Notes & Commentary:
Ver. 1. I saw that the Lamb had opened one of the seven seals, or the first seal. The interpreters are much divided in expounding what is to be understood by the sealed up contents, and in applying them to such and such persecutions, persons, and events, by all which it appears that there is no certainty as to such applications and expositions, even of particular ancient fathers; though at the same time it is both certain and evident that many pretended interpretations, (that is, arbitrary inventions, from the private spirit of heretics) are both false and groundless, contradictory to the unexceptionable authority (to use Dr. W.’s words) of the primitive fathers, and inconsistent with the doctrine and belief of the Catholic Church, as I may have occasion to shew that the ridiculous fable is of this number, of so many popes being antichrist, and the beast of this Apocalypse. I shall, for the satisfaction of the Christian reader, as I hinted in the preface of this book, give a short account of those expositions that are not improbable. (Witham)
Ver. 2. A white horse, such as conquerors used to ride upon at a solemn triumph. This is commonly understood of our Saviour, Christ, who, by himself and by his apostles, preachers, martyrs, and other saints, triumphed over all the adversaries of his Church. He had a bow in his hand, the doctrine of his gospel, piercing like an arrow the hearts of the hearers; and the crown given him, was a token of the victory of him who went forth conquering, that he might conquer. (Witham) — He that sitteth on the white horse is Christ, going forth to subdue the world by his gospel. The other horses that follow represent the judgments and punishment, that were to fall on the enemies of Christ and his Church: the red horse signifies war; the black horse famine; and the pale horse (which has death for its rider) plagues or pestilence. (Challoner) — White horse; viz. Jesus Christ, who came to subdue all nations to the faith. The bow signifies the gospel, and the word of God, those powerful arms, of which St. Paul so often speaks, as being so necessary for all who are engaged in bringing souls to the faith of Christ. The crown marks the sovereign power of Jesus Christ, and the assurance of conquest. (Cornelius[Cornelius a Lapide?]; Bossuet; Du Pin)
Ver. 3-4. Opened the second seal, &c. portending wars and shedding of blood, and so he is said to have power to take away peace from the earth. (Witham) — Another red horse. This red horse signifies the cruel persecutions, which the Roman emperors carried on against the Christian religion. For this end, it is said immediately after, one sat thereon, to take peace from the earth, and kill one another; for this purpose was a great sword given to him. (Andrĉas; Menochius; Grotius)
Ver. 5. The third seal….a black horse. This is also commonly expounded of wars and persecutions, and particularly of famine, by the scales in the rider’s hand, and by two pounds of wheat being sold for a penny: a great price, considering the value of money at that time. (Witham) — The black horse represents the public miseries, famines, &c. which, particularly the latter, the Roman empire frequently experienced during the reign of the persecuting emperors. The balance, which the rider is said to hold in his hand, represents the strict manner in which people would measure out whatever they sold during the time of famine. (Andrĉas; Hamm; Bossuet)
Ver. 7-8. The fourth seal….a pale horse, the rider’s name death. It is also expounded of trials, afflictions, persecutions, and especially of plagues, over four parts of the earth, by which may be denoted the great power and extent of the Roman empire. In the Greek we read, over the fourth part of the earth; which some reconcile, by observing that the Roman empire had dominions under it in all the four parts of the world, east, west, north, and south; and that its dominions might be said to comprehend the fourth part of the world. (Witham) — By the pale horse, and the rider, death, who sat upon it, followed by hell, are meant that dreadful mortality which ever attends famines, &c. He had power to kill with sword, with famine, &c. All these evils came upon the Roman people, and history has preserved the memory of them, to shew the truth of the prophecy here delivered by St. John. (Grotius; Calmet)
Ver. 9, &c. After the opening of the fifth seal, the souls of the martyrs under the altar cried aloud for justice, saying, how long, &c. Out of zeal for God’s honour, and the good of the Church, they pray that the enemies of Christ, and of the Christian faith, may be humbled, and that all may acknowledge and fear the justice of God, by the punishment of his enemies, and the reward of his faithful servants. St. Jerome, by under the altar, understands Christ himself, under whom, as under their head, are all the martyrs. Some who doubted or held that the blessed were not admitted to see God, in heaven before the day of general judgment, have turned this expression, under the altar, or at least the expressions of some of the fathers upon these words, as if they were favourable to their error, which is sufficiently disproved, even by the words that follow, that white robes were given to each of them one, in which they are said to walk with him wherever he goeth. (Chap. iii. 4. and Chap. xiv. 4.) (Witham) — Under the altar. Christ, as man, is this altar, under which the souls of the martyrs live in heaven: as their bodies are here deposited under our altars. — Revenge our blood. They ask not this out of hatred to their enemies, but out of zeal for the glory of God, and a desire that the Lord would accelerate the general judgment, and the complete beatitude of all his elect. (Challoner) — These holy souls, who had been slain for the word of God, do not beg the Almighty to revenge their blood, through any hatred to their enemies, but through the great zeal with which they were animated, to see the justice of God manifested: that by this severity they might be moved to fear him, and be converted to him. Thus in the Scripture we often read of the prophets beseeching the Almighty to fill their enemies with confusion, to humble them, &c. (Perer; Bossuet; Du Pin, &c.) — And white robes. To console them, they each had given them a white robe, as a mark of their innocence, and as an assurance that on account of it they would in due time receive the full measure of beatitude. They should rest yet a little while, most probably to the day of final retribution, when the number of those destined to be their brethren in bliss should be completed. Then they should altogether receive full recompense, and their persecutors be covered with confusion. (St. Augustine, serm. xi. de sanctis; St. Gregory the great, lib. ii. Moral. cap. iv.)
Ver. 12. At the opening of the sixth seal….a great earthquake, &c. Many think that these dreadful signs, of the sun turning black, &c. are not to happen till the time of antichrist, a little before the end of the world. See Matthew xiv.; Luke xxi.; Isaias xiii. and xxxiv.; Ezechiel xxxiii.; Daniel xii.; &c. Others apply these prodigies to God’s visible chastisements, on the heathen emperors and persecutors of the Christians, before the first Christian emperor Constantine. (Witham) — And I saw. The sixth seal being opened, St. John sees painted before him the severe and terrible manner in which the Almighty would revenge himself on his enemies. It may refer either to the time of Constantine, when we behold the Christian religion triumphing on the ruins of paganism, and after his death, and that of his sons, the empire of Rome given up a prey to barbarians, Rome itself taken and pillaged, and all the provinces thrown into dreadful disorder and consternation; or it may likewise refer to the day of general judgment, when the Almighty will make sinners drink the wine of his indignation, in presence of all the just; of which dreadful time of vengeance all other particular judgments are only imperfect figures. (Victorin; Ven. Bede; Tichon) — St. John, in imitation of the ancient prophets, makes use of the earthquake, &c. hyperbolically, to mark more strongly the dreadful and horrible evils with which the Roman empire, and its persecuting emperors, were to be overwhelmed. Rome itself was filled with wars and seditions, both at home and abroad. The emperors were all destroyed by the Almighty in a most singular manner; witness Maxentius, who was thrown headlong into the Tiber; Maximin Jovius, who, under a horrible and incurable disease, owned the hand of the Almighty afflicting him; Maximin Daia, who, being overcome in battle, fled away in disguise, and at last, seized with a strange disease, his bowels were all consumed, he lost his eyes, and died reduced to a mere skeleton. Witness likewise Licinius, who, being engaged with Constantine, was always beaten, and at length strangled. Maximian also, the rival of Constantine, who strangled himself in Marseilles, where he had been confined. (Calmet)
Ver. 14. And every mountain. In the dreadful confusion of the Roman empire, in the time of Constantine, so great was the revolution, that mountains appeared, as it were, moved out of their places; islands shifted from their accustomed situations. We behold at one time seven persons, Maximin Galerius, Maxentius, Severus Cĉsar, Maximin, Alexander, Maximin Hercules, and Licinius, all aiming at the empire. The first six perished in nine years, from 305[A.D. 305] to 314: Licinius was strangled in 324. All these were enemies of the Christian religion. Constantine, who supported it, remained sole master of the empire. (Calmet)
Bible Text & Cross-references:
What followed upon the opening six of the seals.
1 And I saw that the Lamb had opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four animals, saying, as with a voice of thunder: Come, and see.
2 And I saw: and behold a white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he went forth conquering that he might conquer.
3 And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second animal, saying: Come, and see.
4 And another red horse went forth: and it was given to him who sat thereon, to take away peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another, and to him was given a great sword.
5 And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third animal, saying: Come thou, and see. And behold a black horse, and he that sat on him had a pair of scales in his hand.
6 And I heard as it were a voice in the midst of the four animals, saying: Two pounds of wheat for a penny, and thrice two pounds of barley for a penny, and hurt not the wine, and oil.
7 And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth animal, saying: Come, and see.
8 And behold a pale horse, and he that sat upon him, his name was death, and hell followed after him; and power was given to him over the four parts of the earth, to kill with sword, with famine, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
9 And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.
10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Lord, (holy and true) dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
11 And white robes were given, to each of them one: and it was said to them, that they should rest yet for a little time, till their fellow servants, and their brethren, who were to be slain even as they, should be filled up.
12 And I saw, when he had opened the sixth seal: and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair: and the whole moon became as blood:
13 And the stars from heaven fell upon the earth, as the fig-tree casteth its green figs when it is shaken by a great wind:
14 And the heaven withdrew as a book rolled up: and every mountain, and the islands were moved out of their places.
15 And the kings of the earth, and the princes, and the tribunes, and the rich men, and the strong men, and every bond-man, and every free-man hid themselves in the dens, and in the rocks of the mountains:
16 And they say to the mountains and to the rocks: *Fall upon us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17 For the great day of their wrath is come: and who shall be able to stand?
16: Isaias ii. 19.; Osee x. 8.; Luke xxiii. 30.