Verse 1. I heard one-That is, the first. Of the living creatures - Who looks forward toward the east.
Verse 2. And I saw, and behold a white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow - This colour, and the bow shooting arrows afar off, betoken victory, triumph, prosperity, enlargement of empire, and dominion over many people. Another horseman, indeed, and of quite another kind, appears on a white horse, Revelation 19:11. But he that is spoken of under the first seal must be so understood as to bear a proportion to the horsemen in the second, third, and fourth seal. Nerva succeeded the emperor Domitian at the very time when the Revelation was written, in the year of our Lord 96. He reigned scarce a year alone; and three months before his death he named Trajan for his colleague and successor, and died in the year 98. Trajan's accession to the empire seems to be the dawning of the seven seals. And a crown was given him - This, considering his descent, Trajan could have no hope of attaining. But God gave it him by the hand of Nerva; and then the east soon felt his power. And he went forth conquering and to conquer - That is, from one victory to another. In the year 108 the already victorious Trajan went forth toward the east, to conquer not only Armenia, Assyria, and Mesopotamia, but also the countries beyond the Tigris, carrying the bounds of the Roman empire to a far greater extent than ever. We find no emperor like him for making conquests. He aimed at nothing else; he lived only to conquer. Meantime, in him was eminently fulfilled what had been prophesied of the fourth empire, Daniel 2:40; , that he should "devour, tread down, and break in pieces the whole earth."
Verse 3. And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature - Who looked toward the west. Saying, Come - At each seal it was necessary to turn toward that quarter of the world which it more immediately concerned.
Verse 4. There went forth another horse that was red - A colour suitable to bloodshed. And to him that sat thereon it was given to take peace from the earth - Vespasian, in the year 75, had dedicated a temple to Peace; but after a time we hear little more of peace. All is full of war and bloodshed, chiefly in the western world, where the main business of men seemed to be, to kill one another. To this horseman there was given a great sword; and he had much to do with it; for as soon as Trajan ascended the throne, peace was taken from the earth. Decebalus, king of Dacia, which lies westward from Patmos, put the Romans to no small trouble. The war lasted five years, and consumed abundance of men on both sides; yet was only a prelude to much other bloodshed, which followed for a long season. All this was signified by the great sword, which strikes those who are near, as the bow does those who are at a distance.
Verse 5. And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature - Toward the south. Saying, Come. And behold a black horse - A fit emblem of mourning and distress; particularly of black famine, as the ancient poets term it. And he that sat on him had a pair of scales in his hand - When there is great plenty, men scarce think it worth their while to weigh and measure everything, Genesis 41:49. But when there is scarcity, they are obliged to deliver them out by measure and weight, Ezekiel 4:16. Accordingly, these scales signify scarcity. They serve also for a token, that all the fruits of the earth, and consequently the whole heavens, with their courses and influences; that all the seasons of the year, with whatsoever they produce, in nature or states, are subject to Christ. Accordingly his hand is wonderful, not only in wars and victories, but likewise in the whole course of nature.
Verse 6. And I heard a voice - It seems, from God himself. Saying - To the horseman, "Hitherto shalt thou come, and no farther." Let there be a measure of wheat for a penny - The word translated measure, was a Grecian measure, nearly equal to our quart. This was the daily allowance of a slave. The Roman penny, as much as a labourer then earned in a day, was about sevenpence halfpenny English. According to this, wheat would be near twenty shillings per bushel. This must have been fulfilled while the Grecian measure and the Roman money were still in use; as also where that measure was the common measure, and this money the current coin. It was so in Egypt under Trajan. And three measures of barley for a penny - Either barley was, in common, far cheaper among the ancients than wheat, or the prophecy mentions this as something peculiar. And hurt not the oil and the wine - Let there not be a scarcity of everything. Let there he some provision left to supply the want of the rest This was also fulfilled in the reign of Trajan, especially in Egypt, which lay southward from Patmos. In this country, which used to be the granary of the empire, there was an uncommon dearth at the very beginning of his reign; so that he was obliged to supply Egypt itself with corn from other countries. The same scarcity there was in the thirteenth year of his reign, the harvest failing for want of the rising of the Nile: and that not only in Egypt, but in all those other parts of Afric, where the Nile uses to overflow.
Verse 7. I heard the voice of the fourth living creature - Toward the north.
Verse 8. And I saw, and behold a pale horse - Suitable to pale death, his rider. And hades - The representative of the state of separate souls. Followeth even with him - The four first seals concern living men. Death therefore is properly introduced. Hades is only occasionally mentioned as a companion of death. So the fourth seal reaches to the borders of things invisible, which are comprised in the three last seals. And power was given to him over the fourth part of the earth - What came single and in a lower degree before, comes now together, and much more severely. The first seal brought victory with it: in the second was "a great sword;" but here a scimitar. In the third was moderate dearth; here famine, and plague, and wild beasts beside. And it may well be, that from the time of Trajan downwards, the fourth part of men upon the earth, that is, within the Roman empire, died by sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. "At that time," says Aurelius Victor, "the Tyber overflowed much more fatally than under Nerva, with a great destruction of houses and there was a dreadful earthquake through many provinces, and a terrible plague and famine, and many places consumed by fire." By death - That is, by pestilence wild beasts have, at several times, destroyed abundance of men; and undoubtedly there was given them, at this time, an uncommon fierceness and strength. It is observable that war brings on scarcity, and scarcity pestilence, through want of wholesome sustenance; and pestilence, by depopulating the country, leaves the few survivors an easier prey to the wild beasts. And thus these judgments make way for one another in the order wherein they are here represented. What has been already observed may be a fourfold proof that the four horsemen, as with their first entrance in the reign of Trajan, (which does by no means exhaust the contents of the four first seals,) so with all their entrances in succeeding ages, and with the whole course of the world and of visible nature, are in all ages subject to Christ, subsisting by his power, and serving his will, against the wicked, and in defence of the righteous. Herewith, likewise, a way is paved for the trumpets which regularly succeed each other; and the whole prophecy, as to what is future, is confirmed by the clear accomplishment of this part of it.
Verse 9. And when he opened the fifth seal - As the four former seals, so the three latter, have a close connexion with each other. These all refer to the invisible world; the fifth, to the happy dead, particularly the martyrs; the sixth, to the unhappy; the seventh, to the angels, especially those to whom the trumpets are given. And I saw - Not only the church warring under Christ, and the world warring under Satan; but also the invisible hosts, both of heaven and hell, are described in this book. And it not only describes the actions of both these armies upon earth; but their respective removals from earth, into a more happy or more miserable state, succeeding each other at several times, distinguished by various degrees, celebrated by various thanksgivings; and also the gradual increase of expectation and triumph in heaven, and of terror and misery in hell. Under the altar - That is, at the foot of it. Two altars are mentioned in the Revelation, "the golden altar" of incense, Revelation 9:13; and the altar of burnt-offerings, mentioned here, and Revelation 8:5; ; . At this the souls of the martyrs now prostrate themselves. By and by their blood shall be avenged upon Babylon; but not yet, whence it appears that the plagues in the fourth seal do not concern Rome in particular.
Verse 10. And they cried - This cry did not begin now, but under the first Roman persecution. The Romans themselves had already avenged the martyrs slain by the Jews on that whole nation. How long - They knew their blood would be avenged; but not immediately, as is now shown them. O Lord - The Greek word properly signifies the master of a family: it is therefore beautifully used by these, who are peculiarly of the household of God. Thou Holy One and true - Both the holiness and truth of God require him to execute judgment and vengeance. Dost thou not judge and avenge our blood? - There is no impure affection in heaven: therefore, this desire of theirs is pure and suitable to the will of God. The martyrs are concerned for the praise of their Master, of his holiness and truth: and the praise is given him, Revelation 19:2, where the prayer of the martyrs is changed into a thanksgiving:- Thou holy One and true: "True and right are thy judgments." How long dost thou not judge "He hath judged the great whore, and avenge our blood? and hath avenged the blood of his servants."
Verse 11. And there was given to every one a white robe - An emblem of innocence, joy, and victory, in token of honour and favourable acceptance. And it was said to them - They were told how long. They were not left in that uncertainty. That they should rest - Should cease from crying. They rested from pain before. A time - This word has a peculiar meaning in this book, to denote which, we may retain the original word chronos. Here are two classes of martyrs specified, the former killed under heathen Rome, the latter, under papal Rome. The former are commanded to rest till the latter are added to them. There were many of the former in the days of John: the first fruits of the latter died in the thirteenth century. Now, a time, or chronos, is 1111 years. This chronos began A. C. 98, and continued to the year 1209; or from Trajan's persecution, to the first crusade against the Waldenses. Till - It is not said, Immediately after this time is expired, vengeance shall be executed; but only, that immediately after this time their brethren and fellowservants will come to them. This event will precede the other; and there will be some space between.
Verse 12. And I saw - This sixth seal seems particularly to point out God's judgment on the wicked departed. St. John saw how the end of the world was even then set before those unhappy spirits. This representation might be made to them, without anything of it being perceived upon earth. The like representation is made in heaven, Revelation 11:18. And there was a great earthquake - Or shaking, not of the earth only, but the heavens. This is a farther description of the representation made to those unhappy souls.
Verse 13. And the stars fell to, or towards, the earth - Yea, and so they surely will, let astronomers fix their magnitude as they please. As a fig tree casteth its untimely figs, when it is shaken by a mighty wind - How sublimely is the violence of that shaking expressed by this comparison!
Verse 14. And the heavens departed as a book that is rolled together - When the scripture compares some very great with a little thing, the majesty and omnipotence of God, before whom great things are little, is highly exalted. Every mountain and island - What a mountain is to the land, that an island is to the sea.
Verse 15. And the kings of the earth - They who had been so in their day. And the great men and chief captains - The generals and nobles. Hid themselves - So far as in them lay. In the rocks of the mountains - There are also rocks on the plains; but they were rocks on high, which they besought to fall upon them.
Verse 16. To the mountains and the rocks - Which were tottering already, verse 12. Revelation 6:12 Hide us from the face of him - Which "is against the ungodly," Psalms 34:16.