The first four seals released the well-known four horsemen of the Apocalypse that brought calamities on the world. The imagery of the four horsemen is drawn from Zechariah chapter 6, where horses of the same colors are said to be the four spirits of heaven. When the first seal was opened, a rider on a white horse brought conquest to the nations. The second seal brought a rider on a fiery red horse, representing slaughter. War is the most obvious form of slaughter, but the picture is broad enough to encompass other forms of human killing, too. The third seal produced a rider on a black horse that represented famine. And the fourth seal brought a rider named Death, who rode a pale horse and represented death by sword, famine, plagues and wild beasts. As terrible as these calamities were, only a fourth of the earth was affected. Most escaped this part of God’s judgment.
When the fifth seal was opened, John saw a vision of Christian martyrs in heaven. These saints had been slain because they had remained faithful to God and his Word. They cried out for God to punish their murderers, but were told that God wouldn’t bring all his justice to bear just yet. They would need to be patient, until the number of those who were to be martyred was complete.
When the sixth seal was opened, the entire earth experienced God’s judgment. There was an earthquake; the sun turned black; the moon turned blood red; the stars fell to earth; the sky retreated; and every mountain and island was removed. This description recalls Old Testament prophecies about political upheaval, like the ones we find in Isaiah 34:1-4 and Joel 2:10-11. It was a way of saying that God was bringing final judgment that would destroy the present evil world.
Between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals, there is an interlude in Revelation chapter 7. This interlude describes the church in ways that highlight God’s protection of his people. First, John heard an announcement that 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel — 144,000 people in total — had been sealed by God as his special people. Although this 144,000 has been understood in different ways, the text of Revelation says that John heard an announcement of 144,000, but when he turned and looked, he saw something quite different.
Consider how John described them in Revelation chapter 7 verse 9:
There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.
Something similar happened in Revelation chapter 5: John heard an announcement about a lion, then looked and saw a lamb. Well, something similar happened here. He heard an announcement about 144,000 Jews, then looked and saw an even larger crowd consisting of Jews and Gentiles together. In both cases, John heard words drawn from symbolism in the Old Testament — the lion and the tribes of Israel. But when he turned to look, what appeared was much greater than what had been announced. The symbolism of the lion was fulfilled in Christ, and the symbolism of the tribes was fulfilled in a great multitude of believers from every nation.
Bible Reading: Revelation 6:1-17, 7:1-17