October 5: Revelation 10:1-7

Revelation 10:1-7

As in the earlier Seal-vision cycle, there is here an interlude between the sixth and seventh Trumpet-visions—the seventh trumpet does not sound until 11:15. As a literary and dramatic device, this serves to build suspense, but it also turns the attention of the audience away from the Judgment and back toward the worship of God (and Christ) in Heaven. Also, in the book of Revelation, the number seven symbolizes the holiness and perfection of God, even as the number six (coming just short of seven) reflects the limitation and imperfection of the created order, and of humankind in particular. Thus, from a thematic point of view, a clear demarcation between the first six visions and the seventh is entirely appropriate. However, technically, based on 11:14, it would seem that the author of the book regarded this interlude (10:1-11:14) as part of the sixth vision.

Rev 10:1-2a

The core of this particular vision (vv. 1-7) features the presence of a “strong Messenger”—i.e. an especially powerful heavenly being, with distinctive attributes. His visual appearance is described in vv. 1-2a:

    • “stepping down [vb. katabai/nw] out of the heaven”—perhaps indicating a shift in visionary locale, i.e. a descent to appear before the seer (John) on earth (as in 1:12-20); more likely, the spatial reference is part of the vision itself, as is the reference to earth in v. 2b.
    • “having been cast about [i.e. clothed/robed] by a cloud”
    • a brilliant halo (i@ri$, i.e. rainbow) upon his head (cf. 4:3)
    • his face is “(bright) as the sun”
    • his feet are as “pillars of fire”

These characteristics echo both the language of theophany (the manifestation of God [YHWH]) and christophany (the appearance of the exalted Jesus), which includes the traditional imagery surrounding the appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14). The clouds and related meteorological phenomena are part of the traditional storm-theophany—i.e. manifestation/description of the sky/storm as deity, or personified as deity. For ancient Israelites, El-Yahweh shared many of these storm associations, which were visible when he became manifest to humankind, according to the Old Testament narrative and traditions (most famously in the Sinai theophany, Exod 19:9, 16; 24:15-26ff). Especially important, from an eschatological standpoint, is the cloud-imagery related to the “Son of Man” figure in Daniel 7, who was identified with the exalted Jesus in the Gospel and early Christian tradition (Mk 13:26-27; 14:62 par; Rev 1:7; cf. also Acts 7:55-56). The same cloud-imagery is specifically associated with the future return of Jesus (i.e. the Son of Man) in Acts 1:9-11 and 1 Thess 4:17.

Certain similarities with the vision of the exalted Jesus in 1:12ff have raised the possibility that the Messenger here in chapter 10 also represents an appearance of Christ. This, however, seems unlikely; the parallels are too general, and simply reflect the fact that descriptions of the exalted Jesus follow closely the traditional depiction of divine/heavenly beings.

Verse 2 establishes an important parallel with the vision-scene in chapter 5—the Messenger holds a scroll in his hand, just as the “One seated on the throne” holds the sealed scroll in his right hand (5:1). There is some question whether this is the same scroll (lit. paper roll, bibli/on, here bibliari/dion) from chapters 5ff. Almost certainly, it should be understood this way, based on the description of it here as “having been opened up” (vb. a)noi/gw, used 11 times in chaps. 5-6, beginning with 5:2). Moreover, it would present a visionary structure exactly parallel to that indicated at the very start of the book (1:1), referring to the revelation contained in the book as coming:

    • from God [YHWH]—par the scroll in his right hand (5:1)
      • given to Jesus—par the Lamb taking and opening the scroll (5:6-6:1)
        • and then sent through his Messengers—i.e., the figure holding the opened scroll here in chap. 10
          • to his servants (e.g. the seer John)—the scene in chap. 10
Rev 10:2b-4

These verses describe the action of the great Messenger:

“And he set his foot (on) the giving (side) [i.e. his right foot] (down) upon the sea, and his well-named [i.e. left] (foot) upon the earth, and he cried (out) with a great voice, just as a lion (does when it) bellows. And when he cried (out), the seven thunders spoke (with) their (own) voices.” (v. 3)

Here again, we see evidence of the ancient storm-theophany. In the Semitic idiom, thunder is literally the voice (loq) of God, and this imagery is utilized in the great throne-vision (4:5; 6:1). The roaring of the storm is paralleled with the roar of the lion—a powerful animal figure used to represent both God (Amos 3:8; Hos 11:10) and his anointed representative (i.e. Messiah/Christ); on the latter, cf. Rev 5:5, and the underlying tradition from Gen 49:9 (see also Mic 5:8). The lion’s roar is especially associated with the divine Judgment in the Old Testament (Hos 5:14; 13:7-8; Jer 2:15; 4:7, etc; Zech 11:3).

The significance of these “thunders” is indicated in verse 4:

“And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, and (then) I heard a voice out of the heaven saying (to me), ‘You must seal the (thing)s which the seven thunders spoke, and you shall not write them’.”

The description of these voices as “thunder”, along with the number seven, shows that they are closely connected to the voice of God Himself. However, the reflexive pronoun (e(autw=n) in verse 3, indicates that they are not precisely identical with God’s voice—i.e. they speak with their (own) voices. Nevertheless, they accurately reflect God’s voice, much as the “seven spirits” before the throne represent God’s very eyes (5:6, cf. Zech 4:10). According to the ancient religious consciousness and mode of expression, the personification of divine attributes was extremely common; whether, or the extent to which, the “seven spirits” and “seven thunders” are to be understood as independent beings in their own right, is extremely hard to determine. These passages should not be used to establish a precise Theology (properly speaking) for the New Testament.

The proximity of the thunders to God’s own voice is confirmed by the command to seal the things they spoke—here, as in chaps. 5-6, the seal (sfragi/$) implies that something is kept hidden and undisclosed (i.e. the contents of the scroll are not to be read). This suggests something of the numinous and awesome (divine) character of these voices. Whether the seer understood what the thunders spoke is beside the point, though it may be that there is a similarity with what Paul relates in 2 Cor 12:4. The underlying idea and imagery finds an interesting, though faint, parallel in the ancient Canaanite “Baal Epic”, in which the storm deity (personification of the storm) Baal Haddu addresses his sister Anat (through a messenger), part of a refrain that runs through the text:

“For a message I have, and will tell you,
A word and I will recount to you,
The word of tree and the whisper of stone,
The converse of Heaven with Earth,
Of Deeps with Stars,
I understand the lightning which the Heavens do not know,
The word people do not know,
And earth’s masses do not understand.”
(translation, with some modification, by Mark S. Smith in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Society of Biblical Literature and Scholars Press [1997])

Rev 10:5-7

The action of the Messenger continues in verses 5-7, as he stands astride the surface of the earth—one foot on the sea, the other on the land. The symbolic majesty of the scene is enhanced as the Messenger proceeds to swear an oath, marked by the raising of his right hand to heaven (v. 5b). The ancient practice of swearing by oath is quite foreign to us today, though modern society retains a faint vestige of it in courts of law and certain other official settings. The ancient (religious/magical) sense and significance of the practice is indicated by the verb o)mnu/w, which, in its fundamental sense and earliest usage, refers to making (or holding) something firm through contact with a sacred object. In the setting of public affairs, including the delivering of message, giving testimony, etc, it can mean confirming the truth of what a person says. That is the basic meaning here. By raising his hand to heaven, the Messenger is affirming the truth of what he says through symbolic/ritual contact with Heaven itself (cf. Matt 23:22). Moreover, he utters his message through the name/authority of God Himself (“…in/by the [One] living into the Ages of the Ages [i.e. forever]”). The oath is presented in the manner of an ancient religious/theological formula, one which may be traced all the way back to the Abraham narratives in Genesis (cf. Gen 19:18-20), presenting God [YHWH-El] as the one true Deity and Creator. The more immediate reference here clearly is to Daniel 12:7.

The message itself, preceded by such solemn grandeur, follows in vv. 6b-7:

“there will not yet be (any more) time [xro/no$]; but (rather), in the days of the voice of the seventh Messenger, when he shall be about to sound the trumpet, even (then it is that) the secret of God is completed [e)tele/sqh], (even) as He gave the good message (of it) to His slaves the Foretellers.”

These verses, and those which follow here (vv. 8-11), are vital for a proper understanding of the structure of the visionary narrative in the book, as well as the time-frame that is involved. For this reason, I feel that it is worth devoting a separate note to a careful study of them—this will be done in the next daily note.

September 29: Revelation 7:1-8

Revelation 7:1-8

The relationship of chapter 7 to the seal-visions in chapter 6 is problematic for readers who might be inclined to view these chapters as representing a strict chronological sequence of events. There is, however, a definite kind of (visionary) logic at work, as we shall see. More significant as a connecting point between the two chapters is the closing question in 6:17: “who is able to stand” in the face of God’s approaching Judgment? Chapter 7 gives the answer to this.

First, it is important to keep in mind the structure of the vision-cycle:

    • Group of 4 visions (seals 1-4)—horses and horsemen
    • Group of 2 visions (seals 5-6)
      {interlude}
    • The concluding vision (seal 7), which opens up into the next vision-cycle

The fifth and sixth visions involved, respectively: (i) the persecution of believers, and (ii) disruption of the natural order marking the beginning of the great Judgment by God. Chapter 7 combines both of these themes.

Rev 7:1-3

The theme and setting of the sixth seal-vision continues in verse 1:

“With [i.e. after] this, I saw four Messengers having taken (their) stand upon the four corners of the earth, holding firm(ly to) the four winds of the earth, (so) that the wind should not blow upon the earth, nor upon the sea, nor upon all tree(s).”

The sixth seal had a cosmic orientation, involving the universe (heaven and earth) as understood by ancient cosmology. Now the visionary setting has shifted to the surface of the earth. In ancient (Near Eastern) cosmology, while the universe was more or less spherical (or a hemisphere), the earth itself was essentially flat, typically envisioned as a disc or cylinder. There is no reason to think that this traditional image is not being followed here (the picture used at the top of the header above is quite inaccurate in this regard). The idea of four “corners” does not require a square shape; the number four is again traditional. Winds could be seen as coming from the ends of the earth, also identified as four (Mark 13:27; cf. Psalm 135:7; Jer 10:13; 25:32, etc). God’s power and control extends to the “ends of the earth” (Job 28:24; Psalm 46:9; 59:13; 72:8; Prov 30:4; Isa 40:28, etc), and His destructive Judgment both comes from the ends of the earth and goes out to them as well (Deut 28:49; 1 Sam 2:10; Isa 5:26; 13:5; 41:5; Jer 25:31f; 50:41). Similarly, God’s salvation extends to the ends of the earth, a motif found often in the book of Isaiah, which came to be part of the Messianic imagery (Psalm 2:8; 46:9; 65:5; 98:3; Isa 41:9; 43:6; 45:22; 48:20; 49:6; 52:10; 62:11; Jer 31:8; Mic 5:4; Zech 9:10; and cf. Acts 1:8; 13:47; Rom 10:18).

“And I saw another Messenger stepping up from the rising up of the sun [i.e. the east], holding (the) seal of the living God, and he cried (out) with a great voice to the four Messengers to whom (it) was given to them to take away the right (order) of the earth and the sea, saying: ‘Do not take away the right (order) of the earth, nor of the sea, nor of the trees, until we would seal the slaves of our God upon the (space) between their eyes [i.e. their forehead]!'” (vv. 2-3)

This makes clear that the (four) winds coming from the ends of the earth have a destructive power, and their unleashing by the Messengers (natural celestial forces were typically seen as being controlled by heavenly beings or Angels) is to be part of, and/or symbolic of, the great end-time Judgment upon the world. The adjective a&diko$ fundamentally means “without (a)) justice (di/kh)”, and the verb a)dike/w “be/act without justice”, sometimes in the sense of “take away [i.e. remove] justice”. However, here such a translation would be quite misleading; di/kh must be understood in the broader sense of “right (order)”. Thus the verb a)dike/w would be rendered “take away the right (order of things)”. In English, this is often translated more simply as “injure, harm”, but, in light of the theme of the disruption of the natural order in 6:12-17, it is perhaps best to retain this wider aspect.

The verb sfragi/zw is related to the seven-fold seal (sfragi/$) upon the scroll in chapters 4-6. As previously noted, it refers to the act of stamping an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) upon a seal of clay or wax (or lead). This stamp marks the ownership (of the document, etc) by the one who has the signet (ring). Here it is stated that the winds will not be released (to disrupt/destroy the surface of the earth) until the “slaves of God” are stamped with the “stamp/seal of the living God” (v. 2). It is possible that this alludes to the marking/branding of slaves, such as occurred in Roman society (and many other cultures); if so, then it is a mixing of images with the sealing (through wax/clay/lead) of a document or object. The primary motif is doubtless the same, however—that the “slaves”, like the scroll, belong to God, who is their owner/master. In Romans 4:11, Paul refers to circumcision—the essential sign (shmei=on) of God’s binding agreement (covenant) with Israel—as a seal (sfragi/$) of God’s righteousness. As applied in an early Christian context, this seal marks believers as the people of God. Much the same is stated in 2 Tim 2:19:

“Yet (truly), the firm (foundat)ion set down by God has stood, holding this seal [sfragi/$]: ‘The Lord knew the (one)s being [i.e. who are] His (own)’…”

The theme of sealing will be used further in the book of Revelation, including a contrast between those sealed by God (true believers) and those stamped by the mark of the “Beast”. In this regard, it is quite likely that the stamp/seal here also is meant to indicate God’s protection. This seems to be the point for the way this detail is included in verses 1-3—the seal gives God’s “slaves” protection from the natural disasters (and other suffering) to come in the time of Judgment. The precise significance of this will be discussed and clarified in the upcoming notes.

Who are these “slaves”? The word dou=lo$ means “slave” or “(bond)servant”, but, to avoid confusion with certain historical occurrences and modern conceptions of slavery, it is often translated as “servant”. The word was regularly used, by early Christians, as a self-designation for believers—i.e. those belonging to God (and Christ), and bound to serve him (Acts 4:29, etc, and see earlier in Rev 1:1; 2:20). It could also refer specifically to one chosen by God for special service (as apostle, minister, etc). Paul uses it frequently to refer to himself (and his fellow ministers)—Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; cf. also James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1, etc. Here in the book of Revelation, the point of reference is expounded in the verses which follow.

Rev 7:4-8

“And I heard the number of the (one)s having been sealed: one hundred and forty-four thousand, (one)s having been sealed out of all the offshoots of the sons of Yisrael—…” (v. 4)

A more precise syntax would have been “…out of the all the offshoots of Yisrael”, i.e. the tribes of Israel; we might paraphrase the actual wording here as “…out of all the tribes which make up the sons of Israel”. This brings up a somewhat difficult question of interpretation—do the ‘tribes of Israel’ here refer (1) to ethnically Israelite believers, or (2) to believers in Christ generally? The question is complicated by the relationship between vv. 4-8 and the description which follows in vv. 9-17. The answer may also depend, to some extent at least, on the orientation of the author and his audience. Was he writing (primarily) to Gentile believers, Jewish believers, or a mixed audience? On one level, it would seem that vv. 4-8 definitely refer to Israelite believers, in an ethnic sense. This would be confirmed by: (a) the combined use of “tribes (of Israel)” and “sons of Israel”, and (b) the ‘census’ in vv. 5-8, listing out the specific tribes. At the same time, the relationship between believers (Jews and Gentiles both) and the ethno-religious identity of Israel as the people of God, was extremely complex in early Christianity, and could be expressed in a number of ways. Even limiting ourselves to Paul’s letters—the most complete evidence we have from the first century—there is a wide range of images and concepts. We must be cautious in how we approach this religious dynamic in the New Testament. I would suggest three avenues for interpretation which, I believe, are supported by the 1st-century evidence:

    • Historical—Nearly all of the earliest believers were Jewish (and, presumably, Israelites); from this standpoint, Christianity was seen as a natural extension (and fulfillment) of God’s covenant with Israel—i.e. Israelites who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. Only after the Gospel began to be proclaimed farther afield, in the Greco-Roman world, did this understanding change (and not without some difficulty) through the inclusion of significant numbers of non-Jewish believers.
    • Pauline—Paul’s letters give us a vivid picture of the formation of a new, and distinctly Christian, religious identity, in the years 50-60 A.D. Especially in Galatians and Romans, Paul forges this through a rich and complex series of arguments and illustrations. Even when writing primarily to Gentiles, he draws upon the Old Testament and the covenant traditions related to Israel as the people of God. All of this is redefined, as the “new covenant”, strictly in terms of faith in Jesus Christ, accompanied by the presence/work of the Spirit (of God and Christ). It is, however, also the fulfillment of the original covenant (with Abraham, etc), one which many Israelites and Jews have rejected. According to Romans 9-11, Paul views this as temporary—a brief period during which Gentiles are included (with Jewish believers) as the people of God; ultimately, at the end of this period, the Israelite/Jewish people will come to accept Christ in larger numbers. It is possible that Rev 7:4-8 reflects a similar eschatological idea.
    • Restoration Imagery—According to at least one line of tradition (and interpretation), believers represent the “restoration of Israel” at the end-time. This is symbolized through the tradition, fundamental to much eschatological and Messianic thought, that Israel—the twelve tribes—will be restored, coming back to the land (and to Jerusalem) from the surrounding nations. As I have argued elsewhere, Jesus’ selection of twelve apostles likely has this idea in mind. Certainly, it features in the eschatological awareness of the book of Acts (cf. the upcoming article on this subject). Only, instead of the emphasis being on the twelve tribes (and, eventually, the nations) coming to Jerusalem, here the twelve apostles (representing the tribes), along with others, go out from Jerusalem to proclaim the Gospel into all the nations.

All three of these approaches have merit and value in understanding the symbolism of Rev 7:4-8. And, it should be stated in passing, that there can be little doubt as to the symbolic character of the numbering (a)riqmo/n) here—144,000 = 12 x 12 x 1000. We will look again at the interpretative possibilities when we turn to vv. 9ff (in the next daily note).

Finally, it is worth considering two peculiarities in the list of tribes here in vv. 5-8:

    1. The order does not match that of the traditional lists elsewhere in the Old Testament (Gen 35:16-26; 46:8-27; 49; Deut 33; Num 1:5-15; Ezek 48, etc). Placing Judah first has obvious Messianic significance (Rev 5:5, etc); but otherwise, there does not appear to be any clear meaning to the ordering of the rest of the names.
    2. The tribes of Levi and Joseph are not included in the tribal allotments of land, etc, but would be included in any proper genealogical list of the tribes which make up the “sons of Israel”. However, the list here in Revelation, curiously, includes Joseph’s son Manasseh (half-tribe for Joseph), but leaves out Dan. While there are negative traditions associated with Dan in the Old Testament (Gen 49:17; Judg 18:30, etc), it is by no means certain that this is the reason for the exclusion here. Some early Christian commentators came to adopt the explanation that the ‘Antichrist’ would come from the tribe of Dan (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.30.2; Hippolytus On Christ and Antichrist 14:5ff; Koester, p. 418); but there is nothing in the book of Revelation itself to confirm this.