Revelation 13 Rome Portrayed as a Beast

Emperor Claudius Portraying the Conquest of Brittanica in AD 43 as the Rape of a Woman from Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion South Building http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html#prettyPhoto

 Revelation 13: 1-10 The Beast from the Sea

1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4 They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

5 The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

9 Let anyone who has an ear listen:
10 If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

The scene begins at the conclusion of Revelation 12 where the dragon stands upon the shore of the sea and then we enter our chapter with the first beast arising out of the sea, the second member of an unholy trinity opposed to the will of the Creator and an agent of the destruction of creation. These scenes are meant to be an unmasking of the powers, to use the title of Walter Wink’s book, but for many people unfamiliar with the rich tapestry of interweaving echoes and allusions present the beasts become an obfuscation of a simple message in John’s time: Rome’s power is not benevolent or divinely bestowed but rather is demonic and derives from the power of the devil. This is where there is a prophetic bite to the words of Revelation and where it becomes undeniably a reference to the Roman empire that seven churches in Asia found themselves living within. In contrast to the imperial claims of piety and security John uses metaphor to parody the seemingly unstoppable power of Roman might by proclaiming it is a savage beast subservient to the dragon who is the Devil and Satan.

From the Roman side the beast in particular embodies many traits that allude to Rome generally and to Emperor Nero (who will appear frequently in the explanations of this and coming chapters) in particular. John writes in the time after Nero’s death, but for the message John writes in Revelation Nero is the embodiment of the true character of the empire. In addition to the seven heads (which alludes to the seven hills around Rome and seven emperors) and the ten crowns (although emperors did not wear crowns the kings that ruled provinces on behalf of the Roman empire often did) as a representation of the empire (see also Revelation 17: 9-13) it is also helpful to know that the Jewish word for the Romans, the Kittim, also refers to people who come from the sea. The Kittim as they are mentioned in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2:10) and Ezekiel 27:6 are the people of Cypress, an island people who came across the sea but by the time of the New Testament the Kittim is a way of referring to the Romans. The head who received the death wound is almost certainly a reference to Nero who either committed suicide or was killed by a knife to the throat but rumors would persist of his remaining alive because few had seen his body.

Even some Greco-Roman authors could refer to Nero’s reign as that of a beast as Craig R. Koester can illustrate by quoting Philostratus saying,

“as for this beast, generally called tyrant, I have no idea how many heads it has,” but “its nature is wilder than the beasts of the mountains or forests” because “this beast is incited by those who stroke it” so that flattery makes it even more savage. (Vit. Apoll. 4.38.3; cf. Sib. Or. 8:157) (Koester, 2014, pp. 568-569)

Nero’s reign is also famous for the great fire that consumed much of Rome. Many believe that Nero was responsible for the blaze desiring to rebuild Rome in his own vision and even in Revelation it will be this Nero-like beast that will destroy its own city with fire (Rome as the harlot is burned by the beast in Revelation 17: 16). After the fire in 64 CE, Nero deflected criticism away from him by burning the Christian community in Rome. Tacitus records the persecution of the Christians by saying:

“Accordingly, and arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sot was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight expired…it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44) (Koester, 2014, p. 586)

Even though the churches in Asia were not on the receiving end of the persecution that occurred in Rome in 64 CE it probably remained a continual reminder of their vulnerability in the midst of the empire. Revelation wants its readers to understand that the Empire is not a benevolent and benign force but rather a beast whose trues character is revealed in its persecution of the people of God. In contrast to Christ who conquers through the cross the beast conquers through violence. Although the beast may inspire awe and fear by its military strength so that people may say, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” the early church know that they serve the Lord who has cast the great dragon out of heaven and Rome’s power is derivative from this already beaten Devil.

Those familiar with the book of Daniel will also hear a number of echoes from this book as well. Daniel and Ezekiel seem to provide the background for many of the images of Revelation and here we have a modification of the four beasts of Daniel 7, a chapter that has already appeared multiple times in our reading of Revelation. The relevant portion for our current discussion is Daniel 7: 1-8:

1In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: 2 I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, 3 and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. 5 Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” 6 After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. 8 I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

In Revelation the aspects of the four beasts (which represent four empires in Daniel) are combined into the image of the beast of the sea integrating the lion, leopard, bear, ten horns all into one chimera-like combination of animals into one monster. Now instead of a single horn uttering blasphemous names all seven heads have blasphemous names in addition to the mouth uttering blasphemous things. The blasphemous names refer to the claims of divinity that were made for the emperors and the worship they received through the emperor cult. The Roman Emperors, from a Jewish or Christian perspective, were claiming titles that were reserved for God alone and in their persecution of the early Christians placed them in opposition to the coming kingdom of God and the Lamb. Just like the beasts of Daniel’s dream, the time when this beast would be destroyed was coming quickly in the vision.

Emperor Claudius portrayed astride allegories of the land and sea from
the Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion, south building. Image from http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html

Revelation 13: 11-18 The Beast from the Land

11 Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15 and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

I mentioned in the section above how the two beasts and the dragon form an unholy trinity opposed to the will of the Creator and bent upon the destruction of the creation. The beast from the land becomes the third member of this alliance deriving its power both from the beast from the sea and, by extension, from the dragon who stands behind the first beast. Where the first beast represents Rome, the second beast represents the cult of the emperor and the forces that proclaimed the message of Rome. The image of a beast that in many ways resembles a lamb but speaks like a dragon points to the reality that it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing-it may appear to be harmless but it is not. This metaphor of a beast like a lamb with a dragon’s voice causes those who resist its proclamation of the first beast to be put to death. The ruler cult here is placed in opposition to the people of God. Using several resonant images combined it unmasks the destructive character of the forces at work in economic, religious and social pressures designed to make people conform to the desires of the empire.

On the one hand the two beasts may allude to Leviathan and Behemoth, great chaos creatures from the land and sea that appear as threatening beasts to the ancient people and who appear as figures in the poetic imagery in the Psalms and Isaiah. A stronger correlation in Jewish tradition would be the traditions about false prophets who lead people astray and here the beast is a false prophet who leads people to deify the beast and turn away from the King of kings. Yet, even stronger for me, is the resonance with two familiar stories from the book of Daniel (as mentioned above Daniel and Ezekiel seem to provide background images that many of the images of Revelation resonate with). The first story in Daniel is from Daniel 3 when King Nebuchadnezzar has a golden statue erected and declares, “Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” (Daniel 3:6) and the heroes of our story, three Jewish exiles renamed in Babylon Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, refuse to worship the golden statue. A central to Jewish (and later Christian) faith was the statement that there are no gods that are to be worshipped before the LORD the God of Israel and in keeping with this central portion of their faith they refuse and are cast into the flaming furnace. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are rescued by God in the midst of the fiery furnace and the people are reminded to remain steadfast in their faith in the midst of the oppression of Babylon. Later in the book of Daniel (Daniel 6) the current king, Darius, is tricked into making a proclamation that all must pray to him for thirty days. Daniel knows the document has been signed and is the law and yet he continues to pray to God. Daniel is cast into the lions’ den, but God closes the mouth of the lions and Daniel is safe while those who accused Daniel, along with their families, are thrown into the lions’ den and are consumed by the lions. Both of these stories helped people of faith remain faithful during times of persecution and to trust that God would ultimately deliver them from the empire of the day and the claims made on behalf of rulers.

The action of the second beast to make others worship the first beast is accompanied by violence, false signs, and social and economic pressures. Violence is used against those who do not comply, who will not worship the emperor and by extension Rome. For these false prophets there is to be no alternative gospel. There was no freedom of the press nor separation of church and state in the ancient world and the imperial cult, as well as most other religions in the empire, were viewed as being in service of the state. The gospel of Rome may have fashioned itself as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but it was a bloody peace spoken with a dragon’s voice and enforced through the violence of both the legions and the local authorities. While we are not aware of any miracles claimed by the imperial cult there is the continual demonstration of the power and might of Rome and as mentioned in the previous section, ‘Who can fight against it.’ Finally, is the social and economic pressure particularly highlighted by the mark of the beast.  Being a part of the imperial cult could bring a feeling of belonging, but it also allowed people the ability to participate in commercial opportunities. The mark may have been an allusion to the requirement to be a part of a trade organization, many of whom may have required people to demonstrate their allegiance to the emperor, or it may refer to Roman coinage, who many Jewish and early Christians viewed as containing blasphemous messages even though it was the medium of trade for the empire, or it may have referred to other types of pressures that Christians felt to demonstrate they were loyal.

The number of the beast which is a number for a person. In the ancient world gematria, adding up the numerical values of a word, was commonly used. Most historical readers assumed the name would have been known to John’s audience and the most common reading is Nero. Nrwn Qsr, as it is written in Greek (the language of the New Testament) is 666. When transliterated into Hebrew it comes to be 616 which is a common alternative to 666 in some ancient manuscripts. The number has been used to represent many individuals by different interpreters across time, but Nero was probably the individual that the first readers of John’s letter were to hear in this number.

Finally, a brief word about a word that does not appear in Revelation but is commonly linked with this chapter: Antichrist. The Antichrist appears as an opponent in 1 & 2 John which replace the true faith with a faith that is, from the author of the Johannine Epistles perspective, false. Matthew, Mark and Luke can mention false messiahs and 2 Thessalonians develops a theme from the book of Daniel about ‘the man of lawlessness’ who receives power from Satan but it is only in 1 & 2 John where the word Antichrist is used. The term is helpful in thinking about Revelation in the understanding that the second beast is in many ways the opposite of Christ and against Christ (what the anti- prefix means). But historically there is a desire to locate in one figure the role of an Antichrist: so, for Luther the pope could be the Antichrist, others would point to figures like Hitler or Stalin as the Antichrist or look for some futuristic figure. While I am uncomfortable when people use the term as an absolute title, searching for the Antichrist, as an adjective I find it is helpful. Is a concrete person acting in a way that is the opposite or opposed to Christ? Then the adjective can be illustrative. Yet, I still wouldn’t throw it around casually. Nor would I commonly refer to someone as a beast, as Revelation does, yet metaphor has its power. Revelation uses images both for illustration and parody, it wants its readers to see the world in the way that John is being enabled to see but it also wants to demonstrate the difference between the claims of, in this case, the Roman empire and its servants and its reality. Revelation continues to be powerful because its metaphors and parodies continue to resonate for people in multiple times, places and experiences to make sense of the reality of their world and to be reminded that whatever savage beasts that they are facing, no matter the bellow of the dragon and its servants that their God is ultimately able to allow them to persevere no matter the oppression they may experience.

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Revelation 12 The Woman and the Dragon

Saint Michael bronze statue at San Miguel Church (Manila) The Regal Parish and National Shrine of Saint Michael and the Archangels

Revelation 12

1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,

“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. 12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. 18 Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.

The previous chapter gives us a key to understanding the unfolding images of the second half of Revelation when the twenty-four elders proclaim:

The nations raged but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Revelation 11: 18 emphasis added)

Up through the first eleven chapters of Revelation the cycle of the seals and trumpets may have caused destruction, but the desire was for those who were opposed to God and who were a part of the forces destroying the earth to see the Lord’s wrath, to hear the witness of the faithful and to repent. Now the narrative shifts decisively against those forces that are destroying the creation. The battle begins in chapter 12 with Satan being cast out of heaven and culminates with the casting of Satan into the lake of fire in Revelation 20.  Revelation in these chapters is revealing how the struggles the faithful are enduring are a part of the epic struggle between good and evil and how their faithful witness to the crucified and risen Jesus and their perseverance until the end is a part of the larger ways in which God’s kingdom overcomes the destructive forces aligned with the devil.

Revelation 12 is organized around three scenes with the critical scene in the middle. Scene A (1) runs from verse 1-6 and deals with the woman who gives birth and the dragon who wants to destroy her child. Scene B deals with the dragon being expelled from heaven by the angel Michael. Scene A (2) returns to the dragon pursuing the woman and making war on her and all her children. So visually the organization would look like:

Scene A (1) The woman in labor pursued by the dragon
Scene B The dragon is cast out of heaven
Scene A (2) The dragon makes war against the woman

There are a couple ways to interpret the figure of the woman: she could be viewed as Israel, as the church or as Mary. Ultimately these approaches are not mutually exclusive and interpreters throughout the history of the church have seen her in multiple ways. If she is Israel, then allegorically she is giving birth to Jesus, the child who the dragon wants to destroy, and the twelve stars could be the twelve tribes of Israel. The woman also could represent the church as the people of God. As we have seen earlier in Revelation, John has no trouble speaking of the church in terms of Israel’s vocation and promises and even Victorinus, who wrote the earliest known commentary on Revelation in the third century, the woman encompassed both Israel and the early church. (Koester, 2014, p. 525) If it is interpreted as the early church exclusively then the twelve stars become the twelve apostles allegorically. Finally, the story of the birth could be a cosmic explanation of the birth of Christ from Mary, his mother. This approach was favored especially as the Catholic church developed a high Mariology. As I mentioned above these approaches are not mutually exclusive: the church is viewed by John as having a vocation that is described in the same terms as the people of Israel had their vocation described and Mary has often been represented as the mother and representative of the church as a whole. In my reading I do see this being the case: the woman is Mary, but she is also by representation the whole people of God who the dragon is attempting to persecute. The dragon works through Herod the Great to bring a threat to Mary’s child and she is snatched away to flee through the wilderness into Egypt, but it also represents the displacement of the people of God who are also scattered by the oppression they feel. Mary’s story viewed in this light becomes their story and their story is linked to hers. They become, with her, a part of the cosmic drama unfolding as God begins to deal with the forces that are destroying the earth.

The dragon is named as the Devil and Satan. There are countless narratives in the ancient world of the conflict between and hero and a dragon, where the dragon represents the terrifying forces of uncontrollable destruction but here there is a difference. For example, in the Greek story of Leto and Apollo being pursued by the serpent Python or the goddess Isis being pursued by Typhon may have a similar pattern of a serpent creature attempting to destroy a goddess or god, but the specifics of the stories vary greatly. Ultimately the seven headed dragon is the source of all the forces that oppose the will of God and the coming of the child and that the beasts in the next chapter will derive their power from. Yet, the dragon here is cast out of heaven which both initiates the process that will ultimately lead to the dragon’s destruction but also increases its wrath and influence upon the earth.

The middle scene where Michael and his angels fight against the dragon and defeat them provide the interpretive key for both this chapter and the rest of Revelation.  As Craig Koester can succinctly state:

Then a heavenly voice announces the victory of God, the Lamb and the faithful and warns that the devil is furious because he has only a short time left in which to work (12:10-12). The point is that the evil one does not rage so fiercely on earth because he is so powerful, but because he is losing and desperate. Satan lashes out like a caged and wounded animal before his final defeat. (Koester, 2014, p. 555)

The banishment of Satan from heaven is a demonstration of the limits of the power of his malice but it is still a woe to those who must deal with his attempts to persecute them on earth. I’ve used a historical example when talking about this with members in my congregation: during the Civil War the decisive battle was ultimately Gettysburg, the war would rage on for years after this battle, but the Confederate army’s strategy would be dictated from that point onward by the superior manpower and logistics of the Union. The only way there could have been a different outcome after Gettysburg was if the Northern states decided the war was too costly or no longer worth fighting. Here in Revelation we are to see that the dragon has already been defeated, and it only took an emissary of God to cast down the great dragon. The conflict may continue for those who are aligned with God’s will and who are faithful to the Lamb, but the final victory is certain.

The woman returns in the final scene and becomes, along with her children the object of pursuit by the dragon. Yet now both heaven and earth work against the dragon. The woman in the vision is given the ability to fly away into the wilderness where she is protected for a time, and times and a half time. Even the earth itself works to protect the woman by opening its mouth to swallow the flood that the dragon pours out to attempt to overwhelm her. This is truly a cosmic struggle where the earth itself resists the forces that have set out to destroy the woman and the rest of creation.

This chapter, like the previous chapter have several parallel images with Daniel 12, and these images will figure heavily in the coming chapters of Revelation. Here two images reflect directly on this chapter: at the beginning of Daniel 12 we have the emergence of Michael.

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Daniel 12: 1

Michael is the guardian of the Jewish people in Daniel who rises to protect them during their persecution. Here Michael’s action on behalf of the woman/Israel/church/people of God sets in motion the beginning of the end for the Devil, but also in doing so initiates a time of great suffering for those on earth. The time of the woman’s residence in the wilderness also echoes the time, two times and a half time of Daniel 12: 7. In addition to the two images from Daniel 12, the casting of the stars from the heavens by the dragon also echoes Daniel 8: 10 when a blasphemous horn grows as high of the host of heaven and throws down some of the stars to the earth. Revelation takes several of these images from the book of Daniel and they become language used to describe this cosmic battle between the forces that are opposed to God and the creation and the forces that may seem small and insignificant, the woman and her children, but ultimately are aligned with the forces of God and heaven and whose victory will eventually come.

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Revelation 11 Pausing for Hope, Witness and Worship

Matthias Gerung from the Ottheinrich Bible (1530-1532)

Revelation 11:1-2 Measuring the Temple

1 Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, 2 but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.

John is not merely an observer in the receiving of Revelation, but actively is called to participate in symbolic actions that help provide meaning. This measurement of the temple has a close correlation to Ezekiel 40 where the LORD has Ezekiel observe the measurement of the temple to demonstrate that the exile that Ezekiel and his fellow Judeans were a part of would last only for a time. In addition, the period articulated matches the period at the end of Daniel for the duration until the end of the wonders (and persecution) of the people who receive Daniel’s message (which most scholars date late in the time of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanies IV in the time of the revolt of the Maccabees, roughly 166 BCE). Here is where Daniel asks how long this will last:

Then I, Daniel, looked, and two others appeared, one standing on this bank of the stream and one on the other. One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was upstream, “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?” The man clothed in linen, who was upstream, raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven. And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished. (Daniel 12: 5-7)

A time, two times, and a half a time is three and a half and when the unit of time is years the forty-two months is three and a half years. This is also the one thousand two hundred and sixty days below (based on a thirty-day month). This extended quotation from Daniel also resonates with the figure of the angel in Revelation 10 who stands on the land and the sea and lifts his hand to the heavens. By combining resonant images of Daniel and Ezekiel, both images of hope during persecution, the act of measuring the temple and the time set aside point to the limited duration of the suffering of the churches hearing this message. Ultimately the God who unveils to John these images will bring an end to the trampling of the holy people of God.

Philip Medhurst, Revelation 11: 7-12 The Beast Shall Fight Against Them

Revelation 11: 3-14 The Witnesses

3 And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.”4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. 6 They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.

7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; 10 and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.

11 But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. 13 At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.

14 The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon.

Revelation continues to portray a God who desires for the people to place their trust in God instead of the forces that are opposed to God. Revelation continues its long pause to make a space for witness to the world so that the nations may give glory to God. During this one thousand two hundred sixty-day period we are introduced to the two witnesses that are two olive trees and two lampstands whose mission is to prophesy and proclaim God’s power, might and desires against the forces of the beast and Satan who is behind the beast. These verses foreshadow the larger narrative that will unfold in Revelation 12-13 which symbolically portray the devil and Rome as a dragon and beast respectively.

The identity of the witnesses has been debated and different interpreters have come to different answers about these witnesses. Some interpreters believe that the two witnesses are two concrete individuals who are given this task and specific powers which enable them to carry out this task. These two individuals would have the powers demonstrated by Elijah and Moses previously in scripture. Some have taken the two witnesses to be Elijah and Moses returned, other Elijah and Enoch (since both were bodily brought up into heaven) and others take these two witnesses to stand for the church or a portion of the church. Regardless of who one takes as the witnesses in one’s interpretation the message of the witnesses is clear and like prophets of all times and places they are viewed as a hindrance to the powers that claim to be in control. Eventually the beast (who we will see shortly is a way of representing Rome) acts to eliminate the pesky witnesses and many people rejoice that they have been silenced. Yet, God stands on the side of the witnesses and death is not the final word. The beast and those with the beast can persecute the witnesses of God but the God of Revelation is a God of resurrection. They may know humiliation and even death for a time, two times and a half a time but God will invite them to take their places at God’s kingdom.

The city, unnamed but indicated by what it is prophetically called as well as its location as where the Lord is crucified points to Jerusalem. Like all things in this vision there is a plasticity that has allowed interpreters to point to multiple interpretations but as I lay out my reading I start with the plain sense reading of the place where the witnesses begin their work being in Jerusalem. For me this scene deals with the mission of the whole church, since it is the work of the whole church to witness and to call for all the peoples, language, nations and tribes to turn to God. Are there unique witnesses within the whole? Certainly, but all are called to the vocation of witnesses. There are times where the church’s ability to speak and respond seems dead or powerless but ultimately this is a narrative of God’s power and control, God can resurrect a dead witness or a dead church. For me an interesting part of this narrative is the earthquake and its response: in the earthquake the damage is reduced from previous calamities (from one fourth in the seals, one third in the trumpets but here one tenth) and response is to give glory to God. Again, taking the city as Jerusalem I take this as a suggestive nod towards an acknowledgement by the people of Jerusalem (and by extension Israel) of the sovereignty of God. Even though the church symbolically assumes many of the roles of Israel throughout Revelation I view this portion in line with Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 about the irrevocable call of God to Israel.

The Seventh Angel of the Apocalypse Proclaiming the Reign of the Lord, Unknown Spanish Miniaturist around 1180

Revelation 11: 15-19 The Final Trumpet

15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”

16 Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 singing,

“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. 18 The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

The preceding section warns us that the third woe is coming soon and upon the final trumpet blast we are prepared for that final woe to come, and yet we instead see a different perspective on reality. We expect to focus on the earth and the chaos and struggle on the earth but instead we find ourselves focused on heaven and the order and worship and praise going on as the world is declared the kingdom of God. This is a pivotal scene in Revelation because the coming chapters we will see how in multiple symbolic ways the agents who have been at work destroying God’s order and creation are first unmasked and then overthrown. Satan will be banished from heaven; Rome and its heralds will be shown as beasts serving Satan and then later as a prostitute but both Rome and Satan’s power will come to an end. Here we have the announcement that God is now moving towards the earth. The desire of God to be a part of the creation and to dwell among God’s people will no longer wait. God’s time of patient waiting to give space and time for repentance are coming to an end. God’s power is being revealed, God’s covenant with God’s people is being renewed and in heaven there is worship.

Revelation continues to remind its reader that even though chaos may appear to reign on earth that God’s will indeed be done on earth as it is in heaven. The nations may rage but God’s judgment will decide the final victory, those servants who have been oppressed, misused and who have felt powerless will be rewarded. It is a time where the powerful will be brought low and the meek will be lifted up. For the faithful this is a time of celebration and joy while for those who have aligned themselves against God it is an announcement of God’s coming in strength and power.

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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.

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 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.

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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

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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.

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