G. K. Beale
Some Christians have wondered whether or not COVID-19 is one of the signs that the end of world history and Christ’s final coming is about to occur. With worldwide impact, economic upheaval, church services disrupted, and sickness and death rampant, it could appear that God is unleashing his final judgments on an idolatrous world. But how are we as Christians to view this current pandemic in comparison to previous pandemics?
Revelation 6 and Ezekiel 14 are key passages that help us establish a context for judgments during the “church age” and the unfaithfulness of nations that provokes such a response from God. The purpose of this article is to establish an interpretive lens through these passages and to assert that what has been happening around us is a phenomenon that has occurred throughout world history, but which at the proper time can easily be escalated by God to be events that lead up to the very end of history.
Worldwide impact with devastating consequences is indeed a precursor to the end of the age, and we have witnessed over the past few months a plague that has spread throughout the entire world. COVID-19 has reached virtually every country on earth. The worldwide map of the “COVID-19 Coronavirus Tracker” (Henry Kaiser Foundation, kff.org, accessed August 5) shows the global spread, with especially heavy saturation in the United States, Brazil, India, and Russia. The number of total cases throughout the world is 18,540,110, with a total of 700,645 deaths. However, even more deadly was the Spanish flu of 1918, when fifty million died worldwide and 675,000 died in the United States. In the fourteenth century, the Black Death (the bubonic plague) killed roughly fifty to one hundred million people in Eurasia and North Africa. Even before that crisis, earlier in the fourteenth century, in northern Europe there was a severe famine, sometimes called “The Great Famine,” due to heavy rains that ruined crops and to wars that ravaged some of the lands, that resulted in millions of deaths.
Understanding the fourth of the “seven seals” in the book of Revelation (Rev. 6:1–8) provides us with the interpretive lens to evaluate the current “plague” and the other historical “plagues” noted above. To give the context, the first four seals will be listed here, but our focus in this article will be on the fourth seal and its significance.
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.” And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.
When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.”
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth. (Rev. 6:1–8 NASB 1995)
But, before understanding the application of Revelation 6 today, and especially the fourth seal, we need to put it into its context in the entire book of Revelation.
Revelation establishes that Christ has received all authority from the Father and taken up his rule over the kingdoms of the earth (Rev. 1:5; 2:26–27; 3:21; 5:1–14). Presently, Christ is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5), the one who has “conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21 ESV). He is the Lamb who takes a book and then sits beside God who is on his throne to rule (Rev. 5:1–14). As a result of his death and resurrection, Christ receives authority in the first century to begin to rule over his kingdom (see Rev. 5:5). Indeed, he has made believers to be part of this kingdom, which has also occurred in the recent past: “You … purchased for God with your blood some from every … people … and you have made them to be a kingdom … and they are reigning upon the earth” (5:9–10, my translation). So, the rule of Christ with his people (the church) has begun to take place directly after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.
What is the book that the Lamb received from God? Revelation 5:4 says “no one was found worthy to open the book, or to look into it.” God promised Adam that he would reign over the earth. Although Adam forfeited this promise, Christ, the last Adam, was to inherit it. A man had to open the book, since the promise was made to humanity. Yet all are sinners and stand under the judgment contained in the book. Nevertheless, Christ is found worthy because he suffered the final judgment as an innocent sacrificial victim on behalf of his people, whom he represented and consequently redeemed (5:9) through not only his death but also resurrection.
In this light, the Lamb’s “conquering” through death and resurrection meant that he was able “to open the book” by removing “its seven seals” (Rev. 5:5). Roman wills often had to be witnessed by seven witnesses and sealed with seven seals by the seven witnesses. Thus, the book is like a will indicating a covenantal promise of an inheritance, which the Lamb receives, yet he is, at the same time, the executor, putting the plan of the inheritance into effect.
The seals that John sees in Revelation 5 originally come mainly from the book of Daniel. The prophet Daniel was to “seal up the book” until the “end of time” (Dan. 12:4, 9; see also Dan. 8:26–27). Daniel could not understand the meaning of the visions, since they were not yet fulfilled. But the unsealing of the book by Christ symbolically means that Daniel’s visions about judgment and God’s kingdom have begun fulfillment, though they are not yet consummated as they will be at the final coming of Christ. The unsealing also means that with fulfillment comes a much greater understanding of the Old Testament prophecies than was possessed by prophets like Daniel.
Revelation 5:9–10 interprets Christ’s worthiness to receive the book as indicating his authority to redeem his people and establish them as kings and priests. The hymn of Revelation 5:12 interprets the Lamb’s reception of the “book” mentioned in vv. 9–10 more generally as his reception of “power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing,” thus showing that his receiving the book has given him sovereign, divine power.
When Christ successively “breaks” the first four “seals,” he is showing that the prophetic contents of the book are beginning fulfillment, especially its judgments. The first four seals show how Christ’s authority extends even over situations of suffering sent from the hand of God (as we will see) to purify the saints and punish unbelievers. Examples of such suffering have been alluded to in the letters of Revelation 2–3. Some Christians may have wondered if Christ really was sovereign over disastrous circumstances, such as Nero’s mass persecution on so cruel a scale following the fire of Rome in AD 64. Revelation 6:1–8 is intended to show that Christ rules over such an apparently chaotic world and that suffering does not occur indiscriminately or by chance. We ourselves wonder whether or not God is in control of such events as COVID-19. This section of Revelation reveals, in fact, that destructive events are brought about by Christ for both redemptive and judicial purposes. It is Christ sitting on his throne who controls all the trials and persecutions of the church from the time of his first coming until his return on the last day. God is in control of such events as COVID-19.
The opening of the seals coincides with Christ’s taking up his position at the right hand of God, which occurred in the first century AD, so that the events depicted in the seals will begin to take place immediately and continue until the Lord’s return. The opening of the seals begins the actual revelation and execution of the contents of the scroll of Revelation 5. This makes sense of the exhortations in the seven letters to persevere in the face of suffering, for the suffering unleashed by the seals had already begun to take place even in the life of the seven churches to which John was writing. Christ opens each seal in the heavenly throne room and issues the command for the contents of each to be executed on the earth.
The disasters that unfold are the same foreseen in the four judgments prophesied by Ezekiel in Ezekiel 14:12–21 (sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague) and the judgments prophesied by Jesus in Matt. 24:6–28 (war, famine, and persecution). In those cases, the calamities occur side by side, thus suggesting that the various disasters contained in the four seals also can occur at the same time rather than in any particular order. In addition, the glorified saints in Revelation 6:9–11 (who have died throughout the church age) appear to have suffered under all four trials portrayed in the seals, which points to their having taken place during the same general time period of the church age (see vv. 9–11). Therefore, following on from chapter 5, Revelation 6:1–8 describes the operation of the destructive forces which were unleashed immediately upon the world as a result of Christ’s victorious suffering at the cross, his resurrection, and his ascent to a position of rule at his Father’s right hand.
In particular, the deception of the first seal, the wars of the second seal, the famine of the third seal, and death and plague of the fourth seal have begun to be unleashed throughout the church age. The last rider to be released has the name “Death,” with “Hades … following with him” (6:8). Death and Hades are satanic forces under the ultimate governance of the throne room of God (note also Rev. 1:18, where Christ has control over “death and of Hades”). The fourth horseman probably is a summary of the previous three seal judgments but also himself unleashes the new trial of “plague.” He uses the preceding three woes to bring death. But it is clear that they do not always result in death (see, for instance, the third horseman who brings famine). Uppermost in mind are the antagonistic actions of Satan’s forces. The Greek word is literally “death,” which probably underscores that “plague” brings “death,” since in the Greek Old Testament “death” (thanatos) translates the Hebrew word for “plague” thirty times, including twice in Ezekiel 14:19–21, which is quoted in the second half of Revelation 6:8. Indeed, Ezekiel 14:12–23 provides part of the model not only for the fourth seal but for all of Revelation 6:1–8. Ezekiel 14:21, “I will send my four evil judgments against Jerusalem: sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague to cut off man” (my translation) is quoted in the second part of Revelation 6:8, as a part of the fourth seal: “Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
The disaster wrought by the fourth horseman is explicitly limited to a “fourth of the earth.” This means that the four woes do not harm every person without exception. Nevertheless, their destructive force is felt by people throughout the world. The four horsemen in Zechariah 1 and especially 6 form the model for the four horsemen portrayed in the first four seals of Revelation 6. The horsemen in Zechariah 6 have a worldwide effect, which is why the horsemen of Revelation 6 likewise should be understood to have a worldwide effect, though they do not affect every single person on the earth. The cosmic extent of the tribulations is emphasized by the fact that there are four horsemen, a figurative number for universality (as with the four living creatures in Rev. 4:6–8 and “the four winds of the earth” in 7:1–3). Therefore, just as the four living creatures represent the praise of the redeemed throughout the entire creation, so the plagues of the four horsemen are symbolic of the suffering of many throughout the earth, which will continue until the final return of Christ. That the horsemen’s plagues are representative of all kinds of woes is clear from observing that the fourfold Old Testament covenant curse formula cited in the second half of Revelation 6:8 (“to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth”) is used in the same figurative manner in the Old Testament. In addition to the fact that the figurative meaning of “four” stands for completeness, Israel was threatened with many more curses than four in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. This is why no single historical background can exhaust the meaning of these judgments in Revelation 6.
The fourth seal must be understood in light of Ezekiel 14:21, since it is one of the few Old Testament quotations in Revelation (most references to the Old Testament in Revelation are allusions). The context of Ezekiel 14:13–23 is crucial in understanding v. 21. In Ezekiel 14:13–14, God says that if any “country sins against me by committing unfaithfulness … I [will] stretch out my hand against it … [and] send famine … even though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves.” This same scenario is repeated three more times but “wild beasts,” “sword,” and “plague” is substituted respectively for “famine” (14:15–20). Thus, in God’s common grace realm or realm of general revelation, he punished “unfaithfulness” with these four plagues, sometimes simultaneously and perhaps sometimes not. Then, God says with respect to Israel, the community of his special revelation, “how much more when I send My four evil judgments against Jerusalem: sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague to cut off man and beast from it!” (Ezek. 14:21, my translation).
In other words, when Israel commits “sins” of “unfaithfulness,” they will undergo even more intense judgment than the nations experience for such sins. Probably, the principle is that those who reject special revelation will experience a greater degree of judgment than those outside the covenant community who have no exposure to such revelation.
One major takeaway from Ezekiel 14 is that these punishments on unbelieving “countries” in the common grace realm were apparently a reality in Old Testament times. Does God’s punishment of countries for unfaithfulness carry over to today? There is no reason to think that such punishments would cease in the era following Christ’s coming. Three things do cease: Israel as a theocratic nation, the laws pertaining to the temple, and Israel’s land. Instead, Jesus and the church become the continuation of true Israel, the temple, and land (the latter in the sense that the promises about inheritance in the land become tied in to Jesus as the beginning of the new creation and to those identified with Jesus).
So, even without considering how John uses Ezekiel 14:21 in Revelation 6:8, the reality that God punishes nations for excessive “unfaithfulness” continues. This “unfaithfulness” can be any excessive sin. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated above as “unfaithfulness” was especially associated with the sin of idolatry. Romans 1 says that God punishes people because of the sin of excessive idol worship, both in the Old Testament epoch and in the New Testament epoch. This punishment was expressed in God giving people “over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (e.g., unnatural sexual relations, “wickedness, greed … envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice … insolent, arrogant” [Rom. 1:28–32]).
Ezekiel 14 highlights the punishments of “sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague.” These four punishments can happen simultaneously or separately. The “plague” of COVID-19, I believe, is a manifestation of God’s punishment on many nations of the earth. It comes because the leaders of nations and many of the people in those nations have turned their back on God and substituted him with some other object of trust (economic, political, etc.), that is, they have committed acts of “unfaithfulness.” It comes also because nations have perverted God’s moral standards. God does not always punish nations in this way because of his mysterious grace, but even then they deserve to be so treated. We can also say, ultimately, such disaster is a judgmental ramification of a fallen world, stemming from the first Adam’s sin.
But is the “plague” of COVID-19 only a divine punishment? John’s quotation of Ezekiel 14:21 in Revelation 6:8 further indicates that the “plague” has another and entirely different purpose.
Ezekiel 14:22–23 expresses this different purpose:
“Yet, behold, survivors will be left in it who will be brought out, both sons and daughters. Behold, they are going to come forth to you and you will see their conduct and actions; then you will be comforted for the calamity which I have brought against Jerusalem for everything which I have brought upon it. Then they will comfort you when you see their conduct and actions, for you will know that I have not done in vain whatever I did to it,” declares the Lord GOD.
While God uses the four judgments to judge unbelievers both among the nations and, especially, in Israel, he uses the same trial to refine the faith of a remnant of true believers.
Recall that Ezekiel 14:21, “I [will] send my four evil judgments against Jerusalem: sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague to cut off man” (my translation), equals the second part of Revelation 6:8, “Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
Civil wars (the second horseman) and famines (the third horseman) affect people throughout the nations suffering from them, both unbelievers and believers. Likewise, “plagues” (pandemics) strike a multitude of people in the nations affected. For unbelievers, the “plague” is punishment, further hardening them against God. For believers, the “plague” is a trial refining the faith of God’s true, remnant people by causing them to turn to him for help to endure the trial. Yes, COVID-19 is a judgment on nations, but it is also an instrument to refine the faith of God’s people living in those nations.
There is a third group of people. They are unbelievers who are moved to ask to be delivered from the hardening effect of the virus and turn to God and become those whose true faith begins to be refined by the trial.
While it is true that the trials of the four horsemen affect both unbelievers and believers among nations, John’s focus is more on the covenant community, as was Ezekiel’s (recall Ezekiel 14:21, “how much more when I send my four evil judgments against Jerusalem” [my translation] where vv. 21–23 is the main point of vv. 13–23). This means that John views the covenant community to be a visible one composed of confessing believers, some of whom are truly Christians and some of whom are only “confessors” and not true believers. While all suffer the same “plague” physically, the latter suffer the hardening aspect of the judgment, while the former have their faith refined and strengthened by the trial.
So far I have discussed Revelation’s first four “seals” as large-scale trials that affect many people on earth, such as COVID-19. But how are we to think of smaller-scale, though significant trials, such as the suffering and death caused by airplane crashes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanos, 9/11, and so on? Scripture elsewhere teaches that “all things,” global pandemics, smaller-scale disasters, and even individual suffering, “work together for good, for those who are called according to his [God’s] purpose” (Rom. 8:28 ESV). This would include trials refining the faith of believers, as the “seal” trials were seen to do.
The life of Joseph is a good Old Testament example of an individual’s personal trial. He was sold into slavery by his brothers and then wrongly imprisoned by his Egyptian master. After God blesses and exalts him, he says to his brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Furthermore, Psalm 105:18–19 says about Joseph, “they afflicted him with fetters; he himself was laid in irons, until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the Lord refined him” (my translation). And, on the other hand, such smaller catastrophes serve to harden unbelievers and pseudo-believers in the covenant community.
The first four seals portray the beginning fulfillment of the end-time trials that were prophesied in the Old Testament—remember that unsealing is setting in motion the prophecies of Daniel. However, the first four seals are not the culmination of the final trials leading up to Christ’s final coming. But, when we begin to see a greater spread, intensification and escalation over time of the wars, famines, and plagues of the seals, then we can begin to expect that the very final end is upon us.
Perhaps an example of considering the expectation of the Antichrist may be helpful. 1 John 2:18 says, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour.” The reference to “even now many antichrists have arisen” shows that John believed that Old Testament end-time prophecy about the Antichrist had begun to be fulfilled, and would be fulfilled throughout the church age. But John also says that the final incarnate “Antichrist is coming” at the very end of the age. The “many antichrists” that “have arisen” refer to the false teachers in the church community to which John is writing. They are called “antichrists” because they are inspired by “the spirit of the Antichrist,” who will finally come (1 John 4:3). Throughout the age whenever an antichrist figure has arisen, some of these figures have become so like the final incarnate Antichrist that believers have thought that this was the final Antichrist and that Christ’s coming would, therefore, occur soon. However, these antichrist figures did not turn out to be the final fulfillment of the prophecy of Antichrist. But there will come an antichrist figure who is like the rest, but then, suddenly, he will intensify and escalate to become “The Final Antichrist.” The complete fulfillment of the Antichrist prophecy from the Old Testament will occur so quickly that believers probably will not have much time to contemplate whether or not it is this figure that is really the final fulfillment, though they will realize it as the fulfillment is completed, as quick as that may be.
A good comparison of what trials leading up to the very end of history will be like is birth pangs. A pregnant woman may feel “false” labor pains several months before she actually gives birth. While the false pains can be uncomfortable, they can also be confusing. Because they can be accompanied by a significant degree of pain (I am told), the mother might think she is in labor. However, these false labor pains go away. Once actual labor pains leading to birth start, it is different. It is pain that does not go away. The pain intensifies until the baby is born.
This is the way it will be with the trials of the four seals. They are like the early labor pains, but they will intensify, spread, and get worse over time, to the point that some will think the final end of the world and Christ’s final coming must be around the corner. However the trials will once again decrease until they start again and intensify and spread and finally, indeed suddenly, reach a peak, at which point the end of the world and final coming of Christ occurs.
What should be the mission of the church during a pandemic like COVID-19? The answer lies in Revelation 6:9, which directly follows the fourth seal: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (ESV). As elsewhere in Revelation, a following vision (as in Rev. 6:9) interprets part of a preceding declaration (as in Rev. 6:1–8, though part of it is also a vision). Whereas the first four seals depict the world’s sufferings from the perspective of the heavenly decree of God, the fifth seal describes the response of deceased and glorified saints to these sufferings. These saints in Revelation 6:9 had suffered through the first four seals and had died due to persecution in the midst of the plagues or due to the plagues themselves (brought on by the satanic agents of the demonic horsemen). Their activity leading up to their death was “witnessing” to Christ.
In dire times, people are looking for answers, and the best answer is to entrust oneself into Christ’s hands and begin to trust that suffering is used by him to “refine” one’s faith. We in the church should be ready to give this message to a dying world, and we should be prepared to give our witness in the midst of suffering, even suffering leading to our death.
 The Hebrew word mā‘al in Ezek. 14:13 is usually translated as “to commit unfaithfulness” and is used elsewhere to refer to the sin of idolatry: see the verb form in 1 Chron. 5:25; 2 Chron. 28:19, 22; 36:14; Ezra 10:2, 10 (in light of Ezra 9); both verb and noun form are used in Ezek. 18:24 (cf. 18:14) and Ezek. 20:27; see the noun form in Ezra 9:4; 10:6 (in light of Ezra 9).
 Most commentators see the remnant not to be a believing remnant, except for Cooper, Ezekiel (1994, p. 165); I also see the remnant to be a faithful group, though will not attempt to prove that further here.
 It is possible that only literal martyrs are in mind, but more likely those who are “slain” are metaphorical and represent the broader category of all saints who have suffered through the trials for the sake of their faith and died (so Rev. 13:15–18 and perhaps 18:24; 20:4).
The author is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and J. Gresham Machen Chair and research professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. He quotes from the NASB 1977, except where noted. New Horizons, September 2020.