The Sixth Seal – Revelation 6:12-17

God Zapping WorldThe sixth seal contains apocalyptic imagery drawn from the whole canon of the prophets. In fact, the sixth seal seems to be a combination of all the stock imagery found in the Old Testament, Second Temple apocalyptic literature, even Greco-Roman imagery of disaster. This does not necessarily mean John used other apocalypses, however. Just as John drew on the Hebrew Bible for this apocalyptic imagery, so too did other Jewish apocalyptic literature.

The apocalyptic elements in the sixth deal (earthquakes, mountains melting, the sun and moon growing dark, etc.) are “stock apocalyptic images.” Just a few examples: Haggai 2:21-22 the Lord will “shake the heavens and the earth.” In Joel 2:10 the earth and sky trembles and the sun, moon and stars no longer shine. In Isaiah 24:18-23 the earth reels like a drunkard and splits apart. Amos 8:9 describes the day of the Lord as “a day of darkness and gloom.” These examples can be easily multiplied in the Hebrew Bible and are found throughout the apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple Period (2 Apoc. Bar. 27; 4 Ezra 4:52-5:13; 6:20-24). For example:

T. Mos. 10:5-6 The sun will not give light. And in darkness the horns of the moon will flee. Yea, they will be broken in pieces. It will be turned wholly into blood. Yea, even the circles of the stars will be thrown into disarray.

Sib. Or. 8.231–238 A lament will rise from all and gnashing of teeth. The light of the sun will be eclipsed and the troupes of stars. He will roll up heaven. The light of the moon will perish. He will elevate ravines, and destroy the heights of hills. No longer will mournful height appear among men. Mountains will be equal to plains, and all the sea will no longer bear voyage. For earth will then be parched with its springs. Bubbling rivers will fail.

Even the Romans considered these types of things to be signs of impending doom. David Aune cites Lactantius’s Epitome 71 (Revelation 2:414, compare to Tacitus, Hist. 1.3.3):

Lactantius Epitome 71 To these plagues will be added also miraculous signs [prodigia] from heaven, that everything may combine to increase human alarm. Comets will frequently be seen. The sun will be darkened with perpetual gloom; the moon will be dyed in blood, nor will it renew its lost light; all the stars will fall, nor will the seasons observe their proper course, for winter and summer will be confounded.

In Rev 6:17, all of the people of the earth who are afflicted by these plagues attempt to hide themselves in the rocks and caves because the “great day of God’s wrath” has come. The reaction is similar to several Old Testament passages, such as Isaiah 2:19-21. But even this reaction is found in other apocalypses. For example:

Sib. Or. 3.601–607 Therefore the Immortal will inflict on all mortals disaster and famine and woes and groans and war and pestilence and lamentable ills, because they were not willing to piously honor the immortal begetter of all men, but honored idols made by hand, revering them, which mortals themselves will cast away, hiding them in clefts of rocks.

What should we make of this parallel material? Is this “revelation or research”? Or, is this like the throne room scene in that John uses the sort of language for the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” that would be expected by Jewish readers (drawn from the Hebrew Bible) and even the Greco-Roman world (drawn from the prodigia)? More difficult, how literal are these stock apocalyptic images? Perhaps John’s point here is to simply describe the standard cosmic catastrophe in terms that everyone in the first century would understand. To say that God is going to judge the world and not use this sort of language would have made little sense to his original readers.

The whole point is to strike terror into the readers because the “great and dreadful day” has come. It is not really necessary to worry over what sorts of natural disasters John is witnessing in his vision, and it is especially not appropriate to declare some modern even “fulfills” this seal. John’s point is that Wrath of the Lamb of God is fearsome indeed!

11 thoughts on “The Sixth Seal – Revelation 6:12-17

  1. The parallel material for the opening of the scrolls in Revelation 6 is kind of interesting and odd at the same time. Looking at books like Lactantius’s Epitome and others that didn’t make it into the canonical texts, they still look very much like and hold similar material to what our Bible does today. If these texts are so similar, then the question raised is, why are they not apart of the texts in the Bible? I think it goes back to the question that was asked within this post, “What should we make of this parallel material? Is this ‘revelation or research’?”. It all depends on the dates in which these other books outside of the Bible were written. If they have a dating closer to the books that were put into the Bible, then it could be argued that they could be a revelation, but if they are later then they most likely would fall under the title of research. Research or revelation, they show a connection between the Bible’s book and the Hebrew books in the usage of words. Either way, I agree with the author that the books, in the Bible or not, are meant to give its reader a feeling of urgency about what will happen when God pours out his wrath upon the earth. There will be disasters of multiple kinds and if people are unwilling to repent and turn towards God, they will not have his protection during this time of chaos.

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  2. Some of the attributes that describe God are him being holy, merciful and just. God being one who is wrathful is an attribute that is not liked by some. Looking at the scriptural text that are not canonized, it appears that what is stated there and what is stated in Revelation 6 also affirm that this wrath of God is revelation and not research. I could see where one would think that John is just using common language that Jewish and Greco-Roman readers would understand; however I just can’t see the scripture (Revelation 6:12-17) being allegorical as an earthquake was announced at God’s arrival in Exodus 19 as well as every mountain and island displayed which is mentioned in Isaiah 34. In a world full of brokenness and sin that is caused by the depravity of mankind apart from Christ; judgement toward the unsaved has to be the result as God will no longer be able to tolerate sin any longer. What interests me about these verses in Revelation 6 is that the verses to follow in Revelation 7:1-17 don’t talk about those apart from Christ but rather the one’s sealed by Christ. Judgement will not be present toward the one who has been saved by the blood of Christ shed at Calvary. At the end of the day as said above, it should be urgency that the reader recognizing in Revelation 6:12-17 as this judgement doesn’t have to happen to you.

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  3. In the book of Revelation, there are seven seals that were to be open by the Lamb. Each one brings destruction and chaos onto the earth and around the earth. One of the seals was the sixth seal which when it was opened, there was an earthquake, the sun became black, the moon turned red, the stars fell from the sky, figs fell from their trees, the heavens retreated, and the mountains and island were gone. So much happened during this sixth seal and it created chaos. Quite a few of these events seem unnatural, but some have happened before. We experience earthquakes around the world, but the way the verse says it is that it was “a great earthquake”. Could that mean it was the biggest earthquake ever? How great is it? The sun turns black which could resemble an eclipse which is a rare thing that happens, but it has happened before. The moon turns red which is really rare, but has happened. The stars have never fallen from the sky before, but we could imagine it as being like a billion shooting stars moving across the sky. There are a few more events that happened, but all of them show how mighty and powerful God is. He can do anything because through Him, anything is possible. Our minds can only imagine a little bit of what God is actually going to do. We can understand some of it because we may have seen a glimpse of it, but there is so much we cannot understand or imagine because he is all-powerful.

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  4. Discussing the wrath of God can be a tricky subject when confronting the entire identity of God. God is often described as obtaining loving, devoted, and understanding characteristic traits. This idea is more commonly discussed rather than the wrath in which God withholds. It is known that Christians should fear God. I personally believe that John uses almost a tactic of scaring his readers. This is necessary however in order to make it important and real to the readers that God will come again. I like how you pointed out “it is not really necessary to worry over what sorts of natural disasters John is witnessing in his vision, and it is especially not appropriate to declare some modern even “fulfills” this seal.” This is beyond true. We should not live our days in fear of what might happen but trust in God and His individual plan He has in store for us. However, I believe it is important and healthy to be afraid of the wrath of God. God has all the power and He will save us all from this world. We should be God fearing since He has this power, but also grateful He sent His son to save us from our sins.

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  5. this was a really great post thank you. The main thing that I got out of this is how God works in the same way that he did in the past still today. This who thing about how God is going to bring this all on the earth is a little hard for some people to wrestle with, and I would say that I ave wrestled with it in my faith, but the more that you can grow close to God the more that you will realize that God really is in control, and the more that we can realize this the better of we will be if we just trust his plan.

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  6. I recall a lot of the imagery described in this post from my time in Old Testament Prophets class. It seems that all of the prophets had something to say about the Day of the Lord, how terrifying it would be for those that refuse to repent of their sins and follow God’s ways. It amazes me that John is able to incorporate so much of the different imagery for this section of Revelation, imagery that definitely takes the attention of the Jewish readers, yet is still very capable of capturing the attention of the greater Roman audience as well. It seems that much of the apocalyptic imagery of the ancient near east is rather similar; each of the different cultures there still were able to identify the most harrowing of natural disasters that God could send upon their civilizations.
    I agree with this point that the post makes: the imagery present is almost something of a requirement if John is trying to garner the awe and fear of the Lord’s coming judgement in his writings. It is surely God’s unchanging nature that allows this oracle to match the many different things that were said by His prophets many centuries ago.

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  7. I think it definitely makes sense that John used images that aren’t necessarily 100% spot on, but more just create the effect that he’s trying to achieve in a way people understand. The exact real events of the apocalypse could very well be more than our human minds can even imagine, so it makes more sense to communicate in a way that we can comprehend. If we’ve already heard of some of these “stock images” from other apocalyptic stories, it probably makes it easier for us to get what John is trying to portray. It was interesting to see other writings outside of the Bible that use similar apocalyptic imagery to what John uses in the book of Revelation. I also think that, again, this is one of those things we should not spend time trying to predict or attribute to current events. We will never be able to guess what these events will actually look like and there are plenty of people that try to say they’re already happening now. I don’t think the human mind can fully imagine the type of events that God has planned as part of his judgement, so anything that might be as great as we can imagine could still be minuscule in the bigger picture of God’s plan.

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