Revelation 10 The Angel, The Scroll and the Prophet

The Angel with the Little Book, Bamberger Apocalypse Folio 25

Revelation 10

1 And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2 He held a little scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, 3 he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring. And when he shouted, the seven thunders sounded. 4 And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” 5 Then the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and the land raised his right hand to heaven 6 and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it: “There will be no more delay, 7 but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled, as he announced to his servants the prophets.”

8 Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9 So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” 10 So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

11 Then they said to me, “You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”

Revelation does not press on inexorably towards judgment, instead it holds back since judgment by itself doesn’t seem to bring about repentance. We are continually reminded amid the chaos that is unleashed upon the earth that the forces that are at work for destruction are not comparable to the forces that God commands. Even as the first two woes have been unleashed the textual progression of Revelation takes a long pause to take our vision away from the death and destruction to prepare John, and by extension the churches that John is writing to, for their critical mission of witness. Here the mighty angel and the little scroll prepare the prophet and those who hear for the immediacy of their mission for there is no longer any time to delay.

Revelation operates in a world of paradoxes: on the one hand God is the primary actor who can unleash or restrain the forces of death and destruction but, on the other hand God chooses to work through individuals who may seem powerless compared to the mighty and powerful of the earth. God seems to choose the lowly to bring down the mighty from their thrones, the foolish to teach the wise and the exiled prophet speaks his words of prophecy to the peoples and nations and languages and kings. The churches of Asia may be a tiny minority amid the Roman empire and yet they serve a God whose power makes the might of Rome or any empire seem inconsequential.

The initial image of the angel standing astride the sea and land reflects God’s claim as the true Lord of all the creation but as we will see later in Revelation God’s dominion will be contested. Rome will be represented in Revelation 13 as a beast from the sea and a beast from the earth speaking against the dominion of God. The visual imagery discovered in the excavation of the imperial temple at Aphrodisias is strikingly similar to the description of the angel in this chapter. As the Aphrodisias excavation project describes the image:

Claudius with allegories of land and sea. Sebasteion, south building. Image from http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html

The emperor strides across the panel in vigorous motion, framed behind by a billow of drapery, which in ancient iconography indicated floating, flying, and as here, divine epiphany. He receives in his right hand a cornucopia with the fruits of the earth from a small figure emerging from the ground. On the right he receives a steering oar from a sea figure or marine tritoness. She has fish legs and a fish-scale skirt. The cornucopia and the steering oar symbolize the prosperity of land and sea under the emperor’s rule. The composition is an arresting visualization of the Roman emperor as an all powerful hellenistic-style divinity as seen from the eastern provinces. The awkward, rather gauche handling of the proportions of the emperor’s body indicates that the composition was designed locally. There were no public monuments in Rome that portrayed such an elevated, panegyrical conception of the emperor’s role. (http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html, accessed July 3, 2018)

In contrast to the claims made about Caesar in images like this and in the imperial cult it is now an emissary from God who places one foot on the land and one on the sea, who is wrapped in a rainbow and who demonstrates the power of God. The angel carries a little scroll which is probably a copy of the scroll that was unsealed earlier in Revelation. The angel is powerful, and his shout is like a lion’s roar and the thunders speak in response. The thunders, which could be the seven angels around the throne or could be God’s voice. In this case since it is seven thunders it probably refers to the angels around the throne answering the angel on the sea and land. Yet, the words are not to be written down and what was said was not for ears beyond John’s It is sealed up and unlike in Daniel the words are not sealed up to an appointed time, here they are not to be shared.

With the angel’s announcement we hear the conflicting time schedule of Revelation. On the one hand we are in a pause so that John and the church can witness, the seventh trumpet has not sounded and there will be a period of forty-two months where the witnesses will testify, on the other hand there is no more time (or as the NRSV translates this passage there will be no more delay). God’s mystery is about to be revealed, God’s kingdom is coming, and God’s dominion will spread over the land and sea, to peoples, nations, languages and kings.

John in the role of a prophet is having the mystery of God revealed to him to share with others. The language echoes Amos 3:7:

Surely the LORD God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.

John now also receives an additional commissioning in the pattern of Ezekiel. He is commanded, like the prophet Ezekiel to eat an offered scroll (Ezekiel 3:3) and while it is sweet to the taste, like in Ezekiel, it is bitter in the stomach. A prophet is called to bear unpleasant truths to those who they are sent to and the prophet’s words are often unheard or ignored. The experience of the prophet is often one of disappointment and rejection. They are called to go out to the world and call for repentance. Yet, they are often broken hearted as their words go unheeded and as the consequences of people’s actions bear their unfortunate fruit. Yet, God’s love for the world and the people of it seems to require God to send God’s very best to witness, be rejected and suffer so that some might repent. Perhaps the bitterness of the scroll is the price that the prophet bears for entering the space between God and the world.

Advertisements
Posted in Biblical Reflections, Revelation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

 Revelation 9: The First Two Woes

Hans Holbein from the 1531 Zwingli bible

Revelation 9: 1-12: The First Woe-The Locusts of the Abyss

1 And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit; 2 he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. 3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.

7 In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 9 they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. 10 They have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months. 11 They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.

12 The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.

The first four trumpets saw the earth and sea and sky become the bearers of God’s judgment to provide an opportunity for the recalcitrant portions humanity to repent. Now in the fifth trumpet the recipients of the suffering begins to shift to humanity and specifically the portions of humanity not sealed with the seal of God. Like in the book of Exodus where the chosen people of Israel are not inflicted with the signs and wonders that God does against Egypt; so here the Israel sealed and protected will not be stung by the demonic locust swarm that is released from the abyss.

While the star that fell in Revelation 8:10 was referring to a meteor which falls from the heavens into the waters of the earth contaminating them the star here most likely refers to an angel of God. In Revelation 1: 20 we see the seven stars referred to as the seven angels of the churches. Some have taken this figure to be Satan falling from heaven coming to unleash the forces of the abyss and while this is possible (and there is language later in Revelation about Satan being cast out of heaven as well Jesus’ statement in Luke 10:18 about seeing Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning) it seems odd that God or an agent of God would hand Satan the key to the abyss. Initiating the first woe an angel opens the demonic realm of the abyss.

The abyss in Revelation is a demonic realm. It is not the same as under the earth, where the creatures that live there will give God praise. Instead this is the realm of the Destroyer and those forces that are opposed to the Creator. In Revelation 11 the beast will come up from the abyss, and in Revelation 20 Satan will be confined there. John observes the abyss being opened and the smoke arising from it along with the emergence of the locusts, but John does not dwell on the abyss itself and instead focuses on the impact of the abyss being opened upon the people of the earth.

These first two woes demonstrate a removal of restraints by God. The creatures of the abyss have been imprisoned there and only upon being released is their destruction seen and felt. The locusts of the abyss are demonic in every way and counter to the natural order. In some respects their description mirrors the Greek mythological creature of the manticore with its human, lion and scorpion traits and yet these demonic locusts are distinct even from this mythical creature which blurred the boundaries of species and reality. The locusts do not act like regular locusts: they fly through the smoke where normal locusts will become inactive in smoke, they do not consume the grass and plants of the field like normal locusts do and instead of their mouths it is their stingers that are the troubling aspect. The comparison of the locusts to horses emphasizes their military aspect and they, like the demonic cavalry that come with the sixth trumpet. Their description being like ‘horses equipped for battle’ echoes Joel 2: 4-5:

They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge. As with the rumbling of chariots. They leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.

The description of the demonic locusts indicates their menace and these locust act like a military unit attacking the people and yet they are not given the power to kill only to torture with their sting. The people wish for death due to the pain of the sting, but they are ultimately allowed to live, they are given the opportunity to repent after being incapacitated by the sting for an extended time.

For me the key to understanding this section comes in verses 20-21 where they people don’t repent and return to the worship of demons. As I’ve mentioned throughout this section the locusts and their master, Abaddon or Apollyon, are demonic forces of destruction that are in opposition to God the creator. The action of the angel in opening the abyss turns the people who worship, in John’s view, demons over to the demonic forces they worship, and they are tormented by them. Revelation is a vision of disclosure that attempts to illuminate the world through its strange images. God no longer restrains the demonic in order to unmask the idols that people are giving their allegiance to in order that they might turn to the Lord. But even here at the first woe there is restraint that prevents the demonic horde of locusts the ability to bring death even to the unrepentant.

It is also worth noting the similarities between the locusts of the first woe and the first rider from the first seal. The first rider on the white horse also wears a crown and is given the power to conquer. There is also a progression from this image to the image of war in both the second seal and the second woe. (See Revelation 6: 1-4)

Revelation 9: 13-21 The Second Woe-the Angels and the Cavalry Horde

The Sixth Trumpet from the Bamberg Apocalypse

13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 So the four angels were released, who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of humankind. 16 The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million; I heard their number. 17 And this was how I saw the horses in my vision: the riders wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur; the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. 18 By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.

20 The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.

With the sixth trumpet a second group of creatures, this time angels, are released to bring about judgment. Much like the opening of the abyss, here creatures that are bent on destroying humanity are unleashed and with them a seemingly impossible number of demonic cavalry. Like in the second seal, war is unleashed upon the earth and death follows shortly afterwards. Structurally there seems to be a connection between the angels unleashed here and the four angels retraining the four winds of heaven in Revelation 7:1. These angels bound at the river Euphrates are not the same angels, but while the first angels hold back judgment these angels of death become the summoners of destruction and desolation. Yet, even in the midst of the destruction and devastation, Revelation wants us to hear that by releasing these angels of death that even here God remains firmly in control.

The angels at the beginning of this woe are bound, like Satan will be in Revelation 20:2 (see also the evocative language of binding the strongman in Mark 3:27). Perhaps they are bound as they emerge from the abyss and they are fallen angels like Satan, perhaps they are fallen angels that have been chained here at the Euphrates for countless years, or perhaps they were simply created to be vessels that God will use to bring about the judgment of the people. For me the angels themselves seem to be fallen creatures and the cavalry they will summon also is full of demonic aspects in its description and mission. Ultimately these creatures which are unleashed upon the creation are also forces of death and destruction and bring about the death of large portions of humanity. Yet the command to release the angels comes from the altar of God and, as mentioned above, God remains firmly in control despite the chaos the people of the earth would experience from the unleashing of the forces of war and destruction.

The description of the cavalry has its closest resonance in the mythical Chimera (which has a lion’s head, snake for a tail and a goat’s head arising from it’s back). They are not like a normal troop of cavalry and John reminds us that we are seeing this in a vision. The horses kill with fire, smoke and sulfur and in addition inflict harm with their snake-like tails. The vision shows us a distortion of the created order. The image is one of war and the destruction that comes with it and cavalry was the most powerful military unit of the time of Revelation. Looking back on the last century of warfare it may be tempting to assign to these creatures correlations with the technology of warfare in our time, but the images are a visionary representation of God’s judgment and attempting to lock down the image to a concrete time or technology robs it of its flexibility.

Ultimately the goal of Revelation’s visions and judgments is to bring about change. God’s desire is for people to turn away from the created things that they worship and the works of human hands so that they can join creation in worshipping the Creator. A frequent theme in the bible is the way that humanity “exchanges the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four- footed animals or reptiles.” (Romans 1: 23) God desires humanity to turn both from its worship of demons and the work of human hands but also to turn from their practices which are listed in opposition to God. Yet judgment alone does not bring about repentance. Ultimately, God will provide witnesses to the people who now become the prophets to all the nations calling people to, ‘return to the LORD their God.’ Judgment and witness ultimately are employed in the service of God to bring about repentance. God desires for people to turn from the forces that are working to destroy the creation and to give their allegiance to the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Revelation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Parable of the Mesquite Tree

Velvet Mesquite with spring foliage, CC 3.0

I know that many people remember times growing up when they would walk through the grass without shoes, feeling the thin blades tickle their toes; that was not my experience growing up. On one hand the grass in south Texas was not the soft grass I would later experience in Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska which seemed to provide a universal blanket on the ground; yards where weeds were the exception as the grass thrived in the more temperate summers and more regular rains. I remember one of the years I served a congregation in Nebraska and they complained about the drought they were undergoing, and I remember thinking that this would have been a particularly wet year growing up near San Antonio. On the other hand, was the presence of the mesquite tree that occupied the back yard of my childhood home. This hardy tree made the already rough combination of grass and weeds a perilous minefield for those daring enough to venture into the yard without thick soled shoes.

Nobody chose to plant the mesquite tree and why would they? Although they were near impossible to kill they didn’t provide a thick canopy of shade like a maple or oak might. The mesquite tree produced bean pods which may have been edible but nobody I knew ate them or used them as feed for animals, but the pods would cover the yard attempting to produce even more of the unwanted trees. The wood seemed to have only one good use, for burning. When it burned it produced a hot fire with a pungent smoke, a fire that seems

to mirror the trees resilience in the ground. When the tree is cut down it activates its own trigger in the roots to produce more and heartier mesquite trees and like the hydra of myth where once you only had one head now you had multiple trees vying for the space occupied by the severed trunk on top of the still living roots. But most distinctive are the thorns, sometimes several inches in length and both tough and sharp. I remember pulling a thorn out of my foot that had punctured through my sandals and still was buried a half inch into my foot. Nobody would plant this tree within their garden.

Yet, as Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed which comes from a small seed, it too was considered a nuisance plant, an extremely large noxious weed that was hard to remove from a field and was something that no farmer would voluntarily introduce. It was the antithesis of the mighty cedar which Ezekiel 17 could reference as an image for God’s planting God’s people in the land of milk and honey. For the cedar is a tree valued for it’s image of strength and power, valued for its strong wood used in the construction of the temple, palace and home. Yet both the mustard and the mesquite become homes for the birds of the airs and seem to provide protection for countless other creatures. Perhaps the kingdom of God looks more at times like the rough field with the mesquite tree than the palatial gardens that have every plant and tree managed and growing in near perfect symmetry. Perhaps the kingdom of God emerges in the less fertile places where only a fast-growing shrub or an incredibly resilient tree can endure the hot sun and unforgiving soil. Unlike the fruit trees which need continual tending or the cedars which thrive mixture of clay and loam and higher altitude of the mountains of Lebanon these unruly plants thrive like weeds no matter how hard they attempt to be eliminated. Perhaps the kingdom of God is something that refuses to go away, no matter how often it remains untended, unirrigated, uncared for, unloved and unwanted. Perhaps it thrives in the areas and situations that kill things more beautiful but less hardy. Maybe the kingdom of God also has its own thorns which may provide protection for the creatures that nest in its branches but provide a painful nuisance for those who look upon the tree as fit only for the fire. And perhaps, just perhaps, that which seems inconvenient, unlovely, and a waste of space to human eyes might be necessary, lovely and providential within the upside-down kingdom where the first are last and the last are first, where masters serve and kings are crucified. I may not always understand it, but I’ve learned to walk among the places where mesquite grow by wearing shoes with good soles and to wonder at their improbable place within God’s garden.

Photo of the foliage of a honey mesquite (Prosopis Glandulosa) by Don A.W. Carlson Shared by CC 2.5

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Gospel of Mark | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Revelation 8 God’s Action Unsealed

Image from https://pixabay.com/en/angel-wing-blowers-golden-trumpet-4928/ image free for public use through Creative Commons CC0

Revelation 8: 1-5 The Final Seal

1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

3 Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. 4 And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

The seventh seal is open, and the content of the scroll can now be revealed. We enter a period of silence. With the sixth seal the inhabitants of the earth realize that God is about to act and now even in heaven the praise of the countless multitude is interrupted. The silence may reflect a type of silent reverence toward God or the message that has just been unsealed, or it may provide a space where the prayers of the saints can come before God so that God may hear the oppression of God’s people as God did in Exodus. Speech and song may stop but action continues as the seven angels before the throne are handed trumpets and a different angel offers up incense and prayers.

The seven angels may be the seven archangels listed in 1 Enoch 20: 1, a part of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha (a collection of works that were not included in the canon of scripture). Yet, while many are fascinated by attempting to catalogue the ranks of the angels of heaven only Michael will be named in Revelation and while these angels have a role to play within Revelation as those called to blow the trumpets which enact judgment we have no further information on their identity or role beyond this action.

While the seven angels and the trumpets given to them will form the progression of the next cycle of Revelation, the angel with the censer occupies the central role in this pivotal scene. When the fifth seal was opened in Revelation 6: 9-11 the ones slaughtered for their testimony called out to their God for judgment and for their blood to be avenged. Now as this angel occupying a priestly role by offering incense offered up with the prayers of the saints. This action echoes the poetic language of Psalm 141:

Let my prayers be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:2)

Incense in the tabernacle or temple was burned to honor God and to protect the priest from being harmed by the divine presence of God. John sees the angel’s offering of incense and prayer rise up before God. The scene ends with the prayers going up and fire coming down. The fire which is taken from the altar is thrown to earth and it is received as thunder, lightning and an earthquake, all signs of divine judgment in the ancient world.

Revelation 8: 6-13 The First Four Trumpets

6 Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets made ready to blow them.

7 The first angel blew his trumpet, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.

8 The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. 9 A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

10 The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11 The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.

12 The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light was darkened; a third of the day was kept from shining, and likewise the night.

13 Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew in midheaven, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

The trumpets begin a new cycle of visions of destruction and judgment. While I view the seals as a prelude illuminating the world that the content of the scroll, which is revealed symbolically through the rest of the book, will address. With the trumpets we see God’s action in response to the prayers that have been lifted up and the cries of those whose blood has been shed. Like in Exodus 3: 7, the LORD has observed the misery of God’s people and God’s response is a combination of action and sending Moses as a witness.

In the cycle of the trumpets and cycle of the bowls in Revelation 16 there are similarities with the plagues in Exodus 7-12. While the similarities are closer with Revelation 16 they are worth noting here in addition to Psalm 78 and 105 which also echo the plagues on Egypt:

Exodus 7-12 Psalm 78 Psalm 105 Revelation 8-9 (Trumpets) Revelation 16 (bowls)
River Changes to blood (7: 14-25)  78:44 105: 29 Rivers become bitter, seas turn to blood (8: 8-11) Sea changes to blood (16:3)
Frogs (8: 1-15) 78:45 105:30   Froglike Spirits (16: 12-16)
Gnats (8:16-19)   105:31    
Flies (8: 23-32) 78:45 105:31    
Cattle, disease (9: 1-7) Cattle are given to hail (combining 5 &7) 78:48      
Sores (9: 8-12)       Painful sores (16:2)
Hail, fire, thunder (9: 13-35) 78:48 105:32 Hail and Fire mixed with blood (8:7) Huge hailstones (16: 21)
Locusts (10: 1-20) 78:46 105: 34-35 ‘Demonic Locusts’ (9:1-11)  
Darkness (10:21-29)   105:28 1/3 of lights in sky darkened (8: 12) Darkness over kingdom of beast (16: 10-11)
Death, Destroying angel (12: 29-32) 78:51 105:36 1/3 of humankind killed (9: 13-19)  

See similar chart in Craig Koester’s Revelation. (Koester, 2014, p. 446)

These cycles of judgment have been both fascinating and terrifying to Christians. Some early Christians, like Marcion, a second century church leader who was later declared to be a heretic, couldn’t reconcile the God of love that Jesus testified to with this God who judges.  Yet, Christians throughout history have been troubled by the violent language of Revelation. Many traditions, including my own, rarely use this book and I know in discussions with people who have been a part of my walking through the book with them that many had been afraid to read Revelation. Even well-meaning scholars may shy away or attempt to reframe the language of Revelation in a less harsh way. For example: Richard B. Hays, a scholar I respect greatly, attempting to interpret Revelation in light of the rest of the New Testament can state:

One of the major hermeneutical implications of reading Revelation within the canonical framework of the New Testament is to serve as a check and corrective on interpretations that seek to read the violent militaristic imagery of the Apocalypse literalistically. If Jesus wins his victory over the world through his faithful death on a cross (as all the rest of the New Testament documents insist), and if Revelation’s figurative depictions are to be read in intertextual concert with these other texts, then the triumphant rider who is “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (Rev 19: 13) must be wearing a garment drenched with his own blood, and the “sharp sword” that comes “from his mouth…to strike down the nations” (Rev 19: 15) must be the proclaimed word of the gospel (as in Eph 6:17), not a literal sword of iron that kills enemies. (Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alikier, 2015) (Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alikier, 2015, p. 81)

While I would agree that the violent militaristic imagery of Revelation is not to be read literalistically, it is far too easy to attempt to create an image of God that fits nicely with a life of privilege and therefore does not respond to the saints calls for justice or for their blood to be avenged. In 2004, during my final semester of seminary, I had the opportunity to read for the first of many times Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace which helped me understand the need for God’s judgment or wrath in a way I hadn’t before. Perhaps it was some of the connections between Dr. Volf’s stories and influences in my own story that made his poignant reflection so powerful since the unit I served with in the military had just returned from a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and I heard many reflections on the way that Croatians had been targeted for ethnic cleansing, perhaps it was the vulnerable blending of personal experience and academics but the book resonated with me. This book became one of the works I have returned to again and again as I reflect on what an embodied Christian faith looks like. The final chapter of Exclusion and Embrace, ‘Violence and Peace’, may not be exclusively about Revelation but it dances with the imagery of Revelation multiple times as he argues for the necessity of divine judgment for Christians to practice reconciliation and non-violence. It is worth quoting here at length:

Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1: 51-52) seems responsible; the God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover it takes the quiet suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, pp. 303-304)

To Christians who live in easy accommodation with the ways of power, like those in the churches in Sardis and Laodicea we met in chapter three, the language of judgment may be uncomfortable or unwanted. As a person who serves in a privileged and predominantly affluent suburb in the United States it may be easier to deal with a God who allows things to remain as they are or to rely upon my own power for action and to take judgment into my own hands. But if vengeance is mine, then perhaps I too have fallen prey to the temptation the serpent put before Eve in the garden of Eden: to be like God. On the other hand, those who dwell on the violent portions of Revelation often miss the restraint that is a part of this and other places where divine judgment is involved. From the story of Noah onward we see that wrath or violence does not change the inclination of the human heart and punishment alone does not bring about repentance.

Another reflection from my time in the military that may also be a part of the costly patience of God has to do with the impact of these actions upon the people and the earth. Conflict that involves military force is always destructive and while modern military action often is restrained in its use of force there are always innocent casualties and damage to environment where the action occurs. While there is restraint in God’s actions as the trumpets sound here in Revelation the damage to the earth is dramatic. Like in Exodus 7-12, where God’s actions until the very last sign and wonder attempt to limit the death of the people of Egypt, the predominant ‘victim’ of the divine action is the earth. In Genesis 3:17, when God is judging Adam and Eve after they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the earth bears the curse for humanity and likewise here in Revelation it will be the plants, the waters and even the sun and stars that will suffer prior to the sixth seal where death is unleashed and 1/3 of humankind is killed.

The first trumpet is hail mixed with fire and blood. Fire mixed with hail was one of the signs and wonders used against the Egyptians while the Israelites were slaves (Exodus 9: 13-35) and later in the book of Ezekiel it was prophesied against Gog and its allies (Ezekiel 38:22). Blood falling with rain is also a portent of war in Greco-Roman writings. (Koester, 2014, p. 448) As mentioned above it is the earth that feels the impact of this hail, fire and blood. That doesn’t mean people would be unaffected. The grass was used for feeding the flocks and the wood was used for everything from shelter to furniture to fuel for heat and cooking. One third of the earth being consumed by fires would be both an ecological and a financial disaster for the people and yet it allows for survival so that there remains an opportunity for continued witness and the hope of repentance.

The second trumpet impacts the seas and the creatures that live within it. While there are ships that are destroyed, the earth again bears the primary impact of this trumpet of judgment.  The loss of sea life would impact the diet of the people throughout the Roman empire who ate seafood and the loss of shipping would be an economic disaster for those who lost ships, cargo and crews. Yet, life continues to remain possible.

Artemisia Absinthium, also called ‘wormwood’

The third trumpet impacts the fresh waters by making them undrinkable. The naming of the star ‘wormwood’ references artemisia abisinthium which is bitter and whose oil would make food and water unpalatable. Even though this plant is now used for medicinal purposes, the reference here is to water that is no longer potable. While many died from undrinkable water there much of the waters that are not impacted so that life can continue and there remains the opportunity for change.

Finally, the fourth trumpet eliminates a third of the light of the sun, moon and stars. Even the heavens are altered by the narrative of Revelation. Combined the first four trumpets bring about an ecological disaster impacting the skies, the seas and the land. When I was growing up in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War the popular interpretations of passages like this were based on a nuclear war. While I don’t think John was witnessing a nuclear war being unveiled to him I do think it is important to realize that many of these images are portents of a devastating war and the ecological disaster it can bring. When I was growing up there were individuals who hoped for this war because they believed it would signal the beginning of the ‘apocalypse’ and would bring about God’s return. I wonder now how anyone could hope for the type of ecological and humanitarian disaster that a nuclear war would bring. There will always be a temptation to link concrete events with the language of Revelation, and at times of crisis like World War II, Revelation was viewed by some as a promise that the terror would have a limited span and that the horror would end. Revelation may prove a beacon of hope for those dealing with disasters and terrors across history but I prefer to allow the images to retain their plasticity and their ability to speak to multiple times and experiences.

The chapter ends with an eagle crying out “Woe, woe, woe” for the remaining trumpet blasts. This dire statement brings us into the expectation that the final trumpet blasts will be more severe than the four that came before. Yet, even these woes that are coming have limits placed upon them to allow for continued witnessing and calling for repentance.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Revelation | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Lament of the Forgotten Son

Margaret Adams Parker, Reconciliation: Sculpture of the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Duke Divinity School (2005) View 1

Margaret Adams Parker, Reconciliation: Sculpture of the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Duke Divinity School (2005) View 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You stand out on the crossroads looking for the prodigal
Waiting for the return of the one who cashed in his heritage
Who took what we worked so long to build and walked away
He wished for your death and plundered your house
And yet day after day you wait for his return, this lost son
Like some wandering sheep you set out in search of him
Like some lost coin you search every corner to find again
And so, you stand out at the crossroads today and every day
While I rise up in your stead, tending the flock, sowing the seed
Working to ensure that for all of us there will be a harvest
You pine for your lost son, I grieve for my lost father

This son of yours, this spoiled younger brother of mine
Unwilling to dirty his hands among the fields or to care for the home
Who shirked the yoke that I bore for you countless seasons
There were always excuses that were made on his behalf
I thought that his last request might finally cross a line
That this final insult, this slap in the face might raise your ire
Is there nothing he could do, no request he might make
That might cause you to put your foot down and say, ‘no more’
How could you let him take away the work of our hands
Going off to a distant land with the wealth of generations
This son of yours, this spoiled younger brother of mine

The days you spent on the crossroads looking for the prodigal
Are the days you never once looked at me managing the house
Sweating with the servants in the field to sow and reap a harvest for you
Holding everything together while you stayed lost in your grief
Did your eyes never fall upon me as I shepherded your flock?
Was a word of praise ever uttered from your lips for my longstanding obedience?
Did your desire to see what was lost blind you to what remains?
The absent son who erased the son with calloused hands and burnt skin
Who stayed and never strayed from the homestead
And who is still waiting here for you to join him as he works in the vineyard

Then, one day, as I exit the fields at the end of a weary day
I hear merriment as the town eats our food and drinks our wine
The fatted calf has been slaughtered for the prodigals return
And while the entire town was invited to the celebration
You never considered coming to the fields to retrieve me?
It is only from a slave that I learn that my brother has returned
And my father as well, back from the crossroads and the ends of the earth
You rejoice with the town while my soul bleed outside the home I sustained
What must I do to be seen, heard, loved and welcomed?
Must I also become the prodigal for you to celebrate me?
Must I deny you so that you might accept me?

How long before you realize that there is a son missing from your feast?
Before you make the journey into the fields you abandoned for the crossroads?
Until you see the son who didn’t squander your wealth with prostitutes
He feasted away your fortune and you throw him a feast of rich foods
I worked your fields, maintained your table, fed your flocks
Yet, not even a goat was to be spared for me and my friends
Welcome home father, I hope you appreciate the pantry I stocked
Welcome home brother, I hope you enjoyed the calf I raised
Hear this lament of the forgotten son who awaited your return
To the family you both turned your backs upon

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Poetry | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Revelation 7 Restraint and Praise

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Angels Restraining the Four Winds (woodcut)

Revelation 7

1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”

4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel: 5 From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.

9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The previous chapter ends with the mighty of the earth brought low in their fear of the face of the one seated on the throne and the wrath of the lamb and we are left expecting the vengeance of God to be unveiled. What follows in this chapter is another great reversal of expectations: where wrath is expected we find restraint, where the mighty wonder who is able to stand we see a countless multitude standing before the throne, where seals have been broken and the mighty brought low now a lost people is sealed and lifted up. In a pattern that Revelation will repeat, we pause before the last unveiling and we are reoriented to the worship that is ongoing in heaven. We will see the contrast between earth and heaven, but Revelation’s trajectory is that what happens on earth will be the same as what happens in heaven.

Our scene opens with four angels restraining the four winds at the four corners of the earth. After the great earthquake and the signs in the heavens which even the nations can see and respond to we pause. The earth is not to be damaged at this point, although the upcoming series of trumpets will direct much of the damage towards the earth. But here, while the 144,000 are sealed the earth gets a reprieve. As St. Paul can say in Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;” (Romans 8:19) Creation and humanity’s destiny are tied together throughout the Bible beginning with the creation narrative when, after eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is creation that bears the curse that is originally to fall on Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3: 17) Now there is restraint as the servants (literally slaves) of God are to be sealed. The vocation which they have had before was unseen in the world but now they are being marked as servants of the living God. This sealing marks them as honored in this narrative and the slaves of God are higher than the generals and kings of the earth. The mighty are brought down and the humble and humiliated are here lifted up.

The one hundred forty-four thousand from the nation of Israel brings the people of God back into Revelation. As I’ve mentioned multiple times John, the author of Revelation, uses the language of Israel’s vocation in relation to the church but here the tribes of Israel are reassembled and marked for their own vocation. Numbers are symbolically important to Revelation and this twelve groups of twelve thousand symbolically points to a census where the total number of God’s people are sealed. John’s visionary approach may not lead to the type of declaration that Paul would make in his wrestling about the place of Israel in Romans 9-11 where he declares that all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26) but the azimuth of this vision points in the same direction. God has not forgotten Israel and has sealed them as God’s own.

The close reader will notice that the listing of the tribes has two peculiarities: Ephraim and Dan are not named. The two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are typically listed as half tribes. While Manasseh is named in the list Ephraim is not. Yet, there is a tribe of Joseph which would include Ephraim, but it is peculiar that Manasseh receives note and Ephraim (which becomes a way of talking about the northern tribes in general in some of the prophets) is not. Dan is missing from the list. We do not know the reason for Dan’s omission. Medieval interpreters favored an explanation that the Antichrist was to come from Dan, but these traditions all post-date Revelation by centuries. Yet, symbolically there are twelve tribes even if the names do not line up perfectly with the designation of the tribes elsewhere in scripture.

There has always been a temptation for Christian groups, from the Franciscans of the thirteenth century to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth and twentieth century to see the 144,000 as a special group that needed to be gathered to bring about the end age. Other Christians have seen this group as representing the church which may include Jewish Christians, but they read this in line with other parts of Revelation where the church assumes the vocation of Israel. As pointed out above, I view this as talking about the Jewish people and including them in a place of honor among the multitude among the nations which are gathered around the throne.

The seal of the living God has its opposite in the mark of the beast in Revelation 13. In the vision of Revelation there is no middle group, one either is marked by God or by the forces opposed to God. To be sealed by the 144,000 will provide them with protection, for example the demonic locusts in Revelation 9 will be able to torment those who do not have the seal of God on their forehead. Like in the plagues on Egypt in Exodus the people of God will not be targeted by all the destructive forces that are unleashed in later cycles. However, they will also be a target for those opposed to God and aligned with the forces of the devil. I am reminded of Luther’s advice to parents and churches baptizing young children:

Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy. (Luther, 1978, p. 68)

Those who have been sealed by God are now in opposition to those whose power is opposed to God in the world. Like in Exodus, those whom God has chosen may seem like the lowest of slaves before the kings and generals of the world, but they are those who are able to stand before the face of the one on the throne and the wrath of the lamb.

Douce Apocalypse Bodlein MS180 (1265-70)

Yet, this salvation is not only for Israel. It is inclusive and broad and encompasses a multitude beyond counting of all nations, languages, tribes and peoples. This multitude joins the elders in wearing white. They have come out of the great ordeal and they hold palm branches celebrating the victory of the Lamb and the salvation that God and the Lamb have brought. Revelation operates in the space between Satan’s expulsion from heaven and the time of the Messiah’s return to earth to bring the peace that occupies heaven to earth. The time of the great ordeal is most likely not a reference to a time of future woe and tragedies but rather, like most of Revelation, an understanding that the current brokenness and suffering of the world is due to the influence of Satan and other forces opposed to God’s reign in the world.

The countless multitude cry out that salvation belongs to God and the Lamb. The language of salvation was frequently used in Roman declarations as the role of Caesar, but here the singing multitude attribute it to its proper place, to the Lord and to Jesus. The angels and elders join in with a seven-fold praise of God as symbolically the voices of heaven and earth join in praising God. God and Christ in this vision remain at the center of not only the praise of the people and angels and creatures, but also in the center of reality. Revelation enables John to show us a world that is struggling with the forces opposed to the creating God who desires to dwell among God’s world and people and yet God still reigns and is in control of the things that seem beyond control.

This vision also foreshadows the hope of Revelation which will come to fruition in Revelation 21 and 22 while it also pulls from a rich storehouse of prophetic images of hope. The great multitude are sheltered and then in language resonant of Isaiah 49:10:

They shall not hunger or thirst, neither shall scorching wind strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by the springs of water will guide them.

In another image reversal it is the Lamb at the center of the throne who shepherds the multitude. Instead of a shepherd watching a flock of sheep now the Lamb is the shepherd of the people. As many Christians may recognize the familiar imagery of Psalm 23 in this image, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ but may miss the image of Ezekiel 34 where in protest to the unfaithfulness of the existing shepherd/rulers the LORD sets up a new shepherd:

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. Ezekiel 34: 23-24

And in an allusion to the great banquet that the LORD promises in Isaiah 25 we hear what is for me one of the most powerful images that appears here and in Revelation 21:4. As Isaiah 25: 8 states:

he will swallow up death forever.
Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.

In combining language from several places in the prophets we have a beautiful and peaceful image of God’s consolation and care for those who have undergone suffering in the world. Many people focus only on the images of destruction in Revelation but miss these significant pauses and moments of restraint which point to the reality that amid the suffering God remains the one who has glory and power and honor and might. The Lamb is the place where salvation will come from instead of the kings, generals and the mighty of the world. And that, even with the death and terror in the world, heaven is centered on praising God. Revelation is leading us on a journey to a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Revelation | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Revelation 6 Opening the Seals

Albrecht Durer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498)

Revelation 6: 1-8 The Four Horsemen

1 Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!” 2 I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.

3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.

5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, “Come!” I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, 6 and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”

7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!” 8 I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.

The series of seals, trumpets and bowl which begin in this chapter and run through chapter nineteen are the portions of Revelation that many people are captivated and sometimes repulsed by.  This is also the portion of Revelation where interpretations will vary greatly. Sometimes familiarity with the language of scripture and the images of the culture of the time of Revelation can make certain interpretive options more likely for John’s initial audience but ultimately any attempt to restrict the highly symbolic image laden language of Revelation to one meaning betrays the lingering power of these images which continue to resonate two millennia later. As I proceed through these cycles of images I will present a reading that I find compelling and interesting, but I also am aware that my own reading will not agree with many other intelligent, informed and engaged interpreters.

Among these images the most famous is also the first. The four horses with their riders, commonly referred to as the four horsemen of the apocalypse, correspond to the initial four seals and are announced by the four living creatures around the throne. To begin looking at the four horses and their riders and the three seals that follows begins with a choice of how to approach the seals themselves. The seals are on a scroll written on the front and back, but ultimately unreadable until the scrolls are broken, and it is only the appearance of the Lion of Judah which is the sacrificed Lamb who is worthy (see the pivotal reversal of the previous chapter) which enables the seals to be opened. Do the seals themselves reveal the content of the scroll and are therefore a part of the judgment of God or are they merely preparations that enable us to be prepared to receive this judgment. One can argue for either perspective but following the image of a sealed scroll I read these as preparations to be able to understand what comes afterwards. Especially the first five seals represent in my reading a way of understanding the world to which the later judgements will be addressed. Even though there is a lot of interplay between what I am labeling three cycles as shown in the table below and there is a sense of progression in the narration from seal to trumpet to bowls there is also a cyclical nature where each series can illuminate a common idea in a different manner.

The Seven Seals (Revelation 6:1- 8:5) The Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:13 The Seven Bowls (Revelation 16:2-21
S1 The First Horseman (Conquest/Empire) T1 hail and fire mixed with blood; 1/3 of the earth burned B1 Painful sores on those marked by beast
S2 The Second Horseman (War, removal of peace) T2 Burning mountain thrown into sea destroys 1/3 of life of the sea B2 Sea becomes like blood
S3 The Third Horseman (famine, inflation of food prices) T3 Wormwood falls making 1/3 of fresh water undrinkable B3 Rivers and springs become like blood
S4 The Fourth Horseman (Death, ¼ of population killed by sword, famine, death and wild animals) T4 1/3 of sun doesn’t shine, 1/3 of moonlight and starlight removed B4 People scorched by the sun’s fire
S5 Martyred Saints call for God’s action T5 First Woe: The Demonic Locusts B5 Darkness over the kingdom of the beast
S6 Earthquake, sun eclipsed, moon turns to blood, stars fall, sky rolls up like a scroll T6 Second Woe: Four Angels of the Abyss and demonic cavalry destroy 1/3 of population B6 Euphrates river dried up, demonic spirits rally kings to oppose the reign of God
S7 Silence in heaven followed by prayers of saints offered like incense T7 heavenly worship B7 Great city split by earthquake, islands and mountains disappear

NIB, XII:610

Another parallel to these initial seals is to the description can be seen in what is sometimes called the ‘little apocalypse’ in Mark 13 (and parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21).

Mark 13: 7-9, 24-25 Revelation 6:1-8:1-5
Wars S1 Conquest
Violent conflict between nations S2 War, removal of peace
Earthquakes S3 Famine
Famine S4 Death
Persecutions S5 Martyred saints
Heavenly Signs S6 Heavenly signs
Son of Man comes in the clouds S7 Heavenly silence and prayers

(Koester, 2014, p. 358)

The four horsemen of the apocalypse have proven to be a powerful visual image for artists, storytellers and has slipped into our language in surprising ways. John Gottman can adopt the four horsemen as a metaphor for four practices which, in his research, are the four primary predictors of divorce (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stone walling). Gottman as a practicing Orthodox Jew was able to pull this metaphor from the cultural references to the horsemen. They have occupied the worlds of fiction and film, for example the Clint Eastwood movie Pale Rider is built around a resonance for the final rider on a ‘pale’ horse whose name is death and hell follows after him. Even within the world of video games in the Darksiders series you can play as War or Death (riders of the apocalypse) in a destroyed world that may not be theologically related to the world of the bible (other than involving angels and demons) but uses these brief descriptions as an imaginative starting point to construct a character and the world in which they unleash their destructive power in a search for redemption (in the first two games War and Death respectively are the protagonists). The artist and writers will continue to utilize the four horsemen as a source for their imaginative constructions both literarily and visually yet the challenge for the reader of scripture is to ponder how these briefly described figures emerging from the seals might help us to make sense of the world we encounter.

Interpretation of the horses and their riders ultimately rests with the first horse and rider and how they are viewed. While the riders and horses may draw inspiration from the horses that patrol the earth in Zechariah 1: 8-10 (red, sorrel and white) and the four chariots in Zechariah 6: 1-8 (red, black, white and dappled grey) which represent the four winds of heaven, ultimately the four horses and their riders form a new and powerful image of conquest, war, famine and death. Hearing the description of each seal I imagine John on the ground because he sees the horse emerge first and then only after looking at the horse is the rider observed and described. Yet, it will be the horse and the rider taken together with their complementary descriptions that will make the images as powerful as they remain.

The first rider on the white horse is described having a bow, a crown is given to him and he came out conquering and to conquer. On the one hand there is not a lot of description but what is present is symbolically rich and has led to several interpretations. Some interpreters have focused on the white horse and the repetitive use of nikao (Greek word translated to conquer see discussion in Revelation 2: 1-7) in two different verbal forms and have assumed that the first rider is Christ as he is depicted in Revelation 19. If Christ is the first rider then the other riders will be in opposition to the first rider and though this, by itself is not decisive, this description emphasizes that the weapon given to the rider is a bow, while Christ conquers with the sword of his mouth. A mounted bowman is also not a unit that was used within the Roman legions but was used by the Assyrians and Babylonians when they conquered Israel and Judah as well as other non-Roman peoples like the Parthians. While it could represent conquest by non-Roman forces or play upon Roman fears it may represent conquest more broadly. The parallel between the white horse here and in Revelation 19 may also reflect the way that conquest often masquerades as something that is righteous or holy. This first rider may reflect an anti-Christ figure that pretends to be holy when it is a manifestation of the unholy.  It is also worth noting that the bow is also used by the armies of Gog in Ezekiel 38-39 and as Ezekiel 39:3 can state:

I will strike your bow from your hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand.

My best reading of this is that the white rider does represent conquest and that which parades as righteous but which Revelation will argue is demonic and within the progression of Revelation it will become clear that Rome is reflected by many of these images to the first hearers. As I mentioned the Roman legions did not use mounted bowmen at this point and yet the bow stands to distinguish the white horse here from Christ. Rome was the primary empire which built and sustained itself on wars of conquest. For me the seals reveal the world as it is for the hearers. Yet, the power of this and the other images of Revelation is the way they can typologically represent the experiences of multiple times. In many ways this rider which represents empire and conquest which often appears in the guise of righteousness but may truly be demonic should be an uncomfortable if poetic image to measure the powers and the actions of one’s time against. In my own context, in what ways does America masquerade as being righteous and benevolent and yet act in a way that models this rider rather than the crucified Lamb? Although he is referring to the image of the rider in Revelation 19, Miroslav Volf’s words resonate here as well. “We will believe in the Crucified, but we want to march with the Rider.” (Volf, 1996, p. 276) We may confess the crucified one who conquered through his suffering and death, but we may want to follow the strongman who conquers through military might.

The second fiery red horse and its rider with the sword who takes peace from the earth. The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, was one of the claims of the benefits of the empire. Rome’s military might and administration was supposed to guarantee peace, but the Roman peace was built upon the enforcement of the legions and the fear of crucifixion or other means of punishment. Readers with a Jewish background would be familiar with what we can call today the first Jewish-Roman war from 66-73 CE in which Roman legions under the command of Vespasian and his son Titus would destroy the temple, much of Jerusalem and wreak havoc on the towns and countryside of Judea. The second rider on a red horse, much like the rider on a red horse in Zechariah 1: 7-12, can see that the peace that has been brought to the earth by forces of empire have done so at a high cost to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah (see Zechariah 1: 12). Or in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14; see also Jeremiah 8:11 and Ezekiel 13:10)

While the second rider could be a force which destroys the Pax Romana and sends the nations into turmoil I read it as a revelation of what the Pax Romana really is, war under the guise of peace. In the Roman pantheon Mars is second only to Jupiter in his importance and is viewed in the mythic genealogy of Rome as the father of Romulus and Remus. War was a central part of the Roman identity, theirs was a peace through continual conquest both on the borders of the empire and against any forces of insurrection internally. Rome was a strongman who conquered by the spear and the sword. As Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, could sarcastically remark, “pacem sine dubio…verum cruentam. Peace there was, without question, but a bloody one.” (Zanker, 1988, p. 187) Again, the question becomes for my own context to ask about the ways in which in America military might becomes worshipped instead of the crucified. Could some of our own struggles with issues around guns in America reflect a god more like Mars or more like the expected Lion than the Crucified Lamb.

Ara Pacis, The “Tellus” Panel were Pax (Peace) is portrayed providing fertility and prosperity

The black horse with the rider with its scales for commerce comes while a voice calls out from the direction of the throne exorbitant prices for grain. As Craig Koester can note (citing the Jewish historian Josephus), “The prices in Revelation were eight to sixteen times higher than usual, rates associated with severe shortages (Josephus, Ant. 14.28). A worker would have to spend his entire day’s pay to provide wheat bread for himself or enough barley for a small family.” (Koester, 2014, p. 396) The trade enabled by the infrastructure of the empire and the security provided by the Roman legions. In Roman artwork Pax, the goddess of peace, is portrayed in ways that relate her to Venus and Tellus who are gods of fertility and agriculture. Yet, reality among the people did not always reflect the images portrayed in the language and artwork of the empire. As Craig Koester can note:

In the imperial world the principal cause of food shortages “was the earmarking of vast quantities of grain to feed the city of Rome and the armies, while through the Empire large areas continued to be diverted from the cultivation of cereals to the more profitable production of wine and olive oil.” (Rom. Civ. 2:247) Some people made handsome profits in oil and wine, but reduced grain cultivation meant that when the harvest was meager or grain shipments were disrupted, many cities faced a food crisis. (Koester, 2014, p. 397)

A modern dystopic world built on a similar crisis is The Hunger Games novels written by Suzanne Collins. In the books the conquered districts send most of their resources into a capital district to finance their lavish lifestyles and appetites while the people in the districts deal with oppression, hunger and deprivation. In a world of trade which is based upon consumer demand and property and the resources of the world concentrate in economically stronger countries and regions this image of the black horse, its rider and the calling voice continues to provide a challenging image for the world in which we live. When the consumption of luxury goods (represented by oil and wine in Revelation) begins to crowd out the ability of subsistence farmers to grow the necessities for making the bread to feed the mouths of the world then we live in a world reflective of this horseman where securing the minimums for survival becomes a challenge for all but the wealthy. The society that the bible advocates for is one where every mouth is fed and the neighbor’s well being is provided for. Yet, throughout the history of Israel and the church this vision continually conflicts with the human instinct to hoard resources and to accumulate property, wealth and power. In Revelation 18 when Babylon (Rome) falls and the economic system that sustained it collapses it will be the merchants who brought the wealth of the earth to the capital who will shed tears and cry at the devastation of the city and their livelihood that was tied to this system.

The final horse emerges as a sickly green and its rider is Death personified. Just as the Romans could personify things like Victory or Peace into goddesses like Nike or Pax the Hebrew people personified Death and Hades as superhuman forces which have the power to grasp or consume people. The forces of conquest, war and an economy of trade and taxation have led finally to death. The promises of empire of prosperity and peace have been finally revealed as their opposite. Sword, famine, and disease is a common traditional list of ways in which death comes as a judgment (see for example 2 Chronicles 20:9; Jeremiah 14: 12; 21:7; Ezekiel 5:17; 6:11) and added to this is the threat of wild animals which enter the space of devastation and destruction in the aftermath of war and the loss of the protection of cities and communities.

For me the four horses and their riders provide a resonant image that continues to function today as a prophetic image to evaluate society by. When the forces of empire, military might and commercial commerce instead of promoting life for the entire society, and by extension the world, but instead become forces that are based upon war or economic exploitation then we mirror the horsemen and bring death instead of life. I believe that the horses and their riders point to the reality of the world as it is and that while they are not caused by God they are shown for what they are. Yet, even Death and Hades are ultimately subject to God and in Revelation 20 will be forced to surrender their captives before being sentenced to the lake of fire.

Revelation 6: 9-11 The Faithful Saints

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” 11 They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.

With the opening of the fifth seal we see yet another revelation of the way the world is in the death of those who are faithful witnesses. The death of these followers of Jesus may have seemed a meaningless loss to those on earth but here in Revelation their deaths are given meaning as a sacrifice lifted up to God. Yet, as this sacrifice is lifted up there is an expectation that God will act upon their sacrifice and the act as judge and avenger. Their cry is a familiar cry to the people of Israel, “how long?” They believe and trust that God will not let injustice continue indefinitely. God is a God who will act on behalf of the faithful.

This fifth seal reveals the position of the church at the beginning of Revelation, they continue to wait on God’s action. They do not take judgment into their own hands and act as revolutionaries. Their prayers go up, their lives may be offered up as faithful witnesses and yet action rests in God’s hands. God’s kingdom comes to earth in God’s time and not the time of the saints. Yet, they do receive a white robe to clothe their bodies in the resurrection. The image here is not of a disembodied soul, even though the word soul is used at the beginning of this description but the movement of the hope of Revelation and the early church is an embodied hope of resurrected bodies on earth rather than souls remaining in heaven.

Most translations introduce the word ‘number’ into verse eleven and this translation points to a number of witnesses that must die prior to God’s action, and while this tradition is based on other ancient sources it is not present in Revelation. Ultimately verse eleven points to the completion of the work of the witnesses. Their work is not yet complete. God exercises a costly divine patience so that the witnesses to the gospel might carry their message to the ends of the earth and that the nations may have an opportunity to repent. Even with the death and destruction of Revelation, God continues to exercise restraint providing the opportunity for all those who can be redeemed to be saved. Yet, God will not ultimately allow the forces of conquest, war, exploitation and death to reign. God will not remain indifferent as forces threaten the creation, but God will exercise a patience that is costly to the witnesses of the gospel. Much like in Jesus’ parable of wicked tenants (Mark 12: 1-12 and parallels) God continues to send the servants even as they are ridiculed, tortured and even killed in the hope that these tenants might change.

Revelation 6:12-17 The Sixth Seal

12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

With the sixth seam the creation itself reacts to the violence on the earth. Like Matthew’s crucifixion narrative in particular, (although both Mark and Luke share some of these elements) where the sun’s light is blocked, and an earthquake shatters the ground as the elements of the creation bear witness to what most of humanity remains unable to see. Here in Revelation several traditional elements like the sun becoming darkness and the moon turning to blood (Joel 2: 31, also quoted in Acts 2:20). The stars falling from the sky were viewed as a sign of impending disaster while the sky being rolled up like a scroll echoes the language of Isaiah 34:4. Yet, in these cosmic signs the mighty and powerful of the earth and those without power can read the signs in the heavens and the earth and know that judgment is coming, and they attempt to hide themselves. They would rather have the mountains fall upon them than endure the judgment that is to come. Their terror is such that death is preferable to enduring the coming judgment. This transition at the end of Revelation 6 to the beginning of Revelation 7 is one of those great reversals that the New Testament loves. In the language of Mary’s song:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors. Luke 1: 51-56

Now the mighty flee their thrones and their positions of power into the hills and mountains while the remnant of Israel are to be sealed and protected. For those among the faithful these signs are signs of hope and joy for they believe that God is finally ready to set the world right and to bring about the kingdom of God. In the language of Rory Cooney’s adaptation of the Mary’s song title ‘The Canticle of the Turning’

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn.

In the following chapter we will see the sealed remnant of Israel and the countless multitude of the nations who are able to stand while the political and military leaders and the wealthy and powerful quiver and hide among the rocks. God’s wrath may be an uncomfortable image for those who live a comfortable and sheltered life. God’s justice may mean the upending of the systems of conquest, military power, economic exploitation and ultimately death that the wealthy and powerful have benefited from. As a military veteran who lives in suburban America and who benefits from many systems where I have privilege these are difficult words to listen to. These can be words of judgment and hope, or to use Lutheran language law and gospel. The prophetic challenge should force us to reexamine the lives that we live and the policies we advocate for, but the prophetic hope calls us to dream of what would happen when the world turns, when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The change may be uncomfortable and there will be those who would rather die than change. Yet, in Revelation God’s justice will not ultimately be thwarted and God’s desire to dwell among humanity will finally be realized.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Revelation | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment