Jeanie C. Crain http://crain.english.missouriwestern.edu
Seven seals on a heavenly scroll, opened by the Lamb
Chapter seven of Revelation provides needed respite from the ensuing cosmic catastrophes of chapter six; unbroken, however, is the seventh seal for which fearful expectation has developed during the opening of the first six. If this chapter is misunderstood, and it often is, then much of the rest of John's vision will also be misunderstood. The pivotal point in the chapter is a paradox: "for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd" (17). The reader must recall that the Lamb introduced in Revelation 5.6 is the sacrificial Lamb "standing as if it had been slaughtered, having the seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth." Just as John uses seven consistently to represent completion, one must expect to find in chapter seven a similar use. The paradox makes it quite clear that Sacrificial Lamb is now Shepherd.
Is it coincidental that chapter seven announces the seventh seal as preceded by an interlude of silence, dramatic pause for the finale? How long is half an hour of silence in heaven? (8.1) Readers must remember where it is that John has taken them in the structure of his vision into heaven: from the initial vision into the heaven and the throne, John has already seen conquering powers, war, famine, pestilence and death, martyred souls under the altar, and an earthquake; he next sees two additional encompassed visions: four angels at the corners of the earth, an angel with the seventh seal.
How long has all this taken before we get to this half hour interlude of silence? Seven does introduce a crescendo: the seven angels in chapter eight have seven trumpets, and the devastation on earth will begin in full force.
What John has accomplished in chapter seven is to insert micro visions within his larger vision into heaven itself. "How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood" the martyred have asked (16.11). What number? They are told to wait for "their fellow servants, and their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed" (6.11). This is certainly not a comforting answer; the suffering and persecution on earth are, apparently, ongoing. Furthermore, John makes clear (7.4-9) that the servants of God, not the martyred, are being clearly marked as belonging to Christ and that the number (144,000, a multiple of twelve representing organized religion; one thousand is ten cubed, representing human completeness) will be complete when it is complete: "salvation belongs to the our God" (10). That John distinguishes servants from martyred is also important: martyrs still alive are yet to be killed; and servants are yet to be marked. What is going on in John's era, the great multitude martyred under Nero, is going on still: the complete number will include a full complement of martyrs from all times and all places. 144,000 will be sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel" (4). In addition to these, there will be "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands" (9). It's clear not one of the Redeemed will be left out of this gathering just as it is clear that God's outreach is universal and that the martyrs are to rest until the time is complete.
It should be noted that in the listing of the tribes, Judah is listed first, probably because Christ belonged to it; also, the tribe of Joseph included Benjamin and Manasseh, whereas Manasseh is listed separately in verse six. Dan does not appear at all:
The omission allows some to argue that not all Jews (the tribes) were present before the throne. In its notes on the tribe of Dan, the Oxford Companion offers another possibility:
If Dan has been assimilated, it may not have been recognized in the first century C.E. formally as a tribe; a similar natural answer exists within information about Benjamin and Manasseh: although the tribe of Joseph embraces both Manasseh and Ephraim, Manasseh is weaker but important politically, and there seems to be a blurring between the tribes genealogically so that the two tribes can be identified as two or one.
The Oxford Companion further points out the inconsistent listing of the tribes throughout the Bible:
It should come as no surprise to the reader that the seventh seal introduces a "long" interlude of silence followed by the prayers of the saints (8.3)--fervent prayer I would suspect for both the future martyred and the future Redeemed--and a return to ongoing devastation on earth. Six trumpets, seven again delayed, introduce new convulsions of nature in judgment upon the wicked (NRSV Oxford Annotated).
One must keep in mind at all times that John's vision is into the eternal at the same time his feet are grounded in the earthly and temporal; only in the finite world is time marked, and of the interlude in heaven, it is John's subjective report that it seemed to be half an hour. Remember, though, the half hour marks an interlude in the vision itself. How long was the vision? All the reader knows is that the twenty-two chapters of Revelation were written as the result of the vision; the vision obviously could have taken a shorter or longer time than it took the author to record it.
Concerning the total number of the martyred and Redeemed, both robed in white (6.11, 7. 13), one of the twenty-four elders (5.8) introduced in the initial vision of the throne asks John, "Who are these robed in white, and where have they come from?" John replies respectfully, "Sir, you are the one that knows" (14). John has been humbled by his vision and recognizes that no mere mortal is capable of answering this question of number sealed and end of time. The elder (in heaven) then reveals to John who they are and why they are there: "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (14). Is it any wonder that the angels, elders and four living creatures fall on their face and worship God, singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!" Note the Amen sealing both ends of the worship service. Note, too, that the worshippers numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of thousands" (5.11).
The final verses of chapter seven of Revelation shows activity in eternity, "within God's temple" (15): "They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne [in the temple] will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (15-17).
Structurally, John Sweet (OCB) also sees recapitulation and overture:
In the three series of disasters there is both recapitulation—each covers the same ground—and development. The seals serve as overture, centering on the "beginning of the birthpangs" (Matthew 24.8). The trumpets lead up to the "desolating sacrilege" (Matthew 24.15), Rome and its emperor. The bowls set out their destruction and the "coming of the Son of Man" (Matthew 24.27)—bridegroom and bride over against beast and harlot.
Two further structural points are important for interpreting the book. Enclosing the scenes of destruction are the visions of God, creator and redeemer (Revelation 4 and Revelation 5), and of the new creation (Revelation 21): the destructions are not simply negative; the rebelliousness of earth is finally overcome. Enclosing all the visions is the epistolary opening and ending: the whole disclosure is a message to Christians of the day in their particular situations. Scattered among the visions are calls for discernment and fidelity (Revelation 13.9; Revelation 13.10; Revelation 13.18; Revelation 14.12; Revelation 16.15; Revelation 17.9).
John's recorded vision serves as a doorway into the eternal, a door opening from the ongoing rebelliousness on earth into "the grace and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come" (1.4). What is revealed beyond that doorway is a throne and coming from it "flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunders, and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass like crystal" 4.5).
John enables his readers to become like himself and like Ezekiel (1.26-28) exalted in spirit; what will be seen is the glory of God and the distance between God and his creatures, even in heaven itself (Oxford Annotated). Like John, those exalted will fall down and worship God (8, 9). At the end of Revelation, the end is not yet, only near (10). Evil continues: "Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right and the holy still be holy. See I am coming soon; my reward is with me to repay according to everyone's work" 22.12).
As the martyred in heaven rest a while longer, as the Redeemed are being sealed, the testimony from "the root and the descendent of David, the bright morning star" (22.16) includes an invitation: "'Come'. And let everyone who hears, say, 'Come.' And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift" 22.17).
"See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me..." (22.12)
If, in fact, Revelation 7 is pivotal with the paradox of Sacrificial Lamb transformed into Shepherd, and if seven is the number of God's perfection, the reader would conclude quite naturally that the pattern should continue with chapters fourteen and twenty-one; this is exactly what happens! Chapter fourteen reveals the Lamb standing on Mount Zion! ("and with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads" 1). Chapter twenty-one unveils a new heaven and earth:
Revelation then is ultimately a love story: wayward human beings, cast out of the Garden of Eden, now are reunited with God, servants resplendent in robes of white. Hosea is fulfilled: Gomer is redeemed through love as a metaphor of Israel now enlarged to include the Gentile nations. The Song of Solomon is now realized: "My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastors his flock among the lilies..." The church, beginning with the seven churches, has "sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but found him not..." 3.1. The bride is met with praise and invitation, and in 8. 5-14, the reader learns of the lovers' vows and their final exchange. In the Song of Solomon, the lovers are found dwelling in the garden, much like the Adam and Eve of Genesis restored. The primordial end lies within the primordial beginning.
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