rider pillaging throughout the land indiscriminately and other chaotic events such as the moon becoming blood. However, as I hope to show, these were using symbolic language and had a more specified focus in both time and objective. In addition, not to offer conjectures, certain things may have happened in our physical view that would be similar (such as a “blood moon” during a total eclipse). These guesstimates are not the scope of this writing, but rather to compare the scriptures with other portions of the Bible and any basic historic events. For easier and more convenient reading, this wiki article is a short synopsis of the war referenced. Much of the more expanded history can be found primarily from the Jewish historian Josephus, as well as other works by historians such as Tacitus, Eusebius, and Suetonius just to name a few. While the imagery used in this chapter can be vivid, only a few details are given of each seal and each horseman.
The first seal unleashes a white horse with the rider carrying a bow. To me, this would symbolize, respective of the time period that is referenced, the approaching war. The bow seems to symbolize that the army is off in the distance but approaching. A crown is also given to this rider, possibly a symbol of definitive victory, but no other details are given within the text of the relation. If we could posit an early guess, it could be the advancing Roman army dispatched by Nero in 66 AD.
The second seal unleashes a red horse, the rider carrying a great sword and, seemingly, inspiring internal conflict within the land. It would appear that the war was closing in, possibly denoting Jerusalem, the sword being a weapon of close quarters combat. As well, the red horse symbolizes blood. During this time, many of the Jewish people also turned on one another. This is also related in the siege of Jerusalem when the zealots were fighting each other for control, as well as fighting the Romans outside the walls.
The third seal unleashes a black horse, the rider carrying a balance. We also see the onset of food shortage in Jerusalem as price gouging begins. It would seem the oil and wine of the temple were still off limits, however—for now.
The fourth seal unleashes the final horseman, a pale horse with the rider Death and Hades following. He kills with famine, sword, and wild animals, this possibly referencing all the ways in which the besieged Jews were dying within the walls of Jerusalem, as well as those being hunted down by the Romans and their cohorts throughout Palestine. The Hades reference could be relating to the Gehenna references Jesus warns of throughout the later half of Matt 5.
With the fifth seal, we see the martyrs crying out to God to avenge their blood against those who dwell on earth. This wasn’t the whole earth as may be first assumed. As mentioned previously, this symbolism often references the nation that is being judged such as in Isaiah 24:19-20 and 1:2. We know that the earth still continues, but often destruction, passing away, etc… of heaven and earth was referencing the downfall of a nation via God’s judgment. This further complies with the overall theme of the book—destruction coming on Jerusalem and the unrepentant nation of Israel, and soon. This also clarifies passages such as Matt 5:18 where the law would be removed upon the passing away of “heaven and earth.” Jesus again repeats this same theme in the prophecy of Matt 24:34-35.
However, it seems there were still more martyrs that would be slain for the message of Jesus, but based on the cries of these spirits and their consoling, it wouldn’t be long. The spirits seem to be the ones that will be “made alive” at the Second Coming prior to the saints being caught up in the air with Jesus (1 Thes 4:16-17—these verses also allude to other passages in Rev).
With the sixth seal, we see several events which are also described in the Mount of Olives discourse in the gospels which related to Old Testament use of symbolism. It may be helpful to make a list for these:
Rev 6:12 – great earthquake (as well as signs from other seals) => Luke 21:11
Rev 6:12-13 – sun black, moon blood, stars fall, and shaking => Matt 24:29 => Isaiah 13:10, 13; 34:4
Rev 6:14 – sky rolled up, earth moved => Isaiah 24:19-20, 34:3-4
Rev 6:15-16 – fleeing, hiding in caves => Matt 24:16-19 => as well Josephus tells of how the Jewish survivors, for some time, hid away in caves in an attempt to flee from the invaders as well as tunnels underneath Jerusalem.
Rev 6:17 – The Day of his wrath aka The Day of the Lord.
Comparing mainly from other Biblical passages, with a small amount of historical verification, we see that an overall story was being painted of the impending wrath being poured on unrepentant Israel. However, the literal heavens and earth weren’t destroyed either in the fulfillment of the Old Testament destruction nor in the New Testament. This was symbolic of the nation specified, in each prophecy, being decimated.
This ends chapter 6. So far, it would seem that the timing lines up with what Jesus said in the gospels. As well, the symbolism lines up with prophecies that were already completed in the Old Testament or those that were referencing the eventual “Day of the Lord” and destruction of Jerusalem. It would seem, as the timing suggests thus far, that this was rapidly approaching. No time-shift has yet occurred that would have us abandon the statements of soon as listed all throughout the New Testament.
Finally, here’s an excerpt from Josephus relaying the internal state of Jerusalem at the time that lines up fairly well with what we see in this chapter as well as other events throughout this book.