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Studies in the book of Revelation: Why a good God lets bad things happen

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 6-9

An outline of Revelation (placing our study in context)

I. Prologue (1.1-18)

A. Preface (1.1-3)

B. Author and recipients (1.4-5)

C. Doxology (1.6-8)

II. The first vision (1.9-3.22): the glory of Christ and letters to his churches

A. The vision of the risen Christ and commission of the book (1.9-20)

B. The letters to the seven churches (chs. 2-3)

III. The second vision (4.1-16.21): judgments on the evil powers of the world

A. The vision of God in heaven (ch. 4)

B. The seven seals (5.1-8.1)

1. The vision of the Lamb (ch. 5)

2. The first six seals opened (ch. 6)

3. The “sealing” of 144,000 (ch. 7)

4. The seventh seal opened (8.1)

C. The seven trumpets (8.2-11.19)

1. The trumpets introduced (8.2-5)

2. The first six trumpets sounded (8.6-9.21)

3. Interlude: the mighty angel and the little scroll (ch. 10)

4. The two witnesses (11.1-14)

5. The seventh trumpet (11.15-19)

D. The seven signs (12.1-14.20)

1. The woman (12.1-2)

2. The dragon (12.3-13.1)

3. The beast out of the sea (13.1-10)

4. The beast out of the earth (13.11-18)

5. The Lamb and the 144,000 (14.1-5)

6. The three angels (14.6-13)

7. The harvest of the earth (14.14-20)

E. The seven plagues (15.1-16.21)

1. Preparations (ch. 15)

2. The seven bowls of God’s wrath (ch. 16)

IV. The third vision (17.1-21.8): victory over the evil powers of the world

A. The mystery of Babylon (ch. 17)

B. The fall of Babylon (ch. 18)

C. The praise of heaven (19.1-10)

D. The victory of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (19.11-21)

E. The millennium (20.1-6)

F. Satan’s final doom (20.7-10)

G. The judgment of the dead (20.11-15)

V. The fourth vision (21.1-22.21): the future blessing of the faithful

A. The new creation (21.1-8)

B. The new Jerusalem (21.9-27)

C. The river of life (22.1-6)

D. The promise of Jesus’ imminent return (22.7-21)

God rules the elements (Revelation 6)

Note that all seven seals must be broken before the scroll itself can be opened; thus these are preliminary signs before the final stages of the kingdom can be revealed. These seals parallel closely Matthew 24.1-35 and Mark 13.1-37, and correspond to the “beginning of birth pains” Jesus describes in the Olivet discourse.

These events could begin in John’s time, and extend to the end of history (cf. 1 John 2.18: “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour”).

The first seal: the white horse (1-2)—conquest

Hal Lindsey: the white horse represents an European Antichrist who is going to head up the Common Market in Europe from the city of Rome. Many interpreters believe this rider is Christ or his cause on earth. White is commonly a symbol in Revelation for Christ or spiritual victory (cf. Revelation 1.14, 2.17, 3.4-5, 4.4, 7.9, 20.11). No “woe” is mentioned as with the other riders.

My interpretation is this rider represents the conquest of the Roman Empire. The Parthians were the Romans’ most dreaded enemies, and their rulers rode white horses.

Their warriors used a bow; the Romans did not. Their rulers wore crowns; the Romans did not. And so Jesus is promising these persecuted Christians that their persecutors will one day be destroyed, and their faith will be vindicated.

The second seal: the red horse (3-4)—war

Hal Lindsey contends that this is Russia, making alliance with the Arabs to invade Israel; he bases this assumption primarily upon the color of Russia’s flag and nationality. However, red is the typical apocalyptic color for judgment and wrath. The rider’s power to “take peace from the earth” makes clear that war will follow conquest in the future of the Empire.

The third seal: the black horse (5-6)—famine

War creates famine. The costs reflected in the text are twelve times the normal prices for food.

The fourth seal: the pale horse (7-8)—death

“Pale” denotes a yellowish green, the paleness of a dying person. His name and work show that death follows the conquest, war, and famine which will come to the Empire.

Hal Lindsey and others interpret these “riders” as doing their work only at the end of history (Lindsey interprets vs. 7-8 as the results of a nuclear war). But most commentators through Christian history have seen these as warnings of coming catastrophe for the persecuting Roman Empire, and assurance to the Christians that their future is secure in an insecure world.

The fifth seal: the martyrs (9-11)

Some interpret these verses to speak of those martyred for their faith during the Great Tribulation. Others point out the fact that if the Spirit is “raptured” during this Tribulation, how could people become believers and then be martyred?

The verb tenses seem to indicate that these are those who have already been martyred by the time John writes Revelation. Thus this passage refers to first-century Christians who have died for their faith. They seek vengeance from God, in keeping with Scripture: “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” (Romans 12.19). They are given the white robes of victory and promised that judgment will one day come to their enemies.

The sixth seal: the earthquake (12-17)

Some see these as signs of the end of history; others as symbols of ongoing tribulation until Christ finally returns. Note the non-rational nature of these symbols: “the stars in the sky fell to earth” (v. 13), but our planet is smaller than any one of these stars; “the sky receded like a scroll” (v. 14) and “every mountain and island was removed from its place” (v. 14), yet people hide among the “rocks of the mountains” (v. 15). And later “a third of the stars” turn dark (8.12), though all of them have already fallen to earth (6.13).

John is using apocalyptic language of judgment: “earthquakes” (from Ezekiel 39.18, Isaiah 2.19, Haggai 2.6), “sun” blackened and “moon” like blood (cf. Joel 2.31, Ezekiel 32.7), and “stars” falling (cf. Isaiah 34.4, Nahum 3.12).

Rather than interpreting these verses as literal descriptions of physical events, it seems more in keeping with John’s first-century intent and apocalyptic tradition to see these as symbols of divine wrath on the Romans and all who oppose God’s Kingdom.

God protects his own (Revelation 7)

Four angels hold back the four winds of the earth (1): In the midst of such judgment, God makes clear the fact that he shelters and protects his own people. The Jewish people pictured the angels as controlling the winds; so here.

144,000 are sealed with the “seal of the living God” (2-8): Hal Lindsey sees these as Jewish converts to Christ shortly after the rapture. Again we must ask how people could be converted without the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth. Lindsey argues that these Jewish converts in turn evangelize the world, resulting in the “great multitude” described in verses. 9 and following.

Others suggest that this number represents Jewish Christians, and the “great multitude” Gentile converts. This view does not connect their conversion with the rapture. But note that no distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians is suggested in the rest of the New Testament. To the contrary, in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3.28).

So I would consider this number to be apocalyptic symbolism for all of God’s people. It is the multiple of the square of twelve and the square of ten, representing completeness. Note that all people in heaven have God’s name written on their foreheads in Revelation 22.4; the “sealing” here is of all peoples as well. This “seal” marks them as the possession of God in the midst of persecution and suffering. It claims them as the children of the Lord.

The great multitude stands in worship (9-17): This multitude is from every “people group” in the ancient world—nation, tribe, people, and language. They wear white robes of victory, and hold palm branches used in the Roman world to celebrate conquerors (cf. Jesus’ Palm Sunday). The angels and elders join them in worshipping God and their seven-fold psalm of praise.

They have come out of “the great tribulation” (v. 14): Here is found the term used by many for the seven years they believe will follow the “rapture.” But the term is not here connected with any specific time period. And interpreted in its context, it probably refers simply to the suffering of believers in John’s time and in all time.

God judges the unrepentant (Revelation 8-9)

The seventh seal: Silence in heaven, “an attitude of trembling suspense on the part of the heavenly hosts in view of the judgments of God which are about to fall upon the world” (Newport, Lion and the Lamb, 201). Leads to the seven trumpets, which will proclaim further judgment against the enemies of God. Involves incense before the altar of God (1-5), again connected with the prayers of the saints (see 5.8).

The first four trumpets judge nature: hail and fire (6-7), a mountain thrown into the sea (8-9), a star falling from the sky (10-11), and a third of the heavenly lights struck (12). A “third” of the natural world is affected by each of these trumpets; the “third” was a Jewish idiom for “a large part.”

Note the non-rational nature of this event: “all the green grass was burned up” (v. 7), but in 9.4 the “locusts” are told “not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree.” These events could be seen as literal prediction of future disasters, but it is noteworthy that they suggest natural calamities which had all occurred in recent memory in the first century.

Mount Vesuvius had erupted in AD 79, destroying Herculaneum, Pompeii and many small villages, and leaving a permanent memory of horror and destruction in the minds of the Romans.

The island volcano Santorin had also erupted, leaving the suggestion of a burning mountain, destroying vegetation, killing fish in the seas, and turning waters red like blood.

And so God “is saying to them, ‘I have the means of destroying your enemies'” (Summers, Worthy is the Lamb, 157).

The eagle pronounces woes (13), connecting the coming trumpets to human judgment and justice.

The fifth trumpet/first woe: plague of locusts (9.1-12). Joel 2.1-11 describes the Day of the Lord as a devastating plague of locusts. These insects were the most feared enemies of ancient farmers, who had no way to prevent their attack and no means of preserving their crops from it.

The “bottomless pit” from which the locusts originate is a provisional place of punishment for Satan until the end when he is thrown into the “lake of fire”; it is also the abode of the beast or Antichrist (11.7). And so these locusts seem to be identified with demonic attack against humanity. They “torture” people (v. 5) but are not allowed to kill them (cf. Satan’s attack against Job and God’s preservation of his life, Job 2.6). They are not allowed to attack God’s people (v. 4), showing that God is able to preserve his followers from all his enemies.

Their description has been interpreted by Lindsey to represent army helicopters, but a more natural first-century view would be that these demonic “locusts” are given the most dreadful characteristics imaginable. Their leader is named “Destroyer,” descriptive of their work (cf. Jesus’ statement: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” John. 10.10).

The sixth trumpet/second woe: the attack of the four angels (13-21). The angels come from the region beyond “the great river Euphrates” (v. 14). To ancient Israel, this region reminded them of Assyria, the nation which destroyed the Northern Kingdom. Their location would suggest divine wrath and judgment. 200,000,000 mounted troops are described as well.

Hal Lindsey sees this as the armed militia of China, and the horses described as mobilized ballistic missile launchers. But others have pointed out the fact that an army of this size could not be conscripted or moved (the total armed forces involved in World War II was 70 million). This number is better understood as symbolic of heavenly or demonic host (cf Psalm 68.17, 2 Kings 2.11-12). Their purpose is clear: to expose the defiance and sinfulness of those who have rejected God’s purpose for their lives (vs. 20-21).

Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire documents the fact that three things combined to overthrow the Roman Empire: natural calamity, external invasion, and internal moral decay. We see all three at work in chapters 8-9, giving hope to the persecuted Christians of John’s day that the Empire would one day fall while God’s Kingdom succeeds and grows.

God is sovereign over all the affairs of life: moral, natural, spiritual. hose who reject his will and purpose will face ultimate judgment and punishment. God protects his own and promises them eternal reward for their faithfulness.