Who is the “Great Whore of Babylon”? Revelation 17:1-18

The woman in Revelation 17 is riding a “scarlet beast.” We might have expected to see the beast himself, or the king who represents the beast.  Rather than the king, we see a prostitute riding a scarlet beast.  It is possible the image of a beast is of a throne, and the woman is the king. This beast is not unlike the beast from chapter 13 or the fourth beast of Daniel 7, other than the color scarlet. Nothing much can be made of this color, although it is similar in color to that of the red dragon who gave his authority to the beast in chapter 13.

Great Whore of BabylonThe woman is described as a prostitute. Prostitutes are common images in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness, for example, Jerusalem Isaiah 1:21, Tyre in Isaiah 23:16-17 and Nineveh in Nahum 3:4. Israel herself is compared to a prostitute in Jer 3:6-10; Ezek 16:15-22; 23:49; Hos 4:12-13; 5:3.

Although there are some commentators who made the woman represent Israel, but the vast majority of writers associate the woman with Rome, especially given the evidence below. The “final” empire as Rome is consistent with Daniel 2 and 7, and with the rest of Revelation.  It is Rome which is demanding worship in chapters 2-3, and it is Rome which persecutes the saints.

The various descriptions of the woman add to the vividness of the image:

  • She was dressed in purple and scarlet.  The word for the color purple here covers a range of colors from deep purple to black.  While the color is normally associated with royalty and prestige, the writer Porphyry associated the color purple with carnality (which is interested because his name is derived from the word, Aune 3:935).
  • She was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls.  The stereotypical prostitute is gaudy and over-dressed with jewelry and other accessories.
  • She held a golden cup in her hand. This gold cup is likely an allusion to Jeremiah 51:7, although the verse there refers to Babylon.  This is an example of the unusual blending of Roman and Babylonian elements in the chapter.  The cup is filled with “abominations and impurities.”  The word abomination is almost always associated with idols or meat sacrificed to idols (Jer 51:7).
  • On the head of this woman is written several names. There is a problem of how to read the verse with respect to punctuation.  Is this “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery:” or “on her head was written a name: MYSTERY”?  In verse seven, the angel interprets the “mystery” of the woman, so it is likely here that the name of the woman begins with BABYLON rather than mystery. Why is the head of the beast’s empire portrayed as a female prostitute?  She is not just a whore, she is the mother of all whores.
  • The prostitute is drunk on the blood of the saints. That the woman is a prostitute is bad enough, but she is a drunk prostitute. Descriptions of prostitutes in the Greco-Roman literature usually indicate they drink very little “for professional reasons” (Aune 3:927.)  There really is not more degrading way of describing a woman than as a drunk whore.  To be “drunk on blood” is am image of extreme violence (see Ezek 39:18-19; Isa 49:26)

It is possible this description is based on coins minted by Vespasian in A.D. 71. These coins depict the goddess Tiber seated on seven hills, as described in this vision.   The image of the goddess is common both before and after Vespasian, but not the image of a goddess seated on seven hills. On the reverse, the river goddess Tiber reclines on seven hills, holding a sword indicating the military might of Rome. S and C stand for senatus consultum – a resolution of the senate. In the background are a she-wolf and the twins Romulus and Remus.

 

 

Coin with Vespasian, minted AD 71

A coin minted in A.D. 71 featuring Vespasian and (Cohen, Description 1:398 [no. 404]) From Aune Revelation, 3:920

The coins of Rome obviously do not depict Rome as a prostitute. But there may bit a subtle word play in this description:  “The Latin term lupa, ‘she-wolf,’ had the connotation ‘prostitute’ and might have contributed to a subversive joke that was transferred to Roma as the female personification of Rome” (Aune 3:929).

The angel gives an invitation to the reader to “figure out” what the beast represents in verses 9-14 “this calls for wisdom.” The city of Rome was well known in antiquity as the city on seven hills, although it is difficult to identify which are the seven hills on which Rome was founded.  In the various attempts to make the beast Jerusalem, the seven hills becomes a problem.

The angelic guide identifies the ten horns as seven kings who are coming.  There are at least three was to “count” the Roman emperors of the first century. There are at least three approaches to handling this problem.

The historical approach.  This approach attempts to make sense of the series of kings in Roman history.  One must determine the start of the series, and decide which of the kings “count.”  For example, there are three Caesars in A.D. 69, before Vespasian takes the throne.  Do they count as three separate kings, or as a single king, or not at all?

The symbolic approach.  This approach argues John has no specific kings in mind, but rather he means to use the number seven as a complete number of kings. This is consistent with Revelation’s use of the number 7, and Roman history as well, which held the first period of their history was ruled by seven kings, when in fact there were likely many more than this.

A combination of the historical and symbolic approaches.  This attempts to use the historical sequence of kings, but declines to identify the first 5.  It is the sixth king that is important, and is well known to the readers (either Nero or Domitian, depending on one’s view of the date of the book.)  The hope, then, is that this evil sixth king will only reign for a short time.

Once again, Revelation leaves us with more questions than answers. If this image does refer to Rome, then Revelation 18-19 describes fall of Rome. Since Revelation 19:11-21 refers to the return of Jesus as the Messiah, when does Rome fall? Certainly not in John’s time, and it is unclear this could refer to any historical event in history. A solution may be to understand the prophecy of the fall of Rome as already beginning in the first century, but not yet consummated until the Second Coming.

 

 

The First Four Trumpets in Revelation 8:7-12

The first trumpet judgment is similar to Exodus 9:13-25, hail and fire fell upon the Egyptians. Joel 2:31 indicates that in the time of the end the moon and sun will be turned to blood. The Jews had a tradition that at the time of the crossing of the Red Sea the angels hurled “arrows, great hailstones, fire, and brimstone” one the Egyptians (Aune, 2:519 cites Mek. de-Rabbi Ishmael, Beshallah 7). Fire and blood from heaven was included in Roman lists of “evil signs” (Cicero De div. 1.43.98; 2.27.58; Pliny Hist. Nat. 2.57.147).

The image of a great red storm sweeping across the earth destroying plants and trees may allude to Zechariah 13:8-9. In that apocalyptic text, only one-third of the land survives a “refining fire.” Why a third? This may be loosely based on Ezekiel 5:2, 12. Jerusalem will be destroyed one-third by fire, one-third by sword.

When the Second Trumpet is sounded, a huge mountain is thrown into the sea (8:8-9). The first judgement burned one third of the land, this judgement damages one third of the seas.  Sea life and shipping are all one third destroyed. “Something like a huge mountain” in the sea is reminiscent of a volcanic island being formed.  Mount Vesuvius erupted within John’s lifetime and destroyed Pompeii, many of the Jews believed that this was a judgement of God in the Romans for having destroyed Jerusalem. Volcanic debris blocked the Bay of Naples making it impossible to land boats (Tacitus Annals 4.67; Ant. 20.144).  The only eyewitness account is from Pliny the Younger (Ep. 6.16, 20). Pliny reports the sea level dropped and sea creatures were stranded on dry land.

Pliny, Epistles, 6.20 For although the ground was perfectly level, the vehicles which we had ordered to be brought with us began to sway to and fro, and though they were wedged with stones, we could not keep them still in their places. Moreover, we saw the sea drawn back upon itself, and, as it were, repelled by the quaking of the earth. The shore certainly was greatly widened, and many marine creatures were stranded on the dry sands. On the other side, the black, fearsome cloud of fiery vapour burst into long, twisting, zigzag flames and gaped asunder, the flames resembling lightning flashes, only they were of greater size.

The imagery is common in apocalyptic, see for example:

Sib. Or. 4.130-34  But when a firebrand, turned away from a cleft in the earth, in the land of Italy, reaches to broad heaven, it will burn many cities and destroy men. Much smoking ashes will fill the great sky, and showers will fall from heaven like red earth.

But the Revelation likely alludes to the first plague on Egypt in Exodus 7:14-23. In the original plague, all the water turned to blood, even water stored in jars. In addition, all the fish in the water died, as in the plague in Revelation.

When the third trumpet is sounded Wormwood falls into the fresh water (8:10-11). The third trumpet resembles the plague of the freshwater in Exodus 7:20, except that there the waters turned to blood. A great star, like a torch falls from the sky effecting freshwater.  Unlike western folklore, shooting stars were considered bad luck, thus this star would have struck the readers as a bad sign (Aune 2:520, citing  Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.36; 5.23, a falling star means the death of a person) If a falling star is bad, a comet is the worst cosmic sign possible.  “…comets were considered prodigies that signaled the imminence of death and disaster (Manilius Astron. 1.892-926).

The star was named Wormwood (ὁ Ἄψινθος, ho Apsinthos). Wormwood is an herb which is not poisonous but has a very bitter taste that would render water undrinkable. Wormwood is mentioned in Jeremiah 8:14, 9:15, 23:15, as a symbol of God’s punishment of the people. How could a single disaster poison freshwater?  Although some writers try to make this a literal meteor or comet, it is a plague like the Egyptian plagues. God is destroying the water supply.

When the fourth trumpet sounds, fire mixed with blood falls from the sky (Rev 8:12). This trumpet effects the sun, moon, and stars, reducing their light by one third.  Darkness is a common symbol of terror and the end of the world, the reduction of light will increase terror, and make food production less effective. This darkness is unnatural, “not the way it is supposed to be”, and generally associated with “covenantal judgment” in the Old Testament (Beale, Revelation, 483). Two examples from the Old Testament:

Amos 5:18  Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!  Why do you long for the day of the LORD?  That day will be darkness, not light.

Isaiah 13:10  The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light.  The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. (Cf Mark 13:24)

What is it that reduces the light?  It is possible that this is the combined effect of all the fire that has been started in the first three trumpets, all of the smoke and pollution have created a cloud cover that reduces light by one third. But it is more consistent with Revelation to see this as another allusion to Exodus 10:21-29, the ninth plague on the Egyptians.

In a previous post I suggested the 144,000 were in many ways similar to the send of the twelve in Matthew 10. Jesus sent his witnesses to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and in order to proclaim the presence of the messiah and to gather them into his messianic community. The plagues had a similar function in Exodus. For the children of Abraham, the plagues proved their God was defeating the gods of Egypt in order to rescue his people. As he has done before, God is calling his people out of the nations in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.

The Trumpets and the Plagues of Exodus – Revelation 8

Miles DavisHow are the plagues from Exodus used in the book of Revelation?

There are a remarkable number of parallels between this series of judgments and the ten plagues in Exodus.  For example, trumpets are associated with the theophany at Sinai (Exod 19:13-19; 20:18).  The first trumpet judgment is similar to Exodus 9:13-25, hail and fire fell upon the Egyptians.  The third trumpet resembles the plague of the freshwater in Exodus 7:20, except that there the waters turned to blood. The locust in Rev 9:3 is an apocalyptic version of the eighth plague (Exod 10:12-20).

Richard Patterson traced Exodus Motif in the Prophets, showing that the Exodus was a significant source of imagery for the rest of the Old Testament. The reason for this is the common “Divine Warrior” and “Divine Redeemer” themes in the Prophets. In the Exodus events, God fought for this people in order to redeem them out of their slavery. The prophets pick up those twin themes and apply them to their current situation. Israel has persisted in their unbelief and is once again under oppression (the Exile). God will once again fight for them and redeem them from the nations in a New Exodus.

While Patterson’s article does not continue to follow his argument into the Second Temple Period, the New Exodus theme is present in this literature. But plague imagery is not as common in Jewish sources as we might have guessed. In his detailed survey of the imagery of the Exodus in later Jewish writings, David Aune only finds the plagues in an eschatological sense in the Apocalypse of Abraham. There are ten plagues, although they do not track with the original ten plagues or the seven trumpets from Revelation.

Apoc. Abr. 30:3-8  And he said to me, “I will explain to you the things you desired in your heart, for you have sought to know the ten plagues which I prepared against the heathen, and I prepared them beforehand in the passing of the twelve hours on earth. Hear what I tell you, it will be thus. The first: sorrow from much need. The second: fiery conflagrations for the cities. The third: destruction by pestilence among the cattle. The fourth: famine of the world, of their generation. The fifth: among the rulers, destruction by earthquake and the sword. The sixth: increase of hail and snow. The seventh: wild beasts will be their grave. The eighth: pestilence and hunger will change their destruction. The ninth: execution by the sword and flight in distress. The tenth: thunder, voices, and destroying earthquakes.” (Rubinkiewicz, OTP 1:704)

Nevertheless, Revelation seems to be re-using imagery from the Ten Plagues.  Since John is standing on the shoulders of the Hebrew Bible. This is not a surprise. But it is important to at least wonder why it is important that the Exodus Events were chosen as the main backdrop for John’s apocalyptic description in Revelation 8-9. The purpose of the original ten plagues was for God to show his power to Israel. The ten plagues were not “evangelistic,” hoping that the Egyptians would see them and somehow “convert” to being Jewish. The plagues prove to the people of God in Egypt that he is a God who acts on their behalf to redeem them out of their slavery. The children of Abraham need to be convinced that the God of their ancestors is active and that he cares for them.

This may also be the function of the judgments in Revelation.  By the time of the eschatological age, Israel will have been in a state of unbelief for a long time. Like the original Exodus, they certainly need a reminded of the righteous character of their God. Revelation is using the language of the Hebrew Bible, how God has worked in the past, to describe how he will work again in the future.

 

Bibliography: Richard D. Patterson, “Wonders in the Heavens and on the Earth: Apocalyptic Imagery in the Old Testament” JETS 43 (2000): 385-403.

 

A Rider on a White Horse – Revelation 6:1

The opening of the first seal is a chance to test the method described in the previous series of posts. I suggested that reading Revelation is like reading a political cartoon from another culture and time (see also this post on the seals  in general). There are several key images in the description of the first horse and rider: they are white, the rider has a crown and a bow, and he is “bent on conquest.” How would a reader in the first century have understood the image of a white rider? Of the four horsemen, the identity of this rider is the most frequently debated. (In fact, there is not really any discussion of the meaning of the sword, famine and pestilence!)  If we read the metaphors in the context of a first century Jewish Christianity, we may be able to read the imagery as John intended them in the first place.

The color of the rider is important, but it could support any of the following views. White is often associated with victory. Roman emperors, for example, dressed in white when they celebrated a victory (Charles, Revelation, 1:1620). But white is often associated with holiness, for example when the Lord returns in chapter 19 he is wearing a white robe, the martyrs under the altar of God are wearing white robes (chapter 5).

First, it is possible that the rider is the Roman Empire / emperor, or more generally, the triumphant warfare in the Roman period. This view is less popular than it once was, although a consistent preterist like Ken Gentry sees the white horse as the Roman empire as victorious over Jerusalem (Four Views on the Book of Revelation, 53).

A second possibility is that the rider is Christ and the image is the conquest of the gospel in the present age. Those who read Revelation as from an idealist perspective understand this as preaching of the gospel which continues throughout the present age. They note that in 19:11-16 Christ is the rider of a white horse at the time of his second coming, also wearing a crown. The white rider is the progress of the gospel going out to the nations throughout the present age. This is parallel to the Olivet Discourse. Matthew 24:14 implies the gospel will be heard throughout the world prior to the return of the Messiah.

But there is some trouble with this view, primarily in explaining the meaning of the crown and bow. Matthew 24:14 only says that the gospel will be preached to the end of the age, not that it will be victorious. It is a testimony to the nations, but not specified as being successful. The crown is a victor’s crown promised to the one who overcomes in Revelation 2:10 and 3:11. In 4:4 the elders surrounding the throne are dressed in white and wear στέφανος (stefoanos), but the locust from the abyss have them as well. The “son of man” in 14:14 has a στέφανος (stefoanos) as does the woman in 12:1. The use of νικάω in this context may not necessarily be “positive,” since the same word is used in 11:7 and 13:7 with reference to demonic forces.

A third possibility is that the rider on the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16.  The rider is a  “false messiah” or “anti-Christ.” The rider is the Anti-Christ, going out “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation. Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 can be noted, for example, in 19:10-16 the name of the rider is “Faithful and True,” here the rider is given the power to judge and make war. The crowns are different, the weapons are different.

There is a different word used for crown in chapter 6 than in chapter 19. In 6:2 the rider has a bow rather than a sword and he is wearing a στέφανος (stefoanos); in 19:12 he has a sword (coming out of his mouth, describing the power of his word) and a διάδημα (diadema). In addition, the crown “as given” to him, an example of a “Divine passive.”  In addition, it was the Lamb who opened the seals in the first place, it seems unlikely that he would also be the rider. A bow is more naturally a symbol of an enemy, connected to the enemies of God rather than the presentation of the gospel. Ezekiel 39:3, for example, associates the bow with one of the ultimate enemies of God lead by Gog.

The first horseman as an anti-messiah parody fits well with the Olivet discourse since military conquests are associated with the nearness of the end, as are the presence of false-Christs. The word in Matthew, however, is pseudeo-christ not anti-christ.  Yet John himself saw the work of anti-christs even in his own time (1 John 2:18).

If the second through the sixth seal parallel the Olivet discourse, then perhaps it is best to see the first seal as a parallel as well. This leaves two options, the victory of the gospel and the progression of the Anti-Christ. Since the context of the second through fourth seal is not the verse about the gospel, but rather the appearance of false messiahs, it is best to conclude the white horse is a parody of the Messiah.

This conclusion would have been understood by a Jewish Christian readership which knew of the idea of a great persecution at the end of the age, and perhaps even the typology of Antichious Epiphanes from Daniel.  In addition, a Christian congregation may very well have known the teaching of Jesus about false-messiahs.  What is more, it is certain that a person living in the Roman empire would have understood the image as referring to Rome as the empire which is “bent on conquest.”

But there is nothing in this metaphor which invites the reader to identify the white rider with any political or religious figure in history, ancient or recent.  John is painting a picture in the mind of the reader of a conquering ruler who will make war against the people of God in the future with imagery drawn from the first-century Roman empire.

Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls in Revelation

Within the structure of Revelation, John uses imagery to describe events on earth and in heaven during the coming period of persecution before the return of the Messiah. The first image is of the opening of a document with seven seals, the second is a series of seven angels blowing trumpets, and the last is a series of seven bowls which are upturned as judgment is pronounced.

These are sometimes called the seven “judgments” since they tend to be a judgments, although not all can be described in this way. The fifth seal, for example, is a scene in heaven of those who have been martyred. Some are simply events that set up the final conflict between the Beast and Christ.

The difficulty in interpreting these judgments is that the language is highly symbolic. John is describing these events in metaphorical language. As I have said, reading Revelation is like looking at a political cartoon from another culture and time. I need to understand the cultural and historical cues in the imagery in order to understand John’s original intention. For an American, baseball and cowboy movies are “image sets” which virtually everyone understands.

Greg Beale suggests that there are several potential “image sets” which inform John’s descriptions used in the vision (Revelation 370f). Nero’s persecution of Christians after the great fire in Rome is a good possibility, as are two major earthquakes in the Lycus valley in A.D. 17 and 60. An often overlooked event for the study of Revelation is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79. This is intriguing especially for the fifth trumpet, since the descriptions of that catastrophe in contemporary literature sound quite a bit like John’s description of the opening of the Abyss. Beale also mentions a great famine in A.D. 92, an event which would have been fresh in the minds of those living in Asia Minor.

In fact, these are all well-known events to Christians living in Asia Minor in the 90’s A.D. If John alluded to the terror of a major earthquake in the Lycus Valley in 60, it is possible some hearing Revelation for the first time experienced that earthquake in their youth or heard stories from their parents about it. Personal experience is what makes a metaphor “work,” John used language that resonated with his readers.

To Beale’s list I would add the fall of Jerusalem, since the burning of Jerusalem and the Temple was a traumatic loss to the Jews, even to Christian Jews. I think that the original readers of Revelation were Jewish Christians. As followers of Jesus, the fall of Jerusalem would a confirmation of Jesus’ own predictions, but it was nonetheless a crisis of faith. Undoubtedly stories of those final days circulated among Jewish Christians who may have lost family members in Rome’s military action.

Finally, the main source for all of John’s imagery is the Hebrew Bible. He draws on the language of the curses of the Law for the three cycles of judgments. For example, Leviticus 26:21-26 as background to the four horsemen. The Exodus narrative provides some of the imagery for the trumpets. It is easy enough to hear echoes of the plagues in the descriptions of the first four trumpets.

When John describes a coming time of great persecution, he is talking about present realities. In my opinion it is the growing persecution of Christianity under Domitian as well as internal struggles caused by the success of the church among the Gentiles. John is using creative language drawn from well-known events of his day; but he also talking “through” the events to their ultimate fulfillment in the end times.

Books in Apocalyptic – Revelation 5

The metaphor of heavenly books is common in both the biblical and apocalyptic materials. This is a stock image drawn from a court room scene. In Dan 7:10, for example, thrones are set in place and the Ancient of Days takes his place at the head of the court. Once the court was seated, “the books were opened.” Based on the content of these books, the blasphemous “little horn” is thrown into blazing fire. So what is the content of an “apocalyptic book”?

Angel BooksSometimes these books record the names of the redeemed; or conversely, the names of the wicked are “blotted out” of the books. This is probably based on Exodus 32:32–33. In this non-apocalyptic text, the Lord says “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.” The Psalmist asks God to blot out the names of his oppressors from “the book of the living” (Ps 69:28). Originally this meant a name carved in stone that would be obliterated if the named-person offended the king. Perhaps this was based on a citizenship roll or something of the sort, but the idea a text exists containing the names of those who are part of the kingdom. Isaiah 4:3 some people have been destined to survive in Jerusalem, “everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem.” In 2 Baruch 24:1, the opened books contain both the righteous deeds of the righteous and the wicked deeds of the wicked. These books are opened after a period of oppression, “When horror seizes the inhabitants of earth, and they fall into many tribulations and further, they fall into great torments” (2 Baruch 25:3) after which the messiah comes.

In other apocalyptic contexts books contain hidden secrets sealed up to be revealed at the appropriate time. In Daniel 12:9-10 there are secrets sealed up in a book “until the end of time.” In Rev 10:4 John was prepared to write down what the seven thunders said, but he is told to “seal it up” and not writer it down. The seven thunders are therefore some hidden secret not to be revealed at that time. There are examples of this phenomenon in other apocalyptic books as well. In 1 Enoch, the seer has a great deal more revealed to him that he is permitted to write at that time,.

1 Enoch 81:1-2 Then he said unto me, “Enoch, look at the tablet(s) of heaven; read what is written upon them and understand (each element on them) one by one. So I looked at the tablet(s) of heaven, read all the writing (on them), and came to understand everything. I read that book and all the deeds of humanity and all the children of the flesh upon the earth for all the generations of the world.

In an expansion on the biblical story. Jubilees 32.20–22, at Bethel Jacob is given seven tablets determining everything that would happen to his sons in the future.

Jubilees 32.20–22 And Jacob watched until he went up into heaven. And he saw in a vision of the night, and behold an angel was descending from heaven, and there were seven tablets in his hands. And he gave (them) to Jacob, and he read them, and he knew everything which was written in them, which would happen to him and to his sons during all the ages.”

But more commonly the books contain the sins of the person under judgment. In Jude 4 the judgment against the false teachers was written down (προγράφω) long before they secretly crept into the churches. In the Animal Apocalypse, the names of the good and bad shepherds are carefully recorded in books for future judgment (1 Enoch 89:62; 90:14-22). In 1 Enoch 104:7 sins are investigated and “written down every day.” In Jubilees 5:13-14 sins are carefully written down and judgments are “are ordained, written, and engraved.”  Describing the judgment awaiting the sins of Lot’s daughters, the writer of Jubilees says:

 Jubilees 16:9 “And behold it is commanded and it is engraved concerning all of his seed in the heavenly tablets so that he will remove them and uproot them and execute their judgment just like the judgment of Sodom and so that he will not leave seed of man for him on the earth in the day of judgment.”

Bringing this back to the throne room in Revelation 5, the scroll functions similarly the last category in that the opening of the scroll subjects the world to judgment. The final judgment is the coming of the Messiah to set up thrones and render justice (Rev 20:1-6). By taking the Hebrew Bible as the immediate background and tracing the development of a metaphor in the Second Temple Period apocalypses, we are more likely to understand the metaphor as John intended.

What is the Scroll in Revelation 5?

The “one on the throne” holds a seven-sealed scroll with writing on both sides (Rev 5:1). No one in all of creation can be found worthy to open the scroll except the “Lamb that was slain” (5:2-5). This scroll is an important symbol in this chapter, but also for chapters 6-7 since a series of things occur as the seals on the scroll are opened. How did John intend for us to understand this scroll?

Scroll 3 sealsNormally a scroll is only written on one side (the inside), a two sided scroll is rare.  Because of this there are several variations in the textual tradition to try and explain to “fix” the phrase. For example, by changing the wording slightly, one might read the text as “within, on the inside.” David Aune offers several suggestions for the “form of the book.”

First, the book could be an opistograph, or a scroll “written on both sides.” The main problems with this view are the parallels to Ezekiel’s vision of a scroll in Ezekiel 3, and the original reading of the text; if this were an opistograph, it should be described differently.  It is possible, however, John did not know this technical term.

Second, the book could be a doppelurkunde, or “doubly written legal document.” It was common enough for a legal document to be written twice with a short gap between the two parts.  Jeremiah 32:9-15, for example, describes a double-written deed.  A brief description would be written on the outside of the scroll so the general contents might be known without opening the seals.

Third, Zahn argued the scroll is not a scroll at all, but rather a codex (i.e. book). The Greek word used here is βιβλίον, but in the first century the word meant simply “a document” or scroll. While this view has been criticized because there are clear parallels to the scroll Ezekiel, it is a fact that early Christians were very quick to adopt the codex for their collections of letters and gospels.  In addition, a book could be sealed so that individual pages could be opened while later ones remained sealed.

This scroll has been identified as any number of things, including “a bill of divorce for Jerusalem and a nuptial contract for the New Jerusalem” or a sealed copy of the Torah. But the most common suggestion is that the scroll as having something to do with the revelation which follows. In the most general sense, the scroll contains the eschatological punishments inflicted on the world by the will of God.

  • The contents of the scroll begin to occur with the opening of the first seal in 6:1 to the seventh seal in 8:1.
  • The events of the scroll cannot occur until the scroll is completely opened.  This does not happen until 8:1, therefore the contents are 8:2ff.
  • If the scroll is “doubly written legal document,” then it is possible the section 6:-7:17 is the exterior while 8:1-22:5 is the interior, the actual content of the scroll.  (D. Hellholm made this suggestion)
  • The contents of the scroll is Rev 6:1-22:6. The Lamb reveals to John the contents of the scroll after he receives it.
  • The scroll is the whole of the book of Revelation.  The book is described as prophetic (1:11; 22:7, 9, 18-19) and 22:10 commands John not to seal his book.

It is possible the book does not contain the prophecies which follow.  There are several suggested ideas for the contents of the book, such as God’s plan for human beings and the world or even a record of the sins of humankind. After the scroll is opened in chapter 6, it appears that the contents of the book are the seven trumpet and seven bowl judgments.  If this is the case, then the book is the “decree of God” for the judgment of the world described in those sections.

Revelation 4 and Apocalyptic Throne Imagery

Revelation 4-5 are often read only for their value in describing worship (worthy is the Lamb….) or their angelology (who are the elders?  What are the four living creatures?)  While these elements are certainly there, the function of these chapters in Revelation is to introduce the vision of the seven seals.  The Lamb is worthy of the same worship applied to God, but this means he is also worthy to open the scroll with seven seals. These seals represent the beginning of God’s judgment on the world.

John in Heaven

First, the “door of heaven” is opened, is a common apocalyptic element.  The idea of going “up to heaven” may be drawn from Gen 28:17 or Ps 78:23, but is developed in non-biblical apocalyptic into the idea that heaven is closed.  Only the visionary is invited to “come up” into heaven.

3 Maccabees 6:18 Then the most glorious, almighty, and true God revealed his holy face and opened the heavenly gates, from which two glorious angels of fearful aspect descended, visible to all but the Jews.

1 Enoch 14:8-9 And behold I saw the clouds: And they were calling me in a vision; and the fogs were calling me; and the course of the stars and the lightnings were rushing me and causing me to desire; and in the vision, the winds were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven.

Second, John hears a “voice like a trumpet.”  This too is a common apocalyptic element as trumpets are used to signal an announcement. Perhaps this is a description of some king of ecstatic state.  John’s body remains on Patmos, but in his spirit (mind?) he experiences heaven.  Paul appears to have experienced the same sort of thin in 2 Cor 12:1-4, in non-biblical apocalyptic 1 Enoch 70-73 and 81 are quite similar.

 1 Enoch 71:1-2 (Thus) it happened after this that my spirit passed out of sight and ascended into the heavens. And I saw the sons of the holy angels walking upon the flame of fire; their garments were white—and their overcoats—and the light of their faces was like snow.

Third, as John enters heaven in the Spirit, he sees a fantastic throne (Rev 4:2-3). This vision is very similar to that of Ezekiel 1-3 as well as Isaiah 6, but the main source of imagery appears to be Daniel 7:9-27. Again, there is some element of“stock language” in the description of the throne. Throne imagery is important in Revelation, although John never names the one on the throne. It is as if he cannot find a word to describe the glory of God associated with the throne.

 Testament of Levi 5:1 At this moment the angel opened for me the gates of heaven and I saw the Holy Most High sitting on the throne.

John is describing heaven exactly the way any Jewish reader would have expected heaven to look in the late first century. Imagine if he had described heaven like a modern office complex, or Disneyland (the allegedly happiest place on earth) or a resort in the Caribbean. The original readers would not understand the imagery, since they were expecting these sorts of stock images of “what heaven might look like.”

This might be a good warning against using these descriptions to create a list of things about what heaven is really like.

 

The Stones in the Throne Room in Revelation 4

The throne in Revelation 4 is a good opportunity to think about our interpretive method for apocalyptic literature. In another post I pointed out throne room scenes are common in Second Temple apocalyptic and that the imagery John uses here is similar to several other well-known apocalyptic texts.

The throne is described as having the appearance of jasper (ἴασπις) and carnelian (σάρδιον).  The identification of ancient minerals is always tentative. For example, Jasper “was not limited to the variety of quartz now called jasper, but could designate any opaque precious stone” (BDAG). In fact, the color of the stone varied greatly.  Both Jasper and carnelian are stones in the New Jerusalem in 21:19-20, although BDAG suggests that an opal is a better translation for jasper. The words appear in only two contexts in the LXX, but both are of interest here. First, both jasper and carnelian are part of the ephod worn by the high priest (Exod 28:18) but also the decorations of the “guardian cherub” in Ezek 28:13. Jasper appears in LXX Isaiah 54:12, a description of Zion when she is re-established as the Lord’s wife after the exile.

God's ThroneEncircling the throne is a rainbow, resembling emerald (σμαράγδινος). The rainbow is more like a halo emanating out from the throne, possible “like an emerald” because the light from the throne is penetrating the transparent stones of the thrones. While emerald is among the stones in the high priest’s breastplate and New Jerusalem, the whole scene is reminiscent of Ezekiel 1:28. There a rainbow was behind the throne of “something like a man,” a representation of the glory of God.

Is there any “special meaning” to the stones in the throne room? In older commentaries, the stones in the throne of God (and the New Jerusalem) have been interpreted as having something to say about the character of God.  Even as recently as John Walvoord’s commentary on Revelation, the stones were thought to represent God’s attributes.  Jasper referred to God’s holiness, carnelian his wrath and judgment, and emerald referred to God’s grace and mercy (103-104). In addition, he observes that jasper and the “sardine” stone are the first and last stones in Exodus 28:17-21. Jasper represents Reuben, carnelian Benjamin. Since Reuben means “behold a son” and Benjamin means “son of my right hand,” Walvoord understands the stones as references to Jesus, the son of God.  As for the carnelian, Hengstenberg, thought the reddish stone was used “to represent the punitive righteousness of God, his anger, cannot be doubted when we look at the fundamental and parallel passages” (The Revelation of St. John, 245).

Older commentaries often allegorized the emerald rainbow as well. Elliot thought that the emerald rainbow was “in sight like unto an emerald;”—the well-known and lovely memorial of the covenant of grace (Horæ Apocalypticæ 1:85, cf., Simcox, The Revelation of S. John the Divine, 31). The green of the emerald “the green emerald may fitly represent God’s goodness displayed in nature.” (A. Plummer, Revelation, The Pulpit Commentary, 145).

The vast majority of modern commentators take the stones as indications of the glorious nature of the throne room of God.  God does not need a gem encrusted throne on which to sit, it is a way of described the awesomeness of God. But for someone who knows the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint, the image of “God’s throne” always includes precious stones and emeralds. For a Greco-Roman reader, imperial throne rooms are always majestic  and richly decorated.

Rather than interpret each detail in order to give it a “spiritual” meaning about God’s attributes or some hint at the incarnation of Jesus, the whole scene is intended to evoke the glorious majesty of the one who sits on the throne. To over-interpret the imagery to find an allusions to the “covenant of grace” or the attributes of God risks missing the original intention of John.

Who are the “Four Living Creatures” in Revelation 4?

Like the 24 elders, the four “living creatures” worship God at his throne (Rev 4:6b-8a). The NIV places these creatures “in the center, around the throne.” This reflects the difficulty of the syntax of this line in Greek. It could mean they are simply in the immediate vicinity of the throne, near the throne.

Most scholars think John’s vision draws on the throne room vision from Ezekiel 1-2. If this is true, then these creatures in Rev 4 are cherubim. In Ezekiel the four creatures are a part of the throne of God, more or less the “wheels” of the Throne-Chariot of God. There are, however, a number of differences between these creatures and Ezekiel 1-2. The four creatures are described as having similar other-worldly features. They are “full of eyes,” or “eyes all around.” This is similar to Ezekiel 1; the cherubim are “wheels within wheels, full of eyes.” But the description is also slightly different; the faces are not quite the same in Revelation.

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the MusŽe national du Moyen-åge

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the Muse national du Moyen-åge

It is possible the description in Revelation recalls something of Ezekiel, but also may have been influenced by other developments in Jewish thinking about angels. One possibility is that John intended to make a reference to archangels. In the Hebrew Bible, there are no archangels, although Gabriel (Dan 8:16, 9:21, Luke 1:18, 26) and Michael (Dan 12:1, Jude 9) are two specific, named angels given that distinction in later Jewish documents. “Archangel” does appear in Jewish literature, but it is perhaps not the right designation for these angels.

It is possible these many-eyed creatures are apocalyptic “watchers.” In some apocalypses written well before the first century, there is a category of angelic being who are designed by God to “witness” everything (1 Enoch 1:5, Jubilees 4:15; 8:3; 10:5). According to 1 Enoch 6-36, some of these angels came down to earth and taught humans sinful practices (like making war and sorcery, but also medicine and cosmetics, 1 Enoch 8). They also had relations with human women and created “the giants.” Michael and Gabriel (along with Surafel or Uriel, depending on the manuscript of 1 Enoch) “observed carefully from the sky” all of this wickedness and called out to the Most High to judge these angels and to destroy the wickedness they had caused (1 Enoch 9-10). The result, of course, is the flood (and a blockbuster Hollywood film).

The Targum on Ezekiel has an expanded description of the cherubim. In Tg. Ezek. 1:6 the angelic beings face four faces, each of which have four faces, sixteen to each creature, with sixty-four faces in all. This kind of elaboration is also found in 3 Enoch 21:1-3:

R. Ishmael said: The angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me: There are four creatures facing the four winds. Each single creature would fill the whole world. Each of them has four faces and every single face looks like the sunrise. 2 Each creature has four wings and every single wing would cover the world. 3 Each one of them has faces within faces and wings within wings. The size of a face is 248 faces, and the size of a wing is 365 wings. 4 Each creature is crowned with 2,000 crowns and every crown is like the rainbow; its brightness is as the brightness of the sun’s orb and the rays which shine from each separate crown are as the brightness of the morning star in the east. (P. Alexander, OTP 1: 277)

Each of the four creatures has a different appearance. Only the third is said to have the “face” of a man, but based on Ezekiel 1 it may be that only the face is in mind. A major difference between these four creatures and Ezekiel 1 is that each creature has a different face, while Ezekiel 1 describes four creatures with four faces each. These creatures have wings like the Seraphim of Isaiah 6 and they worship God is a very similar manner as the Seraphim, but other characteristics (such as the faces and eyes, etc.) are similar to Ezekiel.

AliensMany attempts have been made to ferret out some meaning of the four faces, some more serious than others. The church fathers usually tried to find the four gospels in the faces, but never really agreed on which gospel was intended. It is probably best to agree with the majority of modern commentaries and see these faces as referring to the highest creature in four categories, wild animal, domestic animal, flying animal, and man.

We can know for certain these creatures lead worship in heaven (Rev 4:6-9; 5:8-9, 19:4) and they appear to be associated with the throne of God. In Rev 6:1-7 they will announce the coming of the four horsemen after each seal is opened, and in 15:7 one of these creatures gives the seven bowls of God’s wrath to the angels who pour them out on the earth (16:1).