Studying Revelation 11 15-19

What do we think it means for God to rule everything, to reign? Especially in a world in which things are demonstrably “out of order”? We’ll probably have to examine some of our own thinking along these lines, as we study Revelation 11:15-19 for Sunday, November 14. [Here are some questions on the text.] Here are some notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Last week, we found ourselves in the worshipful pause between the 6th and 7th seals in the unfolding apocalyptic vision of the book of Revelation. This week, we’ll continue with the extravagant symbolism and other features of this apocalyptic genre, just a bit further along in the unfolding narrative. Right after the worship of the loud and vast and diverse and inclusive crowd, the seventh seal is opened. There’s silence. And then seven angels begin to blow seven trumpets, one after another. The trumpets – which might be more like bugles, or possibly like shofars – announce an intensification of the crisis taking place on the earth. Four are blown in quick succession, bringing supernatural natural disasters in their wake. Then, the subsequent trumpets are highlighted by being named “woes.”

The fifth trumpet, and first woe, which takes up most of chapter 9, is a plague of demonic locusts that are like something out of the Hunger Games.

The sixth trumpet, and second woe, involves a demonic army, the angel that stands on sea and land holding a scroll which the visionary John of Patmos has to eat – making him something like the prophet Ezekiel – but the prophecies of which he must conceal. Then, John must measure off the temple, which we assume is in Jerusalem. Once again, this has him re-enacting an episode from the life of Ezekiel. The Gentiles [those scum] will run wild in the holy city, and the work of the “witnesses” will take place. On one hand, the witnesses look like olive trees and lampstands, reminiscent of a vision of the prophet Zechariah’s. On the other hand they look like people: equipped with mouths; reminiscent of both the prophet Elijah (the drought in Samaria) and the prophet Moses (the plagues in Egypt), representatives of “the Law and the Prophets”; capable of dying, and lying unburied for a numerologically evil length of time while people celebrate their deaths (!); then, capable of being raised from death and called to ascend to heaven. In other words, this second woe is complicated.

Our text begins with the blowing of the seventh trumpet, which if the pattern holds announces the third woe. The third woe seems to include all the events in chapters 12 through 19, and is in effect the final battle for the earth, the final, definitive defeat of evil by good. This is almost the last half of the book of Revelation. It includes some of Revelation’s most famous images: the woman clothed with the sun; the beasts and the mark of the beast; the lake of fire; the “fall of Babylon.” Then, after all that, comes the revelation of the new creation, and the call from the Spirit and the Bride to “Come, take the water of life as a gift.”

But first, before all that, at the blowing of the seventh trumpet, there’s an interlude, and another vision of heavenly worship. One commentator has suggested that these heavenly worship interludes, which punctuate and structure the book of Revelation, also assert that the faithful are sheltered by God. Our text describes this interlude of heavenly worship.

No part of Revelation 11 appears anywhere in the lectionary, making the source text for the bridge and finale of the Hallelujah Chorus one of those things you wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned. On the other hand, lots of people know the Hallelujah Chorus, so you would probably know that part, and might assume it was from the Bible, like all the other words in Handel’s Messiah.

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CLOSER READING: Perhaps appropriately, great or loud voices – otherwise unspecified as to origin – are saying those lyrics in v. 15.

The twenty-four elders then, rather than standing, fall on their faces and prostrate themselves in worship of God.

The words they say in this worship seem particularly significant. They give thanks – they literally give eucharist to God. They address God as Lord God Ruler of Everything (Pantocrator)pantocrator is the word translated as “Almighty,” which is conventional, although not precisely the same as “ruler of everything.” What the elders give thanks for seems to be God’s taking up the role of pantocrator and answering the recurrent petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” They thank God that God “began to reign” because God has taken up [God’s] great dynamis, God’s great active power or power of action or mighty acts.

I undertand something like: thank you, Lord God Ruler of Everything, that you have finally gotten busy and taken charge!! This may pose a conundrum for us, however, because we probably think that God has been reigning all along. So we may wonder what this implies for our theology.

The elders continue in v18 to specify what it means that God began to reign. The first clause, with its enraged nations, might echo Psalm 2:1. The further consequence of God’s reign is that it is time – to judge, to give the reward, and to destroy.

The dead will be judged. It is may be unclear whether these are people who are already dead, or people who are as good as dead, because they are about to be judged with a fearful judgment.

God’s servants receive a reward. These servants are prophets, saints, and whoever fears God’s name, small and great. The composition of the last group might be curious, since it doesn’t seem to be identical to the saints.

The ones destroying the earth are marked for destruction themselves. The earth, specifically, not the “world.” What “destroying the earth” meant to John of Patmos undoubtedly differs from what it means to a reader in the era of climate change. We may nevertheless feel that the text fits our century too perfectly for comfort.

V19 reveals that there is a temple, with an inner sanctum, in heaven. Because now it is opened, and the heavenly ark of the covenant is visible. This revelation brings on cataclysmic, loud, bright, heavenly and earthly convulsions: lightning, thunder, hail, earthquake, and noises –earthquake noises, maybe. If you have experienced an earthquake, this will resonate.

In other words: Seeing into the heart of things, and in particular seeing into God’s inner sanctum, the inner truth of God’s reality, shakes our view of reality dramatically. It “rattles” us. It “blows us away.” That much seems solid.

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

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