Let the Word Speak!

Vision 1: The Seven Seals

The scene (4:1 – 4:8)

1 After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

The Greek text makes clear that this door is open and will remain open. Notice the reference to future (”hereafter”) compared to the present in the seven letters, and the certainty that God’s Will will be carried out (”must be”).

2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.
3 And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

The first image that registers to John is the throne in heaven, and the One seated on the throne, surrounded by an amazing rainbow. The significance of a throne is power (see Isaiah 6:1-4), balanced with God’s mercy, as with His promise to Noah symbolized by the rainbow.

The image of God is described as jasper and sardine (also translated “carnelian”), and the rainbow described as like an emerald. The valuable clear jasper in the first century was prized for how it sparkled, and the red carnelian was said to look like it held fire (also see Ezekiel 1:26-28’s mention of jewels). The jewels’ colors amplify the message: the purity of the clear jasper, the fire red of the carnelian for judgement, and the green emerald for soothing, comforting mercy. The word specifically used for “rainbow” was an outdated term for the first century, but it was the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in Ezekiel 1:28 to describe God’s presence.

The text clearly avoids using a name for God, which is an expression of honor just like the Israelites’ refusal to say the name “YHWH.” Similarly, John doesn’t describe the form of God, first because no words would be adequate, and second to honor the Creator. The passage describes God as clothed in light, indescribable and beyond our ability to comprehend, similar to descriptions given in Psalm 104:2 and 1 Timothy 6:16.

4 And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.

This is the only use of the number “24” in the book of Revelation; this number did not normally have symbolic significance in the first century. I agree with those interpreting the 24 elders as the combination of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, therefore representing all believers of both covenants, because this also matches a combining references to the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles in the final vision of heaven. Another interpretation is that the elders are a high class of angels, as in the heavenly elders mentioned in Isaiah 24:23. Another context for these “24 elders” is the division of labor of those that served in the Israelite Temple. Both the priests and the Levites were divided into 24 “courses,” or shifts, each assigned for one period of Temple service followed by 23 courses to take care of their normal business ( 1 Chronicles 24:7-18 and 25:6-31). The word for crown is stephanos, the victor’s wreath, rather than diadema for a ruler’s crown.

5 And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices:…

The thunderstorm is a familiar symbol in Hebrew poetry of the Divine power, as in Job 37:2-5 and in God’s appearance to the Hebrew nation on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:16.

…and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.

The word for “torch” is quite different from the word describing the seven lampstands in Revelation 1:12; the significance of these torches is for the Holy Spirit, not the churches.

6 And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: …

The crystal sea is similar to Exodus 24:10, where God stood on a pavement of sapphire before Moses, Aaron, and the Israelite elders. Clear glass was very expensive, owned only by the richest and most powerful, such as an expanse of clear glass that King Solomon had leading up to his throne.

There is a more ominous interpretation on the image of this sea than that of riches and beauty, in part because seas were seen as dangerous in the first century, and frequently represented evil. John portrays this sea as separating him from heaven, reminiscent of the Red Sea that Moses and the Israelites encountered fleeing from the Egyptians. Later in Revelation, the Beast will rise up out of an earthly sea. At the end of Revelation, the New Heaven no longer has this crystal sea. It’s hard for us to tell how the early Christians would have interpreted this image.

… and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.
7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf (better translated “ox), and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.
8 And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: …

Around the throne are four living creatures, described similarly to the four creatures in Ezekiel chapter 1. The term “living creatures” we read in Revelation was translated in Ezekiel as “cherubim” — it certainly does not refer to a “beast.” The four forms represented what was considered to be the noblest (lion), strongest (ox), wisest (man), and swiftest (eagle) of all creations, so God is praised by the totality of His creation. The purpose of these living creatures in Revelation is to lead the choirs of heaven and all the earth in singing praise to God.

Each of the four creature has wings, not just the eagle. The imagery of wings can represent a nearness to God, and can also represent a promise of the incredible ways that God can lift us up so far beyond ourselves. One of the most beautiful pictures of this uplifting comes in Isaiah 40. The chapter starts with a messianic prophesy “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” in the context of comforting and caring for God’s people. The description of the comfort and care leads appropriately to the incredible power of God, as in verse 12: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and marked off the heavens with a span?” But it is this God, praised for being all powerful, who promises in verse 31 that “those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

If we read the descriptions of the living creatures and are reminded that God promises to give us wings, I am convinced we are thinking in the way that the first Century Christians thought. In our era where most people can read and where television and radio constantly bombard us, we don’t have a reason to “ponder” the scriptures like the first Century Jews and Christians did! They “thirsted” for stories, thoughts, and ideas, things they could memorize and carry with them — they couldn’t keep the book on their shelves, and they couldn’t flip the channels for “stimulation.” Part of what drives me to dig deep is that most Christians of that age would have instantly understood references and parallels in Exodus, and Psalms, and Zechariah, and Isaiah, and I want to as well.

It makes me sad that I don’t know the scriptures as well as the Christians living in incredible poverty and persecution in Smyrna did. Every new “technology” has a cost as well as a benefit — television cost us the imagination and creativity of radio theater, radio cost us the participative entertainment of family and neighborhood musical groups, and the printing press cost us the skill of quick memorization of voluminous materials. Years from now, I believe we will “discover” that the computer’s ability to manipulate massive sets of facts have cost business leaders the ability to apply good judgement… But now I’m way off track!

The response (4:8 – 4:11)

… and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
9 And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever,
10 The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

Everything that is in heaven worships God continually! The praise recorded is the same powerful theme used in Revelation 1:4. Every act of these living creatures was an expression of adoration to God. That the elders cast down their crowns shows that their victory is from God. The phrase “our Lord and God” spoken by the elders used the exact Greek words (kurios kai theos) that Emperor Domitian chose for his official title, so this wording was an open act of rebellion against Rome. However, the point of emperor worship wasn’t passion or praise, but power and obedience, so the censors must not have cared. The Greek phrase “the glory, the honor, the power” indicates the totality of all glory, honor, and power belongs to God.

The problem (5:1 – 5:4)

1 And I saw in the (open palm of the) right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

There is so much to God’s Plan, written before the beginning of time (see Psalm 139:16), that there was writing on every available surface, not as was normally done just on the inside. There are references to a scroll in Isaiah 29:11-12 sealed because the people couldn’t receive it, and a scroll covered front and back with “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” in Ezekiel 2:9-10. There is also the expectation of the end inherent in a sealed message from Daniel 12:9. The seven seals, indicating the completeness of God’s purpose, were marked with God’s own signet-ring to authenticate that this was from God. In Roman law, a rich person’s Last Will and Testament was sealed with seven seals of the seven witnesses. This and references in the Old Testament and in apocryphal literature indicate that this scroll told of God’s plan for the completion and final settlement of His affairs with His creation.

2 And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?
3 And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.
4 And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.

The Greek word for “worthy” indicates that the appropriate rank and character was required of the person, not merely ability, and it was a high and pure character required to be worthy of receiving the mysteries of God’s complete plan.

John’s tears expressed both frustration and humiliation that none of God’s creation was worthy of His plan. In typical human fashion, he was impatient and premature in his weeping, based on human knowledge, leaving out faith that the God of All would provide the answer to this problem.

The resolution (5:5 – 5:14)

5 And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.

The solution to who can open the scrolls goes as far back as Genesis 49:8-12, where in the blessing of Jacob on Judah and his descendants, Judah is called a lion, and the scepter was not to depart from Judah. Jesus fulfills this blessing as the greatest person of the tribe of Judah and the King of Kings. The Root of David refers to Isaiah 11:1-10, prophesying of the Messiah. These titles for Jesus span the history of the Jewish faith.

6 And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

But instead of a lion, John sees a lamb. This Lamb is now alive, but it had been cut so much that the Greek verb says it had been thoroghly slaughtered. The listeners would have understood these to be the cuts made by a priest offering the Lamb as a sacrifice. The Greek wording does not imply that the lamb was unfortunate enough to be sacrificed, although now is blessed. Instead, the Greek makes it clear that through the sacrifice, the Lamb was victorious and is worthy of power. The completeness of the Lamb’s power is symbolized by the seven horns. The seven eyes indicate omniscience, as in Zechariah 4:10, and are explained in the text to be the Holy Spirit.

Throughout the scriptures, there are four different Hebrew words and three different Greek words that are translated into the English word “lamb.” The word used all 29 times in Revelation is arnion, but when John the Baptist points out the Lamb of God in John 1:29, and when Peter writes of a “lamb without blemish” in 1 Peter 1:19, the word used is amnos, a more common word for “lamb.” The distinction of arnion was of weakness and young age, a “lambkin.” The equivalent Hebrew word, that of a lamb just old enough to start being playful, was used in Exodus to describe the pure sacrifice required by God, and was used in Jeremiah 11:19, foretelling of the Messiah as one who was “a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” The point is that nothing in this wording describes power or might; everything describes purity, helplessness, and sacrifice.

The reference to a sacrificed Messiah was common in the prophets, as written in Isaiah 53:5, ”he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” Still the Jews of the first century refused to consider a Messiah that wasn’t sent to restore their nation to self-rule. Their distortion of these prophesies was so severe that the Macabees of Israel, who overthrew a tyrant in 200 B.C., were described as “horned lambs of war,” a bizarre visual image and an absurd theological image.

7 And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.

The Greek verb used here for “took” emphasizes action — there was no hesitation or doubt. In acting that decisively, the Lamb is shown as the one to carry out the plan of God.

8 And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours [bowls of incense], which are the prayers of saints. 9 And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; 10 And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.

The new song is for new mercies, as in Psalm 40:1-3, in this case praise to Christ for redemption, where the “old song” is praise to God for creation. The word used consistently for “new” in Revelation is not the Greek neos, meaning “young,” butkainos, meaning better than anything before it, “fresh.” This is the same word used in 2 Corinthians 5:17, when Paul writes that in Christ we are a new creation. The bowls of incense that are the prayers of the saints unify the worship of God in heaven with worship on earth. The four-fold listing of humanity emphasizes by numerology as well as words that the entire world is covered by this ransom.

11 And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; 12 Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.

The surrounding circle of angels join in the song of the elders and living beings, singing a seven-fold (= complete, perfect) praise. Notice that the elders sing in second person to the Lamb, while the angels sing in third person about the Lamb, and sing in antiphonal response emphasizing the praise of the Redeemed, so as not to compete with it. In the Greek, these angels were numbered to be “ten thousand times ten thousand,” which is properly translated as “thousands of thousands,” but really means innumerable.

13 And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. 14 And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.

No created thing is left out of this largest circle of praise. Compare this account to Romans 8:19-23, in which Paul discusses the mystical way in which all creation was affected by man’s fall. In Revelation, all creation rejoices in the wholeness reinstated by the Lamb. Note the exact sameness of the praise for the Lamb and the Creator. In this scene of three waves of music and praise is demonstrated the perfect calling and purpose for creation, that of praising God for eternity.

The parallels between the chapter 4 events dealing with the Creator and the chapter 5 events with the Lamb are intentional. In both accounts, the scene describes the glory of the Creator and Lamb, a first hymn of praise, a narrative to continue the scene, and a second hymn. In this parallel structure, the oneness of the Son with the Father is emphasized, along with the consistent and continual presence of the Holy Spirit.

Interpretations

Several times chapter 5 references those “under the earth.” Many commentators consider the phrase “heaven, earth, under the earth” to echo an old Hebrew phrase for the totality of creation. Other commentators identify “under the earth” as a reference common at that time to Hades, the holding place for the dead awaiting what would come next. In modern times, we often equate Hades with Hell, but there was no punishment in Hades. The existence of Hades, the “waiting room” for the dead, might be inferred by these references to the angel calling “under the earth” for one worthy to open the scroll, and later the praise coming from “under the earth.” Similarly, images of the Rapture have those dead in Christ rising up to meet Him in the air.

There are other scriptures that dispute this idea of a “waiting room,” with the most notable being the words of Christ on the cross to the repentant criminal, when He promised that “today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

To me, these apparently contradictory images result from imposing our human limitations in time on God’s activities. God is praised in Psalm 90:4, saying ”a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” We are living out what God has already seen from the beginning to the end of time, and when we will be brought into His presence, I believe we will also break free of the limits of time.

Applicability for today

God is in charge – there is nothing that we will face that can compare to God’s power and glory, and there are no extremes that the Lamb will not do to take care of His people.

Victory comes not through strength and power, but through complete submission and sacrifice, even for God’s Son. We must live our lives focused on how we can better submit ourselves to God’s will, not in pursuing through our strength what we desire.

Our most complete obedience to God is our praise to Him, as part of the community of faith and of all creation. As we draw closer to God, our awe in His unimaginable “glory and honor and power” must be fulfilled by our praise of the One who created all things and communes individually and personally with each of us!

We are destined to be blessed in ways far beyond anything that we deserve or that we can earn. We will be crowned and seated with the Triune God!

The four horsemen (6:1 – 6:8)

The four horses have an obvious and significant parallel in Zechariah 1:7-17 and 6:1-8. In these passages, Zechariah is given a message of hope and restoration to the people of Judah who are in captivity in Babylon under King Darius. Other parts in the first two chapters of Zechariah that will show up again in Revelation are horns, measuring of the temple, and mighty winds.

The opening of the seals, and the four horsemen that follow with their plagues on the earth, are presented as how God’s final plan for earth begins. We are bothered when we think that God would cause war, famine, and death to work out his plan, so we need to look carefully at these images to understand the message. Each of the four horsemen are announced by one of the four living creatures, who themselves represent all of creation. By this device, we can interpret that the horsemen are part of the earth, not part of heaven, so their plagues are the outcome of what the world is doing to itself. God is specifically enabling the horsemen, giving them crowns and authorities, but this is better seen as God removing his restraining protection at this specific time, allowing human nature to take its course – in one more attempt to encourage non-believers to follow God!

Part of our confusion is that our perspective is of the earth, rather than of heaven. We would rather explain away the part of God that uses human suffering to further his plan, just as we talk around God’s commands to Joshua to destroy the inhabitants and the herds of the Canaanites to establish the nation of Israel. We see distress and death on earth, but we don’t see — yet — what this brings about in heaven. We cannot deny that God is also a God of war, because we cannot separate peace from war any more than we can separate love from hate of that which would destroy what is loved. We must consider that God’s perspective is not on our human life, but on our eternal life. We have to acknowledge that sin and evil are powerful forces of destruction that require God’s force to excise. We must remember that God sent His own Son to earth to die, and so He understands death far better than we do, and has conquered death for us.

1 And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.

The King James translators made it sound like the beast was talking to John, but modern translators disagree. Best studies now tell us the original Greek directs the call to “come” to the horse rider, and it could just as correctly be translated as “Go!”

2 And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.

The horse was a common symbol of war. The word for “bow” is an old word for a “great bow,” also found in Zechariah 9:13ff, as God uses the nation of Israel as a weapon to destroy the enemies of Israel. This bow was also the weapon of choice for the Parthian army, from the region that today is Iran and Afghanistan, who had defeated the Roman army on several occasions. The crown is a stephanos, a victor’s garland, rather than a crown of royalty. The phrase translated as “conquering” indicates there is no doubt that the conquerer would be victorious. After this scene, the white horse and rider are gone from the scene.

Some writers, like Dawn, want to equate this white horse to the white horse on which the triumphant Christ rides in chapter 19. She makes the point that only the first horse is announced with a beast with a thundering voice. However, the crown on this rider is a victor’s garland rather than a ruler’s diadem and this image closely parallels the other three horses.

Van Kampen sees the opposite — that the rider on a white horse represents false prophets. He bases this interpretation on a parallel of the four horsemen with Jesus’s references to the end times in Luke 21:7-11 of false prophets, wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, and plagues. In doing so, Van Kampen forces this list to fit into the first three horsemen and really has to struggle to fit in the fourth. It’s much more straightforward to see this first horse in the context of wars, the parallels in Zechariah, and the context of the Parthians.

3 And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. [Go!]
4 And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.

The word “peace” used here in Revelation is the Greek word eirene, also meaning “quiet and rest.” This is the same Greek word attributed to the angels speaking to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace…” The Hebrew allowed an important distinction between shalom, meaning “health, prosperity, and peace” and shaqat, meaning “to be at repose, rest, or quiet.” In Zechariah 1:11-13, when the four horsemen report that the world is at “peace”, it is the word shaqat that is used, showing the emptiness that comes with a human-imposed peace.

Peace is not always a good thing! In Zechariah, “peace” is imposed by the dominance of the Babylonians and the Medes and Persians, just as the Pax Romana ruled over the word under the domination of Rome, and the angel prayed for deliverance from this peace. God does not value peace over justice!

Notice also that all the second horseman does is to remove the barriers to insurrection, and sinful human nature results in slaughter. Our natural state without God is anarchy.

5 And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. [Go!] And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
6 And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the [olive] oil and the wine.

The color black symbolized mourning and famine. The “pair of scales” is literally the word for “yoke,” the same word used to describe slavery, teaching, and weights and measures elsewhere in the New Testament. The voice in the midst of the four creatures is nature’s way of abhorring the famine caused by war. The amount of wheat referenced was just enough to feed one man for a day, and the barley just enough for a small family, and these prices were roughly ten times the normal price for this amount of grain. The four staple foods in Palestine are represented this passage, but the famine, while a great hardship, is not a total devastation, because only some of the foods are affected.

There are parallels to weighing of grains. In Leviticus 26:26, God warns the Israelites that if they do not follow his commandments, He will punish them such by famines such that they will “dole out your bread by weight.” In Ezekiel 4:16, God speaks of this punishment coming to cause his people to return to him: “I am going to break the staff of bread in Jerusalem; they shall eat bread by weight and with fearfulness, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay.” The purpose of this action is to bring them back to God.

Note what the famine affected and what it did not. It was common in a drought for grain to be affected, because those plants had shallow roots, but olives and grapes with deep roots would fare well. This created a troubling social situation, as the basic foods were scarce, but the luxuries of oil and wine were still plentiful. Exactly this situation had occurred in the reigns of Nero and Domitian, and both rulers mishandled the situation. Nero refused to change the planting patterns during the drought in his time, and his troops had to settle a particularly famous riot when a ship from Egypt arrived in Rome, not with desperately needed corn, but with white sand to use in a gladiator stadium. Domitian botched his handling of the drought, about the time of John’s writing, when he first ordered some vineyards to be cut down to plant more grain, but after objections from the rich, he reversed his ruling and ordered that anyone destroying a vineyard should be punished.

Myke Holt, in the Sunday School class originally doing this study, pointed out a parallel between the drought that is implied by this famine and the parable of the sower found in Matthew 13:3-9. In that parable, Jesus cautions us to have deep roots and healthy environments, not to be like the seed scattered on packed soil, on rocky ground, or on ground infested with thorns. It is only when we have a deep faith in God that God can show us how to rejoice in difficulties and tribulations.

8 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death [pestilence], and with the beasts of the earth.

The color of the horse, chloeros, was a color also used to describe the face of one who was frightened, which we might say was “ashen.” The authority given to Death was greater than that of the first three riders. This passage echoes of Leviticus 26:21-26 in God’s warning to his people not to wander from his teaching. “Sword, hunger, pestilence, and wild animals” are the same four “deadly acts of judgement” listed in Ezekiel 14:21-23, brought by the Lord to purge Jerusalem of evil. Both the Leviticus and Ezekiel passages in this context encourage repentance, but warn that no person or nation can escape the judgement of God for rejecting His will.

These first four seals represent the Great Tribulation of evil brought upon the world, to Christians to refine and prove their faithfulness, and to non-Christians to shake them from their self-sufficiency and lead them to faith in Jesus. The source of these evil calamities is humanity’s rebellion against God — by failing to follow His plan, we mess up our political, military, and economic systems, and threaten our own survival. Wall adds the observation, “human sinfulness is more than rebellion against the creator; human sin is also the irrational rejection of those things that the creator intended for our good.”

In this passage, remember that 1st-century Hades is not the same as 20th-century Hell (which is usually seen as the lake of fire and sulphur referenced later in Revelation). In saying Death and Hades, John is repeating the meaning to give it more emphasis. Some choose to see the fourth horseman giving people a choice during the tribulation to follow God and die now, or follow the Antichrist and suffer eternal death. Nice thought, but that isn’t how early Christians would have understood it.

The souls slain (6:9 – 6:11)

9 And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain [slaughtered] for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

This specific altar referenced here was used for sacrifice, and the blood of the sacrifices was poured out at the bottom of, or “under,” the altar. The image is not of those hiding under a table, but of those that have followed the lead of the Lamb completely in death. These saints are waiting for the new heaven, in that state of existence after death elsewhere called Hades.

10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

The KJV does a clumsy job of translating the cry of the martyrs. The meaning is roughly, “When will you bring judgement?”

A similar cry for reassurance of what we don’t know is found in Psalm 79:5-10, “How long, O Lord?” This same pattern is found in Psalm 22:1, quoted by Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” These psalms always carry the rejoicing of the certain rescue that God would provide, as in Psalm 22:24, “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” God never objects to our questions when we do so with openness, drawing closer to Him to hear His answer.

Wall writes that the cries of the martyred for vengeance are not for revenge as we would think of it, but are for making creation right and eliminating evil. God in his mercy and his concern that everyone accept his saving grace has delayed justice for each of us, but there will be a time when justice must come so that evil can be conquered.

11 And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.

In the mark of victory symbolized by the white robes, God turns around earthly perceptions of the martyrs. In the command to wait is the confidence that even with the impending death of more saints, God is in control of all things, allowing the continuance of evil until it is His purpose to bring it to an end.

This is not the answer that we want to hear! We want justice, we want assurance that “everything will be fine,” and we want it now. These saints were told instead that things would get worse, that more of their brothers and sisters would be killed for their beliefs. This isn’t because God is not able to stop the Tribulation, or that He did not want the suffering to end, but because He has a greater purpose that must be made complete. God doesn’t need us to be his advisors, he needs us to be his faithful followers, relying on Him to do what is best.

The sun darkened (6:12 – 6:17)

12 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 [cloth made from a black goat’s hair], and the moon became as blood;
13 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.
14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

This earthquake is widespread, different from the local ones common to Asia Minor. Earthquakes were common in scripture related to the coming judgement, as in Ezekiel 38:19-20 and Joel 2:10.

The image of the full moon turning as red as blood is the same imagery as in Ezekiel 32:7-8, Isaiah 13:9-10, and Joel 2:31, speaking of God’s judgement on the earth. Peter quotes this passage in Joel in Acts 2:20 in his sermon at Pentecost. Of urgent importance to our interpretation of imagery is that Peter says in Acts 2:22-36 says that Joel’s prophesy was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. We must understand in Peter’s un-literal interpretation of Joel how we must avoid getting trapped in literal interpretations of prophetic imagery.

The falling of the stars and the rolling up of the sky, as in Isaiah 34:4, was particularly frightening in Jewish thought, because the constancy of the heavens represented for them the constancy of God’s care for them, so the falling of the stars would represent God abandoning the world to its own chaos. Jesus, in Mark 13:28, uses the changes seen on a fig tree at the end of winter as being a sign of the spring to come, reminding his twelve disciples and all his followers that in the end, God will give to us a permanent “spring.”

In Jeremiah 4:23-28, we read a similar devastation, with the earth shaking and the sky empty, caused by the Lord in response to evil, but with a limit that He “will not make a full end” to the earth. This is one of several cases where the imagery in Revelation would be particularly meaningful for John in exile – he knows that God would rip the island prison of Patmos out of the sea to save His people!

15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men [specifically, the persecuting proconsuls], 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;
16 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:
17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

Scriptural parallels to this passage include people hiding in caves in fear of God in Isaiah 2 and God’s might like a refiner’s fire in Malachi 3:1-5. The parallel is important between the martyrs in the fifth seal exalted by God in heaven and the powerful and the persecutors in the sixth seal being humbled on earth by the wrath of the Lamb.

That image, of an “wrathful lamb,” is a shocking combination of opposites. God, who is Love, shows incredible patience with humanity through the centuries, but we cannot be deceived that this love is passive and weak, like a lamb. God will put an end to evil, and his wrath, in all its power will, will bring about that end.

When God shows His power, believers rejoice in the promise of God’s faithfulness even when “the mountains may depart and the hills are removed” in Isaiah 54:10, but sinners hide, just like Adam and Eve did in Genesis 3:8. This is the Day of the Lord, rescuing the faithful, punishing the wicked, and giving all people the opportunity to acknowledge His sovereignty.

The church in earth (7:1 – 7:8)

1 And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.

Superstition at the time was that winds from the North, South, East, and West were “good” winds, while winds from the corners (NE, NW, SE, SW) brought trouble. As an example, Paul’s boat to Rome in Acts 27:13-14 left port because of a south wind, but got into trouble with a northeast wind. The image is a pause before the worst that evil could do would be released.

Note the continuation in this image of the angels just about to let go of the winds and the earlier question of “how long” by the martyrs. This interlude answers that the time is now!

2 And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal [signet ring] of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea,
3 Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.

Marking believers goes back to the flight of the Israelites out of Egypt, and is also used in Ezekiel 9:1-10. In the first case, death goes to the firstborn of the Egyptian tyrants, but in the second case, death goes to the unfaithful and sinful residents of Jerusalem. The practice of sealing an item was a sign of ownership, and a way of applying the reputation of the owner to the item. God’s elect will still have to endure the Great Tribulation, but they will have God’s care in enduring it. The message is as victorious and certain as the white robes given to the martyrs in heaven.

4 And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
5 Of the tribe of Juda were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand.
6 Of the tribe of Aser were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Nepthalim were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand.
7 Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand.
8 Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.

This number, 144,000, represents the perfection of God’s plan. “12” is a number for completeness, uniting 4, the earth number, with 3, the trinity. 12 for completeness times 12 for the Israelite tribes times the abundance of 1000 gives 144,000. The meaning of this number is “very large,” just like in verse 9 where an uncountable multitude of believers gather before the throne. Many want to interpret this list as just being Jews, but early Christian thought, as in Romans 2:28-29 and Galatians 3:29,was that Christians were the true “children of Israel” in covenant with God, just like Jesus responded in Matthew 12:46-50 that his followers were his true family.

This listing of the twelve tribes is unusual. Compared to the Genesis 35:23-26 list of the children of Jacob, Revelation drops Dan and substitutes Manasseh, and lists Judah first instead of the eldest son, Reuben. Judah is listed first because Jesus was born into the tribe of Judah. Dan was probably omitted because of the ongoing reputation since Genesis of the sinfulness of this tribe, and because of a passage in Jeremiah 8:16 that was widely interpreted to mean that the Antichrist would come from the tribe of Dan. Also in this substitution is a parallel to the twelve Disciples, where Judas Iscariot was replaced by Matthias. Notice the incredible way that God makes perfect both the Tribes, marred by the Antichrist, and the Disciples, marred by the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. When we mess up, we can never make it right again, but God can make what we ruin perfect!

The church in heaven (7:9 – 7:17)

9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues …

Notice the completeness of the earth, both in the description and in using four words to describe all people of the earth.

… stood [immediately] before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;

Three images come to mind: first, the white robes and palm branches were signs of victory and joy; second, the palm branches often signified a coronation; and last, the image of the entry into Jerusalem of Jesus on a donkey while the crowds waived palm branches. Also see the parallel with the powerful hiding in the rocks at the sixth seal, crying out, “who can stand before the Lord?” The answer is that we can by accepting God’s grace. This parallel emphasizes that even in the wrath of the Lamb is their hope, that as God cleanses evil from the world, it can be either by eternal separation or conversion – each person has the choice all the way to the end.

10 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.

The Greek tenses are clear that salvation has already been achieved. This victory of salvation is not earned by the multitude, even those who were killed for God – the victory and the coronation are for God and for the Lamb.

11 And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,
12 Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.

Notice the first words of the angels are the “amen” affirmation of the praise of the redeemed.

13 And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them [forever] white in the blood of the Lamb.

There’s a trap we want to avoid in defining “the great tribulation” — while the imagery references the tribulations during the opening of these seals, the countless multitudes tell us that those gathered before God are those redeemed out of the tribulation that all believers face throughout all time in living for God in a sinful world. This affirmation tell us that the story of Revelation is for now, not just for the end time.

Out image of “blood” is distasteful, representing death. At this time, blood instead was seen as the essence of the life of one, although losing blood still meant death. While we are appalled at the image of washing in blood, Barclay writes that it was a part of other religions in the first century. Many Roman soldiers worshipped the god Mithra to be better soldiers. The initiation into this religion was to shower in the blood of an ox, thus being “reborn” with the strength and bravery of an ox. The contrast between the “rebirth” of Roman soldiers and the true rebirth of a child of God is an intentional, pointed rebuke of the Roman empire.

15 Therefore are they before the throne of God,
And serve him day and night in his temple:
And he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell [tabernacle] among them.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;
Neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
17 For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed [shepherd] them,
And shall lead them unto living fountains of waters:
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

Note the role that all of the redeemed would take to serve God through worship. In Jewish worship, normal people were isolated from God — only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies once each year, and others were separated by varying distances from even the curtain to the Holy of Holies. Here, all of God’s followers have full and constant access to the very throne of God, and all are worthy to serve as priests.

The blessings that God provides to his faithful are incredible! The one about whom John 1:14 says, ”the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” will raise His Tabernacle around us. Isaiah 25:6-10 talks about the magnificence that God will give his faithful followers, even that He personally will wipe away all their tears. In Isaiah 49:10, God will lead his people so that they will never again hunger or thirst or be scorched in the sun. This isn’t that we will never have human needs — we won’t be statues frozen in a timeless equilibrium. Instead, God will fulfill our needs in ways that far exceed what we can imagine!

The silence (8:1)

8:1 And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

Even though the early scripture organizers put this into chapter 8, this truly belongs at the end of chapter 7, and this verse ends the first of the visions that make up John’s Revelation.

This ending image can be interpreted in many ways, and we aren’t sure which ones were intended. One thought is that the silence represents complete peace, that creation is completely right with God. Another thought is that God stops the praising and singing of the angels to hear the prayers of his Redeemed. Many commentators believe that the opening of the seventh seal reveals the angels with the seven trumpets, so this dramatic pause might emphasize the gravity of the ultimate judgement of God that is brought forth in the sounding of the trumpets.

I find a parallel in how God dealt with Elijah in the wilderness in 1 Kings 19:9-18. Elijah, in fear for his life, ran to the wilderness of Horeb. God called him out of his cave to show him rock-splitting winds, earthquakes, and firestorms, but God didn’t reveal Himself to Elijah until He caused “a sound of sheer silence.” Out of that humbling silence came God’s reassurance to Elijah to go back to Israel and depend on God’s resources.

There may be a prophetic parallel to Habakkuk 2:20, where the preacher warns of destruction to those in Israel that reject God’s ways and worship idols, that “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!”

One purpose of this silence is as a transition into the next vision. If, as I believe, John shows in the breaking of the seventh seal the completion of God’s plan and the End Time of perfect fellowship with God, John still has much more to write. This dramatic pause provides a literary technique to set up the repetition in the seven trumpets of the message of tribulation and ultimate victory for God’s people.

Interpretation

Part of Lindsey’s case for why Revelation is intended for the time just before the second coming is a parallel between the seals in this vignette and the reference in Daniel 12:9 of the message that is to be sealed up until the end time. The issue is whether the message sealed in Daniel is the “true literal meaning” of the book of revelation, or whether, as I believe, Daniel is saying the same thing in this sealing that Jesus said when he told the disciples that we must always be ready for only the Father knows when the end shall be.

The 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel has caused much debate over the centuries. Some argue that this will seal only Jews from the tribulation to come, while I believe those who interpret this figuratively as all Christians. For those who believe the Christians are raptured prior to the Tribulation, this is proof that the point of the Tribulation is to make the remnant of Israel ready for heaven. Similarly, the number 144,000 has been taken literally often, as in the Jehovah’s Witnesses who at one time taught that only 144,000 people could fit in heaven, and the rest of the believers, who didn’t work hard enough to make this elite list, would be left out.

Van Kampen considers this literal 144,000 as an elite group of “faithful” but “non-believing” Jews who are set aside for specific tasks later in Revelation, as in 14:4. These 144,000 can’t be believers, or they would have been taken in the Rapture at the sixth seal. However, Jesus knows that they will all ultimately believe and follow him as part of completing the promise to Abraham, which is why these are sealed.

The fact that the 144,000 appear in both chapter 7 and chapter 14 can be seen as a turning, twisting story line. It can also be seen as more support for why Revelation was written in cycles, with the repetition building the intensity of the cycles rather than making for a more interesting plot line.

Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Morris
Web Page Design by ARI•ADS LLC
Using WordPress content management software suite