Studying Revelation 7 9-17

We probably don’t often think of God as a rock star. But we might need to start, now that we are studying Revelation 7:9-17 for Sunday, November 7. A central feature of the text is a screaming crowd too large for anyone to count, which would put the average stadium rock concert to shame. Here are a few notes on the text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The next three weeks’ lessons are from the book of Revelation. The book poses some challenges for our reading, mainly because it is our one New Testament example of apocalyptic literature. That genre is known for lots of elements that tax the minds of modern readers: elaborate and surreal imagery, numerology, supernatural beings, hybrid creatures with animal features and weird anatomy, eschatological conflagrations, and concrete images of God. All the stuff that makes people want to say “I don’t take the Bible literally” – which, as I’ve mentioned here before, we should abstain from saying!

Still, we definitely have a problem knowing what all this means. The authors even have that problem – a perennial feature of apocalyptic literature, as Bart Ehrman points out in a brief lecture on the genre at Bible Odyssey, is that someone who knows what’s going on has to explain things to the text’s author! So part of our challenge will be to figure out what from this literature is meaningful for our own time.

We assume apocalyptic literature meant something to its authors and its first audiences. Most scholarly readers, for that reason, think that apocalyptic makes lots of coded references to events and situations of its own time, cast in the form of prophecies about the future. The first three verses of the book of Revelation are really what establish the contents of the text as prophetic; otherwise, the vision being described mostly unfolds as events happening in a dreamlike present.

The author’s “now” seems to many scholars to have been some time in the late first century, say around the year 95 CE. Others, however, suggest a date some time before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Rome, in the year 70 CE. For those “early date” readers, the events of the year 70 CE fulfill the predictions of the apocalyptic vision. One implication of the difference is whether we think the book is being written to people suffering persecution, or to recent survivors of persecution, or to people whose more significant challenge is avoiding the pull of the “Babylonian” lifestyle around them. [A late date reading comes from L. Michael White, “Understanding the Book of Revelation,” in a 1999 commentary prepared for the PBS special Apocalypse! An early date reading is that of D. Ragan Ewing, “The Identification of Babylon the Harlot in the Book of Revelation” at The Theology of Work Project has an illuminating commentary on the meaning of Revelation for work, regardless of the date.]

Assuming the seven churches mentioned in the first three chapters are the primary audience for the text, it makes the audience Greek-speaking Christians living in Roman cities in Asia Minor. That assumption might make us wonder: did that audience understand the extensive allusion to Hebrew scripture in this book as well as the author did who wrote it into the book? I wonder. Especially since we contemporary readers often struggle with this same issue, of limited familiarity with “the Old Testament.” How many of us, for instance, read about those four living creatures and that rainbow emerald throne and immediately think of the prophet Ezekiel?

Whichever first century John this author was, and there are several candidates, he was familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. Most commentators come down on the side of the question that identifies “John of Patmos” as a different author from the John who wrote the Johannine literature – the fourth gospel, and the letters I, II, and III John. [James McGrath discusses the identity of the author in “Which John?” at Bible Odyssey.]

The text we are studying this week comes early in the book. The author has had an initial vision – of a man standing amidst seven mystical lampstands, holding seven stars in his hand, and has taken letters to the seven churches these lights symbolize. Then, he has seen into an open door into heaven, entered the heavenly throne room, and been granted a vision of the Almighty and the worship that surrounds the throne. Then, an angel appears with a scroll, sealed with seven seals. At first no one is worthy to open the scroll, but then there is a lamb in the center of the throne [I think we all know this is Jesus Christ – the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world], and the lamb that was slain is worthy. There is more worship, which many of us probably think sounds like this:

Then, the Lamb opens the first through sixth seals in rapid succession, unveiling the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the martyrs for the Word of God, and some devastation that sounds remarkably like the Day of the Lord in more than one Old Testament prophet (like Joel 2:30-31, and Hosea 10:8, and Isaiah 24). Then, there’s a pause, before the opening of the seventh seal. During that pause, the famous, or by now infamous, 144,000 are “sealed.” [That sealing would again remind readers in the know of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the “man clothed in linen with the writing case at his side,” and his commission, in Ezekiel 9.] There is further worship. Our text concludes that pause.

Revelation 7:9-17 is one of the lectionary readings on two occasions in the three year cycle: All Saints Day, Year A, and the Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C.

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CLOSER READING: The uncountable multitude introduced in v9 hails from every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages – that is, every ethnic and geographic boundary is transcended. The palm branches they hold appear one other place in the Bible, the description of Palm Sunday in John 12:13. The whiteness of their robes must matter, because it is repeated again in v13 and v14 – when it will point back to the Lamb’s work of salvation. It also points back to the vision of the fifth seal (Revelation 6:9-11), where each of those “slaughtered for the Word of God” is given a white robe and told to wait until their number is complete. [And beyond that, back to Revelation 5:9-10, where the Lamb worthy to open the scroll is identified as having ransomed just such a multitude of saints.]

That earlier mention makes it easy to think that the uncountable multitude in v9 represents these souls, whose number has been made complete. In v10, the group’s behavior echoes the behavior of the souls in chapter 6 as well; they are crying or screaming in a loud voice – we might think of the sound of a crowd in a stadium during an exciting game or a long-awaited rock concert.

In our text, what the crowd screams has theological content (v10): Salvation [is, belongs] to our God … presumably meaning that God is responsible for and capable of providing salvation. [We might want to remember to ask ourselves what the nature of this “salvation” seems to be for this text.]

Treating this recitation as an act of worship, we could say that this worship prompts further worship by the angels, the elders, and the four living creatures – again, figures we have met earlier in the narrative. The worship is complete, involving full prostration before God, as well as speaking Hebrew [amen], and singing [see above].

Verses 13-17 are an instance of the author of an apocalypse having the significance of what he is seeing or experiencing clarified by a more knowledgeable participant in the vision. One of the elders administers a quiz or questionnaire to John of Patmos – “who are these??” John of Patmos defers to the elder’s explanation of their identity.

One element of their identity is that they have come out of the great ordeal. If we think the crowd is the larger version of the gathered souls in chapter 6, it seems we would need to think of the entire crowd as martyrs for the sake of their Christian faith. On the other hand, it might be that the “great ordeal” is life on this planet, in which case the group might be those who have lived through it successfully, enduring and dying in the faith.

Another striking element of their identity is that they have made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. The verb used for “washing” here is an especially old one, maybe lending an air of poetic elevation to the elder’s speech. Normally washing a garment in blood would not whiten it. This blood, however, seems to purify what it touches, in much the same way that sacrificial blood in the Temple had a purifying effect.

This sense that the whiteness of the crowds’ robes has something to do with purity is reinforced by verse 15. There, the crowd is treated as priests, who are able to worship God in the inner section of the temple – as signified by the Greek word used here, naō. God, in turn, shelters them with a tent – again, in the direct image of the Greek. So in addition to the references to priests, we now also have echoes of Israel’s time in the wilderness. Like Israel, which was provided for by God, this group will not hunger or thirst [we might remember manna, and water from the rock], and will be protected from hardships.

The size of the group makes an emphatic statement about the universality of this dedication to the one true God seated on the heavenly throne. The body of those who are willing to die rather than compromise their devotion to this God transcends all numbering, and all boundaries.

The Lamb’s final actions, leading (which in other contexts could also mean teaching) them in the way of springs of living water, and obliterating any tear from their eyes, both stress the value of their dedication – it has now procured for them ultimate peace and rest, a sharing in God’s own heavenly shalom.

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Image: “Vision of the Seven Candlesticks,” Natalia Goncharova, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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