EWTN Catholic Q&A
The 7 Seals in Revelation
Question from M Kimmel on 03-17-2002:

In my study of the book of Revelation I am puzzled about the 7 seals John sees in his vision. Are the first four seals merely a coded sign of the then present rulers, or a true foreshadowing of events to come? Also, in Ch 6:11, what is meant by the souls under the alter being "...told to rest a little longer"?

Answer by Fr. John Echert on 03-25-2002:

The Book of Revelation describes seven seals:

5:1 And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 5:2 and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" 5:3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 5:4 and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to into into it. 5:5 Then one of the elders said to me, "Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals." 5:6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; 5:7 and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.

6:1 Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say, as with a voice of thunder, "Come!" 6:2 And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. 6:3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" 6:4 And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. 6:5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; 6:6 and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not harm oil and wine!" 6:7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" 6:8 And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. 6:9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; 6:10 they cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?" 6:11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. 6:12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood,

8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 8:2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

There is certainly not unanimity among scholars, ancient and modern, with regards to what each of these details represent. As for the “scroll” itself, this not only contains the words of events which unfold or will unfold but in the successive breaking of the seals, the events play out. At present I am inclined towards the following approach, in a tentative way. The “scroll” may be intended to bear associations with the written Covenant given to Israel through Moses, which was written by the finger of God upon two tablets (some scholars would say written front and back, in which case the document of Revelation even more closely would seem to be an allusion to the Mosaic Covenant. Furthermore, just as the Mosaic Covenant contained both blessings and curses, the former when Israel was faithful and the latter when the Covenant was broken), so it appears that the breaking of these seals is the unleashing of the “curses” or punishments upon the Old Covenant People which was not acting in accord with the fulfillment of the Covenant, in its rejection of the Messiah and persecution of the Church. In fact, the punishments and sufferings described in the successive seals bear a striking resemblance to what occurred in first century Palestine, most specifically the chaos and sufferings upon unbelieving Judaism including famines, civil disturbances, earthquakes, and the ultimate devastation of the Roman assault upon Jerusalem and the Temple in response to the Jewish Revolt. A careful reading of the Jewish historian Josephus, especially his work on the Jewish Wars, is compelling in making such an association.

Along with Dr. Scott Hahn and others, I am of the opinion that the unfolding chastisements described by the seven seals describes what was initially fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, whereby the old world of the Jews passed, but remains to be fully fulfilled and play out at the end of the entire world. And even beyond this, the end of our world—the United States and Western civilization—may play out by unfolding chastisements, even long before the end of the entire world. Wake up, America. Our sins cry out to heaven! ©

As to the souls waiting, they are praying for the time of mercy to give way to the time of justice, which will happen in God's time but can be sped by prayers. For during the time of mercy, hardened sinners who refuse to repent continue to act in wickedness, and persecute the righteous saints.

Father Echert