Heptads of History

Monday, July 5, 2021

Heptads of History – Audio Version

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.


To Choose or Not to Choose

Monday, July 13th, 2020

To Choose or Not to Choose, Audio Version

Sometimes you have to choose between two options; but sometimes you don’t.

When presented with a choice between this or that, sometimes you should ask yourself if instead you can choose both this and that. 

Too often, when we are presented with a choice of this or that, we just unquestioningly accept that we have no alternative but to make a left-or-right choice, as presented. In technical language, a this-or-that choice between one option or another is called a binary decision. 

Over thirty years ago, a professor of mine casually warned me, “Beware the philosopher’s dilemma.” In just four words, he taught me an invaluable lifelong lesson. He wanted me to realize that some dilemmas — some choices — need not be binary, even if reputed experts present them that way. Not every this-or-that proposition needs to be accepted as it stands. Sometimes you can and you should ask yourself, “Must I really choose between these two alternatives? Is it possible to have or to accept both?”

In summary then, wisdom obtains in recognizing when a binary choice must be made, and when not. Be wise: Choose only when you must, but refuse to choose when you need not. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to this henceforth as the to-choose-or-not-to-choose question. 

This to-choose-or-not-to-choose question poses itself regularly when we read prophecy in scripture. For example, sometimes when we read a prophecy, we find ourselves wondering, “Is this prophecy going to be fulfilled literally or figuratively?” And thus you face a seemingly clear this-or-that dilemma. At such a point, you should give careful consideration to how the prophecy might be fulfilled literally. Alternatively, you should also give careful consideration to how the prophecy might be fulfilled figuratively. And finally, you should give consideration to whether the prophecy could be fulfilled both figuratively and literally, because sometimes it can and is.

This interpretive process is all much easier said than done. Our biases often keep us from thinking through all the options thoroughly. We often interpret a passage with a determination to find what we are hoping to find. We want the prophecy in question to fit a particular model or perspective to which we have already committed ourselves. It is really hard for us to make an interpretive paradigm shift, especially when we have always thought a particular way, and are an established part of a tradition that thinks the same. 

And in a way, that is not all bad. We should be rather reluctant to jettison a long-established interpretation of scripture. But we should not refuse to consider any scriptural evidence that contradicts or alters our preconceptions. Attested, re-attested, and establish-able capital-T truth ought to prevail in our reading and our thinking, simply because God, by virtue of being the source and the goal of created reality, stands always and forever on the side of the truth. Indeed, how could he not? Jesus declared that he himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Ultimately, that must mean that a determined devotion to discerning the truth is the very same thing as a commitment to finding Christ and standing with God. Even venerable ecclesiastical traditions should not keep us from siding with the truth to be found in the Bible or creation.

Consequently, whenever we read prophecy, we need to ask a lot of questions of the passage, and consider a number of interpretive options. We need to respect and listen to the voices of those interpreters who have gone before us and those who stand alongside of us. After all, many of them were and are sincerely trying to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, just like us. But at the same time, we need to be somewhat open to contrarian interpretations, if only because the prophets themselves were often contrarian voices speaking from the ecclesiastical periphery. The establishment is sometimes wrong, thus saith the prophets. 

But to my earlier point, to-choose-or-not-to-choose is a question we must always consider as we read through prophecy. Often we are told we must choose to interpret a passage either literally or figuratively. And sometimes that is indeed true. You have no alternative; it must be this or that. But other times, a prophecy could possibly be fulfilled both figuratively and literally. In such cases, beware the philosopher’s dilemma, and refuse to choose. Ezekiel 37 serves as a prime example of this. Please see my previous post on that passage, entitled Limit Two Refills.

Two Tables & An Ear

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

Percentage-wise, most of the Book of Revelation focuses on four series of seven topics. In narrative order, the four series are 1) the Apostolic Epistles to the Seven Municipal Churches in the Greek-speaking Roman province of Asia, 2) the Seven Document Seals, as they are progressively broken open by Jesus Christ, the Lion/Lamb, 3) the Seven Clarion Trumpets, and the very bizarre symbolic, yet historic events that occur as those trumpets are sounded, and finally 4) the Seven Bowls of Absolute, Catastrophic Wrath.

In future posts, I hope as best I can to explain the two middle series, the Seven Document Seals and the Seven Clarion Trumpets. Just to prepare my readers, I should say that interpreters of the Book of Revelation vary widely and wildly in how they explain these two sections. Even the most esteemed biblical scholars seem to have trouble making sense of these sections. But I’m going to try anyway. And be forewarned: I am willing to explore some ideas you have probably never encountered before. When I do, I will try to inform you of what I am doing interpretively, and why I am doing it.

The two tables I have included in this post give a big picture overview of some of the narrative topics and polarities in the Book of Revelation. Readers familiar with the book will likely understand much of what I present in the tables, but not all. I hope the material you don’t understand will bring you back to read future posts.

That’s all for today.

Burnt or Fired?

Friday, May 1st, 2020

Audio Version

In my last blog post, I referenced the sobering obituary in Leviticus 10 of the deviant, errant eldest sons of Aaron, brother Nadab and brother Abihu. They lost not only their priestly jobs but also their mortal lives to an incinerating blast of furious flame. They were very literally fired.

To speak of their fearsome demise as being fired, might sound glib. But I do have a good reason. I am not just playing cute with terminology. My intent is to demonstrate the important difference between the literal use of a word as opposed to the common use of a word. 

For example, if I were to say, “I got fired today” you would very likely understand the word fired in a common, conventional way, and not in a strictly literal way. We know that the phrase to get fired means that one’s employment was abruptly revoked. That is just how the expression to get fired is commonly used. But it is not the literal meaning — not at all. Hopefully, no one got burnt, singed, or scorched in the event. Someone simply lost their job.   

This confusion of the literal and the conventional can become a problem for us when we read texts in translation, like the Bible. Our tendency is to lean too much on the literal meaning of a word. Unsurprisingly, we want to read things literally. It is seemingly the most straightforward and simple approach. But it is not necessarily the best approach. Sometimes a word is better understood through common convention or specialized use. We need to find out how that word was commonly used or how it might have been understood in a special context.

For example, in the Book of Revelation Jesus is spoken of in many different ways. He is called Jesus Christ. He is called the Alpha and the Omega. He is called One Like a Son of Man. He is called the Faithful Witness. He is called the Son of God. He is called the Holy One, the True One. He is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He is called the Root of David. He is called the Lamb. He is called the Word of God. He is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is called the Bright Morning Star. He is called all of these names and titles, and quite a few more.

Some of these names and titles for Jesus are literal. He is literally the Son of God. He is literally the Faithful Witness. But some of the names given to Jesus in the Book of Revelation cannot possibly be literal. Jesus is not literally a lamb. Jesus is not literally two Greek letters. He is not literally a lion. He is not literally a star. We should acknowledge the difference. And we should try to understand these non-literal names and titles within their historical and literary context, and by virtue of their common, conventional use by Christian churches way back in the first century.

Rather than think of the Book of Revelation in strict literal or non-literal terms, it is much more helpful to think of the book in historical and contextual terms. We should ask questions like: How would first-century Christians in the Roman province of Asia have heard and understood this? What would have been their common understanding of this word, this sentence, this symbol, this image, or this reference? 

We should also pursue answers to questions like: What exactly is being referenced here? Is there a historical reference here? Is there a scriptural reference here? That last question is especially important, since subtle scriptural references appear in almost every verse of Revelation. That’s no exaggeration. 

In conclusion, we cannot read Revelation in strictly literal terms. It has too much symbolism. And it contains far too many subtle references. But sometimes Revelation does have literal elements. Since every reader is an interpreter, every reader must try to discern when the book is presenting literal material and when it is not. Revelation itself will often provide telltale clues. Always try to discern whether what you are reading is symbolic, literal, or a blend of the two. 

Inkblot Interpretations

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

Revelation 1:3

For the entirety of 2019, I made it my aim to seriously study and, if possible, understand the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. I mean, I studiously and scrupulously studied the Book of Revelation, verse by verse, in great depth and breadth. My intent was to actually understand the book, on the perhaps dubious assumption that it actually can be understood. More than just understand it, I hoped to make it understandable to others. If possible, I even wanted to make a comprehensive slideshow commentary of the book, so as to explain it to a class of eager, on the edge-of-their-seat students. 

For me to even say that I was so intent on grasping the Book of Revelation may worry you, or at very least, may trigger your inner yellow “caution-caution-caution, this guy is likely wacky” strobe light. That I do realize. And candidly, I don’t blame you — at least, not much. If someone else were to approach me and announce that they were intent on very seriously studying and deciphering the meaning of the Apocalypse, I would be inclined to have the same reaction. Who, in their right mind, would even want to do such a thing? 

Don’t you realize that people will perceive you as eccentric at best, and crazy at worst?   

But, regardless the probable suspicion and stigma, I did do it. I set out to seriously study the Book of Revelation. I did it very quietly and inconspicuously, at first. And I tried to do it in the most respectable manner possible. Besides reading, re-reading, re-re-reading, and listening to audio recordings of the Book of Revelation itself, I also borrowed and bought books about it. I read lots of books — old books, obscure books, wacky books, new books, distinguished books, highly respectable books, and how-did-this-ever-get-published books. I made a point of gathering them all, and reading most of them. And I’d be happy to show them to you, should you swing by and express any interest.    

But if that doesn’t impress you much, I would have to nod and agree. A big collection of books does not guarantee that the collector has come to correct conclusions. You would be right about that. If you have the means, it is relatively easy to collect books. It can be impressive. But it doesn’t mean you’ve done any better than all the other would-be, wanna-be expositors of the Book of Revelation. True enough.

But in reading books about the Book of Revelation, what I’ve discovered is that there are a number of scholars who have actually have made some genuine progress in understanding it. They really have. I know that what I just said is merely an assertion. The assertion itself is not convincing. But I will assert it, nonetheless. There are some scholars who really have made headway in making sense of the Apocalypse. If you were to take the time to listen to them, you would come to same conclusion, I’m willing to bet. But you need to be willing to listen. 

What I find, though, is that most people are not willing to listen. They just give you a half smile and walk away. I don’t blame them — at least, not much.