Friday, November 30

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.

Saturday, December 1

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. They deceptively 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.

Luke 23:13-25: More than the other Evangelists, Luke stresses Pilate’s repeated declarations of Jesus’ innocence. Immediately after his first interrogation of Him (verse 3), Pilate declares to the crowd, “I find no case [aitia] respecting this man” (verse 4). He would repeat this a second (verses 13-16) and a third time (verses 20-22). ?The charge originally brought against Jesus, subversion and encouragement to evade taxes (verse 2), His own accusers knew to be false (20:25).

After dismissing this charge, however, for want of evidence, Pilate sends Jesus over to Herod, Rome’s representative in Galilee, for further adjudication (verses 6-12). His situation being delicate, Pilate wanted to play it safe. Already he had twice been summoned to Rome to answer accusations leveled against him by the Jews. There were limits to Rome’s patience, and Pilate seems to have spent much of that morning protecting his own political interests.

All things weighed, Luke goes relatively lightly against Rome with respect to the death of Jesus. He does not so much as even mention here the brutal treatment that Jesus received at the hands of the Roman soldiers. Indeed, these solders are not even mentioned in the course of Jesus’ trial. Although he speaks of the white robe in which the mocking courtiers of Herod arrayed Jesus (verse 11), he does not speak of the purple robe with which the Roman soldiers clothed Him. Neither does Luke explicitly speak here of the terrible scourging that Jesus received at the hands of the Romans, though he had mentioned it earlier (18:33).

Sunday, December 2

Revelation 9:13-21: To the citizens of the Roman Empire the Euphrates River was a symbol analogous to the “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War era, that is, a border beyond which the enemy world lay massively in menace (verse 14). The enemy in their case was the Parthian army, whose most memorable feature was its cavalry of archers. Guiding their mounts with their knees, and thus leaving both hands free, those fearsome Parthian horsemen could shoot arrows very quickly in all directions, including to the rear. This is perhaps the point of reference for John’s image of horses that bite with both their mouths and their tails (verse 19). By such means, says John, God will further chastise those who persecute His people.

Many details of this vision evoked by the sixth trumpet have striking parallels in Ezekiel 38-39. Fierce as it was, however, the Parthian army was never as fearsome as that described by John (verses 17-18). This is the army of hell, whose immense reserves are superior to all merely human forces. The number given by John, “two hundred million” (verse 16), would certainly constitute the largest army ever assembled. To gain something of its magnitude, we may bear in mind that Alexander the Great captured everything from the Danube to the Indus with an army of a hundred thousand.

The army that John sees, like the army of locusts summoned by the previous trumpet, comes right out of hell. Both of these invaders, the locusts and the horsemen, are sent to encourage men to repentance, but men’s hearts, like the heart of Pharaoh, are hardened. The idolatries listed in verse 20 are the root of the other moral evils listed in verse 21. This relationship of idolatry to moral evil is identical to that in Romans 1:21-32 and Ephesians 5:6.

Luke 23:26-38: Luke’s account of Simon of Cyrene is especially instructive: “Now as they led Him away, they laid hold of a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, who was coming from the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus” (opisthen tou Iesou). Luke is the only evangelist to express the matter in this way.

In order to see the significance this expression held for Luke, it is useful to compare the text with other Lukan passages. For example, Luke 9:23: “If anyone desires to come after Me [opiso mou], let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” And 14:27: “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me [opiso mou] cannot be My disciple.” Luke’s latter text (particularly if we contrast it with the parallel text in Matthew 10:38) shows that the bearing of the cross “after Jesus” is the true mark of discipleship. That is to say, Simon of Cyrene, bearing the cross and following after Jesus on the way to Golgotha, becomes the symbolizing embodiment of Christian discipleship.

Monday, December 3

Revelation 10:1-11: Just as there was a double interrupting narrative immediately prior to the opening of the seventh seal, so a pair of visions will now precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet: the angel holding the little scroll, and the two faithful witnesses.

In the first of these, John is struck by the angel’s numinous character, at once bright and obscure. The angel’s body is clothed in a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud of the divine presence during ancient Israel’s desert journey and the cloud associated with the tabernacle of the divine presence. The face of the angel, on the other hand, has the luminosity of the sun. Nonetheless, the very fierceness of his countenance is tempered by the rainbow arching over his head, a reminder of the eternal covenant between God and creation in Genesis 9. The angel’s legs are pillars of fire, an image also reminiscent of the Exodus. His voice is like the roaring of a lion (verse 3), which is echoed by the seven thunders from Psalm 29 (Greek and Latin 28).

With one foot on the earth, one foot on the sea, and his hand into the air, the angel touches, as it were, all three aspects of physical creation: solid, liquid, and gas (verse 5). Moreover, all three of these components are mentioned in his oath (verse 6; Exodus 20:4,11), in which he swears that God’s secret purpose (to mysterion) in history will not be delayed of fulfillment.

The scroll the angel holds is smaller than the scroll in Chapter 5, a detail suggesting that its message may be less universal. Indeed, the message of that scroll is not directed to the world, but to the community of faith (verses 8-11). It is not read but eaten; John absorbs its message into himself. He assimilates the Word that he might then give expression to it. In this respect he imitates the prophet Ezekiel (2:9—3:4).

Psalms 1,2,3: A progressive scheme of images is developed through the first three psalms: First, the Man (Psalm 1), then the Messiah (Psalm 2), and finally the Suffering Servant (Psalm 3). Since this triadic pattern of reference runs throughout the Psalter, one may regard these three psalms as the book’s proper “introduction.” They form the tripod on which the whole Psalter stands.

First, there is the Man: Psalm 1 is not a prayer in the usual sense, inasmuch as there is no direct address to God. It is, rather, a meditation on a specific Wisdom theme: How the righteous man lives and what he hopes for. The affirmations in this psalm are made in the calm, apodictic style of Proverbs and the Bible’s older Wisdom tradition.

If the form of the psalm is given by the Wisdom literature, its matter is from the early pages of the Torah. Who, after all, is this Man of Psalm 1?

Well, to begin with, he is the first Man of the Torah—righteous Adam—Man before the Fall, when he was still God’s friend. As Adam tilled the Garden irrigated by four rivers (Genesis 2:8-15), the Man in Psalm 1 is likened to “a tree / planted by the rivers of water, / that brings forth its fruit in its season, / whose leaf also shall not wither, / and whatever he does shall prosper.”

Of the Man described in this psalm, we are told that his “delight is in the Lord’s Torah, / and on His Torah he meditates day and night.” The “day and night” of this psalm were also introduced, we recall, at the beginning of the Torah; they are the most basic divisions of time.

In contrast to the stability of this godly Man, Psalm 1 speaks of the “wicked”—the rasha‘im, who are likened to “the chaff which the wind drives away.” Just as the former does not stand in the path of sinners nor sit in the seat of pestilence, so “the rasha‘im shall not stand in the judgment, / nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.”

Second, there is the Messiah: In Psalm 2, Adam becomes David, so to speak. The Man is transformed into the King, God’s Anointed One.

At this point the pace of the Psalter dramatically quickens, as it moves from the calm meditation of Wisdom to the robust narrative of conflict. Here, the Torah and the Wisdom Literature are replaced by the Former Prophets, particularly the Samuel/Kings saga.

Likewise, the contrast between good and evil in Psalm 1 grows into the conflict of good and evil in Psalm 2. Indeed, open rebellion is afoot, as the “kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against His Messiah.”

For this reason, the style of the Psalter moves from apodictic declaration in Psalm 1 to energetic inquiry in Psalm 2: “Why did the nations rage, and the people conspire at something futile?”

As the ungodly in Psalm 1 were as “chaff which the wind drives away,” so in Psalm 2 “You shall break them with a rod of iron; / You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Third, there is the Suffering Servant: The trouble is serious and personal in the third psalm. Here, the Second Adam of Psalm 1 and the New David of Psalm 2 become the persecuted righteous man, so memorably depicted in the Book of Isaiah. In this respect, it is significant that Psalm 3 now speaks, for the first time, of “salvation”—Yeshu‘ah.

The vile activity of the ungodly in Psalm 1 and of the raging nations in Psalm 2 is now experienced first-hand in the persecution of the Suffering Servant, who “will not be afraid of ten thousands of people that besieged me all around.” As for the ungodly—those rasha‘im introduced in Psalm 1Psalm 3 declares, “You have broken the teeth of the rasha‘im.

In these three opening psalms, then, three major Christological themes are set forth: the Incarnation, the Messianic Fulfillment, and the Suffering Servant.

These three psalms also establish the patterns of meditation, narrative, and prayer, which will be found throughout the Psalter. Likewise, these three psalms introduce other large blocks of Sacred Writ: Torah, Prophecy, and Wisdom—all of which find a place in the Psalter.

In the first two psalms, God was never directly addressed—“You.” This changes completely in Psalm 3: “Lord, how increased they are who afflict me! / Many they are who rise up against me. Many, as well, are those who say of me, / ‘There is no help for him in God.’”

In addition, these three psalms exemplify various “voices” to be found in the Psalter. First, we attend to the meditating wise man, next the raging nations, then the Messiah (“The Lord said to Me”), next the Father, who addresses both us (“I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion”) and the Messiah (“You are My Son”). Finally, the Suffering Servant declares: “Yeshu‘ah is of the Lord. / Your blessing be upon Your people.”

Tuesday, December 4

Revelation 11:1-10: In our reading of the Book of Revelation thus far we have encountered the Danielic expression, “a time, times, and half a time” (Daniel 12:7). If we substitute the word “year” for “time,” the meaning of the expression is clear: “three and a half years,” or forty-two months, or (following the Hebrew calendar of thirty days per month) twelve-hundred and sixty days. In the Book of Daniel this was the length of time during which the Jerusalem temple was violated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV (Daniel 9:27).

Similarly here in Revelation it is the symbolic length of time of severe trial and the apparent triumph of evil (verses 2-3; 12:6; 13:5). John’s contemporaries must also have been struck by the fact that the Roman siege of Jerusalem also lasted three and a half years, from A.D. 67-70. In the present chapter this length of time refers to the persecution of the Christian Church, of which Jerusalem’s temple was a type and foreshadowing.

There is found within the Christian Church, however, an inner court, as it were, a deep interior dimension that the forces of evil cannot trample. This inviolability is conferred by being sealed with the sign of the living God. It asserts that believers are not to fear those who can kill the body but can do no more, because there yet remains an inner court that is off-limits to the invader and defiler. This is the inner court of which John is told to take the measure (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-4; Zechariah 2:1-2), a measuring that he will narrate later (21:15-17).

The literary background of John’s vision of the two witnesses is Zechariah 4:1-3,11-14, where the prophet has in mind the anointed ruler Zerubbabel and the anointed priest Jeshua, the two men who preserved the worship in God’s house. Those two figures represented royalty (for Zerubbabel was a descendent of David) and priesthood (for Jeshua was a descendent of Aaron), which are two essential aspects of the life in Christ (cf. Revelation 1:6; 5:10).

“Two” witnesses are required, of course, this being the minimum number required in order “to make the case” (Deuteronomy 19:15). But the two witnesses in this chapter of Revelation are the heirs, not only to Zerubbabel and Jeshua, but also to Moses and Elijah. It was the first of these who afflicted Egypt with plagues, and the second who closed up heaven for three and a half years (cf. Luke 4:25; James 5:17). This is John’s way of asserting that the Christian Church, in her royal priesthood, continues also the prophetic war against false gods. She will destroy God’s enemies by fire (verse 5), as did Moses (Numbers 16:35) and Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-12).

When the monster from the abyss kills these two servants of God (verse 7), the forces of evil seem to have triumphed (verse 10), but they will be carried up to heaven, again like Moses (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.48) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), because the victorious Lamb has the final word.

Wednesday, December 5

Revelation 11:11-19: With respect to the prophets Moses and Elijah, whose outlines appear in this vision as symbolic representations, we know that the “return” of both men was expected by John’s contemporaries (cf. John 1:21; Mark 6:15; 8:20). Both men did “return” at our Lord’s transfiguration; indeed, in Mark 9 and Matthew 17, the question of the return of Elijah is precisely the point of the conversation that immediately follows the transfiguration.

When the two witnesses ascend into heaven (verse 12), one tenth of the city falls (verse 13), the city in question still being “Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” (verse 8). This one tenth of the city, calculated as seven thousand souls, is literally a tithe of the city’s population. Thus, the number of those who perish is a sort of direct reversal of the seven thousand who were saved in Elijah’s remnant (1 Kings 19:18).

Thus ends the second woe, which is the sixth trumpet (verse 14). The first six trumpets were warning blasts, whereas the seventh will be a kind of fanfare (verse 15).

In the hymn that follows the seventh trumpet (verses 17-18), we should especially observe that God’s wrath is salvific, a matter at which believers will rejoice, because God’s reign is established by His wrath. God is not a neutral observer of history. On the contrary, He is deeply biased on the side of the poor and oppressed. Some people in this world are poor and oppressed, because other people in this world worship false gods. In the biblical view, poverty and oppression are the results of idolatry, and this provokes God’s wrath. His wrath is against the false gods and their servants, and believers are summoned to rejoice in the victory of that wrath, because it is the victory of freedom over slavery, justice over injustice, and Moses over Pharaoh. The wrath of God is the last thing in the world that Christians should be afraid of, for the wrath of God is on their side (Matthew 23:35-36).

As in the ancient procession around Jericho, the Ark of the Covenant appears after the seventh trumpet (verse 19).

Thursday, December 6

Revelation 12:1-17: Though it is surely no myth, this awesome vision bears a more than slight resemblance to certain themes in ancient mythology. For example, there was the very primitive solar myth concerning the powers of darkness, which appear to triumph over the sun and to reign over the time of night, defying the promised sun. This darkness, which has usurped the reign of the sun, attempts to devour the sun in its very birth; to kill the sun, that is to say, as it emerges from its mother’s womb.

In at least two versions of this ancient myth, in fact, the darkness is portrayed as a dragon-like snake. Thus, Egypt has its myth of the dragon Set, who pursued Isis while she carried the sun god Horus in her womb. Set’s plan was to devour Horus at his birth. It is further curious that Isis, like the Woman in Revelation 12 (verse 14), is portrayed in Egyptian art (on an elaborate door in the King Tut collection, for instance) with wings, so that she could flee from Set.

Similarly, Greek mythology describes the dragon-snake Python as pursuing the goddess Leto, who is pregnant with the sun god Apollo. In both cases, the little child escapes and later returns to destroy the usurping serpent. The similarities of both of these myths to the vision in Revelation 12 are rather striking. Both myths also touch on the subject of the illegitimate “usurper,” a theme Matthew develops in his story of Herod seeking to destroy the true King, Jesus, at His very birth.

John’s vision takes place in the vault of heaven, where the Woman is described as a “sign,” an image reminiscent of Isaiah 7:10-11. Indeed, John seems to be saying that in the birth of Jesus Isaiah’s prophecy of virgin birth is fulfilled (cf. also Isaiah 26:17). Like Christ Himself (Revelation 1:16), this Woman is clothed with the sun. All Christians know the virginity of the mother of Jesus. Is this Woman being represented, therefore, as the zodiacal sign of Virgo? It would seem so, because, like the sign for Virgo, there are twelve stars involved. In the southern hemisphere the six stars crowning Virgo are sigma, chi, iota, pi, nu, and beta. In the northern hemisphere they are theta, star 60, delta, star 93, second-magnitude beta, and omicron.

Nonetheless, this is not simply a description of Christmas. The Woman in the vision is the mother of Jesus, but she is more; she is also the Church, which gives birth to Christ in the world. The sufferings and persecution of the Church are described as birth pangs (cf. John 16:21-22).

The serpent, of course, is the ancient dragon that is the enemy of our race, the one who seduced the first woman in the garden. Now he must face the new Woman, who is more than a match for him. His seven heads put one in mind of the ancient mythological dragon Hydra, well known from a Canaanite narrative found in the excavations at Ras Shamra and from the traditional story of the Labors of Hercules. In Revelation it is clearly Satan, the Accuser (verse 10) from the Book of Job and from Zechariah 3.

Michael appears right out of the Book of Daniel, of course; in the New Testament he is spoken of only here and in the Epistle of Jude.

Friday, December 7

Revelation 13:1-10: Up till now we have seen two beasts, one of them from the underworld (Chapter 11) and the other from the heavens (Chapters 12). Two more beasts will appear in the present chapter, one of them from the sea (verse 1), who also has seven heads and ten horns (cf. 12:3), and one from the land (verse 11).

The present reading is concerned solely with the first of these two latter beasts. Like the beast in Daniel 7, he is a composite of several menacing things (verse 2). He derives his “authority” from the Dragon (verses 2,4) whom we considered in Chapter 12. That is to say, this beast shares in the power of Satan.

With respect to his ten horns, two remarks are in order: First, in Daniel 7, the obvious literary background here, the ten horns seem to refer to the ten Seleucid successors of Alexander the Great. Second, here in Revelation 13 they seem to refer to Roman emperors. If we leave out Otho, who reigned over the Roman Empire for only three months, there were, in fact, exactly ten Roman emperors up to Domitian, who was responsible for the persecution of A.D. 95: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Almost all of these men were recognized as divine, some of them even before their deaths. Words such as theos and divus appear on their coins. This figure, therefore, symbolizes the idolatrous pretensions of the Roman Empire, which John ascribes to Satan. Those pretensions claim an unquestioned and absolute allegiance over the human spirit.

This beast of the Roman Empire combines the worst features of all the earlier empires: Daniel’s winged lion of Babylon, the bear of the Medes, the leopard of the Persians, and the ten-headed hydra of the Greeks. One may note that John lists these components in the reverse order of Daniel.

Far more than ourselves, the early Christians were aware of the power of evil in the world. They spoke of it frequently in personified forms that are difficult to interpret literally. And the Christians described their relationship to this evil as one of warfare. The terms of the conflict described here in Revelation 13 may be compared to the description in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. In each case there is a widespread deception of people, their enslavement and destruction by means of lies. In both of these texts a pronounced contrast is drawn between the worldlings, who are deceived and will perish, and the faithful, who will be saved by reason of their fidelity to Jesus.