The last chapter described the throne room in heaven where we saw the book with seven seals given to the Lamb. Only the Lamb of God was able to open the seals, resulting in the events which were foretold from John’s time on, as the pages of the book were opened. These seals were opened in succession and with the opening of each seal John saw and recorded an impressive vision. No system of interpretation that doesn’t represent these as chronologically successive events is reasonable. The vision following the opening of the first seal must portray a period of events nearest to the time of John, and the rest follow in order describing the history of the church and of the fate of the world.
The first four seals, that follow here, are all similar in their imagery and can only be reasonably explained as symbolic references to events in the history of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Horsemen are not representative of individuals, but of great epochs, periods in history.
The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, opens the first seal (v.1)
First seal (v. 2) – the white horse
The symbolism of the horse seen in the vision by St. John is of war — the horse was the instrument of war at that time. The colour white signifies victory. So most commentators agree that the white horse signifies prosperous, victorious wars. The rider cannot be Christ, as He is the Lamb, and he is signified with the sword of the Word coming out of His mouth (Revelation 2:16; 19:15). This first seal then signifies a period of Roman victory and power around the time of St. John’s exile on Patmos.
Second seal (v. 3,4) – the red horse
The second horseman holds a great sword in his hand, to whom “was given power to take peace from the earth, and to make men that they should slay one another.” The horse is the symbol of war, but now the colour is red indicating war has come to the Roman home territory which was once peaceful. That land is now drenched in blood. The Roman generals had waged triumphant wars in the countries of their enemies during the period of the first seal, but now a period of internal war has come. Roman endured a period of incessant civil wars, which weakened the kingdom.
Third seal (v. 5) – the black horse
Black is the color of mourning. The black coloured horse and horseman with balances indicates that the land was torn by calamitous war, and is filled with sorrow, mourning and despair. Oil and wine, though common foods, are entirely prohibited through famine and deprivations that came from war. Mourning, calamity and famine is certainly symbolized. Rome was subject to the hordes of conquering Barbarian armies from the pagan nations to the North who conquered pagan Rome (Visigoths, Vandals, Huns etc). These outside forces are also represented in the following pale horse.
Fourth seal (v. 7,8) – the pale horse
The horse is now pale, the bloodless colour of the dead. Upon him sits a rider only described as DEATH. Behind the dread destroyer follows Hades, the unseen world, swallowing up the dying mortals and hiding them from human vision. Death and Hades employ (1) the sword or war; (2) hunger, or famine; (3) death, or pestilence, for so is the word here used often to translated, and such is its meaning in this place; and finally (4) the destruction caused by the wild beasts of forests and field.
The tenth chapter of the first volume of Gibbon’s book “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” details the state of Rome during the reign of Gallienus, when the ninety-two years of civil war were drawing towards a close about A. D. 268. During that reign nineteen pretenders to the throne aroused rebellions which were quenched in blood.
“But a long and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the produce of the present and the future harvests. Famine is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of scanty and unwholesome food. Other causes must, however, have contributed to the furious plague, which, from the years two hundred and fifty to the year two hundred and fifty-six, raged without interruption in every province, every city, and almost every family of the Roman Empire. During some time five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns that had escaped the hands of the Barbarians, were entirely depopulated. Applying this authentic fact to the most correct tables or mortality, it evidently proves, that above half the people of Alexandria had perished; and could we venture to extend the analogy of the other provinces, we might suspect that war, pestilence, and famine had consumed, in a few years, the moiety of the human species.”
The prophecy said that one-quarter of the people of the Roman Empire would perish; Gibbon furnishes data for suggesting that one-half perished, by war, famine, pestilence and wild beasts.
Fifth seal (v. 9) – souls were slain for the Word of God represents those in the early church who were persecuted and slain. White robes (v. 11) of salvation were given to all those who were slain for their faith in the Word of God.
In A. D. 284 Diocletian ascended the Roman throne, and his reign was distinguished by the most terrible, most prolonged, and most general persecution known in the history of the ancient Church.
Sixth seal (v. 12) – ‘earthquake’, ‘sun became black’ or solar eclipse, ‘moon became as blood’ or lunar eclipse are expressions that have impact on the earth and sea (peoples) and are symbolic of the period of revolution and change in the Roman Empire around the early 4th century. The blackness of the sun and the bloody hue of the moon are symbolic of mourning and bloodshed among rulers and princes. The ‘stars of heaven’ (v. 13) falling symbolises the downfall of those in high offices within the Roman Empire.
This lead to the renovation of the old Roman laws according to the precepts of the Christian religion, and a Pagan empire was transformed into an empire of the Christian faith, under new institutions. This is symbolised by the old heavens were moved away as a scroll (v.14) is gathered together. The revolution resulted in moving the capital city from Rome in Italy (where it had been for 11 centuries) to Constantinople, 324 AD.
In the following verses 15-17, this idea of revolution in the pagan Roman Empire and the destruction of their pagan religion, is continued, with the rise “above ground” of the Christian Church. It was a time of open expansion of the church. In 331 AD Constantine decreed that the Pagan religion should exist no longer, and that all the heathen temples should be leveled, or converted into churches. Christianity became the state religion, but that presented new problems as pagans by law had to become Christian. Can you imagine then that this opened the door to multitudes of “professing” believers, who were not saved?
The fig tree (v.13) represents the visible Christian church, meaning all those who profess to being believers. Jesus spoke to the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and 11:20-25. It seems that one message is that if the tree does not bear fruit, new believers, it will wither and die. At that time, when Jesus spoke to the fig tree, the church was wholly Jewish, which seems to indicate that only through the new birth can the Jewish church continue, in Christ. At the time of the Revelation, through the Apostle John, the church was no longer wholly Jewish but had expanded into the non-Jewish world. Thus the church at this time includes the non-Jews. In the prophecies in the Revelation that visible church gets persecuted, purging it of the false believers (the tares among the wheat, Matthew 13:24-30) who are not prepared to die for their faith.