For this is what the sovereign LORD says: How much worse will it be when I send my four terrible judgments–sword, famine, wild animals, and plague–to Jerusalem to kill both people and animals! (Ezek 14:21 NET)
Yesterday, on Jimmy DeYoung’s radio show, Prophecy Today, he had pretribulationist Renald Showers on his show for about five minutes to try to refute the prewrath position. One argument that he used was citing Ezekiel 14:21.
Prewrath affirms that the day of the Lord’s wrath does not begin until the seventh seal is opened. And the rapture will occur between the sixth and seventh seal (see Revelation 7). The first six seals are not God’s wrath but instead are conditional precursors that will occur before the contents of the scroll of God’s wrath are poured out.
However, Showers cites Ezekiel 14:21 to try to prove that at least the first four seals in Revelation are God’s wrath and therefore he thinks the rapture will occur before the seals.
Citing a passage is easy. Demonstrating its context and how it properly applies to another situation is a whole other matter—a more difficult matter. I will give a meaningful exposition and situate this verse in the context of the nature of biblical judgment and suffering, relating it to the seals in the book of Revelation:
God’s Purposes for the Suffering Church
God’s authorization to malevolent horsemen to inflict suffering upon his own people is sometimes difficult for many believers to understand given God’s love. But his love can be maintained if we understand that God has an ultimate purpose behind it. Certainly, God’s authorization of suffering upon his people will not be new during the great tribulation (the five seals).
Joseph experienced unspeakable injustice and suffering, yet he recognized that God caused this suffering in his life for his all-wise and good purpose: “As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day” (Gen 50:20).
And how did the redemption of all of God’s people come about? It came about through the most intense and unjust suffering that anyone could ever experience: the crucifixion of the Son of God. Yet we are informed explicitly that this was ordained by the will of God (Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27–28).
We may never know at the time why God brings suffering and trials into our life. But during these trials, we are called to trust God’s all-wise, all-good, and all-loving purposes. Job recognized God’s sovereign purposes in the sufferings in his own life when he says to God in creaturely humility: “Indeed, I am completely unworthy—how could I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth to silence myself” (Job 40:4).
The first four seals—especially the fourth seal—will purify the remnant’s faith. Blessings of freedom and comfort can easily breed complacency and external religiosity, as Israel in the Old Testament frequently testifies. Indeed, Christians are under no condemnation from God since they are forgiven and justified. But this does not mean that God will not test and refine believers with suffering. And it is God’s prerogative—and his loving chastisement!—to purify his people before his return (1 Thess 3:13; 5:23; 1 Cor 1:8; Phil 1:10; Eph 5:27). This will not be a time to fear, but to faithfully stand firm for the opportunity to bring glory to God in suffering (1 Peter 4:12–19).
Similarly, God brought comparable judgments upon Jerusalem: “For this is what the sovereign LORD says: How much worse will it be when I send my four terrible judgments—sword, famine, wild animals, and plague—to Jerusalem to kill both people and animals!” (Ezek 14:21). These judgments had an aim of purifying his people from their apostate condition and bringing them to repentance (see Ezek 14:22–23). And these trials will not be anything new for the church, since the church has experienced wars, famines, pestilence, and martyrdom since its inception. God will have his good purposes in these times, which will be to draw his faithful to himself. When these cluster of woes are compared to Jesus’ teaching, he states that only after these events happen “then the end will come” (Matt 24:4–8). And since the church is present on the earth up to the end of the age, the eschatological wrath will begin when the church is purified and thus removed.
*Greg Beale is a historicist and not a futurist, nevertheless he has some helpful comments on this verse. He comments that if the beasts in Revelation 6:8 have parallels in the Old Testament such as in Ezekiel 14:21 and the covenantal cursings (Lev 26; Deut 32), it is noteworthy that there is frequent interpretation in Jewish writings identifying the horsemen and beasts with evil kings and kingdoms. He concludes, “This Jewish identification of the horsemen and ‘beasts’ with the four kingdoms of Daniel 7 is striking, since the two ‘beasts’ of the Apocalypse are also identified throughout the book with the same four kingdoms of Daniel 7, especially the fourth kingdom…” p 387.
Beale also observes, “The Ezekiel passage itself is further developing the idea of four judgments from Lev. 26:18–28, which may also be secondarily in John’s mind. The Leviticus text also concerns woes that God will send on the Israelites if they commit idolatry. Four times it is repeated that God will judge them “seven times” if they become unfaithful. Each sevenfold figurative expression introduces a successively worse ordeal that is conditioned on Israel’s failure to repent after the preceding woe (drought and crop failure in 26:19–20, “wild beasts of the earth” in v 22, “sword…death…famine of bread” in vv 25–26, and desolation and “sword” in vv 29–33). The promise interwoven in these warnings is that if Israel does repent of idolatry (cf. 26:1, 30–31), God will bless Israel again (cf. likewise Deut. 32:24–25). Thus, these are warning judgments inducing repentance and so renewing faith and only permanently punishing apostate Israelites” (page 373).
**Some interpreters have maintained that the first four seals are God’s eschatological day of the Lord because they point to the previous verse Ezekiel 14:19, which says, “Or if I should send a plague against that country and pour out My wrath in blood on it to cut off man and beast from it.” (Ezek 14:19 NASB). And according to their reasoning since the seals are similar to these judgments, they must be God’s wrath. This interpretation is problematic for a couple of reasons. The context of this Ezekiel passage is not the eschatological day of the Lord. Further, the Hebrew term for “wrath” in Ezekiel 14:19 is ḥēmâ. It can refer to different degrees of anger, and often against God’s own people. The Theological Workbook of the Old Testament states: “[T]he term is used, as a rule, to convey the concept of an inner, emotional heat which rises and is fanned to varying degrees. The context usually gives a clue as to which translation should be preferred, whether anger, hot displeasure, indignation, wrath, rage or fury…In various places where [ḥēmâ] appears it refers to God’s reaction to his unfaithful covenant people (Deut 9:19; Jer 42:18). God is aroused to great heat because he, as a jealous God, sees the people he loves disobey him and appeal to, or consort with, sinners or ‘no gods.’ He then expresses his rage or pours out his fury (Ezek 36:6).” This is why the New English Translation renders the term better as “rage” by bringing out the emotional aspect, rather than wrongly conveying an exclusive condemnatory sense in the term “wrath”: “Or suppose I were to send a plague into that land, and pour out my rage on it with bloodshed, killing both people and animals.” (Ezek 14:19 NET). And since this word can have the idea of discipline and not require the notion of condemnation, coupled with Ezekiel 14:19 explicitly speaking of God’s covenant people, it is incorrect to read God’s eschatological wrath into the first four seals. For a Hebrew term that actually does explicitly speak of the eschatological day of the Lord’s wrath that would be ‘ebrâ which means: “the fierceness of God’s wrath (Ps 78:49) expressed in an overwhelming and complete demonstration (Isa 13:9). God’s wrath burns, overflows, sweeps away everything before it (Ezek 22:21, 31). Thus on the day of the Lord’s ‘ebrâ nothing stands before it. When the day of judgment is spoken of, the reference is to God’s wrath overflowing, burning, consuming all that has displeased or opposed him”(Theological Workbook of the Old Testament).