“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11)
“And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of 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. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said 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 shall be able to stand?” (Rev. 6:12-17).
When the sixth seal is opened, we are dealing a dark apocalypse. It would be easy to place these events at the end of the world—since only the end of the world, we think, would have enough room for a disaster this size. But we tend to think this way because we do not let the Scriptures instruct us how disaster symbolism works.
First there is a great earthquake, which in Scripture is a regular way to indicate a divine visitation. For this, see Ex. 19:18, Is. 2:19, or Hag. 2:6. The language that follows is “decreation” language, language of destruction. This collapsing solar system imagery is common in Scripture, and always refers to the annihilation of a nation or city/state. Isaiah speaks this way of Babylon (Is. 13:1-10). Later Isaiah speaks of the destruction of Edom in the same way (Is. 34:4). Ezekiel speaks of Egypt’s fall with these terms (Eze. 32:7-8). Joel prophesies the end of Israel in the first century with this language (Joel 2:28-32). Amos does the same thing concerning the northern kingdom of Israel (Amos 8:9). And to top it off, the Lord Jesus quotes the passages from Isaiah in order to answer the questions about what was going to happen to Jerusalem (Matt. 24:29, 34).
In addition, John here uses Isaiah’s picture of stars falling like figs and of the heavens being rolled up like a scroll (Is. 34:4). And Christ Himself predicted that refugees from the fighting in Jerusalem would in fact seek refuge in caves and under rocks (Luke 23:28-31), and He was drawing on Hos. 10:8, Is. 2:10, 19, and 21 when He did this. Incidentally, Josephus tells us that this is exactly what happened (Wars 6.7.3).
The earthquake represents a revolution in government, an overthrow. The sun, moon, and stars represent the various dignitaries of the governmental firmament. Seven aspects of the created order are mentioned—earth, sun, moon, stars, sky, mountains, and islands. In addition, seven different kinds of men are mentioned—kings, great men, rich men, chief captains, mighty men, slaves, and free men. In short, the revolution accomplished here is total, and encompasses everyone.
This context helps to answer the objection that his kind of “cosmic destruction” language is kind of overdone if we are merely talking about the destruction of just one city. There are two answers to this. One is that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was horrific on its own terms, even if we were simply talking about it as a stand-alone event. “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21). But the second thing to note is that Jerusalem is where God had set His name to dwell. These were the chosen people, this was the chosen city, this mountain was the chosen mountain. And in response to the prayer of the apostles, this mountain was plucked up and thrown into the sea (Matt. 21:21). It was the close of an aeon. The world was utterly transformed as a result. The transformation was so total, so complete, so massive, we can’t even see it.