Home > 6th seal, Book of Revelation, Dispensationalism, Mountains in prophecy > John N. Darby, William Kelly, and the sixth seal

John N. Darby, William Kelly, and the sixth seal

June 20, 2011

The sixth seal described in Revelation 6:12-14 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.

In prophecy, mountains often represent promises. Moses had said to Caleb, after he returned from spying out the land, “Surely the land whereon thy feet have trodden shall be thine inheritance, and thy children’s for ever, because thou hast wholly followed the LORD my God.” When the time came for Caleb to receive his inheritance, he said to Joshua, “Now therefore give me this mountain, whereof the LORD spake in that day; for thou heardest in that day how the Anakims were there, and that the cities were great and fenced: if so be the LORD will be with me, then I shall be able to drive them out, as the LORD said.” [Joshua 14:12]

The “mountain” was his inheritance in the promised land. Similarly the mountains that are moved out of their places, I suggest, are metaphors representing the promises and prophecies in scripture. They are “moved out of their places” when promises intended for the saints are applied to unbelieving Jews, or when prophecies that apply to the whole church age are shifted to a future seven year tribulation, as in dispensationalism, or when they are said to apply to the first century, as preterism claims.

John Nelson Darby

John Nelson Darby

John N. Darby (1800-1882), a leader in the Plymouth Brethren movement, and promoter of dispensationalism, thought the earthquake that accompanied the 6th seal represented “a violent convulsion of the whole structure of society.” He wrote: [1]

The opening of the sixth seal brings an earthquake, that is, a violent convulsion of the whole structure of society. All the governing powers are therein visited; and, seeing all subverted, small and great think (with bad consciences as they have) that the day of the Lamb’s wrath is come. But it is not, though preparatory judgments with a view to His kingdom are there. But God thinks too of His saints on earth (where we must remember, the assembly is never now seen) before the scenes which follow, whether judgments on the Roman earth or the special workings of evil, to secure and seal them for that day.

William Kelly (1821-1906) graduated in classical honours at Trinity College, Dublin. He became a close associate of John N. Darby, and joined the Plymouth Brethren. He was the editor of Darby’s collected writings. In 1848, when the Brethren movement split,  Kelly sided with Darby’s Exclusive Brethren. But he later severed his connection with Darby.

Kelly was the author of a critical edition of the Revelation of John, published in 1860, in which he attempted to adapt the prophecies of Revelation to conform to his and Darby’s dispensationalism. On the sixth seal, he wrote: [2]

William Kelly

William Kelly

“And I beheld when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth its untimely figs, when it is shaken by a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (verses 12-14). The heavens are convulsed from one end to the other; the stars fall, &c., evidently, as it seems to me, in the vision only. “And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the chieftains, and the rich, and the mighty, and every bondman and free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and they say to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who is able to stand?” (verses 15-17.) Every class of men is in agitation through these impending judgments. It is not really the great day of the Lamb’s wrath, yet people think that it is. They fear that the last day is already come.

An idea has prevailed with many that this seal represents the epiphany of the Lord in judgment at the end of the age. This has disposed them to understand the description as a literal account of the heavenly and earthly changes which accompany that great event. But there is no solid foundation for such thoughts. In the first place, the seventh seal is not yet opened, so that the end it cannot be, even if one adopted the system which supposes the trumpets to be a rehearsal from another point of view. Again, not a word occurs alluding to the presence of the Lord. There is a great earthquake; but the appearing of Jesus is incomparably more serious than any possible commotion in the world. The difference is manifest, if we compare these verses with chap. xix. 11-21 of this book, and with 1 Thess. v.; 2 Thess. i.; Luke xvii. 24-37, &c. Not to speak of the sixth trumpet, under the seventh vial (which must surely be owned as at least not earlier than the sixth seal) there is an earthquake, of which the Holy Ghost speaks in still stronger terms. Yet we know that this is before the day of the Lord; for all admit that the vials are poured out before He comes as a thief. And a fortiori why not the sixth seal? Had these convulsions been given under the seventh seal, there might have seemed more tenable ground: as it is there is really none.

There is also this marked difference between our seal and the passages in Matthew xxiv., Mark xiii., and Luke xxi., with which some would connect it, that in the latter the Son of man is expressly said to be seen coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, in the former, as has been remarked, there is not a trace of it. It is represented under the seal, that all men in their terror say to the mountains and rocks, (is this literal, after they had been moved out of their places?) “Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who is able to stand?” But it is a revelation, not of that which God declares about the time or circumstances, but of men’s alarm and its effect on their consciences. To take what John saw in the vision as so many physical realities, to be then verified in the literal sun, moon, stars, and heaven, is, I think, an opinion adopted without due consideration. Would there, could there, be need for any to invoke the fall of the mountains and rocks, if the stars really fell unto the earth? Could men or the globe survive such a shock? Besides, it is plain that the description alludes at any rate to passages in the Old Testament, such as Isa. xiii., xxxiv.; Ezek. xxxii. 7, 8, and Joel ii. Now the last distinctly states that the signs therein predicted are before the great and terrible day of the Lord come, and the first had its accomplishment in the past fall of Babylon, though there be also types of a more solemn and universal catastrophe at the close.

All this is to my mind decisive that the sixth seal, according to its natural place in the prophecy, in no way means the great day of the Lord, but sets forth, first in figures and then in simple language, an overwhelming revolution which overthrows existing institutions and governmental order. The authorities, supreme, dependent, and subordinate, are broken up. The shock is universal. They think the last reckoning is come. Not the Lord, but their bad and affrighted consciences call it the day of His wrath. But when that day does come (as in chapter xix.), they are bold as lions. The very frequency of divine judgment acts upon the hard hearts of men; and so, though the trumpets have yet to blow, and the judgments become more and more intense, yet when the Lord comes in person, instead of calling on the mountains to cover them, they are found fighting against Himself. When their consciences were not so hardened, they were alarmed; but when the great day arrives, they are in open rebellion against Christ. What a thing is the heart of man! and what an infinite mercy which has brought us, not in the thought of His wrath—though the Lord grant that this may be used to awaken some souls—but by His grace to enjoy the peace He has made by the blood of His cross! He will have us also in the full fruition of our heavenly blessedness, when all these judgments are passing beneath us. To be above in the presence of Him who will then direct and at last execute all needful infliction—this is to be our portion. The Lord grant that we may walk in His grace now, not dragged down into the spirit of the world, nor standing for our own rights. Alas! if sinful CHRISTIANS SHOULD ASSERT THE RIGHTS OF CHRIST.


1. Darby, John N. John Darby’s Synopsis of the New Testament: Revelation

2. William Kelly. Lectures on the Book of Revelation (1871).

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