Good morning! As we continue reading Revelation today with chapters 4-7, we get another glimpse of heaven through John the Seer’s imagination. God’s throne room here echoes other descriptions from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel of such ornate, jeweled beauty and otherworldly creatures. I’m not sure what to make of the twenty-four elders around the central throne—might they represent the twelve tribes of Israel, plus an equal number from Christianity? The seven spirits before the throne are the same spirits mentioned yesterday, and the winged creatures full of eyes are a further-developed form of the cherubim and seraphim we first read about in the Hebrew Bible.
Heavenly attention focuses in Revelation 5 on a scroll that supposedly holds a description of what’s to come at the end of time. Jesus appears here between the throne and the twenty-four elders, symbolizing his divine and human characteristics. John uses paradoxical metaphors for Jesus—he is both lion and slaughtered lamb, returned to life. This is where we must especially let go of literalist thinking—these are impressions of Jesus, and not actual descriptors. Jesus can serve as the Root of Jesse, the slain Lamb, and the conquering Lion with the seven eyes of heaven, but only if we don’t try to mash all those metaphors into a literal image! Revelation is not a screenplay, after all, but an impressionist vision. Heaven’s songs praising Jesus will resonate among those familiar with Lutheran communion liturgy, since they have been shaped into the verses of a communion canticle, “This is the feast of victory for our God”.
On the scroll of prophecy are seven seals, which would be something like wax imprints from a wooden or metal stamp unique to a person or family. These seals were used to certify the authenticity of a message when they were placed on it. As these seals are opened in heaven there’s typically a corresponding reaction on earth. One after another, the seals release the “four horses of the apocalypse” in their symbolic colors: white for victory, red for war, black for judgment, and pale green for death. Terrible calamities come on the earth due to these horses and their riders. But the fifth seal is different: it recognizes with white robes the Christian martyrs who have already died in their faith. Revelation was written perhaps 80-100 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, at a time when there had been several rounds of anti-Christian persecution by Rome already. This “seal” promises those still alive that their loved ones who are dead have not been lost from God’s mercies. The sixth seal (a great earthquake) drives human powers into hiding for fear of God’s overwhelming might. Consider the glee this would have given to early Christians, imagining Caesar and other overlords fleeing in fear when God’s power is finally unleashed on them. In this regard, Revelation might be considered an ancient comic book, dramatizing in vivid scenes the ultimate battles of capital-G Good and capital-E Evil.
Chapter 7 describes an interlude between the opening of seals on the prophecy. Instead, a seal in this case is placed on *people*, claiming them as authentically belonging to God. We first read of 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. (This has led some religious traditions—such as the Seventh Day Adventists, at least historically—to say that only 144,000 people will go to heaven. However, others point to the next description of a “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” to say that there’s room for everyone in heaven. Both readings give too much weight to Revelation as an accurate literal descriptor of heavenly things, but if I had to choose among them I prefer the spaciousness of the latter understanding. In any case, early recipients of Revelation would likely have been more interested in the description of that overwhelming multitude as those “who have come out of the great ordeal” (that is, Roman persecutions). The promises given to them—of God’s consoling mercies, and eternal freedom from suffering of any kind—are now a staple of funeral liturgies. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Revelation 8-11. Thanks for reading!