Monday, July 5, 2021
To make sense of the Book of Revelation, a careful reader must necessarily grapple with four consecutive, structural sets of seven: four literary heptads in succession. The word heptad is specialized shorthand for structural sets of seven; it derives from the Greek word ἑπτά, which just means seven.
The first literary set of seven — the first heptad — a reader will encounter in the Book of Revelation is a collection of short diagnostic messages from Christ in Heaven Above addressed to seven turn-of-the-second-century municipal churches on Earth Below, and more precisely, seven pastors and churches within the Roman province of Asia. These diagnostic messages were meant for them, way back when, and yet can and do selectively apply to us, now.
The second literary heptad is a binding legal document — a scroll secured with seven seals — seals that are ceremoniously and sequentially broken open. The seals are broken open by a uniquely-worthy, universally-worshiped sacrificial Lamb. As the Lamb breaks open each of the seven seals, the narrator of Revelation reports scenes of colored horses, beheaded supplicants, and a terrified and imminently doomed populace. These seven seals symbolically review the sad and sordid Old Testament history of the people of Israel up to (and just beyond) the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE.
The third literary heptad is a drawn-out fanfare of sequential shofar-trumpet blasts, with lots of surreal thirds of plague and destruction along the way — twelve-thirds of surreal destruction, in fact. These seven shofar-trumpet blasts symbolically review, view, and preview the New Testament history of the peacefully-militant people of God: the conquering, persecuted, triumphant Church.
The fourth and final literary heptad is an utterly horrifying “week” of cosmic anti-creative devastation during which the just and judicial wrath of God is dispensed in measure — bowl by bowl by bowl — upon a variety of terrestrial environs and locales. These seven bowls symbolically preview and foretell a dystopian future time period on Planet Earth.
Yes, all quite weird. But that is precisely what a patient, thorough reader will encounter.
Should you attempt to survey the academic scholarship devoted to these four Apocalyptic heptads, you may be surprised at the amount of progress and scholarly consensus that has slowly emerged over the last 50 years, as it pertains to some (but definitely not all) of the symbolism and sections in the Book of Revelation. However, there is still a lot of collegial debate and disagreement about how to pull it all together into a single, coherent message.
So… is there a single, coherent message? And if so, what is it?
To answer that, perhaps we need to consider its purpose. A very basic question to ask about the Book of Revelation pertains to its original, intended purpose: Why is it even there? What does it contribute to the Church? Does it have a unique role in the Bible? And if it does, what is that role?
My Edu-ma-cated Assertion: The purpose of the Book of Revelation is to give the Church a selective, interpretive overview of its history and its future — the sweep of Church History: past, present, and future. Revelation reveals Church History from the vantage point of Heaven. Readers of Revelation are given cryptic, symbolic access to God’s own perspective on Church History.
An immediate corollary: Yes, the Book of Revelation definitely does have a single, coherent message. And the message is that the Triune Sovereign God retains complete control over the course and eventualities of Church History, even when it all seems uncertain, unlikely, and untrue… because at times God’s control and sovereignty over history will seem uncertain, unlikely, and untrue, especially in the tumultous time period immediately before Christ returns.
Note that I worded the last paragraph very carefully, with particular emphasis upon the period immediately before the Second Coming (or Advent) of Christ, because the Book of Revelation itself focuses a great deal upon that singular period of time. It is a critical period of time in Church History. And the Book of Revelation is intended to prepare the Church for that particular, forthcoming period of time.
Personally, I wonder if and suspect that we may have already entered that tumultuous time period. But I say that with considerable trepidation and great caution, knowing that others have errantly made the same claim in the past.
3 thoughts on “Heptads of History”
Great wrap-up and summary! I wonder also…..
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Would you say Revelation is using past history to speak about future history, just like how similar stories re-appear throughout the Bible?
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Kind of. But Revelation also uses past history to both explain and predict similar future events.