An Approach to Revelation 6-7
Bill Long 2/14/12
Honoring the Accountants and Poets Among Us
It might seem strange that a literary analysis of these chapters of the Apocalypse is placed in essays of "Current Events." Yet, the understanding of this biblical text I put forth here has come about for me "currently," and is something that is fully new for me. In brief, I will argue two things here: (1) that Rev. 7, a pause from the opening of the scrolls in ch. 6, is framed as a "comfort piece" for those who might be terrified at the crescendo of bad news that greets the opening of scrolls 1-6 in ch. 6, and (2) Rev. 7 is a neatly balanced comfort piece, designed to appeal to both types of people (Type A and Type B) on their own terms as it provides words of comfort. More specifically this means that the purpose of the 144,000 in Rev. 7:1-8 is to give comfort (the whole idea of the chapter) to those of a more analytical, number-oriented mode; and Rev. 7:9-17 is designed to comfort those of a more literary, poetic, "right brain" orientation. The bottom line is that the horrific scenarios elaborated in ch. 6 should not overwhelm the faithful reader; s/he will be protected in the tumult to come. It takes numbers to convince an accountant; it takes powerful literary images to convince a poet. By providing both numbers and images in ch. 7, both types of people are assured of safety.
The net effect of ch. 7, then, is to provide as it were a safe viewing platform for all the faithful while the horrors of ch. 6 and those of 8-20 are set to unfold. To put it in terms that we recognize in 2012, Rev. 7 functions like the movie theater showing a very powerful 3-D horror movie. We see the action unfolding on a screen before us and are quite caught up in it; indeed, it may be so real that the on-screen terror is felt by us as viewers. But, ultimately, we are "spectators" of the movie/the drama of Revelation, and we can just sit back, eat the popcorn and watch the butt-kicking fury of it all.
[Note--the "spectator" perspective seems accurately to characterize these chapters of Revelation. Later chapters might give us some pause...]
Setting the Context for Chapters 6-7
After the powerful scenes of worship in chs. 4-5, where we become aware of the existence of a scroll, that scroll is unfurled in chapter 6. As each of the first four seals of the scroll is opened, a different-colored horse springs forth. The fifth scroll provides an occasion for the faithful martyrs under the altar to ask how long until they are vindicated. My "read" of this seal is that the altar, rather than being an image derived from Heaven, is really the pagan altar of the Roman official cults, under whose authority the martyrs suffered. The prayer of the martyrs is to a "despot" (the Greek word), but then that "despot" is clarified as the "holy and true" (5:10) despot or ruler--Christ. So, I take the context as one in which perhaps John or others had seen the dead bodies of Christians who had suffered for their faith, at the base of the pagan altars, and that image stuck in the minds and became the basis of the image in the fifth seal.
By the time you get to the sixth seal, the tension has grown immensely. Now the horrors are not only visited on the earth, but the heavenly realm is affected. Skies vanish like a rolled up scroll, the sun becomes black, the moon is as blood. In a particularly felicitous image, the stars are said to fall to the earth "as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale" (6:13). John is decking himself out in all of his literary beauty at this point. But so terrifying is it all that all the "big ones of the earth" as well as the "slave and free" hide themselves and beg for the skies to fall on them. If we were watching our movie, it is the time when we are certain that an absolutely disastrous fate impends.
It is in this context of the horror movie, with us as viewers, that we are to understand ch. 7. Terror besets on all sides. The literary need is for some hope. And hope is what is provided in chapter 7. But rather than simply talking about how the faithful will be saved or delivered from the coming catastrophe, the author speifies this in two very fascinating ways: through numbers and through a poetic vision. Rather than looking at the 144,000 then as any type of cipher to be cracked, the number is intended to express that the hope of readers is as sure as 1000 times the square of a perfect number. It is like telling a mathematician that a proof of a speculative theorem is assured, and then giving the proof. The numbers spell "hope" to those who see the world as a great number puzzle. But then, in vv. 9-17, the imagery shifts, and we see a great multitude that no one could count, in an awesome gathering around the throne and before the Lamb. They are arrayed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. And then, they sing. Their tone is so beautiful that Handel picked up on it in Messiah and used it as his inspiration. Maybe he "heard" the heavenly choir!
These have "come out of the great ordeal"(v. 14)--i.e., these are those who also have hope. So "literary" is this hope that we have the mixing of metaphors in v. 17 to express the hope. "For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shephed..." A reversal of expectations--just like the tone of the entire chapter.
Enough numbers are given so that those who are number crazy will be convinced that there is true hope for them. Enough literary briliance is demonstrated to convince those of a right-brain temperament that they will participate in a beautiful scene, in safety and in hope. So, we are watching a movie, overwhelmed by the fury and intensity of the scenes but we are, as it were, buckled in and safely traveling through the monsters that seem eagerly to be reaching out at us from the screen. All of us are safe, the accountants and poets and all in between. It is good that John lets us know this, because the scene is going to turn pretty nasty pretty quickly.