Two problematic, contrary strains exist within American Evangelicalism. The first is a smug, smarter-than-thou, prejudicial and elitist intellectualism. The second is a lazy can’t-and-won’t-be-bothered-to-think anti-intellectualism. Both are bad. Both are a persistent threat to the growth of a disciple’s faith.
Which is the more toxic strain, though? That’s a good question, and a tough question. At first glance, it is hard to say. However, if forced to choose, I would would say the former is worse than the latter. Yes, I see smug intellectualism as even worse than lazy anti-intellectualism, because smug-intellectualism ultimately deceives more gullible people than lazy anti-intellectualism. In the long run, smug intellectuals are far more influential than lazy pew-sitters.
That said, the irony is that two strains (or trends) actually have a symbiotic relationship. The lazy are content to let the smug do the hard thinking for them. And the smug need the lazy to continue being lazy, lest someone seriously challenge their assertions. It would be bad if the smug were exposed as flawed. It would be especially bad if the smug were exposed as charlatans.
But they often are. They often are charlatans.
That is a harsh, I admit. And perhaps it is a bit less than fair. Sometimes the smug are not entirely smug; they’re actually a mixed bag. They are indeed right about a lot of things. They have real integrity, to a degree. They have done their homework diligently and have come to the right conclusions. And yet, at the very same time, there are certain subjects and touchy topics where they lack integrity. In those particular areas, they have not done their homework sufficiently, nor have they come to the right conclusions. But the lazy ordinary folks, the hoi polloi, need not know that, should not know that.
The accompanying problem is that they, the smug, often achieve and then hold official positions of prestige. Once you have an honorary title and receive regular compensation, you are obliged to the institution, the guild, or the denomination. And you quickly realize it is best for your professional future not to contradict what everyone seems to know as capital T truth. Your colleagues and superiors will surely notice any deviance. So you tow the party line. And you parrot the pre-approved talking points.
These are the dynamics that routinely play out in schools, churches, and institutions. Breakthrough change often necessarily comes from a brave soul on the periphery. Numerous historical examples come immediately to mind. They were often seen as misfits and pests in their own time. But history ultimately vindicates them. More importantly, God ultimately vindicates them.
Ninety-nine years have passed since it occurred. But I only learned of it within the last week.
Yesterday I finished reading a book by Lou Ureneck about the Great Fire of Smyrna in September, 1922. If I were to place a small bet, I would wager that most of my readers and listeners are entirely unfamiliar with the 1922 Fire of Smyrna. So was I, less than a week ago.
Alternatively, I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of my readers and listeners — maybe even all of them — would know exactly what I have in mind if I were merely to drop the names Heinrich Himmler, Nazi, and Auschwitz. I am, of course, referring to the Holocaust during World War Two.
The 1922 Fire of Smyrna was a foreshadow of the Holocaust, two decades in advance. The perpetrators of the 1922 Smyrna Fire were not Nazis, but another militaristic, nationalist group. Like the Nazis, the violent perpetrators of the Great Smyrna Fire wanted to once and for all rid “their” land of neighbors they deemed inferior, undesirable, and loathsome. The undesirable neighbors in their crosshairs were the Greek and Armenian Christian minorities of Anatolia. To their delight, the perpetrators’ plans prevailed. They were almost entirely successful in ridding their land of their loathsome, undesirable neighbors. Nonetheless, the perpetrators were unable to completely annihilate all their undesirable Christian neighbors. With the help of a few intervening outsiders, a considerable portion of the Christian minorities of Anatolia were delivered from certain death. The book I read is about the rescue effort conducted by the intervening outsiders. The account completely and utterly captivated me.
You will not recognize their names, but Asa Kent Jennings and Halsey Powell should forever be recognized for their great courage, faith, and heroism. I sincerely believe the two will hold a place of high honor in heaven. They saved hundreds of thousands of people from certain death.
Aside from my lifelong interest in history, one of the primary reasons that Ureneck’s account was so compelling to me is because of its locale. Smyrna appears in the Book of Revelation. It is the second of the seven churches addressed by Jesus in the opening section of Revelation.
If you read what Jesus has to say to the Angel of the Church of Smyrna (see Revelation 2:8-11), it undoubtedly applies to the original recipients, who lived there nearly two thousand years ago. But what Jesus had to say could also (almost) equally apply to the Christians who found themselves besieged by death in Smyrna 99 years ago. Although separated by centuries, the historical situation was very, very similar. And Jesus’ words were equally apt for both situations.
In my estimation, the coincidence of geographic location and recapitulated historical situation speaks to the prophetic nature of the Book of Revelation. I would even say that it is one of many like instances which reveal that God is indeed the ultimate author of the Book of Revelation.
Are you a Bible quiz whiz? How many Bible verses do you know by heart? Today, we will learn not one, but two Bible verses by heart, and in almost no time at all. Then you will be well on your way to that most desirable of designations: a Bible Quiz Whiz. Okay then, open up your Bibles and put on your Bible memorization caps, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Is everyone ready to learn two very easy verses? Here we go…
The easiest of all Bible verses to memorize might be John 11:35. That’s the Gospel of John, chapter eleven, verse thirty-five. Has everyone found it? It contains just two short words: “Jesus wept.” See? It’s so simple and so very easy to memorize. Remind me now: What does John 11:35 say, aspiring Bible Quiz Whizzers? That’s right. It simply says, “Jesus wept.”
Good job! Now let’s learn the second super easy verse!
The second easiest Bible verse to memorize might be Luke 17:32. That’s the Gospel of Luke, chapter seventeen, verse thirty-two. Has everyone found it? It contains just three short words: “Remember Lot’s wife.” Again, it’s super simple and very easy. What does Luke 17:32 say, aspiring Bible Quiz Whizzers? That’s right. It says, “Remember Lot’s wife.”
Great job, everyone! You have now memorized not just one, but two very valuable verses: Jesus Wept and Remember Lot’s Wife. Repeat them after me one more time: Jesus Wept and Remember Lot’s Wife.
“Umm, Teacher, Teacher… excuse me.”
Yes, hold on, everyone. I see a hand over here. Do you have a question, kid?
“Umm, okay, yeah… so I don’t get it. Why did Jesus weep? And what are we supposed to remember about Lot’s wife?”
Oh my! Wow! Aren’t you inquisitive?! Those are two very good questions. For now, let’s wait on those questions until everyone has had a chance to perfectly memorize their verses; okay? Then maybe we will go to the pastor with what you just asked. Given all he has learned about the Bible, I am sure Pastor has the answers to your very good questions. Okay?
“Umm, okay. Do I have to wait, though? I just wondered why Jesus cried and what we’re supposed to remember about that guy’s wife. What was his name again?”
His name was Lot. Remember Lot’s wife.
“Yeah, Lot’s wife. Did she get into trouble for something? Did she do something bad?”
Well, hmm… if I recall the story correctly, Lot’s wife instantaneously turned into a pillar or statue of salt when she disobeyed an angel’s command to not look backwards at the very bad city they were fleeing from.
“Oh, wow. That is kinda weird. You say she instantly turned into a stone statue?”
Well, I think the Bible actually says that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt. But she may have looked something like a stone statue. At least, that is always how I imagine it.
“Whoa. Still, I am confused. Why would the angel do that to her? Why did she have to turn into a statue of salt? What is so bad about turning around to look at a city? It seems like a really harsh punishment.”
Okay, kid, you’re asking a lot of tough questions. Do you really want the answers?
“Yes, I do, because Jesus specifically told us to remember Lot’s wife. Why would he tell us to remember Lot’s wife if it isn’t something important? Are we going to be in a similar situation someday? So honestly, yes, I do want some more answers. What exactly are we supposed to remember about her?”
Whether you realize it or not, you just put me in an awkward place, kid. The questions you are asking are actually very difficult. I would rather you just memorize the verse and quit with the inquisitive questions. Three short words, kid. I just wanted to entertain you with the two easiest memory verses ever. But then you started acting like you are genuinely interested in what Jesus was saying.
“Sorry, but I am genuinely interested in what Jesus said. I mean, shouldn’t we take him seriously? I thought the whole point of going to church is to take Jesus seriously.”
Fine, kid. I will give you some straightforward answers. Get ready, because this will require that you actually pay attention. Most people quickly lose interest when they realize that the answer is going to require a bit of time and effort.
“Umm, I am willing to try.”
That’s better than most people, kid. Let me try to explain some things to you. You asked a very good question a few minutes ago. You might not realize how good your question is. Your question was whether we will ever be in a similar situation to Lot’s disobedient backward-glancing wife. The shortest answer to that is yes, we will. If I say that, though, most people will think I am a bit crazy.
“It kinda does sound crazy, Teacher. Are we going to have to run away from a doomed city someday?”
Probably not. But from what I can see, Jesus was talking about a future event that will require us to make a hard and unequivocal choice between sticking with what is familiar (however evil it is) or suddenly leaving for the promise of something better but unknown.
“What does unequivocal mean?”
Lot’s wife equivocated. That means she hesitated because she was not sure what she really wanted. In her heart, she kind of liked the evil city, so she turned back, just to look. To make an unequivocal decision is to be completely decisive, and not hesitate.
“Was Jesus talking about a real event, though? Might he have meant it more generically or loosely?”
Sometimes people use the words literally and figuratively to ask that question. You are asking whether Jesus is talking about a literal future event or a figurative, hypothetical scenario. In this passage, it sure seems like Jesus is talking about a literal future event.
“But what event would that be?”
It could be one of two literal events. The first event was the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. If that is the event Jesus had in mind, then Jesus command to remember Lot’s wife might not apply to us now. Perhaps Jesus just meant that the believers living way back then needed to instantly leave Jerusalem and head to the mountains when they recognized impending danger and realized his prophecy was about to be fulfilled. But in Luke 17:20-37 Jesus does not mention Jerusalem at all, so I think he has something different in mind. I think he is talking about when he comes back. Jesus refers to the event in question as “the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” To me, that sounds like it might be a future event from our vantage point in history — an event we might live to see ourselves someday.
“Do you mean Jesus’ Second Coming?”
Yes, I do. As I read Luke 17, I cannot help but conclude that Jesus is talking about when he comes back at the end of this age. And I will even go a bit further than that. I think Jesus is describing the Rapture. Have you heard of the Rapture?
“Isn’t that when all the believers just instantly go up to heaven and leave all the unbelievers behind on earth? I thought that Pastor does not believe that.”
Yes, that is the general idea. And you’re right, a lot of pastors do not believe in the Rapture, because they think that Luke 17 and passages like it are just talking about the destruction of Jerusalem way back in 70AD. But if Luke 17 is actually talking about a future event, then it seems to describe a Rapture scenario, especially if it is read literally.
“So Jesus is telling us to remember Lot’s wife in the event of the Rapture?”
That is how I read Luke 17, yes. Jesus tells us to be ready to leave without hesitation and without equivocating in the event of the Rapture.
“Whoa! That is intense! I never heard it explained that way before.”
Admittedly, it is not a common explanation. But then again, I have not heard many, if any, sermons on Luke 17:20-37. When I read Luke 17 with the Second Coming and Rapture in mind, it just makes a lot of sense of the passage. Otherwise, I am not sure what Jesus is talking about.
“Okay. I think I get it. Jesus told us to remember Lot’s wife because we are supposed to be ready and willing to immediately leave when the Rapture happens. That’s kinda what you are saying; right?”
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away a newly-wed groom woke to a very bad morning.
The kingdom’s evil king had sent his henchmen to watch the house of the newly-wed groom. They had orders to kill the groom that morning.
However, and thankfully, the morning was not quite as bad as it might otherwise have been, since the evil king’s assassin-goons were temporarily delayed. They watched the house in vain that morning.
Somehow, the newly-wed bride had received inside information. She had been told what the henchmen actually intended. Together the newlyweds devised a plan. They put a dummy in a bed to make it look like the groom was still there. Then she went to the front door and faced the king’s goony henchmen. She told them, “I am so sorry. I realize you are looking for my husband, but he has fallen ill and is still asleep in bed.” Her ruse bought her newly-wed groom enough time to jump through a side window and slip away.
So what happened to the newly-wed bride? Did she get into trouble? Was she arrested? No, not exactly. Instead, the bride was brought before the evil king. When she arrived, she had another line ready. “Well, you see your royal highness — Daddy dearest — my horrible new husband threatened to kill me — me, your own darling little princess — unless I cooperated and helped him slip away.”
Yes, the evil king was the bride’s own father. The evil king had ordered and arranged for the killing of his new son-in-law.
From the king’s perspective, it was never supposed to have happened in the first place. The evil king never intended for the wedding to happen. He believed he had come up with a clever way to conveniently get rid of a popular young rival. The evil king proclaimed that he would give his own daughter in marriage to the young man, who had served him as a courageous military commander, if only the young man would go collect one hundred enemy scalps. Except, you should know that I am using the word scalps as a euphemism for some other circle of skin. The evil king believed that, given the odds against him, the courageous young military commander would surely meet a lamentable defeat, and heroically face his untimely demise. It was an altogether convenient strategy, a win-win for everyone involved. The evil King would win total unrivaled control. And his young courageous commander would win a place in history as a tragic, glorious martyr.
The young courageous military commander agreed that the king’s proposition would result in a win-win. He would win the king’s daughter. And the king would win a battle against his enemies. So he happily agreed to the king’s proposal. He determined to go collect not one hundred enemy “scalps,” but two hundred. And… surprise, surprise… he succeeded. He won the battle. Consequently, the king had to deliver.
From the king’s perspective, the wedding was never supposed to have happened. But then it did. It was all very awkward and embarrassing for the king, who envied the young commander. And now the young commander was his son-in-law.
Desperate times call for extreme measures, they say. The king deemed this a particularly desperate time. The young courageous commander was far too successful and far too popular, even among the king’s own children. Years before, the king’s own son, the heir apparent, had become the commander’s best friend. And then, the commander had managed to beat the odds and win the king’s daughter as his bride. The king would not watch everything slip away without a fight. He seethed with resentment and jealousy. His throne was in jeopardy. His new son-in-law had to die, and die as soon as possible.
By the way, this story is not original to me. And I am not making any of this up. I am simply retelling an old, old story. This is all in the Old Testament, in the Bible.
The king’s name is Saul. The young commander’s name is David. You can find this story for yourself in the Book of First Samuel, chapters eighteen and nineteen. Go ahead and check if I have retold the story accurately.
Spoiler alert: David does eventually end up winning the throne. He becomes king. But before he does, King Saul spends a lot of time and effort trying unsuccessfully to kill him.
I write all this because it is the back story to a Psalm, Psalm 59.
Psalm 59 caught my attention because it contains what appears to be two contradictory requests. In verse 11 the Psalmist prays that God would not kill his enemies. But then in verse 13 the Psalmist prays for God to consume his enemies, consume them until they are no more.
This makes no sense whatsoever. It seems like a complete contradiction: “Please don’t kill my adversaries, God — just completely consume them.”
But it does make sense if and when you understand the backstory. The Psalmist is none other than David. His adversaries include his father-in-law, once-close friends, and former comrades. The Psalmist does not want them to die. But he does want God to eliminate their threats and the vicious smear campaign. So he prays that God will undo them.
Crucially, the word for consume in the original language — the Hebrew language — also means finish. David wants God to finish his adversaries, but not necessarily kill them.
The word for consume or finish might also connote their eventual destruction, as opposed to their immediate destruction. If that is the case, then David desires that God would give them more time before their demise. Considering that they had tried to kill him, why would David want them to live any longer, though? Perhaps his motives are noble. Perhaps he desires both vindication and reconciliation.
In the second half of verse 11 David further explains why he does not want any of them to meet an untimely, premature death. “Lest they forget,” he says. “Do not kill them, lest my people forget.” David wants “his” people not to forget what happened. Might he want not just his loyal subjects, but even his old adversaries alive to remember?
That assumption works best, I think. David wants even his opponents to witness his victory and his vindication, so that they will realize that they were wrong all along. He wants them to remember the lies they once believed, wants them to see their error, and wants them to realize that they had him wrong. In other words, he is praying for his vindication and for their potential conversion. David does not want them dead. Instead, he wants God to bring their hostility to an end. He wants to finish them off as adversaries, but not as individuals.
Unless you know the backstory, the Psalm does not make sense. But once you do know the backstory, not only does it make sense, it also serves as a good example of how to pray for those who do you wrong.
Do not kill them, God. Just undo what they have errantly said and done; and let everyone who witnessed the fiasco observe how it all ends, and thereafter recall who was wrong and who was right.
In other words, Psalm 59 is a prayer not for vengeance, but for vindication.
Shall we just skip Chapter Seven entirely and ignore it away? Maybe it does not matter too much. Just one of Revelation’s twenty two chapters can be overlooked; right? Perhaps it does not contribute much content to the book.
Well, I mean, after all, Chapter Seven does abruptly interrupt the flow of the narrative. If and when you read through Revelation Chapter Six, you will find the first six of the Seven Seals broken open and presented in quick, orderly sequence. But then Chapter Seven completely stalls the tempo. It disrupts the rhythm of Revelation entirely. You would have every reason to expect the Seventh Seal to come right at the beginning of the Seventh Chapter. But sorry, no, not so. The Seventh Seal is entirely absent and not to be found in Chapter Seven. The grand opening of the final Seventh Seal is delayed for an entire chapter. It makes a seemingly overdue appearance in Chapter Eight.
Why is that?
Good question. I will attempt to answer that soon and very soon. But first, allow me to make an observation about a narrative pattern within the Book of Revelation. As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, the Book of Revelation is organized around four major heptads — four sets of seven scenes. In the first heptad Jesus Christ gives seven diagnostic messages to seven churches. In the second heptad, Christ, the Lion-Lamb, breaks open seven seals, each of which results in yet another strange scene. In the third heptad, seven angels sound seven trumpets, each of which results in something surreal and catastrophic. In the fourth and final heptad, seven angels pour seven bowls of cataclysmic wrath upon the world. In super-succinct summary, the Book of Revelation presents four core heptads: 1) the seven messages, 2) the seven seals, 3) the seven trumpets, and 4) the seven bowls.
Notably and significantly, three of the four Apocalyptic heptads are interrupted between scene six and scene seven. The Seven Seals are interrupted between the Sixth Seal and the Seventh (interrupted by Chapter Seven). The Seven Trumpets are interrupted between the Sixth Trumpet and the Seventh (interrupted by most of Chapter Eleven). And the Seven Bowls are interrupted between the Sixth Bowl and the Seventh (interrupted parenthetically by just one very curious verse of warning: 16:15, that is).
But back to the question of why Chapter Seven interrupts the tempo of the opening of the Seven Seals. Why is that? Why the chapter-long interruption? Here’s the reason: It is because no one ever expected the Surprise revealed in the Seventh Seal. The Seventh Seal comes along as a huge historical shock. The Seventh Seal reveals a profound mystery that had been (mostly) undisclosed for centuries.
That mystery is the Church.
Chapter Seven presents the reader with 144,000 sealed Servants of God. The number 144,000 derives from an equation of 12,000 multiplied by 12 — 12,000 sealed servants from each of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel. But… gasp! The twelve names listed in Revelation Chapter Seven are historically wrong, since the Tribes of Dan and Ephraim are omitted entirely. These two omissions are not a mistake, though, but instead a clue to the close reader. While the Servants of God do include the Children of Israel, not all of the Children of Israel are Servants of God.
And then Chapter Seven depicts a vast uncountable throng, from every nation, and from all the tribes, peoples, and languages. They, too, count as Servants of God. Since they are where they are — up there in Heaven, dressed in white and worshipping God — they, too, are to be included among the 144,000 elect Servants of God. Gasp, again! This is a surprise, a massive surprise. This is an utter mystery, as it was entirely unexpected. How did all these unexpected foreign people end up there in Heaven?
These unexpected foreign people — all these Gentiles — were/are redeemed from the nations by Christ. They, along with the redeemed Children of Israel, make up the Church of Christ. The mystery is that the Church is comprised of both the redeemed Children of Israel and the redeemed Gentiles.
If this is so, where does the multi-national Church of Christ come from? And when does the Church begin? When is the Church’s birthday?
The Church was born on Pentecost Sunday, on a Sunday morning in May, 33AD/CE, when fire was flung to Earth from Heaven. The fire that was flung from Heaven is the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Revelation the Flung Fire is both the Seventh (and final) Seal (see Revelation 8:5) and the First Trumpet (see 8:7).
But if this Flung Fire is really the impartation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, why does Revelation present the event and its aftermath in terms of blood, death, and destruction? Very good question. My answer is that this should be understood as figurative speech, as non-literal speech. After the Resurrection and before Christ returns, God wages war against His enemies, as He always has. But more often than not, God now battles his human adversaries spiritually, rather than physically. He prefers to overpower them spiritually, not physically. He subdues them using spiritual weapons, not physical weapons. He desires to “slay” them and yet leave them alive physically. God brings the ego to its end and then gives new life by the Spirit. He “kills” us by converting us. We die to ourselves in the water of baptism and are raised to new life as members of the Church.
If this figurative interpretation of Revelation seems like a stretch, I strongly suggest you give it further consideration and not reject it outright. There is quite a bit more to be said in substantiation of it. And it helps make sense of much of what Revelation presents. In fact, it turns whole sections of Revelation upside down, and transforms what at first seems impossibly horrifying into something hopeful and happy.
But I realize I have more work to do to convince you of all that. For now, you might start by reading Hosea 6:5, where God claims to have slain his stubborn, rebellious Chosen People by the words of His mouth. How is it that God slays rebellious people by the Words of His Mouth? Is God’s verbal violence to be understood physically or spiritually?
Curiously enough, interpreting the Book of Revelation rather resembles a science project. An interpreter starts with a hunch, a hunch that he (he, because by he in this scenario I mean me) needs to first articulate and craft into a clearly-stated hypothesis. Once the interpreter has put his hunch into words, he needs to devise an accurate means to test it. Devising such a test is rarely, if ever, easy. But a well-designed, accurate test cannot be bypassed. For reliable, replicable results, it is altogether necessary. Then, after his hypothesis has been tested and determined to be correct or incorrect, the scientist — er, interpreter — must do one of three things: 1) admit failure and scrap the hypothesis; 2) recognize that the hypothesis has some problems and thus needs to be reconsidered and revised; or 3) share his results and findings with his peers and colleagues, lest no one else benefit from what he has found. The whole point of the scientific endeavor, after all, is to benefit others with attained knowledge.
Enter the “Mad” Scientist. Sometimes a scientist will have a hypothesis that is met with wide skepticism, and even outright scorn from others in a field of specialization. However, the Mad Scientist is thoroughly convinced that she (she, because I recently read how this very scenario played out with a female scientist who developed mRNA vaccines) is convinced she is correct and on the right track. With that firm conviction, what options does the marginalized Mad Scientist pursue? She endures the scorn and finds a way to soldier on, lest no one else benefit from what she has found and might develop.
Enter the “Loony” Interpreter. Sometimes an interpreter will have an interpretation that is met with wide skepticism, and even outright scorn from others ~somewhat~ familiar with the topic. However, the Loony Interpreter is thoroughly convinced that he is (probably) correct and on the right track. What options does the Loony Interpreter have? He endures the scorn and keeps going, lest no one else benefit from what he has discovered and learned. The whole point of the theological endeavor, after all, is to benefit others with attained knowledge.
At some point, though, the scientist-interpreter analogy begins to break down. After all, hard science is a more objective discipline than Biblical interpretation. In science, the lines between the correct and the incorrect are usually much starker. Compared to theology, it is easier and usually faster to determine which hypotheses have failed and which have succeeded. Nonetheless, in either discipline, peer-review unavoidably happens and must happen. The whole peer-review aspect of science and academia serves as a sorter, an arbiter of what is enduring and worthwhile, in distinction to what is fallacious junk.
And so it must be with any would-be interpreter. Findings must be submitted for peer review. Ergo, this blog. And although a blog may not be the ideal forum for peer review, it potentially allows someone on the “professional” fringe a voice. Because otherwise, no one else will benefit from what he, the interpreter, has found and learned.
Waiting is the hardest part. It is akin to fishing. When a blogger puts his thoughts out into cyberspace, he effectively casts them into a murky pool. He never knows ahead of time what may or may not come. He just casts, hopes, prays, and waits.
And yes, I have just metaphorically compared myself to a scientist and a fisherman. If you have read thus far, thank you for the peer review.
Someday soon, I intend to blog about the Seventh Apocalyptic Seal, which I will call the Fire Flung from Heaven. My interpretive hypothesis is that historically, the Fire Flung from Heaven is one and the same Pentecost event recorded in the Book of Acts, Chapter 2. If that hypothesis is correct, then the Seventh Apocalyptic Seal (of Revelation 8:1-5) and the First Apocalyptic Trumpet (of Revelation 8:7) would be the very same historical event, an event which I believe occurred in Jerusalem on a Sunday morning in May, 33AD/CE. Stay tuned for my interpretation of the passage and an explanation of why I interpret the symbolism the way I do.
Opus Alienum Dei translates from Latin as the “alien works of God” or the “strange works of God.” Here I use the phrase in an interpretive sense, where and when it is applied to five pivotal historcial events which, at first glance, hardly seem like God’s own doing, but mysteriously are claimed by God. Since these events were altogether horrifying, they qualify precisely as Opus Alienum Dei. If the Bible were to be set aside or left out of consideration, these five horrifying historical events might not be obviously attributable to God. However, the Bible says otherwise. In the Bible, God unexpectedly assumes at least some degree of responsibility for these terrible events Himself. And that comes as something of a surprise.
The five events to which I refer include 1) the recurring conflict between two neighboring nations that descended from twin brothers named Jacob and Esau, 2) the Assyrian invasion and dismemberment of the Kingdom of Israel, 3) the Babylonian invasion and decimation of Kingdom of Judah, 4) the perpetually unheeded pleas and warnings of genuine prophets, and 5) the brutal and total destruction of the temple complex in Jerusalem by the Romans. Although this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I have a thesis regarding these five historical events: These five events constitute five of the Seven Seals described in the Book of Revelation.
Two of the Seven Seals are non-horrifying exceptions, maybe, probably. The two Seals that might not qualify as Opus Alienum Dei, as strange works of God, are the First Seal and the last, the Seventh Seal, because they are not altogether horrifying in character. They are awe-inspiring, certainly, but not horrifying. So let’s consider all of the Seven Seals in order, except for the last one, which deserves its own (future) post.
With the opening of the First Seal in Revelation 6:2 comes a Conquering Archer on a White Stallion, otherwise and more simply known as the Rider on the White Horse. Whereas once I thought that the Rider on the White Horse might be any of the many false messiahs — yet another political pretender — now I think that the Rider on the White Horse must be the pre-incarnate, occasionally-appearing, Old Testament Divine Warrior. However, I only came to that conclusion in retrospect, by considering the Seven Seals in a mostly-reversed order, from the penultimate Sixth Seal backwards to the first.
On what exact basis did I come to flip my previously held conclusion? On basis of subtle scriptural allusions, and short, yet specifically-worded biblical references, that’s how. In nearly every single one of its verses, the Book of Revelation drops interpretive hints in the form of scriptural allusions, and/or brief inter-textual references, and/or partial quotes. The Book of Revelation itself provides hints as how to interpret it.
As for the relevant allusions and references to the Rider on the White Horse, I counterintuitively start towards the end of the Old Testament, in the short, obscure Prophecy of Habakkuk. There you will find a retrospective historical poem or sonnet in the third chapter, in Habakkuk 3:3-15. Verses 8, 9, and 11 are especially telling and relevant. This passage recalls God as an equestrian, a horse rider — an archer armed with a bow and with arrows of light — who battles the wicked on behalf of God’s people. In verse 3, Habakkuk’s Sonnet specifically recalls the time of Israel’s Exodus sojourn. That matters because if, as I claim, the Seven Seals do indeed recount the entire biblical history of the ancient Nation of Israel, then the First Seal would necessarily occur about the time when Israel was first constituted as One Nation Under Yahweh. This inaugural constitutional event is otherwise sometimes known as the Theophany at Mount Sinai, which coincided with the Revelation of the Law/Torah. Habakkuk’s Divine Archer-Rider is thus situated on the biblical timeline exactly where my interpretation would anticipate — near the begining, at the founding of the ancient Nation of Israel.
With its archer imagery, this passage in Habakkuk also points directly back to the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, which is a Second Song of Moses (or, perhaps, the Swan Song of Moses, since it occurs immediately before his death). In this final Song of Moses, God is portrayed as an invincible, avenging warrior with a flashing, devouring sword, and, notably, with arrows. Where we see arrows, we might think archer. For those inclined to double-check my reading here, the citation is the entirety of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, but especially verse 23, and verses 39-43.
As far as my suggested interpretation of the Seven Seals is concerned, this close connection to the closing chapters of Deuteronomy carries an immense amount of weight and importance, since Deuteronomy speaks of all the curses that will come upon the fledgling Nation of Israel if it fails to keep the Covenant made at Mount Sinai. I am arguing that the ensuing five Seals are a symbolic portrayal of the historical outworking of Deuteronomy’s Threatened Curses. That is worth rephrasing and repeating: Five of the Seven Seals of Revelation are a symbolic portrayal of the historical fulfillment and outworking of Deuteronomy’s horrifying, contingent curses.
The two Old Testament passages cited above are enough to establish that God was depicted as an archer at the time of Deuteronomy. In addition, and for what it is worth, God is also depicted as shooting arrows of lightning in a Psalm of David recorded in both 2 Samuel 22:15 and Psalm 18:14 (incidentally, another Swan Song, as it occurs immediately before King David’s death). Thus the Divine Archer motif is known and established within the historical, Holy Writ of Israel.
As for Revelation 6:3-4 and the Second Seal, the Swordsman on a Red Horse, I am proposing that the Crimson Swordsman represents the neighboring nation of Edom. As the story of Esau and the red stew in Genesis 25:30 establishes, the name Edom means red; and Edom was a name thereafter applied to both Esau and his descendants, the nation of Edom. The fact that Esau’s descendants became the nation of Edom is repeatedly and emphatically stated in Genesis Chapter 36.
More pertinently, though, the nation of Edom stood against the nation of Israel on multiple occasions, with the first and defining time in Numbers Chapter 20. Notice that in Numbers 20:18 the Edomites specifically threaten to come against the People of Israel with… what? With, and I quote the hostile people of Edom themselves here: with “the sword.” Therefore, the words the sword have an explicit textual connection in Edom’s first and defining confrontation with Israel. I believe that the Book of Revelation deliberately references and uses this initial, defining neighboring-nation confrontation.
Edom is mentioned another very significant time in 1 Kings 11:14, when God is affirmed to have raised up Hadad the Edomite against wayward, apostate King Solomon. Solomon had failed to keep the monotheistic covenant and had drifted into idolatry. Thus the curses of Deuteronomy began to befall the Kingdom of Israel, which would soon split in two. Do not miss that God Himself is said to have raised up Hadad the Edomite as an adversary to Solomon. God used the nation of Edom as an instrument to judge Solomon and Israel. This Second Seal, then, is a first obvious instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. Here God uses Israel’s historical adversaries as His means of judgment. The curses of Deuteronomy are beginning to occur through hard historical events.
If we were to super fast-forward through time, we would find that the nation of Edom eventually reappears as adversary to the beleaguered Jewish people much later in their history, in the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC/BCE. In Psalm 137:7 the Edomites are said to have enthusiastically encouraged (and perhaps, even assisted) the invading Babylonians in their demolition of the City of Jerusalem. However, this fratricide met with God’s definite disapproval. In response to their role in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Prophecy of Obadiah foretold certain doom upon the Edomites for their unneighborly, unbrotherly treatment of their cousins, the descendants of Jacob.
As for Revelation 6:5-6 and the Third Seal, the Scale-Holding Rider on the Black Horse, I suggest that Sir Skewed Scales represents the imbalanced, oppressive economic situation immediately before the Assyrian invasion of Israel. I make that inference and connection through study of the scriptural occurrences of the word scales, a word which “happens” to often appear alongside the altogether-tellingadjectives deceptive and wicked, as in deceptive and wicked scales. Some key occurrences of the word scales appear in three of the minor prophets: Amos, Micah, and Hosea. In particular, see Amos 8:5, Micah 6:11, and Hosea 12:7. These three “minor” prophets were active in denouncing the economic imbalances and oppression present in both Israel and Judah, while they were still allied neighboring nations, and before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely destroyed by the fearsome Assyrians.
The most important and pertinent passage, in my judgment, is Micah Chapter Six, where God foretells of the impending devastation and desolation of Israel. And that is indeed what happened historically. It happened when Assyria invaded, besieged, looted, tortured, and systematically depopulated most of the immediate geographic region. According to the Prophets Micah, Amos, and Hosea this invasion was God’s doing, a judgment against the increase of idolatry and the rampant economic pilfering practiced throughout Israel and Judah. This Third Seal, Sir Skewed Scales, is thus a second instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the merciless, brutal Assyrians to judge both lapsed covenant kingdoms — both Judah and Israel, but especially Israel, which met its end.
As for Revelation 6:7-8 and the Fourth Seal, the Ghastly, Ghostly Tandem Riders on the Pale Horse, I believe that Grim Duo of Death and Hades symbolize catastrophic judgment in the form of the impending invasion of the Babylonians, who did in fact bring death, mass deportation, and nearly total destruction upon the remaining “Covenant Kingdom” of Judah, and its capital city, Jerusalem. I see a clear scriptural connection here to Isaiah Chapter 28, where God says that he will cancel Jerusalem’s corrupt covenant with… death, and overturn their perverse pact with… Sheol. Sheol is otherwise known in Greek as Hades, and in English as Hell. In other words, God asserts that He alone controls the arrival of death and the entrance to hell, regardless of Judah’s attempted confederations, preparations, and arrangements. God insisted that, try though they may, the idolatrous people of Jerusalem cannot “make a deal with the devil” that will protect them and prolong their lives. This Fourth Seal, the Ghostly, Ghastly Duo, is a third instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used Babylonia to judge unfaithful Judah.
As for Revelation 6:9-11 and the Fifth Seal, the Sacrificed Souls Under the Altar, I would say that they represent all the true prophets throughout the entire Old Testament. I get this notion from the account of the stoning death of Zechariah, the priestly prophet, in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, in combination with Jesus’ denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 11:49-51. The Old Testament prophets were always rejected and were sometimes killed for telling the people the truth. The Death of Zechariah the Priest stands as a particularly graphic instance of the kind of violent rejection that met the prophets. Another Zechariah, Zechariah the Prophet, was also one of the last, if not the last of Old Testament prophets. He also may have died as a martyr. Thus, given what Luke 11:49-51 says, and on the assumption that the same passage is alluded to in Revelation 6:9-11, the Fifth Seal encompasses all the (rejected) prophets and their writings throughout the Old Testament. This Fifth Seal is thus a fourth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Prophets to bring judgment upon the People of the Promised Land.
Finally, as for Revelation 6:12-17 and the Sixth Seal, it speaks both literally and metaphorically of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and its utter destruction. The passage that makes this very clear is Luke 23:26-31, which is when a soon-to-be-crucified Jesus tells the people of Jerusalem to mourn not for him but instead for themselves and their own children. He foretells them that they will call on the mountains to fall on them and plea for the hills to cover (or hide) them. Jesus is foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation of his death by crucifixion. And so it happened. Revelation 6:16 very clearly echoes Jesus’ Via Dolorosa Prophecy. This Sixth Seal is thus a fifth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Roman Legions to climatically judge the unresponsive, unbelieving People of Judæa.
So there you have it, then: a list of (almost) all the supporting, Revelation-referenced scriptural passages I have found (thus far) to establish my interpretation of the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. I hope you find it altogether convincing and entirely worthwhile. Look for a future post on how I understand the Seventh Seal.
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.
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.