John’s vision of the throne-room in heaven in chapters 4 & 5 of Revelation, ended with all creation worshiping God and the Lamb. Now in chapter 6, Christ, who alone is worthy to receive the scroll and open its seals, begins to open the seals one at a time; and as He does, a rapid series of calamities begin to unfold on the earth. First with the seven seals, which then lead to the seven trumpets and finally the seven bowls of wrath. These calamities intensify with each set of sevens, as we get closer to the second coming of Christ. As mentioned before, the scroll contains the decrees of God for mankind till the consummation of the age and the ushering in of the age to come.
The opening of the four seals brings about all manner of distress on the earth: Wars, internal strife and bloodshed, famines, pestilence, and widespread death. These woes are symbolized by four horsemen who were summoned by God to go forth and to carry out these judgments on the earth.
Upon opening the fifth seal, our focus is shifted to an altar in heaven, where we hear the souls of the martyrs crying out from under the altar for the Lord to avenge their blood on those who dwell on the earth. Their cry is an earnest plea for the Lord, who is “sovereign, holy and true,” to vindicate his great name; so that the evil done against Him and His church by those in the world would be justly dealt with. The response to their cry essentially makes up the remainder of the book of Revelation. God brings judgment on this world’s system and puts an end to the very source of evil, by casting Satan himself into the lake of fire, and then glorifying His saints.
This chapter gives us insight to the conflict and distress we see in the world today. Unbelievers recoil at the idea that a good God would allow such devastation to happen in the world; and even some professing Christians attribute these distresses to the works of Satan rather than God. But when we look at this passage, we see that God is the one who is summoning the riders and giving them authority for the destruction they are to inflict (see vv.7-8). We must remember that God is both merciful and just. He is not one at the expense of the other. Thus when we see wars, civil strife, famines, and widespread disease and death, we can rest in Him, knowing that “the judge of all the earth will do right” (Gen 18:25); and as He told the martyrs, it is only a matter of time before all evil will be judged and the saints will rejoice in His presence forever.