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The first four seals in the book of Revelation followed a general time line of history in the first few centuries. The fifth and sixth are different in that each casts an eye toward the future in order to provide comfort for those who are in tribulation.
The fifth seal portrays the martyrs as sacrificial offerings whose “souls” (i.e. blood) are under the altar in the temple in heaven, and they are given white robes with a promise of justice in the future.
The sixth seal speaks of the end-time victory of the overcomers when the mighty men of the earth flee before their light and glory.
However, the hope of future justice and victory that is given to them does not negate the fact that each seal must have a beginning point as well. We cannot lose sight of that beginning point without losing our way in the historical sequence of events. The seals are opened in the context of God’s judgment upon the fourth beast (Rome) and its extension, the little horn.
Recall that the original judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem brought this succession of world empires to power. God Himself empowered these empires and authorized them to rule the earth for a time. He did not give a single empire authority for the entire seven times (7 x 360 years), but divided the time in order to be able to judge each empire for its own sin, while still allowing these “beasts” to have dominion for the entire time of judgment.
Rome’s dominion began in 63 B.C. when Pompey took Jerusalem. The western empire fell in 476 A.D. But by this time “New Rome” (Constantinople) had been built as the new capital of the empire on the western shores of the Black Sea. The Roman emperors ruled from New Rome from that time onward, and old Rome was important in prophecy mainly because of the presence of the Roman bishop (pope).
During the time of the little horn, which arose in 529 A.D., the emperor in the East and the pope in the West were both important in their own way. Emperor Justinian made “alterations in times and in law” (Dan. 7:25) by giving the Empire a new calendar and a new system of law that was based on Church law, i.e., canon law.
Yet the seven seals preceded the rise of the little horn, because they were designed to bring judgment upon Rome by various calamities and invasions. From a historical standpoint, the seven seals can be dated as follows:
Seal 1: 31 B.C. to 193 A.D.
Seal 2: 193-284 A.D.
Seal 3: 250-300 A.D.
Seal 4: 250-265 A.D.
Seal 5: 303-313 A.D.
Seal 6: 310-395 A.D.
Interim: Half hour (15 years) of silence
Seal 7: 410-476 A.D. (The fall of Imperial Rome)
The fifth seal, where we see the martyred souls under the altar, picture the martyrs beginning with Abel. Yet insofar as its specific application to the history of Rome, it coincides with the ten days (years) of tribulation from 303-313 A.D. This was the time of the Diocletian persecution, which was perhaps the most horrible in all of Roman history. It was so bad that it was noted in the message to the church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:10), for this persecution fell in the climactic days of the Smyrna era.
The breaking of the sixth seal opened up the Pergamos era of the church, as the persecutions began to end from 310-313 A.D. As we have already shown, the sixth seal speaks of “a great earthquake” (Rev. 6:12), that is, political and religious upheavals, which were a prelude to the collapse of Rome by the end of the seventh seal.
The time of the sixth seal (310-395 A.D.) specifically applied to Roman history, culminating with the ruin of paganism. Up until 395, paganism technically, though not in open practice, had still been the constitutional religion of the senate. But this changed in 395, when Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan animal sacrifices that had continued up to this time among the pagans. He closed all the pagan temples and prohibited pagan rites. Gibbon writes on page 409 of his book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
“The ruin of Paganism, in the age of Theodosius, is perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition, and may therefore be considered as a singular event in the history of the human mind.”
But in 395 Theodosius died, and, according to his will, the empire was divided between his two sons. Honorius was made Emperor of the West, with its capital in Milan, Italy. Arcadius, being older (age 17 or 18), was made Emperor of the East, with its capital in Constantinople. The empire had been divided in previous times, but it had always been reunited later. This time, however, the division was permanent. Hence, in 395 the great “earthquake” hit the empire politically with its division and religiously with the ruin of paganism.
The glimpse of the future victory of the martyrs and overcomers in the sixth seal has two applications. The broader application, as we have said, begins with Abel and ends with the Age of Tabernacles. But in the narrower context of Roman history, it begins with the Diocletian (pagan) persecution (303-313 A.D.) and ends with the ultimate ruin of paganism in 395.
395 A.D., then, marked the end of the sixth seal and the start of the “half an hour” of silence leading to the start of the seventh seal. Rev. 8:1 says,
1 And when He broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
In biblical prophecy, a day can mean:
In the context of Daniel and Revelation, a prophetic “day” or “time” is 360 years. As they reckoned time in those days, there were twelve hours in a day. So one-twelfth of a day (360) is a prophetic “hour” of 30 years. A half hour is 15 years. The time of silence, then, is the 15-year period from 395-410 A.D. between the full collapse of Pagan Rome in 395 to the sack of Christian Rome in 410. This was also the interim between the sixth and seventh seals bringing judgment upon Rome.
During this time of silence, a new threat to Rome began to develop. From 395-398 Alaric the Goth invaded Greece, but was repulsed. Shortly afterward, he made an incursion into Italy but was again repulsed.
If the people of Rome, including the Christians, had had eyes to see and ears to hear, they would have recognized that God was about to unleash judgment against this “Christian Empire,” for by this time much of the Christian clergy had become as corrupt as the pagan clergy of earlier times. The Christian leaders had resorted to the same persecution of the pagans that the pagans had done to the Christians. This included confiscating (stealing) temples and converting them into Christian churches. Gibbon writes on page 428,
“Honorius excluded all persons who were adverse to the catholic church from holding any office in the state; obstinately rejected the service of all those who dissented from his religion; and rashly disqualified many of his bravest and most skilful officers who adhered to the Pagan worship or who had imbibed the opinions of Arianism.”
On page 249 he says,
“By the imprudent conduct of the ministers of Honorius the republic lost the assistance, and deserved the enmity, of thirty thousand of her bravest soldiers; and the weight of that formidable army, which alone might have determined the event of the war, was transferred from the scale of the Romans into that of the Goths.”
The Church thought that by perpetrating injustice, murder, and robbery against pagans they were doing good in the sight of God. They did not realize that biblical law demands equal justice for all. Further, they thought that if their soldiers were church members in good standing, this would be satisfactory to God. They did not understand that God looks at the heart, and that judgment begins at the house of God.
And so, the Church did not recognize God’s hand of judgment when it finally arrived. They did not repent of their avarice or murder or idolatry. They did not see any need to manifest the character of Jesus in their relationship with non-believers. They saw only a need to defend the Christian Empire from Satan’s hordes. There was no need to repent, for they were Christians.
The seventh seal began a final series of judgments upon the Western “leg” of the Roman Empire, including the city of Rome. There are seven trumpets contained within the seventh seal. They begin with the sack of Rome in 410 and end with its final collapse in 476.
Gibbon writes on page 430 of his book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
“During a period of six hundred and nineteen years the seat of empire had never been violated by the presence of a foreign enemy.”
The hour of judgment finally arrived. It was not a judgment upon pagan Rome, for that (final) judgment had already occurred in 395. No, this was a judgment upon Christian Imperial Rome for its corruption, idolatry, and greed. Christianity had been turned from a way of life into a religion of empire. The virtues advocated by Jesus Christ held little value to the organized church.
The religion demanded faithfulness to the Church organization and hierarchy, rather than faithfulness to Jesus’ teachings. The religion demanded more power and wealth, rather than the maturity of their character. The people began to worship relics and saints, and superstition soon replaced the true worship of God. Gibbon writes on page 423,
“In the long period of twelve hundred years, which elapsed between the reign of Constantine and the reformation of Luther, the worship of saints and relics corrupted the pure and perfect simplicity of the Christian model.”
It is amazing how ambitious men can so easily trick Christians into accepting their corrupt leadership. It is amazing how quickly men forget Jesus’ example—he who was most tolerant of pagans in their genuine ignorance, and who was so intolerant of priestly corruption and oppression of the common man.