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The Sixth Seal: Exegesis and Interpretation

November 7, 2012


For centuries the book of Revelation has been a source of both comfort and confusion for the Christian Church.[1]  The meaning of its strange language and vivid imagery has often proved elusive for its many interpreters.[2]  One of the issues that surfaces time and again is whether or not some parts are to be interpreted literally or figuratively.   The sixth seal (6:12-17) has often been a place that has divided readers on this matter.[3]  The following essay will thus provide an exegetical analysis of this passage within its historical and literary setting to determine how it should be read.

Historical Context

The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic work that was written at the end of the first century C.E. during the reign of Domitian.[4]  The author identifies himself as John a number of times throughout the book and has traditionally been understood as the apostle John.[5]  However, due to the distinct difference in writing style between Revelation and the other Johannine writings, many have suggested other alternatives.[6]  While the authorship may be a matter of debate, the audience certainly is not.  The book is specifically addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor: the church in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:4, 11).[7]

It is now widely accepted that Revelation was written to be understood and interpreted within an oral setting (cf. 1:3).[8]  Maier notes that the text is written in such a way as to keep the listener’s interest and draw them into an emotional experience of the vision.[9]  This is typical of apocalyptic literature, which is expressive and conveys feelings and attitudes.[10]  Therefore, the literary devices John makes use of have important functions that significantly determine the communication process.  Any exposition of the sixth seal should be careful to note the sounds and feelings that are embedded in the text.

Literary Context

The seven seals find their setting in the throne room of Revelation 4-5.[11]  The cry is raised, “Who is worthy to open the book and break its seals?” (5:2).  The Lion of the tribe of Judah is found worthy and steps forward to take the scroll and break the seals.  While the scroll cannot be read until all the seals are broken, the action of breaking each seal produces a series of events on earth.[12]  The first four are characterised by different coloured horses and their mysterious riders which cause increasing distress upon the earth (6:1-8), while the fifth and sixth reveal the suffering of the martyrs and the divine response to their cry for justice (vv. 9-17).[13]  The connection between the fifth and sixth seal should not be overlooked.  The answer to the cry of the saints in v.10 is hinted at in v.11 and explicitly expressed in vv. 12-17.[14]  This progression from one seal to the next indicates that that the events of the sixth seal point to the final judgment.[15]  The description of the sixth seal draws heavily on the apocalyptic imagery used throughout the Old Testament and consists of two parts: the cosmic signs (vv. 12-14), and the human reactions to those signs (vv. 15-17).[16]


As I looked, He broke the sixth seal and a great earthquake occurred.[17]  This imagery would have been frighteningly familiar to John’s original audience.  Some of the churches to which he was writing were located in cities that had been devastated by earthquakes only a few years earlier.[18]  On top of this, earthquakes were often associated with the eschatological presence of God in biblical and Jewish tradition.[19]  The phrase σεισμὸς μέγας occurs four times throughout Revelation and is always mentioned in the context of judgment.[20]  Some view this earthquake as being different to the one in 6:14, which they believe refers to the final earthquake mentioned in the seventh bowl plague (16:18).[21]  However, the composition of verses 12-14 indicates that they are one and the same.  The description of the signs follows an inverse parallel structure: the great earthquake and the shaking of every mountain and island frame the celestial events of the sun, moon, and stars convulsing and the sky disappearing like a scroll being rolled up. [22]  A comparison with the seventh plague also reveals that they are both describing the same event.[23]  Thus, any attempt to distinguish between two earthquakes in the sixth seal “grows out of something other than biblical exegesis.”[24]

The sun turned black like sackcloth, the whole moon become like blood.  The darkening of the sun and moon would have sent shivers up the spines of John’s original audience.  Such phenomena was common in Greco-Roman literature and was understood as a warning sign of divine anger.[25]  This has some overlap in the Old Testament.  The background for these phenomena is Joel 2:31, with possible echoes of Isa. 50:3.  Sackcloth was worn as a sign of mourning and it here serves to emphasise the theme of judgment.[26]  The only other time σάκκος occurs in Revelation is when it is worn by the two witnesses in 11:3 as they proclaim a message of judgment.[27]  The combination of a black sun and a red moon also appears in Acts 2:20 and indicates that they were well understood as signs of the Day of the Lord.

And the stars were falling from heaven to earth, as a fig tree drops its unripe figs when shaken by a strong wind.  The three celestial signs of the sun, moon and stars all follow the same literary pattern of an announcement of what happened in the aorist, followed by a simile introduced with ὡς.[28]  Taken together, these signs clearly point to the end of the age.[29]  Falling stars are mentioned a number of times in Revelation (8:10; 9:1; 12:4), and often point to judgment.[30]  They can also be used as a metaphor for the fall of Satan and his angels.[31]  The sky disappearing like a scroll being rolled up would have been another vivid image for the first hearers of Revelation.[32]  Imagine the sky rolling up like the scroll the preacher was holding![33]  In ancient cosmology the sky was thought to be a solid dome above the earth.  But now that it is rolled up, the earth stands “unshielded before God.”[34]   Both the fig tree and the sky being rolled up is an allusion to Isa. 34:4.[35] Jesus also used the image the fig tree as a sign of eschatological judgement.[36]

As John casts his eye back to earth, he saw every mountain and island was shaken out of its place.  The shaking would appear to be the results of the σεισμὸς μέγας in v. 13, once again indicating that there is only one earthquake.[37]  The three primary verbs in v. 14 are all in the passive voice indicating that God is the controlling agent behind them.[38]  While heaven and earth are thrown into turmoil, the kings of the earth, the courtiers and officers, the rich and the powerful, and every slave and free person hid themselves in the caves and rocks of the mountains.[39]   Given the importance of the number seven throughout Revelation, it is perhaps no accident that John mentions seven groups of people.  This phrase means everyone, “the human world in all its fullness.”[40]  “Fall on us!” they were saying to the mountains and the rocks. “Hide us form the presence of the One who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!”[41]  The imagery of this inescapable judgment is drawn from Hos. 10:8 and Isa. 2:19 where the enemies of God flee to the mountains and cry out to the rocks to cover them from His wrath.  However, the concept of hiding from God finds its ultimate source in Gen. 3:9 where Adam and Eve hid from His presence.  Beale notes that “sinful history must end in the same way that it began.”[42]

The response to these cosmic signs reaches its climax in the collective cry of the wicked: “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”  The use of the article (ἡ ἡμέρα) points to a specific day, the Day of the Lord.  The breaking of the sixth seal marks the inauguration of the great day of wrath itself.[43]  Smalley points out that whenever the word ὀργή appears in Revelation, a creative and positive implication is predicted.[44]  It should also be noted that this is the first time the wrath of God is mentioned in Revelation, and it does so in connection with Christ: “The cross should be understood as the revelation of the love and wrath of God, who is at once savior and judge.”[45]  The rhetorical question “who can stand?” brings to mind Mal. 3:2 and prepares the audience for the answer in the following vision.[46]


Now that we have examined the passage in detail the question remains: are the events described in the sixth seal to be interpreted literally or figuratively?  Because the breaking of this seal marks the beginning of the final judgment, some argue that the cosmic signs should most naturally be understood as being literal material events.[47]  Although this may be the case, the continued existence of the rocks and mountains would suggest that this is not a description of cosmic destruction.[48]  Paulien notes the repeated use of ὡς and argues that this word “introduces a figurative analogy to an actual event.”[49]  However, there is no evidence that it is used this way elsewhere in the New Testament.[50]

Historicists have traditionally pointed to the Lisbon earthquake on November 1, 1755, the Dark Day of May 19, 1780, and the Leonid star shower of November 13, 1833 as being the fulfilment of these signs.[51]  They argue that their geography, sequence, and timing are unparalleled in history and should thus be seen as the fulfilment of the breaking of the sixth seal.[52]  But this interpretation cannot be supported exegetically.  Those who advocate this position read two earthquakes into the text,[53] and split this single cosmic event into isolated events that are separated by decades affecting different generations.[54]  There is also the issue of consistency.  If the descriptions of the sun, moon and stars are read literally here, should they not also be read literally when they are mentioned again in the vision of the trumpets and the woman?[55]  While there is no doubt that these historical events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did stir up the religiosity of those who witnessed them, they should be seen as an application rather than the fulfilment of the sixth seal.

It is far more appropriate to interpret the events figuratively.  This is not to say that there will be no concrete fulfilment.[56]  It is simply a matter of literary genre.  The sixth seal is not a primitive weather forecast; it employs apocalyptic language that invests concrete events with theological significance.  Beale notes that the five Old Testament passages that use these cosmic signs, and thus form the backdrop for the sixth seal, refer to the historical end of a nation’s existence “through divine judgment, in which God conducts holy war by employing one nation to defeat another in war.”[57]  Therefore, even though the language is figurative it still points to actual events that will usher in the Day of the Lord.[58]  The same applies in the sixth seal.  Contrary to what Stefanovic says then, everything in the text indicates that these signs are symbolic not literal.[59]


The message of the sixth seal is both sobering and comforting for believers.  The chronological sequence of the seals reveals that we are living in the time between the fifth and the sixth.  When heaven and earth begin to shake, it will be too late to repent.  Today we must make our decision to stand firm for God, though the heavens fall.[60]  The cry of God’s people for vindication has resounded down through history to our own day.  The sixth seal provides us with the hope that our prayers have been heard.  “God’s time is not always our time, but even if we do not live to see the fulfilment of our prayers, we can die in hope that God will bring about the things He has promised.”[61]  We can be sure that these words are “faithful and true” (22:6).  For those of us who are still alive during that terribly awesome time, Jesus says to us: “When these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).


After examining the passage of the sixth seal within its historical and literary context, the evidence strongly supports a figurative interpretation.  This does not mean that it becomes some sort of abstract description of the events leading up to the Day of the Lord.  Rather John is painting the scene with vivid symbols and metaphors that would have created a strong emotional response in the hearts of the original audience and of those who have read and studied it ever since.

[1] Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), vii.

[2] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), 12.

[3] Most commentators raise the question, but many of them don’t provide any arguments for either interpretation.

[4] Although some date it as early as 68-69 C.E., most accept the traditional dating of 95-96 C.E. See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 15-16. On the issue of literary genre, see David Aune, Revelation 1-5 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1997), 1xx-xc.

[5] Rev. 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8.

[6] See discussion in Alan Johnson, Revelation, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 404-405.

[7] For a comprehensive study of these churches within their historical and geographical setting, see Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (Sheffield: JSOT, 1986).

[8] Harry O. Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002), 101-122.

[9] Ibid, 99.

[10] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 17. However, I disagree with Collins when he states that apocalyptic language is not referential.

[11] David Aune, Revelation 6-16 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 389.

[12] Jon Paulien, “The Seven Seals,” in Symposium on Revelation – Book 1, edited by Frank B. Holbrook (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1992), 201.

[13] Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005), 166.

[14] Beale, 395-396.

[15] Ibid, 398-399.

[16]  Aune, Revelation 6-16, 391. J. Massyngberde Ford notes that there are seven signs. See Revelation. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 112.

[17] The translation used here and throughout the rest of the essay is my own.

[18] Craig Keener, The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 220. Aune notes that the “entire province of Asia was prone to earthquakes; in the great earthquake of A.D. 17 alone, twelve cities were destroyed.” Revelation 6-16, 424.

[19] See for instance Isa. 24:18-23; 29:6; Joel 2:10; 3:16; Micah 1:4; Nahum 1:5; Sib. Or. 1:187; 3.339-59.

[20] Rev. 6:12; 11:13; 16:18 (twice).

[21] Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2009), 249; Paulien, 236.

[22] Hans K. LaRondelle, Light for the Last Days (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1999), 164.

[23] Ibid; cf. Andrew E. Steinmann, “The Tripartite Structure of the Sixth Seal, the Sixth Trumpet, and the Sixth Bowl of John’s Apocalypse,” JETS 35, no. 1 (March 1992), 69-79.

[24] LaRondelle, 165.

[25] See “Excursus 6A” in Aune, Revelation 6-16, 416-419.

[26] Smalley, 167.

[27] Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville, KN: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 138.

[28] Smalley, 166-167; Aune, Revelation 6-16, 414.

[29] Keener, 221.

[30] cf. Mark 13:25.

[31] Isa. 14:12; cf. Luke 10:18.

[32] The verb ἀποχωρίζω can mean to “separate” or “split” (BDAG, 125), but this doesn’t fit the simile of a scroll rolling up. It is perhaps best translated as “disappeared” or “receded” (NIV) with the implication that heaven could no longer be seen.

[33] Joseph L. Mangina, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010), 104.

[34] Francis D. Nichol, ed. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1980), 779.

[35] For a helpful comparison between the two passages, see Beale, 396. Cf. Heb. 1:12.

[36] Mark 13:25; Matt. 24:29; Luke 21:26.

[37] Here I follow Aune in translating the verb as “shaken.” Contra Smalley, who argues that it should be translated “removed” (168).

[38] Blount, 139.

[39] A similar list occurs in Rev 13:16; 19:18.

[40] Mangina, 105; cf. Ford, 112.

[41] For a discussion on the “One who sits on the throne” as a circumlocution for God, see Aune, Revelation 1-5,284.

[42] Beale, 400.

[43] Blount, 140.

[44] Smalley, 171.

[45] Pierre Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 277. For a discussion on the wrath of the Lamb, see G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, 2nd ed. (London: A & C Black, 1984), 90-93.

[46] Keener, 223. cf. Joel 2:11.

[47] Smalley, 168. Cf. 2 Pet. 3:10.

[48] Aune, Revelation 6-16, 391.

[49] Paulien, 237. Followed by Stefanovic, 251.

[50] See BDAG, 1103-1106.

[51] SDABC, 779; C. Mervyn Maxwell, God Cares, Vol. 2 (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1985), 194-201; Alberto R.Treiyer, The Seals and the Trumpets: Biblical and Historical Studies (Silver Spring, MD: Self Published, 2005), 177-183.

[52] William H. Shea, “Cosmic Signs through History,” Ministry (February 1999), 11; cf. Paulien, 237 n. 144.

[53] See references in footnote 21 above.

[54] LaRondelle, 164.

[55] Roy C. Naden, The Lamb Among the Beasts (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996), 114.

[56] I’m not aware of any commentator who would argue against some sort of material fulfilment.

[57] Beale, 397.

[58]We use similar language today when we speak of “earth-shattering events” or “all hell breaking loose.”

[59] Stefanovic, 251.

[60] LaRondelle, 168.

[61] Keener, 228.

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