The traditional interpretation of Revelation is as an unfolding historical prophecy, of the things which will take place in the political and spiritual world between the first and second comings of the Lord Jesus Christ. We assume that the first seal, at least, describes an event close to John’s time, because John introduces the book by saying, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place,” (Rev 1:1). The Greek for “shortly” means “quickly, at once, without delay.”
I believe the events of the vision began to be fulfilled without delay after the time John saw the vision, just based on the fact that this is what the Scriptures say. God was perfectly able to say something else if He meant something else. This is also why I am a young earth creationist, because the history described in the first chapters of Genesis is most straightforwardly understood to mean creation in the recent past. In order to make it mean something else, the linguistic gymnastics have to start.
When we begin examining the events of the first four seals, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, we will see that all four are also closely linked in meaning and time, for the same symbol, horses and horsemen, are used for all four. This precedent is something we will want to remember for later.
The first seal, the white horse, has a rider with a bow, who was given a crown, who rode out to conquer, and who did conquer. The Scriptures equate the color white with righteousness; bows and crowns mean military might and ruling authority; and conquering means territorial and political gain or expansion.
When we look at the events following the giving of Revelation, we learn that the wicked Domitian was assassinated, perhaps even in the very year the Revelation was given, but certainly no later than the following year. The Christian persecution for which John was in exile, began in 95 ad and Domitian was assassinated in 96 ad. The emperor following Domitian was Nerva, who did all he could to repair the wrongs which Domitian had done.
Trajan followed Nerva, who had such a reputation for righteousness that when a new emperor was approved by the Senate, they charged him to “reign virtuously as Trajan.” Under Trajan the provinces of Dacia (Romania), Parthia (Persia), and Mesopotamia (Babylonia) were added to the Roman Empire, and the Empire attained its greatest extent.
Hadrian followed Trajan, who forgave all offenses, and whose motto was, “I have been made emperor for the benefit of mankind and not for my own good.” Antoninus Pius followed Hadrian, whose surname identifies his character. Marcus Aurelius followed Antoninus, who was the last of the “Five Good Emperors,” and whose philosophy in his book, Meditations, approaches Christian virtue, rare in the classical world. This period of righteous rule and the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) lasted from 96 ad to 180 ad.
Traditionally the church understood, and I believe rightly, that the first seal, the white horse of righteousness, with a rider exercising military might and ruling authority, who went out to conquer, and who did in fact increase politically and territorially, was fulfilled from 96 ad to 180 ad by the five righteous emperors of Rome.
revelation 6, the second seal
revelation 6, the third seal
revelation 6, the fourth seal
revelation 6, the fifth seal
revelation 6, the sixth seal: the great earthquake
revelation 6, the sixth seal: sun and moon in eclipse
revelation 6, the sixth seal: stars from heaven fallen
revelation 6, the sixth seal: mountains and islands removed
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.