Home > 6th seal, Book of Revelation > E. B. Elliott and the sixth seal

E. B. Elliott and the sixth seal

June 19, 2011

Edward Bishop Elliott (1793-1875) argued that the earthquake, and the moving of mountains and islands out of their positions, and the sun becoming black, and the moon becoming as blood, and stars falling to the earth, that are all part of the sixth seal, should not be taken literally. He attempted to assign those diverse signs to political changes that had occurred or would occur in history.

On the first point, I think, Elliot was correct, but not in the second; the events referred to are indeed meant figuratively, but they are not about political changes. I suggest that in the opening of the sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-14, the misinterpretation of prophecy may be represented by the statement “every mountain and island were moved out of their places.” This interpretation is plausible if “mountains” and “islands” are interpreted as prophecies, and revelations of God.

In Genesis 49:26, the everlasting hills are associated with blessings of God. When blessing Joseph, Jacob said: “The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.”

The “utmost bound” of these hills alludes to their height, and “everlasting” to their duration. These blessings were promises, and prophecies, that were lofty or high, coming from heaven. This connects the blessings of Jacob with mountains, and suggests that those blessings are spiritual, and eternal.

At the opening of the 6th seal in Revelation 6:12-14, mountains that are “moved out of their places” refers to the blessings, promises, and prophecies that mountains represent. They are moved out of their places when applied to the wrong people, and to the wrong time period, or otherwise misunderstood and misinterpreted. Islands are included too, because the book of Revelation, for example, was written by John on the island of Patmos, in the Agean Sea.

Below is part of Elliott’s discussion of the interpretation of the sixth seal. [1]

The interpretation that I have given to the various symbols of this Seal has been illustrated and confirmed, by one and another interpreter, from the similar use of similar figures in other passages of prophetic scripture. Thus, to show how, from earliest times, the symbols of the sun, moon, and stars were used of rulers, so as I have explained them, a reference has been made to Joseph’s dream, (Gen. xxxvii. 9,) in which the sun and moon are expressly interpreted of the chief heads of a nascent nation,—the stars of its inferior heads.—To illustrate the meaning of an earthquake, and the consequent convulsions and changes in the firmamental heavens and their luminaries, there have been quoted passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, in which the symbol is used of political revolution in a state or kingdom, of the subversion of its institutions, and fall of its governing powers. So in Jeremiah’s vision, (iv. 23,) of the destruction and desolation of the Jewish kingdom by the Babylonians; “I beheld the land, and lo! it was without form and void; and the heavens, and they had no light. I beheld the mountains, and lo! they trembled, and the hills moved lightly. I beheld, and all the cities thereof were broken down, at the presence of the Lord, and by his fierce anger.” So in Ezekiel, (xxxii. 7, 8, 11,) of the overthrow of Pharaoh and his kingdom by the king of Babylon; “When I shall put thee out, I will cover the heavens, and make the stars thereof dark: I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and I will set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord.” And so again in Isaiah, (xiii. 9, 10, 17) of the overthrow of Babylon by the Medes: it being said that ”the day of the Lord should come against it, with his wrath and fierce anger; and that the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof should not give their light, and the sun should be darkened in his going forth, and the moon should not cause her light to shine.” In which passages, besides the more prominent parallelisms with the Apocalyptic imagery in the symbolic changes noted of the heavenly luminaries, it will be well, I think, to observe also what is said of the presence of the Lord as manifested, though acting by human agency: and again, of the day of the Lord and his fierce anger being shown in the subversion of the former political government, and the dethronement and destruction of its political governors, even in cases where, after the first shock of the catastrophe, it does not appear that the conquered generally were treated with any particular oppression, or the yoke made very grievous.—Finally, to illustrate what is said of the pagan hosts “hiding themselves in the dens and rocks of the mountains, and saying to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne,” &c, a reference has been made to Hosea’s prediction of the Israelites thus calling on the mountains to cover them, and the hills to fall on them, under the terror and calamities of Shalmanezer’s invasion. To which we may add what is told us, historically, of the Israelites hiding in such rocky caverns, whensoever, as in the times of Saul or of the Maccabees, the enemy might have gained possession of the country.—All which being put together, there will not, I believe, remain a single symbolic phrase in this prophecy of the sixth Seal, unillustrated, or with the interpretation referring it to a political revolution, such as has been given, unconfirmed, by similar figures in other prophecies, to which the scriptural context has itself already furnished a similar interpretation.

Since, however, in regard to not a little of the phraseology of the prophecy, there is in so far a resemblance to what is said elsewhere of the catastrophe of the last great day of judgment, as to have induced with many a suspicion, with some a full conviction, that such must be the reference and meaning also here,—it may be useful, with a view to the reader’s clearer and fuller persuasion, to look a little more closely into the subject; and to add yet a further observation or two, on the internal evidence derivable, first from the language of the prophetic description, as compared with that of other prophecies confessedly predictive of the last convulsions, secondly, from its relative position in the series of the Apocalyptic visions,—in support of the meaning that I have attached to it.

And, first, it should be distinctly understood that the expressions here used respecting the earthquake, and the phenomena in the sun, moon, and stars, cannot be interpreted literally, or as referring to those physical changes in the material earth and firmament of heaven, which other prophecies lead us undoubtingly to expect at the consummation of the great day. The clearest literal description of these physical changes is perhaps that given in 2 Peter iii. 10;—”The day of the Lord shall come as a thief in the night, in the which the heavens, (or the firmament, Gen. i. 7, 8,) shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat: the earth also, and the works that are therein, shall be burned up.” Now of a conflagration, like this, no hint is given in the vision of the sixth Seal. Moreover in such a conflagration neither would the sun become black as sackcloth, nor the moon appear blood-red; still less the stars fall to the ground. The expressions must be taken metaphorically, and as referring to political changes, like those in the other parallel prophecies just before referred to. There seems to me a physical necessity for this, from what is said; as well as almost a necessity from what is not said: besides the necessity arising from the requirements of symbolic language, in a confessedly symbolic prophecy.

Still the suspicion may remain that, though referring to political revolution and changes, it may be the political changes attendant on the last great consummation. For that there are to be then, and in connection with the great final catastrophe of the earth’s drama, extraordinary political commotions and revolutions, is a truth revealed both in the Apocalypse itself, and in many other of the sacred prophecies. This I fully allow. But I think internal evidence is here, too, not wanting, to shew that it is not these that are intended in the sixth Seal. For, let but the description of the earthquake of the sixth Seal be compared with that of the xvith chapter of the Apocalyptic book,—which latter is allowed on all hands to be the description of the great final political revolution,—and how is it possible but that an unprejudiced mind will be struck with the marked differences? The earthquake of the xvith chapter is so great, that “there never was any like it since the time that men were on the earth;”—this, simply, “a great earthquake.” And whereas the most prominent points of accompaniment and result in the former case are the tripartite division of the great city, Babylon receiving the wine-cup of God’s anger, and a tremendous hail-storm falling on the inhabitants of the Roman earth,—to neither one nor another of these is there the least allusion, in the description of the earthquake of the sixth Seal before us.—Were the one indeed but a notice in brief, as it were, the other the description in detail, the omission and the difference would not be so remarkable. And thus it seems to me very possible, and even probable, that the earthquake noticed on the sounding of the seventh Trumpet, at the close of chap, xi, may be the same in brief, as that of chap. xvi in detail, on the effusion of the seventh Vial. But in the vision of the sixth Seal the description is as detailed and full, indeed more so, than that of chap. xvi.


1. Edward Bishop Elliott. Horæ Apocalypticæ Volume 1.  p. 221-225.

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