Sunday, October 5, 2014


I did read this book many years ago and a dozen or so commentaries including the amazing Cloisters Apocalypse with its dragons that look like comic book characters. Here's a post I did on this from 2003 or so. What I think is useful is the huge number of sevens in the book. Clearly this spells a sense that things are already complete. The Bridegroom is ready to receive the Bride. In what follows, I have removed external links and altered images to Unicode for the one Hebrew word.
Terms and significance
StructureOverall structure: Ellul (Apocalypse 1977) 5 sections separated by doxologies; Wilcock (The Message of Revelation, 1975) 7 sections; Ellul's sections arise from the main septenaries:
  1. Churches, 
  2. History: Seals - that which forbids and guarantees knowledge - to be opened by the owner; 
  3. The Incarnation: Trumpets - signal for decisive action, proclamation of glory, 
  4. The Judgment: Bowls - participation in the sacred banquet, communion, libation of the sacrifice, reconciliation and wrath; 
  5. The New Creation: Visions (Then I saw). 
With the prologue and epilogue, this make for a seven-fold structure - hardly surprising. Fiorenza describes a similar concentric structure.
For Ellul, these take precedence in structure, each having a similar internal structure: a personage, the body, and a doxology. Well - this works to an extent but it is far from being as simple as he implies. The doxologies are more like sandwich meat than attached to any of the parts. And the parts - at least the middle three, evolve out of each other rather than being discrete.
Other septenaries are embedded - e.g. blessings, seven spirits before the throne. Wilcocks finds additional septenaries: 7 visions in 11:19-15:4; 7 words about Babylon 17:1-19:10; 7 visions 19:11-21:8. That makes 12 septenaries. Some are more clear than others. A thirteenth is perhaps the falling in worship. A fourteenth is the 7 unrevealed thunders. A fifteenth the 7 references to the hour of judgment. A 16th, the seven uses of to reign. And there are seven references to the pit in two clusters. I note also seven or is it 8 or 9 promises or threats of the presence of the Beloved by the words coming soon. But the pattern is not complete - the 'soon' is missing in one case though it is tempting to put it in as the translators of the authorized version have done for then it surrounds the third woe that is also 'coming soon' and could be used to force the interpretation - but that is wishful thinking.  Interpretation should follow, not precede, observable data. (Not to mention the seven buts (de)).
The structure in my old Jerusalem Bible seems seriously deficient. Two parts, the letters, the visions, with almost no relation to the internal structure of the text. Is Ellul's 7 part structure imposed? Or is the thought pattern from source criticism to be preferred? Perhaps this is a plausible deconstruction. There is certainly a psychological reality in the first century as in ours. It seems to me that Ellul's visions of love are possible, and that while they are connected to human experience and reveal a certain amount about an individual's history, their purpose goes beyond that to the desire to free ourselves from injustice and exploitation - whether personal and self-inflicted, or political and externally imposed.
The use of the number seven seems deliberate on the part of the creator of the work. Is it the marriage of God (3) and Creation (4) as Ellul suggests? Ellul writes: the secret of the Apocalypse is the relation between the static of history - reduced to a point - and the dynamic resulting from the presence of the end in history. The Apocalypse translates this contradiction by being at the same time a structure, and a movement from the end toward the present, from the present toward the meaning inscribed in its very texture.
Ellul is a difficult commentary to analyze. The paragraphs are long and there is no index. But his insights focus on and glorify Christ. In no way does he imagine that this prophetic work is a shallow map of predictive history. In fact, he puts the last judgment into history, the end of time present in time. If the revelation were what is portrayed in the popular press, it would not be a glorification of Christ, but a relapse into human vindictiveness, which makes D. H. Lawrence call the book a repulsive work. The blood, the woes, the plagues have no trial for humanity that is not borne by the one who died for all. This, he claims, is what the writer sees. But he almost forces the imagery of the middle part to represent the death and life of Jesus. The thesis requires much more precise analysis. The reason for the thesis is deep: that without the incarnation, there is a serious flaw, a missing component in the book.
what must soon take placeWhat is it that must soon take place? The traditional unknown at the beginning of a text invites our imagination. If we were living now, we might understand it to be an invasion of Iraq. In Asia Minor of the first century - could it have been the destruction of Jerusalem? (Suggested by Marshall.) Or is it the end of the world, the second coming, that is the traditional view? I suggest it is both an invitation into the text that John has written and an invitation to worship the Lamb that was slain. I do not see it as distant - or how could it be 'soon', or as entirely political prediction. Is it then irresponsible? Ignoring the plight of the destruction of others and of innocents? No. For worship moves us to recognize that we are the ones to be destroyed and that love is the only antidote to the horror we have chosen to pursue. 
There are seven uses of 'soon' in this context of parousia: 4 times I am coming soon, 2 times what must soon take place, and once I will come to you soon. The remaining uses of soon do not have this promise of the intimacy of the speaker. This is not to discount the hope of the glorious appearing, but to count on it that presence in the present as well as hope for it ultimately. Words here are insufficient.
I think there is also an argument that the whole book is a meditation on the suffering of Christ. There are 7 references to the hour of judgment. How do we come through judgment except in the One who suffered judgment on our behalf? To see this as being in the mind of the author is a significant undertaking. It means finding out whether certain understandings of this nature (e.g. John 5:24) are available to the author within his or her traditional teaching. I think the way through worship - the obedience of faith - can open the body to this apprehension but the secret will remain hidden to abstraction alone.
sending his angelThis work is full of angels. What we do is visible eternally. In parts of the work, the speech of the angel and Jesus is interspersed so one cannot tell without prior understanding whether this is interruption or identification or authoritative agency. Whatever, the angel is immediate, present, and fully disclosing, though John is not permitted to write all that is disclosed. John twice portrays himself as worshipping the angel - and he is forbidden. What then does he worship in the first chapter when he falls at his feet as one dead and is lifted up rather than forbidden?
This is John's testimony, not the angel's. Whatever we believe of angelology or Christology, we have here a real work describing a real vision of a real man in Patmos in the first century under Roman rule. While there may well have been redaction of the text - it is scarcely avoidable in a work of almost any length, especially one this long - this work is not a carefully constructed midrash on other ancient texts. It will have arisen from a vision and from John's experience of his humanity in the world we share with him. He would not have had to look up a definition of angel before he started writing.
testifiedTestimony is a major issue in the Apocalypse. Witness, faithfulness, and trustworthiness are a vital part of the structure of the text. The witness and faith of Jesus (not in Jesus or to Jesus) is repeatedly invoked as the example, motivation, and collaborative power of the only mode of victory in the battles in which the author and his hearers are engaged. The author invites us to hear and see as he hears and sees and to know the victory and its benefits. These experiences of the presence are tangible as outlined in the letters for 'those who overcome'. I see this as parallel to the hear, see and touch of other New Testament writings under the name of John (likely not the same John).
1 John 1: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
John 1
  • (3-5) have seen 
  • (6-8) have heard 
  • (9-13) have experienced 
seven spirits who are before his throneThis phrase appears to refer to what we might term the Holy Spirit - the phrase for the seven spirits is repeated in identification with the Lamb and as sent out over the whole world. (Aune suggests that the seven principal angels are in view.) The phrase Holy Spirit does not occur in Revelation. John is 'in the spirit' - and the Spirit is speaking through the words of the exalted Christ. The seven spirits are his possession, the eyes of the Lamb, both as flaming torches before the throne and as sent out into all the world. (I am reminded of Luke 12:49-50 - how Jesus is constrained until he has sent fire on the earth.) The Spirit at the end speaks with the Bride as if from the earth, while at the beginning, the Spirit speaks as if from heaven.
WitnessThis term could be from Psalm 89:37 (in apposition and parallel to the seed of David v 35 - not the moon as witness as Aune suggests.)  See also verse 27: firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.
Before the throneNine times in the book the phrase 'before the throne' occurs. Two of them are translated in the NRSV as in front of. These describe the sea of glass like crystal, and the place of the seven torches.
  1. the crowns of the twenty four elders (4:10)
  2. a great number which no one could number (7:9) with white robes and palms
  3. all the angels, the elders, and the four beasts (7:11) worship of the heavenly hosts
  4. the great number described as having come out of the great ordeal (7:15) worship of humanity
  5. incense (8:3)
  6. a new song (14:3)
  7. the dead, great and small (20:12)
ProstrationSeven times there is a falling in worship if one accepts the falling in chapter 1 as #1:
  1. 1:17 individual adoration in response to the theophany;
  2. 4:10 24 elders in response to the Sanctus of the living creatures
  3. 5:8 24 elders with the prayers of the saints in response to the Lamb's taking the scroll
  4. 5:14 24 elders in response to the singing of every creature
  5. 7:11 24 elders in response to the loud voice proclaiming salvation
  6. 11:6 24 elders in response to the reign of God announced by the 7th angel
  7. 19:4 24 elders in response to the judgment
SoulsSeven times psyche is used.
SayingsPossible allusions to sayings of Jesus: Luke 11:28 (hearing and keeping), Matthew 24:30 (tribes mourn), Matthew 11:15, 13:9 (ears, let him hear), Matthew 24:42 (watch the thief comes), Matthew 10:32 (Confession before God), Mark 13:29, Luke 12:35 ff (Door, feast, fellowship), Luke 22:28-30 (Occupying throne with Christ) Matthew 26:52b (The saying of the sword). Few, if any, allusions to the Pauline corpus, possible 'in the Lord', once. Also note the inter-textual reading of Psalm 110: Foundation (Hebrew 'aden? special pleading perhaps), all allusions to co-regency including God and Lamb, Jesus and saints.
ChurchEkklesia - the same Greek term applies to a local government assembly.
SynagogueMay also be translated assembly.
Lamb28 times the lamb is mentioned. Is this four more septets?
The Lamb introduced: (5:6); [takes the scroll (5:7)],
  1. receives prayers (5:8), [and adoration (5:9), for his work (5:10)],
  2. sevenfold worthiness (5:12),
  3. reflected to the one seated on the throne (5:13),
  4. opens the seals (6:1),
  5. is feared for wrath (6:16),
  6. multitude stands before him (7:9)
  7. Attribute salvation to God and him (7,10),
  8. his blood washes (7:14),
  9. is the shepherd who leads to the water of life (7:17),
  10. opens the seventh seal (8,1),
  11. blood leads to conquering the accuser (12:11),
  12. owns the book of life (13:8),
  13. stands on Mount Zion (14:1),
  14. followed by the redeemed (14:4),
  15. who are his and God's first fruits (14:4),
  16. knows the torment of the unredeemed (14:10),
  17. has a special song (15:3),
  18. is enemy (17:14),
  19. conquers (17,14),
  20. has a marriage (19:7),
  21. and marriage supper (19:9),
  22. and bride, wife (21:9),
  23. and 12 apostles (21,14),
  24. is the temple (21:22),
  25. is the lamp (21:23),
  26. has a book of life of the clean (21:27),
  27. has a throne from which flows the water of life (22:1),
  28. the throne is in the city, the servants worship (22:3), [his face seen, his name on their forehead (22:4)],
Is there any way to see this complete and unforced in groups of 7? Note Aune considers 'and the Lamb' a gloss in phrases in the passages of the first edition that have 'God and the Lamb'.  Seems to me a self-fulfilling statement.  Is the description of the Lamb sufficiently integral to both first and second edition? It is already a stretch for there are 29 instances not 28.
ThundersAn Ethiopian commentary on the Apocalypse has this explanation of the seven thunders
  1. faith
  2. love
  3. the day of death of which it is said - and he concealed the day of the end
  4. the mystery of sexual union - of which it is said - behold I tell you a secret matter (1 Cor 15:51)
  5. becoming human while being semen, (a duplicate of 4?)
  6. the obtaining of milk and blood from the one placenta
  7. the mystery of the parousia (add the comment of 3)
There are disputes and variations even in the written text, and the mystery of mercy is sometimes added to make up for the apparent duplicate of 4 and 5. The humanity of this interpretation is touching. The text of the Apocalypse and patristic commentary is part of a complex tradition of the Ethiopian Coptic church.
KnockingSong 5:2 - a delightful suggestion for my thesis of love in Revelation - but the Spouse is confused - though she knows her love.
KingdomHe has made us a kingdom, priests. This is for John, the work of Christ. In Exodus, it is the work of the LORD (19:3-6). The Church has assumed a displacement model for Israel in the time of Christendom. When Christendom disgraced itself in the Shoa and in the many wars it has fought, scholars reinterpreted the displacement model, a model with as many inconsistencies as the Ptolemaic model of the universe, with an understanding closer to the intent of the NT writers - that the gentiles are called to worship the God of Israel. This includes the gentiles in Israel rather than excluding Israel from 'the Church'.
PiercedHebrew in Zechariah 12:10 has - they will look upon me whom they have pierced. Jerusalem as an intoxicating cup (12:2) would make an interesting homily subject.
Lord GodNamed 9 times, speaks twice. Pantocrator, a unique name applied to God in Revelation, but common in the Septuagint. A developing Christology - names applied to God or the LORD are applied to Jesus.
Aune points out a lovely character of the Hebrew 'emet (truth), consisting of aleph-mem-taw the first, the middle (sort of) and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So Alpha and Omega, the first and last of the seven vowels of the Greek Alphabet, become a similar divine moniker - our buried dragon's teeth means of communication exalted to ultimate significance.
Here's what I had read at the time. I was just learning to use the library.
Word Biblical Commentary, Revelation, Volume 52A-C, David E AuneUVIC*****1998 3 volumes, Comprehensive - the commentary of the century
The Use of Daniel in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature and in the Revelation of St John, G. K. BealeUVIC**Thesis, requires Hebrew reading skill, very close attention to detail in manuscript and language elements
The Revelation of St John the Divine, Ed. Harold BloomUVIC*Essays, light, opinionated, various authors
Jesus and the Angels, Peter R CarrellUVIC**Exploring the uncertain relationship between angel and the divine
The Traditional Interpretation of the Apocalypse of St John in the Ethiopian Church, Roger W. CowleyUVIC**Original work on a rare manuscript and commentary outside of the western tradition
Apocalypse, Jacques EllulMACD***1978 Incisive, deliberate, un-indexed, focused on Incarnation
The Book of Revelation, Elizabeth Schlussler FiorenzaUVIC****1997 Scholarly, essays on the subject written over 30 years
Parables of War, John W. MarshallUVIC***2001 Critique of assumptions of language; thesis Jewish apocalyptic written prior to 70 CE
The Cloisters Apocalypse, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkUVIC*****Commentaries on a 14th Century Manuscript
The Book of Revelation,  Robert H. MounceUVIC*1977 Traditional
Revelation Unsealed, James L. RessegueUVIC*****1998 Rhetorical criticism, character, plot, psychological and physical setting, identification of surface symbols and numerology 
Apocalypse, Pablo RichardUVIC***1998 Backdrop of liberation theologies of Latin America
The Message of Revelation, Michael WilcockMACD*1972 Typical Conservative - IVCF
Revelation, BarclaySTJ*Typical mid 20th century less conservative