5 – “The Beginning of Sorrows” (Revelation 6)

Home Learning Hub Reflections in Revelations 5 – “The Beginning of Sorrows” (Revelation 6)

The vision of Rev 6 aligns with three other portions of scripture, just to mention a few. These are Matthew 24, 2 Peter 3 and Luke 23:28-31. In Matthew 24, Jesus was speaking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, that would occur in that generation. He spoke of wars and famines and said these would be the beginning of sorrows. These would increase ahead of the final terror of the Roman destruction of the city.

We can see this partly recorded in the book of Acts. There, we see the false Christ’s that Jesus spoke about and famines. Paul also raised support for some of the believers in need in Jerusalem because of one of those famines. The historian alive in those days, Flavius Josephus, recorded those years in detail. Though he was not a Christian, Josephus recorded all the sorrows Jesus outlined. His writings match exactly with the narrative of Revelation.

Rev 6 also notes the “patience of the saints,” that Peter spoke of in his letter. John gave the same reason for this as Peter did: God wouldn’t bring the final judgement until that generation had the full opportunity to repent. John, at the end of Rev 6, also employed the same symbolism as 2 Peter 3 and Luke 23, to describe the final fall of Jerusalem.

The sorrows Jesus spoke of, were outlined in Rev 6 and symbolised by the horses: the white horse of war, the red horse of civil war in Israel, the black horse of famine and pestilence, and the pale horse of death and the grave, which followed the first three horses and reaped.

When John opened the fifth seal, he saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar of God, asking how long it would be until God intervened. Again, it is important to note the nature of this vision.

This isn’t a literal vision of people in heaven under the altar. They aren’t literally given white robes to wear. And it isn’t a literal expression of the believers, calling for vengeance upon their enemies. The believers of the early church were told by Christ to love their enemies, to pray for their wellbeing, to do good to them.

To take an apocalyptic vision literally is to completely misread it.

The purpose of this vision is twofold. First, it is to express the question people had in those days, about how long God would allow this injustice to go on. The answer here in Rev 6, was the same that Peter gave. “God is longsuffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” It’s the same answer Ezekiel gave, that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires they turn. God would give time for others to come into his kingdom, even though they too may be martyred.

The second purpose is to do with the white robes. This shows that the believers had washed themselves, by not participating in the greed and violence of their day. They had refused the violence, even though it meant their own death. Revelation speaks of this often, as we will see later. To be washed in the blood of Christ, doesn’t just mean they had become a believer, but also that they had followed Jesus. They had become his disciples. This is the kind of faith that Revelation witnesses to.

At the end of Rev 6, John speaks of the coming fall of Jerusalem, that would occur after these first sorrows. Here, John employs the same symbolism of 2 Peter 3, taken from Isaiah 34. Apocalyptic symbols are used that are not literal. They represent the destruction of a city or nation. To interpret these literally is to go against the plain meaning of the scripture.

“All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction.” (Isaiah 34:4-5) This passage recorded the coming destruction of Edom, soon after Isaiah spoke of it. This language was common in the Prophets. By “sun,” “moon” and “stars,” like in Joseph’s dream in Genesis, the leaders of tribes, nations and temples were meant. By the fall of these celestial bodies, the prophets meant that the nation would be dissolved, and their dynasty of leaders would perish. This is the same language Joel used, not for the end of the world, but also for the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This is reading the bible biblically. To read it by Greek literal meanings is not biblical.

Finally, John shows the ferocity of what was coming upon Jerusalem:

“Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”” (Rev 6:15-17)

By “kings of the earth and generals and the rich and powerful,” John was speaking about the rulers of the land of Israel, who had fortified themselves against the Roman army. Jesus spoke of this on his way to the cross when the Jewish women were crying for him: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’” (Luke 23:28-30)

This is a quote from Isaiah 2:19 and Hosea 10:8, speaking of Israel.

According to Jesus, this proverb about the people hiding in the rocks from the wrath of the Lamb, was about the fall of Jerusalem, in that generation. This aligns Rev 6 with the words of Jesus about the destruction that was coming upon Israel at that time. This passage also aligns with what Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse, about the difficulty pregnant women would have when Rome encircled and destroyed Jerusalem in that day. Statements like this, about pregnant women, were common proverbs that drew attention to the tribulation that was on the horizon of that day.

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days!…” (Luke 23:20-23)