Home > 6th seal, Book of Revelation > William Milligan on the sixth seal

William Milligan on the sixth seal

June 19, 2011

In the opening of the sixth seal described in Revelation 6:12-14, some of the most profound, and perplexing ideas of all Bible prophecy are brought together. The sixth seal includes a great earthquake, and the sun becoming black like sackcloth, and the moon becoming like blood, stars falling to the earth, the heavens departing as a scroll when it is rolled together, and every mountain and island being moved out of their places. Naturally, Bible commentators have struggled, in their attempts to explain it.

In the light of our modern understanding of astronomy, and the vast distance of the stars from the earth, the idea of stars falling to the earth seems grotesque. Yet one of the basic ideas of modern astronomy is that all the heavenly bodies fall towards each other. This is called “Newton’s law of universal gravitation,” and it states: [1]

Newton’s law of universal gravitation states that every point mass in the universe attracts every other point mass with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. … This is a general physical law derived from empirical observations by what Newton called induction. It is a part of classical mechanics and was formulated in Newton’s work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“the Principia”), first published on 5 July 1687.

The same laws that operate when figs or apples fall to the ground, work on heavenly bodies like the sun and moon. Is this what the prophecy is referring to? Perhaps not, as the fig tree has a special significance in the gospel accounts; it represents Jews in Luke 13:6-9, and the church, in Luke 21:29-31. Thus the untimely figs that are cast to the earth in Revelation 6:13 probably represent Christians who fall away from faith.

When a scroll is rolled together, the spindles stop rotating. That is what happened in the scientific revolution. The perceived revolutions of the heavens ceased, and the diurnal rotation was attributed to the earth, instead of the heavens.

If John’s prophecy applies to the present era of the church, as William Milligan (1821-1892) suggested, the scientific revolution fulfilled some of the astronomical aspects of the sixth seal. But it was not recognized by Bible scholars.

The sun clothes the woman in Revelation 12:1, and so the sun represents the gospel. The sun becoming black like sackcloth, I suggest, pictures the gospel becoming obscured by false teachings, introduced in the early centuries of the Christian era, such as the idea of unending infernal torment of unbelievers. Similarly, the moon at the woman’s feet seems to represent the Mosaic law, and the Old Covenant. The moon becoming as blood may represent the rise of antisemitism, and the aversion to things Jewish.

Milligan thought that the events depicted in the sixth seal were figurative, and apply to the present era of the church. The interpretations suggested above apply to the present age. Milligan wrote: [2]

The description is marked by almost unparalleled magnificence and sublimity, and any attempt to dwell upon details could only injure the general effect. The real question to be answered is, To what does it apply? Is it a picture of the destruction of Jerusalem or of the final Judgment? Or may it even represent every great calamity by which a sinful world is overtaken? In each of these senses, and in each of them with a certain degree of truth, has the passage been understood. Each is a part of the great thought which it embraces. The error of interpreters has consisted in confining the whole, or even the primary, sense to any one of them. The true reference of the passage appears to be to the Christian dispensation, especially on its side of judgment. That dispensation had often been spoken of by the prophets in a precisely similar way; and the whole description of these verses, alive with the rich glow of the Eastern imagination, is taken partly from their language, and partly from the language of our Lord in the more prophetic and impassioned moments of His life.

Thus it was that Joel had announced the purpose of God: “And I will show wonders in the heavens and the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come,” and again, “The sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining;” while, apart altogether from the immediately preceding and following words, which prove the interpretation above given to be correct, this announcement of Joel was declared by St. Peter on the day of Pentecost to apply to the introduction of that kingdom of Christ which, in the gift of tongues, was at that moment exhibited in power. In like manner we read in the prophet Haggai, “For thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations.” While, again, without our needing to dwell on the connexion in which the words occur, we find the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews applying the prophecy to the circumstances of those to whom he wrote at a time when they had heard the voice that speaketh from heaven, and had received the kingdom that cannot be moved. The prophet Malachi also, whose words have been interpreted for us by our Lord Himself, describes the day of Him whom the Baptist was to precede and to introduce as the day that “burneth as a furnace,” as “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” This aspect, too, of any great era in the history of a land or of a people had always been presented by the voice of prophecy in language from which the words before us are obviously taken. Thus it was that when Isaiah described the coming of a time at which the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow into it, he mentions, among its other characteristics, “And they shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of His majesty, when He ariseth to shake terribly the earth.” When the same prophet details the burden of Babylon which he saw, he exclaims, “Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger to make the land a desolation, and to destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine;” and again, when he widens his view from Babylon to a guilty world, “For the Lord hath indignation against all the nations, and fury against all their hosts…. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fade away, as the leaf falleth from oil the vine, and as a fading fig from the fig tree.” Many other passages of a similar kind might be quoted from the Old Testament; but, without quoting further from that source, it may be enough to call to mind that when our Lord delivered His discourse upon the last things He adopted a precisely similar strain: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.”

Highly coloured, therefore, as the language used under the sixth Seal may appear to us, to the Jew, animated by the spirit of the Old Testament, it was simply that in which he had been accustomed to express his expectation of any new dispensation of the Almighty, of any striking crisis in the history of the world. Whenever he thought of the Judge of all the earth as manifesting Himself in a greater than ordinary degree, and as manifesting Himself in that truth and righteousness which was the glorious distinction of His character, he took advantage of such figures as we have now before us. To the fall of Jerusalem therefore, to every great crisis in human history, and to the close of all, they may be fittingly applied. In the eloquent language of Dr. Vaughan, “These words are wonderful in all senses, not least in this sense: that they are manifold in their accomplishment. Wherever there is a little flock in a waste wilderness; wherever there is a Church in a world; wherever there is a power of unbelief, ungodliness, and violence, throwing itself upon Christ’s faith and Christ’s people and seeking to overbear, and to demolish, and to destroy; whether that power be the power of Jewish bigotry and fanaticism, as in the days of the first disciples; or of pagan Rome, with its idolatries and its cruelties, as in the days of St. John and of the Revelation; or of papal Rome, with its lying wonders and its antichristian assumptions, in ages later still; or of open and rampant atheism, as in the days of the first French Revolution; or of a subtler and more insidious infidelity, like that which is threatening now to deceive, if it were possible, the very elect; wherever and whatever this power may be and it has had a thousand forms, and may be destined yet to assume a thousand more then, in each successive century, the words of Christ to His first disciples adapt themselves afresh to the circumstances of His struggling servants; warn them of danger, exhort them to patience, arouse them to hope, assure them of victory; tell of a near end for the individual and for the generation; tell also of a far end, not for ever to be postponed, for time itself and for the world; predict a destruction which shall befall each enemy of the truth, and predict a destruction which shall befall the enemy himself whom each in turn has represented and served; explain the meaning of tribulation, show whence it comes, and point to its swallowing up in glory; reveal the moving hand above, and disclose, from behind the cloud which conceals it, the clear definite purpose and the unchanging loving will. Thus understood, each separate downfall of evil becomes a prophecy of the next and of the last; and the partial fulfilment of our Lord’s words in the destruction of Jerusalem, or of St. John’s words in the downfall of idolatry and the dismemberment of Rome, becomes itself in turn a new warrant for the Church’s expectation of the Second Advent and of the day of judgment.”

While, however, the truth of these words may be allowed, it is still necessary to urge that the primary application of the language of the sixth Seal is to no one of such events in particular, but to something which includes them all. In other words, it applies to the Christian dispensation, viewed in its beginning, its progress, and its end, viewed in all those issues which it produces in the world, but especially on the side of judgment.

Nor ought such dark and terrible figures to startle us, as if they could not be suitably applied to a dispensation of mercy, of grace that we cannot fathom, of love that passeth knowledge. The Christian dispensation is not effeminacy. If it tells of abounding compassion for the sinner, it tells also of fire, and hail, and vapour of smoke for the sin. If it speaks at one time in a gentle voice, it speaks at another in a voice of thunder; and, when the latter is rightly listened to, the air is cleared as by the whirlwind.

Although, therefore, the language of the prophets and of this passage may at first sight appear to be marked by far too great a measure both of strength and of severity to make it applicable to the Gospel age, it is in reality neither too strong nor too severe. It is at variance only with the verdict of that superficial glance which is satisfied with looking at phenomena in their outward and temporary aspect, and which declines to penetrate into the heart of things. So long as man is content with such a spirit, he is naturally enough unstirred by any powerful emotion; and he can only say that words of prophetic fire are words of exaggeration and of false enthusiasm. But no sooner does he catch that spirit of the Bible which brings him into contact with eternal verities than his tone changes. He can no longer rest upon the surface. He can no longer dismiss the thought of mighty issues at stake around him with the reflection that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women on it only players.” When from the shore he looks out upon the mass of waters stretching before him, he thinks not merely of the light waves rippling at his feet and losing themselves in the sand, but of the unfathomed depths of the ocean from which they come, and of those mysterious movements of it which they indicate. He sees sights, he hears sounds, which the common eye does not see, and the common ear does not hear. The slightest motion of the soil speaks to him of earthquakes; the handful of snow loosened from the mountain-side, of avalanches; the simplest utterance of awe, of a cry that the mountains and the hills are falling. The great does not become to him little; but the little becomes great. There is thus no exaggeration in the strength or even in the severity of prophetic figures. The prophet has passed from the world of shadows, flitting past him and disappearing, into the world of realities, Divine, unchangeable, and everlasting.


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_law_of_universal_gravitation

2. William Milligan. The Book of Revelation. Hodder and Stroughton, London. 1889. pp. 104-110.