Unlike the other five seals, the text of the sixth seal is straightforward and uncomplicated. Only a few of the details in the description require more than a brief comment in explanation. Far more important to understanding this seal as a judgment is the effect the signs have on the people of the earth.
The seal opens with "a great earthquake" (Revelation 6:12), a common indicator of God appearing (see Judges 5:4; Psalm 68:8; 77:18; 97:4; Habakkuk 3:10; Haggai 2:6-7), working out His purpose (see Exodus 19:18; Matthew 27:51-54; 28:2; Acts 16:26), and/or striking out in displeasure and judgment. In terms of anger and punishment, God caused an earthquake to open the ground in the wilderness and swallow Korah and his fellow rebels (Numbers 16:31-32). In Psalm 18:7, David writes, "Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations of the hills also quaked and were shaken, because He was angry" (see Isaiah 5:25; Nahum 1:2-5). God prophesies in Isaiah 13:11, 13, "I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity. . . . Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of His fierce anger."
Earthquakes occur frequently in Revelation, of which this one is the first. Seismic activity accompanies the seventh seal (Revelation 8:5), the resurrection of the Two Witnesses (11:13), the seventh trumpet (11:19), and the seventh bowl or vial (KJV) of God's wrath (16:18). Evidently, massive earthquakes—the kind that strikes dread and panic into every soul caught in them—will frequently punctuate the Day of the Lord.
Certainly, the heavenly signs that occur in tandem with the great temblor are astounding, especially if all of them should occur within a short span of time. Joel 2:30-31 describes the same event: "And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD." In the Olivet Prophecy, Jesus repeats the warning: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken" (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24-25). Luke's rendition adds a few details:
And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. (Luke 21:25-26)
The Sun Darkened: John describes the darkness of the sun as "black as sackcloth of hair" (Revelation 6:12), comparing it to the black goat hair used to make sackcloth and tents in his day. This may depict a solar eclipse or possibly a massive dust storm caused by a volcanic explosion. The Ninth Plague covered Egypt with a "darkness which may even be felt," a "thick darkness" (Exodus 10:21-22), and perhaps God will repeat it on an even grander scale. Whatever the case, visibility will be severely limited, even during the daylight hours.
The Moon Like Blood: This chilling sight presages calamity and death, particularly in war, as in the color of the second horse (Revelation 6:4). Sometimes lunar discoloration occurs naturally when unusual amounts of dust are suspended in the atmosphere, particularly after a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. Incidentally, many manuscripts read "full moon" rather than simply "moon."
The Stars Fall: John's imagery reflects countless late figs blown down by the violent winter wind (verse 13). This seems most likely to predict a meteor shower of immense proportions, possibly containing larger-than-normal meteorites, thus increasing the effect and making it seem as if the stars themselves are falling. Because stars are a biblical symbol of angels, some have suggested that this verse parallels Revelation 12:7-10, the casting out of Satan and his demons from heaven. However, for this to have any credence, the concurrent celestial events must also be taken symbolically.
The Sky Recedes: Of these four wonders, this event is the most puzzling (Revelation 6:14). The apostle compares it to a scroll rolling up, or we might think of it in terms of opening a spring-loaded window blind. Joseph A. Seiss, in his The Apocalypse: Exposition of the Book of Revelation, comments: "Great, massive, rotary motion in the whole visible expanse, is signified, as if it were folding itself up to pass away forever." Perhaps John saw clouds building to thunderheads, roiling, and flying at breakneck speed across the expanse of the sky. Such turbulence could make an observer on the ground think the sky was splitting apart. Isaiah 34:4 describes the Day of the Lord similarly.
The Mountains and Islands Move: As a result of the great convulsion of the earth, massive land transformations occur, shifting mountains on land and undersea. Obviously, such a violent shaking will create unprecedented destruction and loss of life. As the conclusion of the sixth seal's disturbances, this displacement of terra firma is the calamity that most terrifies earth's inhabitants. Suddenly, nothing is stable—not even the earth under their feet!
Finally, God has their attention!
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Sixth Seal
God quotes two statements of these sixth-seal cavemen. The first is a command to mountains and rocks. The second is a question. What do their words tell us? What does their silence tell us?
The first sentence is a somewhat illogical command for the "mountains and rocks" to fall on them.
» In making this statement, the cavemen demonstrate at least some correct understanding of the Source of their difficulties. They recognize two Beings as the cause: "Him who sits on the throne" and "the Lamb." This is remarkable in itself, since, to this point, they have seen neither Being.
» The cavemen call one of these two Beings "the Lamb." Admittedly, they do not equate the Lamb with Christ, but the inference is clear that they understand the Lamb to be Christ, the Word of God. Incidentally, John makes 26 references to Christ as the Lamb in the book of Revelation.
» Further, the cavemen understand that these two powerful Beings are angry. In assigning a cause to their difficulties, they utterly shun the voice of the secularist or the atheist. They do not, for example, blame nature on their troubles. They do not assert, "It's just a cycle. Nature will clean up the air and water, and everything will be okay soon." Rather, they squarely identify the cause of their present problems to be the wrath of the Father and Christ.
» Even more interesting is their silence concerning the Holy Spirit. In their dire straits, where their lifestyles have so dramatically changed and their lives are in clear-and-present danger, they make no reference to the Holy Spirit as a separate Person of the Godhead. This suggests that they have abandoned Trinitarian doctrine—remarkable considering the cornerstone status nominal Christianity has historically accorded to it. We are left to speculate why they make no reference to the Trinity at this time.
Their second sentence is a question rather than a statement or command. In stating that "the great day of His wrath has come," they recognize that their situation is special; theirs are extraordinary times. They rightly realize that they can no more defer the effects of God's ire than they can blame those effects on nature. Their reference to "the great day of His wrath" indicates an at least superficial realization that they are facing the Day of the Lord. In asking, "Who can stand?" they recognize that they are powerless to defend themselves against the wrath of these two God-Beings.
In short, the window of these people's minds opens up to a substantially different landscape than what currently exists in our world. Consider how many individuals whom we would today classify as "the kings of the earth, the great men" would refer to Christ as "the Lamb"? How many "rich men, the commanders, the mighty men" know about the prophesied Day of the Lord?
Comparatively few. Perhaps some in America's Bible Belt might use this terminology, but most individuals in the wider society, the secularized, cosmopolitan mess we call the Western World, would find these concepts alien to their thinking. Moreover, most of those who are familiar with the concepts of Christ as the Lamb or the Day of the Lord also fervently believe in the Trinity—something our latter-day cavemen do not allude to at all.
What is happening here? God has actually begun to transform the religious landscape of these cave-dwellers as surely as He has commenced to terraform the planet's physical landscape. These people have listened to the Two Witnesses' preaching, beginning at the time of the fifth seal. God's Word does not return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11); these erstwhile movers and shakers have heeded, to an extent. As a result, they have a more complete—though far from perfect—understanding of God and His purposes. And they run for the hills!
Mankind has always been fascinated with the heavens: their beauties, their mysteries, their movements, and their surprises. Early on in man's history, after years of observation and record keeping, the learned discovered that—with certain exceptions—the movements of the heavenly bodies could be predicted, as could phenomena like eclipses, comets, and meteor showers. To them, what occurred on the dark canvas of space revealed creation's design, order, and perfection. As David wrote, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork" (Psalm 19:1).
Despite the rational, scientific understanding of most celestial happenings, sudden changes in the normally placid, soothing nighttime sky can cause wonder and even panic. Comets, long thought to portend world-changing events, have been known to ignite terrors in superstitious people. Eclipses of the sun can spur the unenlightened to believe the end of the world has come, as can a "bloody" moon. From the earliest times, men and women perverted even the regular movements of heavenly bodies into astrology, and millions still consult their readings daily. God warns, "Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them" (Jeremiah 10:2).
Yet, God Himself uses heavenly phenomena as signs of momentous events. Perhaps the most famous is the "Star of Bethlehem," which guided the wise men to their audience with the young King of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11). Though this "star" was most likely an angel standing as a beacon for the magi to follow, many have postulated "natural" explanations such as comets and supernovae. The Ninth Plague on Egypt (Exodus 10:21-23), Joshua's Long Day (Joshua 10:12-14), Hezekiah's Sundial (II Kings 20:8-11), and the darkness during Jesus' crucifixion (Matthew 27:45) all involved aberrations of expected solar behavior. All signaled major movements in God's plan.
The sixth seal also involves heavenly bodies doing the unexpected: The sun darkens, the moon turns blood-red, the stars fall, and the sky itself rolls up like a scroll. Not only do these terrifying cosmic wonders signal the beginning of the Day of the Lord, but they, like the previous five seals, also serve as judgments against sinful mankind on planet Earth.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Sixth Seal
We need to dig deeper into the minds of these end-time spelunkers. What thinking underlies their words?
A shaking fist is absent; these individuals do not express anger or outright rebellion against God. Conversely, they make no confession of personal guilt; they express no repentance. While they recognize the existence of the Father and Son, they do not understand that God is a Family into which they can be born. They do not know—or believe—the gospel. They do not realize that they can develop a personal relationship with God and grow to become like Him. In other words, the cavemen's words are not those of converted individuals at all.
The underlying thinking behind their comments is desperate self-preservation.
They want personal safety. Understanding more than many do about God, convinced that the Father and the Lamb are stirred to anger, their knowledge is still so limited that they can only irrationally command "mountains and rocks" to fall on them. Pathetically, in the end, they can only ask a question that exhibits the depths of their despair. Who is able to survive during the Day of the Lord? They have no answer.
Isaiah 2 provides us a bit more insight. In verse 9, the prophet, speaking of idolaters, addresses the issue of their repentance. These people, he says, "will be brought low and everyone humbled—do not forgive them" (Isaiah 2:9, New International Version). God has humbled them through mind-numbing terror; they hide in caves from God and His Son and talk to rocks. Yet, in all this, they have not yet expressed godly sorrow, not yet repented. So God has not yet forgiven them. The prophet Isaiah continues:
Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust, from the terror of the LORD and the glory of His majesty. The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the LORD of hosts shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up—and it shall be brought low. . . . (Isaiah 2:10-12)
Notice that the cave-dwellers are those who have been humbled. In verse 11, Isaiah states the timeframe: They are humbled in a time when "the LORD alone shall be exalted. . . ." So, this passage in Isaiah 2 is dealing with the general period that we call the Day of the Lord.
Interestingly, in verses 20-21, we see that they have eschewed idolatry:
In that day a man will cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which they made, each for himself to worship, to the moles and bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the crags of the rugged rocks, from the terror of the LORD and the glory of His majesty, when He arises to shake the earth mightily.
If the people who hurl their idols "to the moles and bats" as they enter the "clefts of the rocks" are the same ones who ask "mountains and rocks" to fall on them in Revelation 6:16, these folk may well have started out on a road to repentance. They are not there yet, for they lack the proper understanding and motivations. Though God has not yet granted them repentance (II Timothy 2:25), He is working among them, perhaps through the work of the Two Witnesses. He has increased their knowledge about Him, brought them to an understanding that idolatry is wrong, and led them to subterranean "places of safety."
Revelation 6:17 should read, "For the day, the great [day] of Their wrath, has come, and who is able to stand?" This is a plain statement of truth followed by a rhetorical question (see Nahum 1:6; Malachi 3:2). The sixth seal announces in unmistakable fashion that "the great day of the LORD is near; it is near and hastens quickly" (Zephaniah 1:14). The prophet Joel describes it:
Blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in My holy mountain! Let all of the inhabitants of the land tremble; for the day of the LORD is coming, for it is at hand: A day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, like the morning clouds spread over the mountains. . . . The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble; the sun and moon grow dark, and the stars diminish their brightness. The LORD gives voice before His army, for His camp is very great; for strong is the One who executes His word. For the day of the LORD is great and very terrible; who can endure it? (Joel 2:1-2, 10-11)
This is the question: Who will survive it? Who will pass God's judgment? The answer seems to be, "No one." But there is hope, as Joel 2:12-14 instructs:
"Now, therefore," says the LORD, "turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. Who knows if He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him . . .?
Jesus gives us His answer in Luke 21:36: "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man." We must be alert and prepared for what may come, and the most important part of our preparation is the strengthening of our relationships with the Father and the Son through prayer, study, meditation, and obedience to His instructions. This is the only means to escape God's wrath.
Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together, O undesirable nation, before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff, before the LORD'S fierce anger comes upon you, before the day of the LORD'S anger comes upon you! Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD'S anger. (Zephaniah 2:1-3)
If we wish to avoid the coming stern and destructive judgment of God on recalcitrant mankind, there is no time like the present to seek His face (Psalm 105:4).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Sixth Seal
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Revelation 6:17: