A New Look at the Seals of Revelation

by Henry E. Neufeld

Presented to Dr. John Brunt at Walla Walla College in fulfillment of the requirements for an Independent Study in Religion, July 29, 1979.

This paper is quite old, but when I read it again recently, I realized it addresses some questions that many people have about Revelation. My own thinking has grown (at least I hope it’s growth!) since I wrote this, but the study involved in this paper was what pushed me into thinking much more seriously about the book of Revelation as a whole.

I hope you enjoy it. Dr. Brunt wrote “A very good start. I hope you continue with it.” I hope that it will generate more questions than answers and that you will continue studying.

At the time I wrote this paper I was writing as one who hoped to be a Seventh-day Adventist scholar. I am no longer a member of the SDA church, but I do not intend my current publication of this paper as criticism specifically of the Adventist position. I believe the points made here speak just as well to a number of other views. The paper is reproduced as it was originally written, except that I have replaced handwritten Greek text with loose transliteration suitable for pronunciation.


I wish to acknowledge the thoughts which I have gotten from private conversations with several people. Don F. Neufeld, my uncle, provided the basic inspiration for this paper, and discussions with him have developed my thought considerably. A conversation with Dr. Malcolm Maxwell provided much of the material on the series of sevens. Another discussion with Dr. Gerald Winslow helped me with the idea of foreknowledge. Of course, conversations with my supervisor for this class have been helpful in several areas, particularly in the finding of source material. Of course, any bad ideas, or heretical ones, are mine alone.

In the interpretation of Revelation, Adventists have followed the historical school generally, dividing up the history of the world since the time of the Revelator into periods delineated by the various symbols portrayed there. This has certainly given a very successful impetus to our church’s eschatological emphasis, (the end time is now!) but to one who studies the Bible with the Historical-critical approach, and/or with any sound principles of exegesis, such as are applied in other passages, the interpretations may sound strained to the limit, particularly in the details. What methods should an Adventist scholar take to his study of the Apocalypse? What should his basic approaches be? How should he relate to the traditional Adventist positions?

It is my purpose in this paper to: 1) state my basic principles of exegesis, 2) discuss how they apply to Revelation as a whole (what is its historical context and how does it relate to understanding, etc.?) 3) discuss the relation of this to the workings of inspiration, and 4) use the seals of chapter 6 and 8:1,2 as a brief example of what these methods should produce in practice.

Basic Method

The key word in exegesis is context. This falls into three categories: historical, literary, and thematic/structural. The historical context is the situation from which the work arose. The literary context includes the literary genre of which the book is a part, as well as the type of sources which the author used in his composition. The theme is the reaction which the author intends to convey with respect to the historical situation, for the benefit of his readers. The structure is basically his method of getting to his intended effect. As one moves from a study of the entire work to the study of any portion, one should generally take the order in which I have listed these above, studying the broadest context first.

Application to Revelation

It is beyond the scope of this paper to argue extensively concerning the dating and authorship of Revelation. The date which will be assumed is during the last decade of the 1st century A.D. during the reign of Domitian. The name of the authoer is irrelevant to a discussion of methods of approach. (“John” may be assumed, but which one?)

The images of the Apocalypse may therefore be expected to derive from the type of problems in this period. This must not be confused with the “contemporary historical” approach.1 The latter assumes that the symbols refer to actual historical events which had already occurred at the time of writing. This is obviously not the author’s intent. His view is to the future, (1:1-3), and whatever one thinks of predictive prophecy, he should attempt to find out what was being said about the future.

Domitian, who was Emperor during the time in questions, was an overbearing tyrant, who gets very little favorable reference from Roman historians. His was the sort of reign in which one would expect Christians to become concerned with the consummation of all things. The prayer of the souls under the altar (6:10) is very appropriate in this context. Domitian required, for example, that he be called “lord and god”2 and was less than delightful to anyone who did not oblige. This could give one good reason for our author having been on the isle of Patmos. It was this situation of hardship out of which Revelation arose.

The literary connections of this book are many and varied, and the weaving together of these diverse strands into a work of the extreme pwoer and beauty of what we now have suggests anything but slavish borrowing. The use of choruses of various types throughout the work is similar to the similar practice in Greek drama.3 It also leans on much of the content of Apocalyptic literature, both Jewish and Christian.4 It also draws extensively on both the imagery of the Old Testament and its wording,5 as well as of the New Testament, particularly the apocalyptic narratives of the synoptic gospels.6

The book basically aims to show that God is behind whatever happens so that the Christians may trust, and that he is powerful enough to bring things out to the best conclusion (Chapters 4 & 5), and that he will do so soon. (ha dei genesthai en tachei 1:1; ho gar kairos eggus 1:3; hina anapausontai chronon mikron 6:11; erchomai tachu 22:20 etc.). The method used to reach this goal is that of apocalyptic symbolism. There were two purposes in the sue of symbols. First, anyone representing the Roman Empire as a wicked beast in the time of Domitian could do with the protection of some obscurity, and thus some protection. Apocalhyptic literature usually grew out of times of adversity, and so would generally require this protection. Second, it could be reinterpreted and used in various periods of the church’s history. I will return to this later.

The apocalpyticist, however, gives a hint of some trouble in bringing off the end. He also gives a hint as to what it is. First, in the churches there is in every case a call for repentance and some form of zeal. (Chapters 2 & 3). Then in his three further series of sevens (seals, trumptes, plagues) there is a pause or special type of action each time between the sixth and seventh event. Thus after the sixth seal, when one would expect the end, we have a puase, and the saints are not ready, which is followed by the sealing. Between the sixth and seventh trumpets we have the work of the two witnesses, who proclaim the truth to the world. During the sixth plague, we have the reverse of the sealing–the gathering of the evil ones to the battle of Armageddon. Thus the issue at each stage is pinpointed as right here no the earth with the people of God. God’s people must be ready. (See Chart I).

Basic results for the structure of interpretation

I see a three pronged approach developing here. 1) The book had an immediate meaning for the people at its time, i.e. that God was about to step in and put an end to the trouble through which they were going. 2) As a piece of Christian literature, it should give the same message to each generation of Christians, thus the symbols of the book should be seen as leading up to the time contemporary to that of the interpreter. 3) The book will be a portrayal of the end-time struggle when the conditions are fulfilled and the consummation actually does come.

Relation to inspiration

Questions which arise about inspiration fall into two categories. Why, if God chose the symbols, as the book claims, by giving them to John in vision, are there so many literary allusions, even to literature which is not considered to be inspired? Second, why should there be a three-pronged presentation and not a simple portrayal of the events leading up to the end-time?

First, the literary allusions. The essential ingredient of inspiration is communication. All communication is on the level of symbols. The set of symbols “cat” refer together to a furry creature with usually a fairly long tail and short ears that purrs–that is, a cat! I could, of course, use the same set of symbols to represent several things, e.g., “lion” could represent the animal of that name, or it could symbolize strength, or it might be used to represent the United Kingdom. If I wish to communicate with anyone, I use a set of symbols which we have in common. In the case of this paper, that is the English language. However, if I were talking to a Spanish-speaking person, I would sue “gato” to refer to the first animal above rather than “cat.” It does not matter what level of symbolism one is using, (in the example of the lion I have three different levels: the symbol referring to an object, then that object referring to an attribute, strength, then that attribute referring to a country that used to possess it), one must have the symbols in common with the individual with whom one is attempting to communicate. These also vary with subject matter, as when I wish to communicate with a computer specialist about computers, would employ one set of symbols, while if I wish to buy his car, we would use another.

In the choice of language and symbolism in Revelation, God dealt with both problems, (commonality and subject matter). First, he used symbolism which was familiar to his audience, that is, those symbols which came from literature contemporary to them. He also used a type of symbolism which was specific to the subject matter: the language of apocalypticism; i.e. the symbolism used in the discussion of last-day events. And however difficult it is for the contemporary reader to understand, it would be very easy for John’s audience. Thus rather than being a strange mode of communications, it was very normal, and the route to understanding is through the study of the literature of that period and before, whether one believes that God chose the symbols (as I do) or that the author did.

The “three-pronged approach” is based on the principle of conditional prophecy. The Biblical statement of this principle is in Jeremiah 18:5-10. God states basically that He will not fulfill a threat if the nation threatened repents, nor will He fulfill a promise if the nation to which it is made turns away from right. E. G. White also confirms this.7Thus prophecy is not to be looked at so much as prediction as promise. If the conditions are fulfilled, so is the promise.

The main issue which arises in connection with this is that of God’s foreknowledge. If God knows the future, why does He not tell us? If He tells us something else, is that not falsehood? These questions are difficult and are beyond the scope of this paper, except for two suggestions. Ellen White suggests that God does not deal with man according to his foreknowledge.8 If he did this would lead to predestination. God could, rather than knowing the future absolutely, know the future if. That is, He could know all the possibilities, and if an individual chooses one way, this will result, while if he or she chooses another way, that will result.


As far as basic method, I do not hold to any one of the traditional approaches, but rather look for the interpretation at three chronological approaches, but rather look for the interpretation at three chronological periods: contemporary with the author, historically from then to the present, and in the future at the consummation of all. The three should all maintain the same basis in principle.

Chart I

Series of Seven

Chapters 2 & 3 Seven Churches Messages to seven literal churches
Chapter 6:1,2 First Seal White Horse
3,4 Second Seal Red Horse
5, 6 Third Seal Black Horse
7,8 Fourth Seal Pale Horse
9-11 Fifth Seal Souls Under Altar
12-17 Sixth Seal Cataclysmic end-time events
7:1-17 First interlude The sealing – preparation of the saints
8:1-5 Seventh Seal Silence followed by earthquake
8:7 First Trumpet Silence followed by earthquake
8,9 Second Trumpet Burning mountain
10,11 Third Trumpet Star – wormwood
12 Fourth Trumpet Third part of sun, moon, and stars smitten
13 Minor interlude Watch out for what’s coming
9:1-12 Fifth Trumpet Star to receive key to abyss
13-19 Sixth Trumpet Loosing of four winds
9:20-11:14 Second interlude Angel with book; work of the two witnesses
11:15-19 Seventh Trumpet Coming of God’s kingdom
16:2 First Plague Sores
3 Second Plague Water to blood in sea
4-7 Third Plague Springs to blood
8, 9 Fourth Plague Sun scorches men
10, 11 Fifth Plague Darkening of Beast’s kingdom
12 Sixth Plague Drying of Euphrates
13-16 Third interlude Preparation of the wicked for Armageddon. The reverse of the first interlude
17-21 Seventh Plague Earthquake and hail

The Seals

I will approach the seals by preparing a chart comparing samples of the various views currently in circulation, to which I will add my own interpretation as necessary, and footnotes to explain them

Footnotes continuing the numbering system of the rest of the paper will give the sources for the interpretations cited. Footnotes using a lower case letter (a, b, c, etc.) will refer to the interpretative notes following. The bottom row of the chart will present my interpretation, for the situation contemporary to the prophet and also for the future. In parentheses under those in the Historicist section, I will give any modifications which I see as necessary to provide the second prong of my interpretation.


School of

White Horse
Red Horse
Black Horse
Pale Horse
Souls under altar
Cosmic Cataclysm
Preterist9 War International Strife Famine Pestilence Persecutions Fairly literal list of events Silence in order to hear prayers
Historicist10 Church in the Apostolic Age (opening moves of church)a Church from AD 100-313 (civil strife and persecution causing trouble for the church in that period.)b Church from 313-538 (The difficulties for the true believers during the death throes of the Roman Empire.)c Church 538-1517 (The Dark Ages-result of the preceding.)d 1517-1755 (Any period of persecution, but especially this.)e 1755-onward, Time of the end (Same, except not referring to specific events, but general type.)f Silence of Expectation (same)g
Futurist11 Antichrist War Famine Death “Tribulation Martyrs” Beginning of the End–worse to follow Awesome Expectation
This Paper Conquest–either by the church Spiritually or by any nation International and civil strife Famine Plague followed by death Persecution Cataclysmic Events preceding the end Expectation

aI see a distinction in the work of the first horse, and that of the other three. The first horse brings on the others. Thus, it can refer, as necessary, to either the spiritual conquest of the church, or to the physical conquest which is the start of war. In this case, only the futurist view is completely out of harmony with the others. Not all futurists hold the view represented. Against making this be Christ or the church is the use of “horse” which usually refers to something foreign or alien. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “hippos”.)

bThe horse and its rider much better represent the forces opposing the church at that time than the actual workings of the church.

cThis symbol must represent famine. The idea of weighing out grain, and the fact that one can get only one day’s food for one day’s wage indicates as much. This was much like the condition at the time of the collapse of Rome.

dThe result of famine is death. The dark ages represented the death of a civilization, but he symbol is more referring to literal death, which also resulted from the previous events.

eThere is a fair agreement here.

fThere is again a fair agreement, except for the identification of the specific events which are listed in the SDA Bible Commentary. Adventists should take the contemporary events of this type seriously, so I think that the early Adventists were right in viewing then contemporary events as fulfilling this, but that we should move forward. There have been many cataclysmikc events since.

gAgain we have substantial agreement except for the preterist view, which is not a wide variation. It could easily represent that as well.


1Charles, R. H., The Revelation of St. John, Vol. I, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1920), 155. [Return]

2Dio, Roman History, Book LXVII. (Loeb’s Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1925, p. 329.) Suetonius agrees in all salient points. [Return]

3Elisabeth S. Fiorenza, “Composition and Structure of the Book of Revelation”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 39 (July 1977) p. 353. [Return]

4James Kallas, “The Apocalypse–An Apocalyptic Book?” Journal of Biblical Literature 86:69-80. Kallas has suggested that the book of Revelation is not Apocalyptic on several grounds, particularly its view of evil. Bruce Jones answers him (“More About the Apocalypse as Apocalyptic.” Journal of Biblical Literature 87:325-327) suggests that he is right, but for different reasons. It seems to me that both operate on too narrow a basis. If Apocalyptic is viewed as a whole, Revelation is more like it than not. See also D. S. Russell The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic for the general characteristics. [Return]

5A. Vanhoye, “L’utilisation d’Ezechiel dans l’Apocalypse”, Biblica 43:436-477. [Return]

6Charles, 158. [Return]

7E. G. White, Selected Messages, Vol. 1, p. 67. [Return]

8E. G. White, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, p. 1082. [Return]

9Charles, op. cit. [Return]

10F. D. Nichol, ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Associations, 1957), 774-780; 787. [Return]

11Jack Macarthur, Alpha to Omega: Revelation (Eugene, OR: Certain Sound Publishing, 1973), 131-178; 188-194. [Return]

Annotated Bibliography

Anderson, Roy Allan. Unfolding the Revelation, Rev. Ed. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1974. Anderson presents the historicist position, with an attempt to update it to the modern world (since Uriah Smith).

Barclay, William. The Revelation of John, Rev. Ed. Philadelphia: Teh Westminster Press, 1976. This Daily Study Bible volume is a good devotional guide to Revelation.

Caird, G. B. A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. A fairly valuable exegetical commentary.

Charles, R. H. The Revelation of St. John. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1920. This volume of the International Critical Commentary contains a wealth of information but its critical theories must be watched.

Eller, Vernard. . Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1974. A very readable commentary.

Glasson, T. F. The Revelation of John. Cambridge: The University Press, 1965. A good exegetical commentary.

Haskell, Stephen N. The Seer of Patmos. Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1974. Facsimile. This volume is valuable in studying the history of SDA interpretation. It apparently answered a need which E. G. White felt for a more readable commentary than Uriah Smith.

Macarthur, Jack. Alpha – Omega: Expositional Comments on Revelation. Eugene, OR: Certain Sound Publishing, 1973. A solidly futurist commentary.

Nichols, F. D., ed. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1957. The official SDA commentary. Represents the historicist position.

Rist, Martin. The Modern Reader’s Guide to Revelation. New York: The Association Press, 1961. A very brief commentary.

Seiss, Ja. A. The Apocalypse. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. No date listed. This is a reprint of an older commentary, which was arranged in lectures.

Tenney, Merrill C. Interpreting Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1957. Takes Revelation in large, thematic chunks.

Historical Background

Dio. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Hadas, Moses. Imperial Rome. New York: Time-Life Books, 1965. This book, with abundant illustration, is good for getting a general feel for this period in history.

Suetonius. Works in 2 Vols. Translated by J. C. Rolfe. New York: The Macmillan Co, 1914.

Literary Background and History

Bauckham, Richard. “The Eschatological Earthquake in the Apocalypse of John” Novum Testamentum 19:224-233. Discusses the importance of the earthquake as an eschatological symbol. Important for the 6th and 7th seals.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth S. “Composition and Structure of the Book of Revelation”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39:344-366. Provides a wealth of information on literary backgrounds.

Jones, Bruce W. “More About the Apocalypse as Apocalyptic” Journal of Biblical Literature 8:325-327. See under footnote four.

Kallas, James. “The Apocalypse–An Apocalyptic Book?” Journal of Biblical Literature. 86:69-80. See under footnote four.

Russell, D. S. The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964. A very thorough survey of apocalyptic literature of the inter-testamental and early Christian periods. Very helpful as background for interpretation of Revelation.

Vanhoye, A. “L’utilisation du livre d’Ezechiel dans l’Apocalypse” Biblica 43:236-477. A very helpful survey of allusions to and quotations of Ezekiel in Revelation. One should watch some of the allusions which may be very loose.