Notes on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 6, Part 2

Death on a Pale Horse by William Blake // Larry Hunt Bible Commentary

Death on a Pale Horse

by William Blake

v. 10: The layout and furniture of the earthly tabernacle and temple represented spiritual realities (Hebrews 8:5).  Thus, John recognizes elements of the tabernacle and temple in his vision of heaven.  The altar under which he sees these martyrs is a reference to the bronze altar, where sacrifices were made to God.  This altar stood outside the tabernacle (Leviticus 4:7) and temple (2nd Chronicles 6:12-13) and is distinct from the golden altar of incense (mentioned in 8:3), which stood within the tabernacle and temple.[7] These martyrs are under the altar, where the priest poured the blood of sacrifices (Leviticus 4:7).  I wonder if they are fresh from martyrdom.  I wonder this because, although they are in heaven when John first sees them, they have not yet received the reward of their martyrdom (the white robe).  Also, they still suffer from the pain of desiring vengeance, which God quickly soothes.  I believe they desire vengeance because John says they “cried out with a loud voice” asking, “'[H]ow long will it be before you…avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”  The loud voice suggests a sense of emotional urgency beyond simple curiosity.  Also, while they do not explicitly ask God to avenge them, their question does imply that they would like for him to do so, and soon.  This desire for vengeance seems counter to the spirit of Christ, who asked God to forgive his tormentors and murderers (Luke 23:34), and indeed, one must concede that the desire for vengeance (in anyone but God himself) is not ideal.  Nevertheless, it is justifiable because it springs from our God-given sense of justice.  I believe they handle the pain of their unfulfilled desire as well as they can:  If they cannot mimic Christ, as Stephen does (Acts 7:60), and ask God to forgive their murderers, at least they acknowledge that vengeance is God’s (Romans 12:19) and leave the matter with him.

I suppose one could interpret this question asked by the martyrs like one should interpret the cry for vengeance issued by the blood of Abel in Genesis 4:10; thus, it may be a metaphor rather than an actual call for vengeance by some of God’s creatures.  It is Revelation, after all, and a metaphor would not be out of place here; however, I do not believe this is the proper interpretation of this particular scene.  The fact that these martyrs are under the altar is a metaphor, but I believe we are to see the people themselves as martyrs (rather than as emblems of something else).  Being humans, these martyrs have wills and literally desire God to avenge the wrongs done to them.  The blood of Abel had no such will.

It is difficult (maybe impossible) to discover from the Bible what we will experience between death on earth and the resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day.[8] For instance, compare this passage with Christ’s parable, The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and Paul’s words in 1st Thessalonians 4:16-17.  The martyred Christians here in Revelation are described as being alive and conscious in heaven before “the great day of God the Almighty,” (Revelation 16:14) when, according to Paul, the dead Christians will be resurrected, rise to meet Christ “in the air,” and go with him to heaven  (1st Thessalonians 4:16-17).  I am not sure how to reconcile these passages with each other.  I suspect that Paul’s description is the literal one, whereas Christ’s and John’s are metaphorical.  Parables and apocalyptic literature are, by nature, metaphorical rather than literal, whereas Paul’s letters are more practical and straightforward.  If, however, Revelation is literal in this passage, it may mean that martyrs are especially honored by being allowed to enter heaven and be conscious immediately after death.  They do seem to be treated with particular respect in 14:3-5.  Anyway, whether Revelation is metaphorical or literal here, we are at least supposed to understand that, within the context of Revelation, these martyrs are alive and conscious in heaven before the final judgment on the great day of God the Almighty.

v. 11: Depending on the translation, one might conclude that there are two groups mentioned here: 1) “fellow servants,” and 2) “brothers and sisters.”  Nevertheless, I think there is only one group: the Christians who will be martyred under the reign of Beast I.  Their number is 144,000.[9]

v. 12: Five times in Revelation “an earthquake” (never “earthquakes”) is mentioned: here, in 8:5, 11:13, 11:19, and 16:18.  I have no doubt that 8:5, 11:19, and 16:18 refer to the same earthquake (because the wording of the verses is so similar), but I am not sure about the earthquake here and in 11:13.  These latter two references seem to be to another earthquake which signals the end of the second woe and the events of the sixth trumpet, whereas the other three references are to an earthquake associated with the third woe and the seventh trumpet.  I suppose they could all refer to the same earthquake: one that that simultaneously signals the end of the events or the second woe (the sixth trumpet) and the beginning of those of the third woe (the seventh trumpet).  See also Order of Events appendix.

[7] See notes on Hebrews 9:4.

[8] For a discussion of this day see notes at 20:4.

[9] See 7:3 note.


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