Studies in Revelation—Lesson 16
by Reta Halteman Finger
“Be silent before the Lord God; for the day of the Lord is at hand,” Zephaniah 1:7.
In a Slate article called ”Silence Is Golden” (Aug. 31, 2009), Jan Swafford writes about the effectiveness of pauses in music, because composers know that “a nothing can be just as expressive as a something. It depends on the frame, what it is that echoes in the silence.” Think of the pause just before the majestic ending of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Notice that Revelation 8:1-13 begins with just such a dramatic pause. (We’re told in 8:1 that it lasts about a half hour). The pause follows the reading of Revelation 7:15-17. Imagine yourself standing in silence after this heavenly song was read aloud or chanted at your church in Asia Minor. Meditate on the comfort of the Lamb-turned-Shepherd (v. 17), and prepare your soul for a shift from the throne room of heaven to…what?— the seventh seal and the End of the World?
If this story proceeded in a linear fashion, that is what we would expect. But apocalyptic writing is often more circular than linear. A series of events come to a head—and then they start all over again using different imagery. David Barr keeps reminding us that this is not scientific logic; Revelation is a book of ecstasy!
Chapter 8 is not the climax! Seven angels appear (v. 2), perhaps Raphael and the other six named angels in the inter-testamental book of Tobit (12:15). Each is given a trumpet (the loudest noisemaker in the ancient world!). But first another angel appears with a golden censer and mixes incense with the saints’ prayers from the golden altar sitting before the Lamb’s throne. The mixture is lit with fire from the altar. The angel throws the whole burning censer on the earth, and—whoosh!—a thunderstorm and an earthquake! (Rev. 8:3-5).
What powerful prayers! As the angels blow their trumpets, terrible things happen in the natural world, perhaps suggested by the storms, earthquakes, and eclipses of the first century. Various commentaries compare God’s judgment on Rome with the ten plagues of Egypt in Exodus 7-10. The burning mountain thrown into the sea (Rev. 8:8) evokes the memory of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 CE, destroying ships in the sea as well as the city of Pompeii. However, the plagues are not total; “the goal is repentance,” says Ted Grimsrud in Triumph of the Lamb.
Symbols abound. Let’s first unpack 8:3-5, the angel with the golden censer. In Lesson 12, I described two literary techniques John uses to communicate his message: recapitulation and intercalation. In describing some later account or cycle, such as of seals or trumpets, John may mirror an earlier one and intensify its meaning. This is recapitulation. The angel with the golden censer in 8:3-5 is recapping the fifth seal in Revelation 6:9-11, where the martyrs’ prayers for justice result in the judgment of the sixth seal. Similarly, the prayers of the saints in 8:3-4 not only set in motion the judgment of the seven angels with trumpets, but greatly intensify the earlier scene. Instead of six verses of judgment (6:12-17,) there are now twenty-six! (8:7–9:20).
Usually when a scene is recapped, the meaning will be repeated, but the symbols will change (as we will see in chapter 12). But 8:3-5 also repeats some of the same symbols from 6:9-11: the altar, the pray-ers, and the prayers of the pray-ers. Judging by the results, the content of these prayers boils down to the line in our Lord’s Prayer—“your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2). God is responding dramatically! But, as Eugene Boring’s commentary notes, “the immediate result of their prayers is not the glorious coming of the kingdom—though that is the ultimate result—but the precipitation of the series of eschatological woes. The path to the kingdom goes through, not around, the woes of history” (p. 134).
Interpretation of numeric symbols
Throughout these lessons, I have been interpreting symbols, or sometimes assuming readers already know what they mean. But perhaps we need occasional reminders. John himself interprets some symbols his audience would not know, such as the seven stars and lamps in Revelation 1:20 that mean “angels and churches.” But his first-century hearers already knew the meaning of the various numbers he used—even though today’s readers usually do not.
- Three stands for the spiritual order. In the creation account of Genesis 1, the cosmos is formed during the first three days—light, air, earth, and sea.
- Four stands for the earth and all its creatures.
- Seven, as a prime number, stands for perfection and completeness as the sum of 3 and 4 (contrast with 6, which represents incompleteness).
- Ten stands for totality.
- Twelve stands for Israel as God’s people and is the product of 3 times 4. The people of Israel are earthly humans but also were uniquely called by God’s Spirit.
- Multiples and repetitions intensify the meaning of a particular number. (See David Barr, p. 441).
These identifications may help us better understand the numbers used in Revelation 6–8.
- Seven is a perfect number, undivided by anything other than itself; hence, seven seals and seven trumpets.
- Four, the number of the earth is illustrated in the first four seals of the four horsemen (6:2-8), as well as in the first four angels blowing trumpets (8:7-12).
- In both seal and trumpet sequences, the last three are different and more cosmic (6:9-17, 8:1, 9:1-21, and 11:15-19).
- In 7:4-8, the number twelve of Israel is intensified by both 12 and 10 to symbolize the totality of those who were sealed.
The next lesson will compare the woes of the fifth and sixth trumpets in Revelation 9 with the first four trumpets of natural catastrophes discussed above.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- What is your emotional reaction to the destruction described in Revelation 8? Is it happening in the present? Is it caused by God or humans, such as undrinkable water? (8:11).
- What can go wrong when we read Revelation as linear and chronological, rather than as a book of ecstasy?
Barr, David L. “The Dawn of a New Day: The Apocalypse of John.” New Testament Story: An Introduction. 4th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009.
Boring, Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press, 1989. P. 134.
Grimsrud, Ted. Triumph of the Lamb: A Self-Study Guide to the Book of Revelation. Herald Press, 1987. P. 75.