Wednesday, July 7, 2021
About 95AD/CE on the small Aegean Island of Patmos, Jesus Christ appeared in a vision to a man named Johan, an exiled political prisoner. Not long before, the Roman Emperor Domitian had ordered that Johan be exiled from the City of Ephesus to the Island of Patmos. Johan had been deemed a public menace. Johan was suspected of sedition, or at least insubordination. He had instructed his growing Christian community to engage in civil disobedience. They refused to show the expected, requisite reverence to Domitian and to his divine, deceased predecessors, as well as his divine, deceased infant son. Naturally, Emperor Domitian was hardly pleased with such brazen disloyalty and impiety. As far as Domitian was concerned, the stubborn, foolish Johan could erode the allegiance of the Ephesian populace with his defiance. The imperial authorities ought be considered very lenient then, as they spared this rebellious Johan his life and merely sent him into exile on nearby Patmos.
Notably, as a much younger man, Johan had been closely associated with a fellow Jew who had also been deemed a threat to the stability of the Roman Empire. Johan was an early disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, who had been tried and crucified 62 years earlier under the charge of sedition. In his trial before the Roman Procurator, Jesus had testified that he was a long-expected king, the Jewish Messiah. Yet in spite of his brutal crucifixion, true believers like Johan continued to spread the rumor that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the long-expected Messiah of Israel. They claimed that he had been resurrected to life from the realm of the dead.
While exiled Johan was unquestionably a historical person, there is some debate about which one of the biblical Johans this Johan was, as his was a very common Jewish name back in the first century AD/CE. Reputable New Testament scholars bat around the question of whether exiled Johan was Johan, son of Zebedee, a Galilean Fisherman (that is, one of Jesus’ original Twelve Disciples), or Johan the Beloved (who was also a close confidant of Jesus, but not one of the original Twelve). Based on some recent scholarship, I personally think it fishy to identify him as Johan bar Zebedee (bad pun intended). Instead, I think it more likely that he was Johan the Beloved, an inconspicuous, unassuming character occasionally glimpsed in the Gospel of John. However, whichever and whomever: I am not heavily invested in the Which Johan? identity debate. It just seems to me that Johan the Elder would have been readily identified and widely celebrated within the Christian community in Ephesus as one of the original Twelve Apostles. But that was never so.
But why do I keep calling him Johan?
In English-speaking lands, Johan is almost always translated as John. For some reason unbeknownst to me, in English we pronounce the first letter of his name as a j and drop the second vowel, the letter a; and thus Johan morphs into John. Consequently, in almost all of the relevant literature, Jewish Johan sounds like a Puritan from early Colonial America. He now has the dignified epithet, John the Elder, or John the Presbyter, which is a difference without any real distinction, since elder and presbyter mean the same thing. All of which is to say, if you encounter the name John the Elder, or John the Presbyter, the reference is probably to the Johan, the early Jewish-Christian leader, who received a vision of Jesus Christ on the Island of Patmos, and subsequently (or simultaneously) wrote the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation.
In an effort to be both literal and accurate, I usually call Johan the Elder John the Narrator, because of his first-person reports in the Book of Revelation. Johan/John serves as the inconspicuous, unassuming Narrator. Throughout the Book of Revelation John diligently testifies regarding whatever he has seen and heard in his vision from Jesus Christ.
A pertinent point: John was also a highly organized word smith. Either that, or the vision itself was presented in a highly organized manner. In any event, John was not a sloppy writer. His material is organized very carefully. It is organized into four easily-identifiable heptads, four series of seven sets. In interpreting the Book of Revelation, my own operating assumption is that the second, third, and fourth heptads represent chronologically sequential periods of time. I contend that the second heptad focuses upon a millennium-long period in the distant past, the third heptad upon the “nearer” past continuing into the present day, and the fourth heptad upon a brief future time period. Do recognize that my operating assumption, while nicely clean, logical, and coherent, nonetheless invites considerable skepticism from some scholars. Not everyone agrees with me. And that would be an understatement.
Therefore, I ought to address the scholars’ skepticism with a careful response. It is incumbent upon me to explain why I believe a chronologically sequential interpretation of the second, third, and fourth Apocalyptic heptads works best and is most faithful to the text.
Incidentally, if heptad is a meaningless word to you, and if my references to sequential heptads sounds like bizarre, pseudo-academic gibberish, please go read or listen to my previous post, entitled Heptads of History. That post should clear up any confusion, hopefully.
And if anyone wonders why I do not give explanatory time to the first heptad, the Messages to the Seven Churches, please stop wondering. I simply don’t see the need. I do not bother with the first heptad because interpreters find little of substance to quibble about. For the most part, others expositors have done a comprehensive and exemplary job of interpreting the first heptad of the Book of Revelation (that is, the first three chapters), so I do not feel the need to revisit it in this post. All you need to know is that (almost) everyone agrees to its original intended time-frame. It was written to seven specific churches just before the turn of the second century AD/CE. If, from henceforth, you recall 95AD/CE as the approximate date for the first heptad, that’s good enough for this present discussion.
Now, as for the time-frame of the second heptad of the Book of Revelation, I hereby assert and argue that it begins at the Theophany to Moses on Mount Sinai — yes, when he famously received the Ten Commandments — and extends slightly past the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. An even easier way to characterize that period might be as The Old Testament Age. To claim that the first heptad covers the Old Testament Age might initially seem immensely reasonable proposal, if you operate in a vacuum of Apocalyptic unfamiliarity, and provided you do not open a Bible and go read the relevant passage, Revelation 6:1-17. But if you do actually do read the chapter, you might quickly side with the skeptics. You might even begin to think that I have taken a headlong fall. “How on earth does that overly-confident blogger claim and conjure the majority of the Old Testament into these seventeen violent and bizarre verses?” That is the question I expect to get from those who are familiar with the Book of Revelation.
Okay, a fair question it is. And I am glad you asked, my inquiring friends. Please allow me to explain. Do you mind if I walk backwards while I do?
Yes, I want to walk backwards while I attempt to explain how the second heptad and the Old Testament Age merge into one picture. I want to figuratively walk you through the passage backwards, because that is the way it all first began to make sense to me.
Let me start with the Sixth Seal (see Revelation 6:12-17), and not the seventh (see Revelation 8:1-5). If you read through Revelation, you will find a considerable gap between the Sixth Seal and the Seventh Seal, indeed an entire chapter — Chapter Seven. The textual gap between these two seals is so wide that readers often forget that the Sixth Seal is not the final seal. In terms of its content, it sure does seem like the final seal. With all the cosmic unraveling and terrestrial displacement depicted, it certainly reads like the very End of the World. But no, it is not the final seal, nor is it actually the End of the World. The event depicted is merely a foreshadowing of the end, the Eschaton. The event depicted is instead the End of an Age, the Old Testament Age. And the event so frighteningly depicted is actually the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70AD/CE.
How do I know that? How can I be so sure?
I know that because Jesus of Nazareth is ever-so-briefly quoted in verse 16. And the original quote tells us everything we need to know. The original quote comes from the Gospel of Luke 23:30, spoken as an exhausted Jesus staggers en route to be crucified on Golgotha hill. He is a dead man walking, walking to his death along the Via Doloroso. And he says:
“Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘cover us.’”
In context, Jesus is telling his pre-mortem mourners to instead mourn for themselves and their own children. He is clearly prophesying the coming destruction of Jerusalem. And Revelation 6:16 references a few key words from that very prophecy — mountains, fall, hide/cover. That is our big, tell-tale hint. That is how we can discern that the Sixth Seal of Revelation represents the destruction of Jerusalem.
If anyone thinks that I am grasping for a connection or stretching things based on a few words, I would counter that you just don’t adequately understand how Revelation gives away its hints. It constantly uses scriptural allusions and references, usually with just a few key words in combination or short phrases. Revelation counts on an interpreter’s biblical literacy. Only the biblically literate will catch the subtle references. Once someone discovers those few key words and phrases, though, they invariably point the interpretive direction needed. If you doubt this, you just need to see more examples.
Incidentally, having computer technology to do key word searches makes this immensely faster and easier. The precision surprises this scriptural sleuth. Textual triangulation with only a few key words yields helpful and telling results. Try it on your smart phone or computer.
But what about all the cosmic unraveling in verses 12-17, though? That did not happen during the destruction of Jerusalem; did it? Umm, actually, yes it did, to some extent. Go read Josephus’ first hand account, entitled The Jewish War. He reports baffling occurrences, cosmic curiosities, and supernatural wonders in the days and months preceding the siege on Jerusalem. And Josephus was there personally to witness and record it all for posterity.
One last important point, here: Some of what we see depicted in Revelation 6:12-17 can be characterized as bifocal insight. We have a prophetic view of a literal, historical event; and we have elaboration upon its figurative, spiritual significance. This is simultaneously a freeze frame of the event and its importance. For about a million Jewish inhabitants, doomsday had come, their dread Day of the Lord. It was the end of their world, the end of an entire era.
Now let’s take another step backwards to the Fifth Seal (see Revelation 6:9-11). As with the Sixth Seal, a few key words provide the necessary referential clues. Altar, in particular, stands out to me. As depicted, we behold a macabre scene of deceased martyrs somehow beneath an altar, crying out to God for vindication. So here we have slain holy people (as opposed to sacrificial animals) within close proximity of an altar. Which altar, though? It is probably the huge altar of animal sacrifice in the Temple courtyard, but maybe the much smaller altar of incense within the Temple proper. Okay, that may be something a start. Do we know of any accounts of holy people being slain near one of those two altars? We sure do. At least, the biblically literate do. According to 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, Zechariah the priest was stoned to death at King Joash’s command within the temple courtyard (hence near the altar of sacrifice). The last line of the passage is chilling:
And when he [Zechariah the priest] was dying, he said, “May the LORD see, and avenge!”
Okay, I think we may be on to something now. Here we have someone slain within proximity to a temple altar and a cry for vengeance. But it would be helpful if we had some additional evidence. Ah, we do. We have Jesus’ harsh denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 11:49-51. Jesus informed the religious leaders of his day that they and their generation would be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets, from first to last, A to Z, from Abel to Zechariah. Incidentally, here Jesus is probably referring to another, later Zechariah, who was considered one of the last Old Testament prophets. Very significantly, in verse 51, Jesus mentions both the sanctuary (that is, the Temple proper) and the altar. So here we see the convergence of innocent spilled blood, the altar, the sanctuary, and the threat of divine judgment/vengeance portrayed in this one predictive passage. Yes, now I definitely think we are on to something.
So then, as far as the Fifth Seal is concerned, I am going to conclude that it is referring to the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, which concluded with the close of the Old Testament. Thus far, walking backwards has worked. We are going backwards in time.
How about the Fourth Seal? Will we take another step backward in time? Let’s see.
With the Fourth Seal we encounter the fourth of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, two riders on a pale horse. In Revelation 6:7-8, we learn that Death and Hades ride on the pale horse, and that they kill with sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. What are a few possible key referential words here? How about death and hades? Oh, but we ought to remember that hades may need to be translated to the English word hell or the Hebrew word Sheol. So let’s just try death and Sheol. When I do a computer word search with those two words in combination, seven biblical passages result. Two of those passages look particularly promising; and both of those passages are in Isaiah Chapter 28, specifically verses 15 and 18, which speak of a covenant with Death and an agreement with Sheol.
Realize that I selected two out of seven possible passages, not seventy, nor seven hundred — only seven. And based on the judgment-of-Israel theme that we have encountered thus far, I selected Isaiah, because I know from prior reading that Isaiah often prophesies judgment. And guess what? It works again. Isaiah 28 is a prophecy of judgment against the rulers of Jerusalem. And that prophecy was fulfilled when Babylon invaded the Nation of Judah and attacked its capital city, Jerusalem.
Are we still walking backwards in time? Yes, we are. We went backwards from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, to the prophetic close of the Old Testament, to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. I suspect that our next Seal will take another step back in time. Let’s look at the Third Seal and find out.
In Revelation 6:5-6 we hear a voice announce the approach of a third horse, a black horse. The rider of the black horse carries scales. There is talk about the disproportional cost of wheat, barley, oil, and wine. What are our key referential words this time? I tried scales, oil, and wine; but then I tried just scales. Again, I focused my search on the judgment-on-Israel theme. And again, I found what I was looking for: indictment passages from the Prophets Amos, Micah, and Hosea. Micah 6:9-16, in particular, fits extremely well. God rebukes Israel’s wealthy, and informs them that they will face depravation and desolation. And it happened. Assyrian troops came through and desolated the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Yes, we have another step back in time. Our backward progression has gone from a Roman invasion, to the End of the Prophets, to the Babylonian invasion, and now to the Assyrian invasion.
In Revelation 6:3-4 we are presented with a red horse. Its rider carries a great sword. He is permitted to take peace from the earth/land (probably the land of Israel). Our suggested key referential words this time will be red, sword, and fire. In Hebrew, the word for red is edom. Edom was also an ancient nation, a nation that was an early and recurring adversary of Israel (see Numbers 20:14-21; Isaiah 34:5; Ezekiel 25:12-14; Obadiah). God used Edom to judge the wandering tribes of Israel immediately following a major moral failure at the Waters of Meribah (see Numbers 20:2-13). God also appointed Hadad of Edom to punish wayward King Solomon (see 1 Kings 11:14).
Of all the seven seals, this one stands as most difficult to establish, according to my own criteria. All the same, Edom does mean red; and there are numerous biblical passages referencing both Edom and the sword. And it certainly works chronologically.
And finally, in Revelation 6:1-2 we are presented with the first horseman, the rider on a white horse. He carries a bow, is given a crown, and comes out conquering, and to conquer. The suggested key word is bow, to which arrow seemed a logical addition. Habakkuk 3:1-16 was what I found to be the best fit. This is the Holy One Himself, the ultimate Judge. See also Deuteronomy 32:39-43.
Although I could say a lot more about the Seven Seals, this post does a thorough job of presenting my rationale for interpreting them as some of the most significant, sequential historical judgments of God against unfaithful Israel.