The Book of Revelation follows a series of sevens – 7 letters, 7 seals, 7 trumpet blasts, 7 bowls, the number “7” being suggestive of completeness. As the seals are opened the whole sweep of “what must take place” (4:1) in these last days right through to the last day is revealed. The 7 trumpets and the 7 bowls will cover the same ground, but drawing out different truths – rather like a series of action replays from different camera angles. In each sequence of 7 there is an interlude between the 6th and 7th, as we see here (the 7th seal is not opened until 8:1).
The four horsemen of the apocalypse are images drawn from the OT (the book of Zechariah), and are essentially a vivid way of saying what Jesus himself said would be characteristic features of these last days -wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences and fearful events (Luke 21:9ff). And sure enough we see plenty of evidence of their work in our world, and we should expect to is the point. But notice also how each horse rides out at the bidding of the four living creatures, and each is “given” its power – by God we are to understand, to whom all power belongs as was clear form ch.4,5. The Sovereign God who sits on the throne is in control. And the power he has granted to these horsemen is limited, and in his mercy the devastation they wreak is restricted.
Christians won’t escape the horsemen but will suffer along with the rest of the world; war, famine and disease will claim their fair share of Christians. But Christians will also get more than their fair share, they will suffer simply for being Christians. [So for example, under Pol Pot 30% of Cambodians died, but 90% of Cambodian Christians died]. They cry out not for revenge, but for justice. And justice will come, but is delayed in the interests of mercy – that God might gather all his elect. The white robes they are given symbolise that they have overcome, they are victorious, and righteous.
Justice will come. The imagery in vv.12-14 is borrowed from the OT and speaks of the Last Day, the End of the World. That Day will be a day of wrath. An angry lamb scarcely seems likely to strike terror in people, but this Lamb instils real terror – better to be crushed in a landslide than to face his wrath. And there will be no place to hide.
Ch.6 has given essentially the Destiny of the World in one chapter, and it’s a fairly gloomy prospect. We are left with the question “who can stand?”, and ch.7 answers that. All God’s People (symbolically presented as the 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel) have already been sealed, God has marked them out as his. God knows those who are his, and he will keep them safe, even amidst all the trials of ch.6. We will suffer, but God will keep us, as 7:9-17 will marvellously show.
The 144,000, like all the numbers in Revelation is symbolic, and it speaks not merely of OT / Jewish believers but of all the People of God, all accounted for and none missing. They are the same group that John will now see as a countless multitude. Just as in ch.5 he heard of a lion, and then saw a lamb (who were one and the same), so he hears of the 144,000 and then sees the countless multitude. One image interprets the other, so the 144,000 includes people of every nation, tribe people and language.
The people that were sealed so as to be kept safe, are now shown to have been kept safe through the great tribulation, now to enjoy forever God’s presence and blessing. These are wonderful verses! – leave time for them, even if that means, as I suggest, spending less time on 7:1-8. Notice why these were able to stand on the day of God’s wrath – because of the forgiveness, won by Christ, and made their own (v.14). They (we! – what a thought that John saw us in that crowd!) will then know forever his perfect care and provision and protection.