In terms of the first cycle of history, found in Revelation 4-7, the Day of Judgment appears with the opening of the sixth seal. The first four seals unleashed the horsemen of conquest, violence, famine, and death, depicting the woes that will characterize the entire church age, from Christ’s ascension until His return. The fifth seal showed the souls of the martyrs in heaven who died in the midst of the woes of the first four seals. The sixth seal answers the prayer of the martyrs for justice and vengeance on the dwellers of earth. God told them to wait “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete” (6:11), and the sixth seal shows that this waiting will be fulfilled in God’s timing. Just as seven is the number of completion and salvation in Revelation, six is the number of man. Thus, when Christ “opened the sixth seal” (v. 12), the day of God’s wrath appeared.

As we consider the disruption of creation depicted in verses 12-14, two important questions need to be answered that must be taken together. First, are these descriptions to be taken symbolically or more or less literally, and second, what is the event they describe? There are arguments for both symbolically and literal interpretations of these verses. The arguments in favor of a symbolic interpretation are impressive. Primarily, they show that these images of physical calamity are drawn from Old Testament passages in which these same images are used of historical events describing God’s interventions and especially depicting the fall of cities and empires.

There are reasons, however, to take the differing view that the sixth seal foretells the literal dissolution of creation in the final judgment of God. While we agree that symbolism is often used in the Old Testament for falling empires and the conquest of cities, there are other passages showing that these temporal judgments anticipate the great and final Day of Judgment when the earth itself will be destroyed. Additionally, the sixth seal answers the prayers of the fifth seal, which call for judgment on the entire world (v. 10). Moreover, the language used here occurs elsewhere in Revelation to describe the final judgment of all mankind (11:13; 16:18-20; 20:11). Finally, a literal reading of the sixth seal fits Jesus’ depiction in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:29-32). Even in depicting the literal disruption of creation, there is probably symbolism in these verses also. Still, a mainly literal reading is possible.

Not only does the sixth seal destroy the corrupted cosmos, but the upheavals picture the terror and dread that the condemned human race will not escape. Thus, in addition to the dissolution of creation, John sees the dismay of sinful mankind (vv. 15-17). Here, John sees six categories of condemned mankind who experience the great day of wrath. They describe all classes of society, showing that God judges all on an equal basis regardless of their social, political, or economic standing. The prominence, however, is given to judgment of the rulers and the great of the world. The martyrs prayed for God to judge and avenge “those who dwell on the earth” (v. 10), and it starts at the top.

The dismayed human race responds to the final judgment in two ways. First is a vain attempt to flee. The people called “to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us’” (v. 16). In this way, they state that nothing is worse than facing the judgment that has come. Yet none will be able to escape. Coupled with their attempt to flee is their terror in God’s judgment. This is why they find death preferable to “the face of him who is seated on the throne” (v. 16). God is revealed to condemned humanity as the enthroned Creator and as the Lamb whose offered salvation was spurned and despised. How total will their alarm be when “the great day of their wrath has come” (v. 17).

In reflecting on the dire events depicted under the sixth seal, we should consider four applications. The first notes that since the earth is to be destroyed in God’s judgment, we should live with an aim to the world to come and not to this present, passing world. The New Testament is filled with this argument. This world will not last, and even its best achievements, monuments, and glories are destined to perish apart from Christ. If we believe that this world will make way for the eternal kingdom of Christ, then we should seek the treasures of His realm. We should honor Christ through obedience to His Word, serve the growth and well-being of His church, and share the gospel so that more people can inhabit eternity with us. This application urges each of us to take stock of our lives to see whether our priorities are on earth or in heaven.

A second application was likely on John’s as he penned Revelation to churches facing persecution. Knowing that God saves His people, Christians facing opposition and hardship should not give up or give in to the world but persevere in faith, prayer, and a loving gospel witness, knowing that redemption is near. The pattern of God’s judgment on enemies of His gospel and deliverance of His people is repeated throughout history. Whether the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, or Communist Eastern Europe and China, God has judged the rulers and powers that opposed His gospel and persecuted the church. Today, godless humanism and government hostility to Christianity can only bring divine judgment on America. Just as God answered the prayers of Revelation 6:10 with the judgment of verses 12-17, He hears and will answer the prayers of suffering believers today.

Third, believers in Christ should not fear being caught in this dreadful wrath. Verse 16 says that the final judgment reveals “the face of Him who is seated on the throne.” This is therefore not an overthrow of the plan of history described in the Bible but its fulfillment. The promises of God are established by this throne. Chapter 4 showed God’s throne encircled by the rainbow that reminds Him of His covenant grace. Romans 8:30 proclaims that “those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” This is the will of the sovereign God enthroned in heaven for His people in Christ. Reading this woeful passage we might ask, “Will I survive the end of the world in judgment?” There is only one sure way to answer that question. We must believe the message of the gospel that says that faith in Jesus Christ delivers us from the wrath which is to come.

Finally, those who have heard the gospel but have not yet believed should realize that the present age of grace, and the opportunity for salvation, will suddenly end and be followed by final judgment and divine wrath. If you have not embraced Jesus for salvation, then you will be in this picture, desperately unable to escape the wrath of the Savior whom you have personally spurned. The judgment to come is the great day not only of God’s justice but also of “the wrath of the Lamb” (v. 16). Mankind had rejected the Lamb who was slain for the forgiveness of sin and will now suffer God’s wrath at His hands. When the world’s only Savior has become its wrathful judge, there will then be no salvation for any who did not previously come to Jesus in humble, repentant faith.

Psalm 2 notes the rebellion of the kings and rulers of earth and their destruction under the iron rod of Christ. The psalm ends with an appeal, a warning, and a promise for us: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps. 2:12).

Revelation 6:12-17 Study Questions:

What series of events does the sixth seal reveal?

Why are the kings of the earth, the rich and the powerful, singled out among all the people who hide in caves (vv. 15-16)?

How does our view of “wrath” change when we realize that it belongs to the One who has embodied (in His own death) God’s own self-giving, sacrificial love?

The only people who should be afraid of the Lamb’s wrath are those who are determined to resist the call of love. In what ways might we respond to the call to love in the way of the Lamb in our lives?


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