I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” Rev 6:12-17
This sixth seal completes the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, that the first through fifth seals have been bringing about. We must remember that the Roman Empire is the terrible fourth beast that Daniel saw, which the little stone — the Lamb that was slain — struck in its feet and caused its fall. John is seeing its fall. To understand why the church has traditionally believed this to be so, we must begin by examining the symbolism.
This is the first place in Revelation where the symbol of an earthquake is used. It is not the last, nor is it here or elsewhere explained in the text. In 1 Kin 19:11-12, Isa 29:6, Eze 3, and Eze 38:18-20 the earthquake is associated with the presence of the LORD. In Mat 24, Mar 13, and Luk 21, Jesus says that earthquakes will occur before the end (of the Temple and of Jerusalem; see my notes on Mat 24 for a fuller explanation). All the other earthquakes in prophecy take place in Revelation.
Traditionally, the symbols of Revelation that are not defined in the text, or elsewhere in Scripture, are defined by the fulfillment of the prophecies themselves. The Revelation earthquakes have been traditionally understood (until recently) to be a complete revolution and overturning of all earthly order: government, religion, society, economy, worldview. Thus earth + quake, or a great shaking of that which is of the earth, or the world. As we progress through Revelation, we will see that every instance of an earthquake is accompanied by historical events which constitute a complete revolution of all earthly order, so let us accept that explanation of the symbolism for now: that the opening of the sixth seal occasioned a great earthquake, or a great shift and shattering of tectonic proportions in the political, cultural, and societal realms of this world.
The sun and moon
The next symbol is that the sun becomes black as sackcloth and the full moon blood red. These are the colors of the sun and moon in total eclipse. Remember that the LORD God created the sun and moon to rule the day and night of this world (Gen 1:16)? Now let us think symbolically. The world, the earth, in Revelation, is speaking of the worldly realm, the earthly realm, and its citizens, who belong to the kingdoms of this world. The world and its kingdoms are opposed to the heavenly realm and its citizens, God’s people, who belong to the kingdom of heaven. If symbolically, the sun and moon rule the world, then let us look to the ruler of the world at this epoch to see what has transpired: that would be the Roman emperor.
Diocletian was emperor at the end of the fifth seal. Of him, we read:
“As a divinity, the emperor had now become an oriental sun- god and he was officially called the “Invincible Sun.” His birthday was on the twenty-fifth of December; that is, about the date when the sun each year begins to turn northward after he has reached his southernmost limit. The inhabitants of each province might revere their particular gods, undisturbed by the government, but all were obliged as good citizens to join in the official sacrifices to the head of the State as a god. …
“The necessity of leading the army against New Persia, the new oriental enemy, carried the emperor much to the East. The result was that Diocletian resided most of the time at Nicomedia in Asia Minor. As a natural consequence, the emperor was unable to give close attention to the West. Following some earlier examples, and perhaps remembering the two consuls of the old Republic, Diocletian therefore appointed another emperor to rule jointly with himself, to give his attention to the West. The second emperor was to live at Milan in the Po valley, really the most important region of Italy. All government edicts, whether issued in the East or the West, were signed by both emperors. It was not Diocletian’s intention to divide the Roman Empire, any more than it had been the purpose to divide the Republic in electing two consuls. The final result was nevertheless the division of the Roman Empire into East and West …
“In order to avoid the recurrence of civil war at the death of an emperor, Diocletian endeavored to arrange the transfer of power from one emperor to the next. He and his fellow emperor each bore the title of Augustus. The two Augustuses appointed two subordinates, to be called Caesars. There were thus two emperors, or Augustuses, and two subordinate emperors, or Caesars, intended to be something like vice presidents. For it was provided that at the death or resignation of either Augustus, one of the Caesars should at once take his place as Augustus, and another Caesar was then to be appointed.”
— James Breasted, Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, (c) 1916, pages 700-701.
What better symbolism to represent the dual state of the Roman emperors in this epoch than the sun and the moon, especially since Diocletian obligingly deigns to represent himself as such, two hundred years after the vision is given to John? The sun and moon, or the dual emperors, are, in Rev 6, depicted in total eclipse, so let us see if history bears us out …
Christine’s book The Revelation of Jesus Christ Revealed, based on these studies but greatly expanded, is now available at Revelation Revealed Online. You may also be interested in reading the Book Extras and joining in on the Discussion.