Saturday, June 28, 2008

Revelation 8

Revelation 8:1-5: The breaking of the seals by the Lamb continues. The seventh seal is broken, but instead of the scroll unrolling to reveal its contents, silence ensues. Seven angels are given seven trumpets – “as in a Chinese-box puzzle, another seven… is revealed” (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 788). The silence contrasts with the trumpet blasts that follow.

The long silence suggests the return of the earth to the primeval silence that preceded creation just before the eschatological climax. In Zechariah… silence in the prelude to the divine epiphany. Silence is also a ritual preface to prayer, along with the burning of incense, the prayers of the saints, and the sounding of trumpets, which characterize the setting as a worship scene. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

John may be trying to connect the worship life of the church with a worship that goes on in the heavens. In verses 4 and 5, we get a picture of prayer – it is offered to God (incense is the image used) and it ends up having an effect on earth. The signs in verse 5 are often metaphoric signs of the presence of God – thunder, lightening, earthquakes. John wants to connect the worshipping community with God’s purposes (earthly and heavenly worship) and assure the readers that prayer given to God comes back to earth, brings God’s presence closer to their lives. This is not to say that God is not present in the absence of prayer, but perhaps to say that prayer makes a difference. One of my favorite theological expressions of this thought is offered by Marjorie Suchocki. God works with the world as it is to bring it toward what it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. Prayer makes a difference to what God can do in and with the world. (In God’s Presence, 31)

Revelation 8:6-13: The trumpets given to the seven angels are blown in succession, and with each trumpet blast, something takes place – a similar scenario to the breaking of the seals. The background for the series of event that plague the earth with the trumpet blasts is the Exodus story – where plagues preceded that liberation of God’s people from slavery. Here the plague-like events are understood as a prelude to God’s final act of liberation. “These are eschatological symbols, and precise identifications with catastrophes that occur in our time are useless” (Brown, 788). The images not only reflect biblical traditions, but Greek and Roman traditions as well – blood raining down from the heavens can be found in Hellenistic literature. There may also be references to past events such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on the west coast of Italy in August of 79. That the author frequently refers to one-third of this or that indicates that there will be more to the story. Many of these images would resonate with scenes from contemporary science fiction, especially dystopian scenarios based on a major ecological catastrophe or global thermonuclear war. There is quite an artistic vision at work here. The chapter ends with an awful assurance – more woe is to come.

While there are three trumpets remaining, one might pause here to wonder what value such a passage of Scripture might have for our lives. Those that think of Revelation as an accurate prediction of future events spend time trying to figure out which modern events might correspond to these artistic images. What if we don’t read in this way? One thing we can do is admire the artistic creativity of the author. God’s Spirit often inspires wonderful creativity. That would be a rather obscure point to be made here, however. Some might argue that what this passage does is proclaim that God has reasons for all the catastrophic events that happen in our world, that God is a causal factor and that we cannot be sure what good God is trying to accomplish by causing or allowing such horrendous events. I think that may be taking this poetic, artistic work too far. I would argue that the primary point here is not that God has a purpose in every event that happens in the world, but that God is present with us in the midst of all that happens and nothing that happens can finally thwart God’s purpose for the world. We might have a wonderful theological argument about whether or not God causes or allows all that happens in the world, or whether some things happen of their own freedom. Regardless of our theological view on that issue, the fundamental point in Revelation is that God is with us and that God’s purposes cannot be defeated even by the worst events imaginable. In fact, the horrible can sometimes be a prelude to the wonderful.

Revelation 9

Revelation 9:1-12: This vision does not literally correspond to any event in John’s past, present, or future. With a montage of images from mythology and tradition, he bombards the hearer-readers’ imaginations with yet another evocative image of eschatological calamity. (People’s New Testament Commentary). The final trumpets are ready to blow and John will take us on a wild ride in these verses.

Here is a comment on some of the imagery at the beginning of the chapter: The stars were personified as deities in ancient paganism and were sometimes identified with angels in the Old Testament and in Jewish tradition…. The cosmos is thought of as having three layers, heaven/earth/under the earth. The earth is protected as long as the shaft to the abyss is kept shut. Only God has the key. But here God allows the demonic powers to torment the world in the last time before the end. (People's New Testament Commentary)

Smoke rises from the bottomless pit, darkens the sky and the smoke becomes locust. One of the plagues in Exodus involved locust, and in the agricultural economies of the near-East, locusts were capable of destroying needed crops. Fear of locust was a real fear, but here it is transformed – these locusts are not interested in the crops, but in stinging human beings, like the sting of scorpions. The pain is real, leading people to wish life would be shortened. But the terror of the locusts will not last long, and those who have been marked by God were not harmed – again evoking the stories from Exodus. John’s point is not that the faithful will not suffer, but that they will stand through it all.

The picture John paints of his vision is dramatic – the locusts are like soldiers. In addition to fear of real locusts, many in the empire feared foreign invasions, and the imagery here may evoke invasions of Rome by Parthians from the East. In reality, locusts have no leader, but in this vision they are led by a king – a king whose name is “Abaddon” in Hebrew or “Apollyon” in Greek. Both words are rooted in words for “destruction.” In addition, however, the terms suggest something to do with the Empire. The term “king” used here is the term used of the Roman emperors. “Apollyon” may be a pun on the name of the god Apollo. Both emperors Domitian and Nero referred to themselves as having a special relationship with Apollo. Even when the empire is evil, it cannot thwart God’s purposes.

Revelation 9:13-21: The sixth trumpet is blown, and a second woe ensues. Again, evoking fear of foreign invasion, John pictures this woe as the invasion of an enormous army from the East, from beyond the Euphrates. The populace of the Roman Empire had an almost paranoid fear of the “barbarian hordes” from Parthia, across the Euphrates River on the eastern border of the empire, whom Rome never conquered. Here this primal fear is magnified to eschatological proportions and becomes a part of the final plagues preceding the end. (New Interpreters Study Bible).

A third of humankind is killed by this invasion. I don’t know if you are keeping track of the math, but this isn’t the first time this phrase has been used. Again, this tells us that John is not concerned with prediction of events in some distant future, but with a poetic, metaphoric vision that is intended to invite people to faith and faithfulness even if the entire world is going to hell in a handbasket.

John’s concern is with faith and faithfulness. It is with staying true to the deepest values of Christian faith, values he understands to be in significant contrast with the prevailing values of the Roman empire. The final verses of this chapter offer a view of those imperial values against which Christians struggled. “Repent” meant from the Roman side the turning away from commitment to Christ as Lord in order to conform to the imperial cult. Just as faithful Christians refused to “repent” in the Roman sense, the Roman world refuses to repent in the Christian sense by turning away from the false values of their culture to worship the Creator. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The language here is somewhat disturbing, suggesting that God is willing to bring immense suffering on people in order to teach them a lesson. John may have that in mind, in some sense, but I don’t think that’s the heart of his message. The heart of John’s message is faith and faithfulness, staying true to the values of God’s way in the world, the Jesus way in the world, even when the world is falling apart. If there were a soundtrack here, it might be the song done by The Police a few years ago – “when the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around” – except that with John, God’s best is always a possibility. Unfortunately, history is strewn with “demonic” forces, forces disturbingly harmful to human persons and communities – natural disasters, war, injustice, oppression, violence. It is also strewn with examples of values systems that say if we can only be rich enough, powerful enough, create enough fear in others, we can avoid the vicissitudes of life. Such value systems are a temptation. John is urging resistance to skewed values and faithfulness to faith values, no matter what may be happening in the world. With our world entering a period of great change, and the great unknown – what will happen with oil-based economies? Where will the United States be in relation to Russia, China, India in fifty years? How will nations and peoples in the Southern Hemisphere be doing in the near future? - we might be wise to use the opportunity given us by John’s wild words to think about what it means to be faithful in our changing world.

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