Friday, December 2
Revelation 5:8-14: In this scene “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb” (verse 8) in the posture of adoration. This is the posture that we commonly find people assuming in the presence of Jesus in the gospel stories, but more especially in the Gospel according to Matthew (cf. 2:2,8,11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9). Jesus is adored as equal to the Father.
Likewise, two of the three short hymns in this chapter are addressed to Christ. The first is called a “new song,” an expression derived from the Book of Psalms and Isaiah 42:10-13. It is a “new song,” not in the sense of the “latest hit,” but because it comes from—and gives expression to—the definitive newness of life given us in redemption. The new song is of a piece with our new name, the new heaven, and the new earth. This is the eternal newness purchased by the blood of Christ (verse 9), who makes us kings and priests (verse 10; cf. 1:5-6; 1 Peter 2:5,9; Exodus 19:6).
He has drawn us “out of (ek) every tribe and tongue and people and nation”; this idea, which appears repeatedly in Revelation (79; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15), is largely inspired by the Book of Daniel (3:4,7; 5:19; 6:25).
In verse 11 the whole choir of heaven joins in the “new song” of the twenty-four elders who ascribe seven things to the Lamb (verse 12), and in verse 13 the whole of creation follows suit. This hymn extends the praise of God in Chapter 4 and joins the Lamb to that praise, in which heaven and earth are united in a common worship. To understand the significance of this common worship, we should bear in mind that the context of these visions is the Church at worship in the Sunday Eucharist (cf. 1:10). These hymns in Chapters 4 and 5 were surely sung by the Church on earth as well as the Church in heaven.
Saturday, December 3
Revelation 6:1-8: The opening of the first four seals brings forth four horses, variously colored in a way reminiscent of Zechariah 1:8-11; 6:1-7, though in Revelation the attention is directed more to the riders than to the horses.
The first, the mounted archer on the white horse, symbolizes invasion and war. The mounted archers contemporary with John were the Parthian warriors at the eastern border of the Roman Empire (verses 1-2), on the far side of the Euphrates (cf. 9:14; 16:12).
The second rider, which is like unto it, rides a red horse symbolic of bloodshed and fire. Whereas the first horseman carried a bow, the second carries a sword (verse 4). War invariably leads to famine and starvation, symbolized in the third horse, a black one, whose rider carries a set of scales to measure the scant remaining food (verses 5-6).
Green, the color of the fourth horse, is the color of white human flesh at the beginnings of decay. The rider of this horse, therefore, is named Death, which perhaps is a metaphor for plague (verse 8), as in the common expression “Black Death” to mean bubonic plague. Suffering from war, famine, and disease, the populace is dying too fast to be buried; their rotting corpses are left for the beasts of the field. For this combination of evils, compare our text to Luke 21:9-11.
All of these afflictions were visited on the world that John knew. In A.D. 62 the Roman legions were defeated by the Parthians to the east (cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.13-17), and there were shortages of food, such as those recorded in The Acts of the Apostles and in Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars (“Domitian” 7). In addition, there were earthquakes, such as those in Asia Minor itself in A.D. 60 (cf. Tacitus, Annals 14.27), volcanic eruptions, such as Vesuvius (cf. Pliny, Letters 6.16), civil war in Rome following the suicide of Nero in 68, and the war in Judea that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. All of these events, John is telling us, were the subjects of the Sacred Scroll opened by the Lamb. That is to say, they are all the fulfillment of prophecies in the final times.
Sunday, December 4
Revelation 6:9-17: Besides the evils that afflict the people of the world, John knows of a special harm visited on Christians. After his description of the four horsemen, therefore, he speaks of the bloody persecution endured by believers (verses 9-11). Their blood (in the biblical idiom, their “souls,” because the soul is in the blood, according to Leviticus 17:11) has run down the sides of the altar of sacrifice and pools at its base. They are martyrs, which is the Greek word for “witnesses.” Like the blood of Abel, their blood cries out to God, “How long?” (Compare Isaiah 6:11; Zechariah 1:12; Habakkuk 1:2; Daniel 8:13; 12:6)
The vengeance for which they pray is not a personal vindictiveness (for Christians always forgive their enemies and wish them no harm; this is an absolute rule, allowing no exceptions), but a petition for the fulfilling of God’s righteous historical purposes.
They must wait, however, until the full measure of the martyrs is complete (compare Hebrews 11:40). Their white robes signify their participation in eternal life (cf. 7:13-17). The opening of the sixth seal declares those things that precede the end of the world and the final vindication of the saints.
First come the perturbations of the earth (verses 12-14), and then the effects on human beings (verses 15-17). The sequence of these afflictions follows the order of creation in Genesis 1; namely, (1) earth, (2) sun, (3) moon, (4) stars, (5) firmament, (6) land, (7) man. What John sees, then, is a kind of de-creation, a reversal of what God established, the collapse of the universe.
In the opening of the fifth, sixth, and seventh seals, we also detect the same four colors that accompanied the first four seals: thus, fifth seal, white robes; sixth seal, red moon and black sun; seventh seal, green grass.
There is a great irony in the image of the “wrath of the Lamb.” Indeed, a wrathful lamb is unimaginable except to the enemies of God. The wrath, of course, does not come from the Lamb who shed His blood for the world’s redemption and who hates nothing that He has made. The wrath comes, rather, from within the enemies themselves, who insist on seeing God as an enemy.
Monday, December 5
Revelation 7:1-8: The two visions in this chapter still pertain to the sixth seal. The opening of the first six seals has unleashed enormous suffering on the earth, so prior to the opening of the seventh the vision of St. John faces the question, “Who shall stand? Who will be able to endure? Who will persevere to the end?” And John’s answer is, “the servants of God.”
Prior to the releasing of the final tribulation, therefore, the servants of God must be sealed. Their number—144,000—is a massive combination of the perfect number twelve (3 x 4, or the divine number 3 multiplied by the human number 4; that is to say, the multiplied combination of God and man) multiplied to a gross and then multiplied again by a thousand. That is to say, a very big number that no man can count to (verse 9; cf. Genesis 15:5).
The final preservation of God’s elect was foreshadowed in their deliverance at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Because of a prophecy that told them all to flee (cf. Eusebius, Church History 3.5.3), no Christians were ledt in Jerusalem when the city came under siege. Although up to a million Jews perished during the horrors of that siege and downfall, not one of them was a Christian. The physical deliverance of those Christians thus became the symbol of the spiritual deliverance of God’s elect in the final tribulation. (And this latter deliverance is spiritual, not physical. There is no suggestion in the Book of Revelation that believers will be “raptured” away and spared the sufferings of the rest of the earth. Indeed, Revelation has a great deal to say about the sufferings of Christians during the final times.)
In order to be spiritually spared, they must be sealed. This sealing of God’s servants is done with the mark of the “tau,” the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Ezekiel 9:1-7), which at that time was still cruciform. That is to say, God’s servants are sealed with the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads, which in fact was very early part of the rite of baptism (cf. Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.22). To be thus sealed was a sign that Christians belonged to God (cf. Isaiah 44:5; 2 Corinthians 1:22; Galatians 6:17; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30; John 6:27). This sealing with the mark of the true Paschal Lamb fulfilled the promise contained in that earlier marking of Israel with the sacrificial blood of its type (Exodus 12:21-23). Both Ezekiel and Exodus are important for the understanding of this seal. Ezekiel’s reference was to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., of which everyone was aware who saw the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The passage in Exodus 12 had to do with the last of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt, the slaying of the firstborn sons. This sealing in Revelation, then, involves a new Exodus, in which God’s people will be delivered, not left to share in the sins of the earthly Jerusalem.
Tuesday, December 6
Revelation 7:9-17: Beginning with an “amen” by which they respond to the acclamation of the saints in verse 10, the angels now join their voices in the praise of God (verse 11).
In John’s perspective, this vision is simultaneously past, present, and future. Inasmuch as the vision already contains fulfillment, its verbal tense is past. The “great tribulation,” moreover, has already started (for it is simultaneous with the “last times”), and therefore the present verbal tense, the ongoing perspective, is likewise proper. But inasmuch as there are still events to come (quickly!), John’s view is also directed toward the future.
One of the elders clarifies for the seer the identity of those clad in white robes (6:11; 7:9). They have already passed through the great tribulation, he tells John (verse 14; cf. Daniel 12:1; Mark 13:19), a description suggesting that the great tribulation—at least from their perspective—is already past. Yet, that tribulation itself will not be narrated until 13:7-10.
John calls them “martyrs,” but this designation should be interpreted in a broader theological perspective that regards the call to martyrdom as implicit in the very nature of baptism. Indeed, from earliest times the white robe has been associated with baptism, that rite by which believers are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Christians do not receive their white robes in heaven; on the contrary, they will not even be admitted to heaven unless they are already wearing those white robes (22:14). To wear the white robe means to live “in the blood” (Romans 3:25; 5:9; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Ephesians 1:7; 2:13; Colossians 1:20; Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:2,19; 1 John 1:7).
The true servants of God, moreover, are engaged in His unceasing worship (verse 15; 21:5; 22:5); thus, they share already in the life of heaven. In the final two verses of this chapter the verbs return to the future tense, indicating that there still remains an unfulfilled history through which God’s servants must pass. The image also shifts from the Lamb to the Shepherd, both images being essential to a complete Christology.
Wednesday, December 7
Susanna: This section, found in all early Christian versions of the Book of Daniel, was certainly part of the original work, even though the early Christians were aware that it was dropped from the Jewish manuscripts of the time.
For most of Christian history, the character of Susanna was held in the highest regard by Christians. Of all the characters in Holy Scripture to whom she might be likened, it was inevitable that she would most be compared to Joseph, in the story of Potiphar’s wife. Indeed, the resemblance between the two instances is remarkable: Joseph and Susannah both resistant to assaults against their chastity, both falsely accused by those who lusted after them, both maintaining silence when accused, both condemned in a foreign country, and both finally vindicated by a providential intervention. No wonder Christian readers have repeatedly elaborated comparisons between the two of them, whether with respect to their chastity under severe trial (Origen), to their being falsely indicted and condemned by their tempters (Eusebius), or to their patient silence when accused (Ambrose).
But if Susannah is to be likened to the unjustly accused Joseph, how much more is she like Jesus in the context of his passion? Both Jesus and Susannah were betrayed in a garden, after all, a circumstance that would prompt a further comparison between the two lustful elders and Judas Iscariot (Maximus of Turin). The sorely tried and unjustly accused Susannah, then, becomes a “type” of the Lord in his saving passion. Both Susannah and Jesus, in fact, were alike in their being maliciously accused by false witnesses (Jerome). Both remained similarly silent when indicted. Jerome, when he read of the resounding clamor raised for the execution of Susannah, thought immediately of the loud “Crucify him” against the Lord on Good Friday.
This comparison of the contrived criminal trials of Jesus and Susannah inevitably led to a studied contrast between the judgments of Daniel and Pontius Pilate. It is a striking resemblance between the Susannah story and Matthew 27:24 that both Daniel and Pontius Pilate believed that the respective trial was ending in a miscarriage of justice, and that, in both instances, there was a claim made to be “innocent of the blood” about to be shed. How different, nonetheless, the two cases! Susannah was saved from the crowd by the bravery of Daniel, whereas Jesus was handed over to the crowd by the cowardice of Pilate.
Thursday, December 8
Revelation 8:1-13: The number four is the traditional human number; thus, man divides his world into four directions: a front, a back, and two sides. He speaks of “four winds,” the “four corners of the earth,” and so forth. The divine number is three, because it is perceived to be the most stable. The triangle is the only stable geometric figure, the angles of which cannot be altered without changing the length of its sides. Similarly, the tripod is the only completely stable object to stand on a plane; anyone sitting on a wobbly chair knows that chairs seem to prefer three legs to four!
Any combination of three and four, therefore, represents the union of God and man, which is perfection. Thus, the multiplication of three and four yields the sacred number twelve, which appears in many contexts in Holy Scripture, including the Book of Revelation. If three and four are added, the resultant sacred number is seven. The symbolic use of both numbers, twelve and seven (one being the number of months in the year, and the other being the number of days in the week), is found ubiquitously in Holy Scripture.
The number seven, in fact, provides an important structural element throughout much of Revelation. Thus, there were seven letters to seven churches (Chapters 2 and 3), followed by a scroll with seven seals that needed to be opened. The opening of that seventh seal, in turn, will introduce the seven trumpets, which will be followed by seven bowls of plagues.
In the present text, the immediate response to the opening of the seventh seal is silence in heaven for thirty minutes (verse 1), while the angels with the seven trumpets prepare themselves (verses 2,6), and the throne room is ritually incensed (verse 3). The silence that accompanies the incensing provides a time for prayers to be offered, the ascending of which is symbolized in the rising incense smoke (cf. Luke 1:9-10; Exodus 30:1-9; Talmud, “Tamid” 3.1). In the temple ritual of Israel, it is likely that thirty minutes was required for the priest to make the rounds of the temple with his censer, though it sometimes took longer (cf. Luke 1:21).
We should also observe here that the altar of incense is the only altar in heaven (6:9; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7); there is no altar of holocausts in heaven because the purpose of that altar in Israel’s ancient temple was fulfilled by the Cross, where the definitive Sacrifice was offered for the sins of the world.
The trumpets, moreover, will be sounded by the seven “angels of the Presence” (cf. Tobit 12:15; Luke 1:19). The trumpets themselves are best understood in two points of reference: First, there were seven trumpets sounded in the procession around the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6. It is useful to bear in mind that the Ark of the Covenant was borne at the end of that procession, after the seven trumpets. Similarly, at the end of the sounding of the seventh trumpet in the Book of Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant will once again appear (cf. 11:15,19).
Second, that event of the fall of Jericho was given a constant liturgical expression in the ritual of the Jerusalem temple by the sounding of the trumpets (1 Chronicles 15:24; Nehemiah 12:4-42). Almost any time anything of significance happened in the worship at the temple, such as prayers, sacrifices, and so forth, the trumpets were sounded. Thus, the blare of the trumpet symbolized Israel’s constant and sustained worship of God. This is also the function of the trumpets here in Revelation 8.
The blowing of the seven trumpets parallels the opening of the seven seals in several close particulars. Thus, the first four trumpets form a unified whole (verses 7-12), as did the first four seals (6:1-8). As in the case of the fifth and sixth seals (6:9-17), the fifth and sixth trumpets will be expressed in a longer and separate narrative (9:1-21). Finally, a pair of visions will precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet (10:1—11:14), as another pair preceded the opening of the seventh seal (7:1-17).
In addition, by introducing various plagues upon the earth, the seven trumpets find another extensive parallel in the seven bowls of plague that will follow them. Finally, let us note that the plagues visited on the earth at the sounding of the trumpets, like the plagues visited on Egypt, do not touch those who, having been sealed, belong to God.
Friday, December 9
Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world, not human beings—at least not directly. The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as “woes,” afflict mankind directly (8:13).
The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents existence without the worship of God — the theological term for which is “hell.” As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of Egypt’s eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly the normal life span of locusts.
Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. Deceptively, they have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse-than-human evil. Their king is called “Abaddon,” which is the Old Testament’s personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means “destruction” (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “destroyer” (verse 11). It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name “Apollo,” which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, “to destroy.” We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domitian, not a man easily outdone—it must be said—with respect to a high self-opinion, proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.