The book of Revelation is currently appearing as the “second reading” in the Revised Common Lectionary. That’s the spot where we usually find excerpts from the various New Testament Letters, mostly by Paul, occasionally by James or John or Peter. This coming Sunday, we will read and hear some verses from the section of the book that describes the opening of the seven seals (6:1–8:5); specifically, a vision of a great multitude of people, “robed in white, with palm branches in their hands”, praising the Lamb who is seated on the throne (7:9–17).
The book of Revelation has probably become the most misunderstood book of the New Testament—because of the enigmatic nature, and the dramatic power, of the graphic visionary descriptions it contains. There are numerous theories seeking to ‘explain’ the meaning of the visions and to ‘prove’ the identity of the various figures who appear in these visions.
In particular, this most misused book of the New Testament has been misinterpreted by groups of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand.
If we turn to scripture with an expectation that we will find clear doctrinal statements, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”. But I don’t think this was the intention of the book’s author.
Or perhaps we hope to encounter stories which help us to understand what has transpired in history? In which case, we will look for evidence that pins down the content of this book and grounds it in real-life events. But that is somewhat fraught.
Both of these approaches require us to develop an extensive system of interpretation for reading this book. This is not a simple or straightforward task.
An alternative (and often employed) way of reading this book is to consider that it is prophecy which provides a set of predictions about the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century. Other interpreters claim that the book is pointing forward in time, to events that will take place beyond the time of the reader, in our own times (that is, the 21st century). Even more fraught, I reckon.
Some people will want to read the book simply as literature in its own right; as a work of art, it has the power to generate ideas and responses without necessarily tying these down to what is “true” or “accurate”. Ideological critics might wish to engage in dialogue with the book in relation to the violence which runs throughout the visions.
Some readers have considered this book to be an expression of patriarchal power, caught up in the masculine enterprise of solving disputes through coercion and violence. Others have undertaken a search for an alternative vision of peacemaking in the midst of human warfare, as the lamb who was slaughtered is the one who ultimately triumphs.
How do you come to this book? What is the lens, the perspective, that you employ, to read this dramatic and different book?
Whatever the way is that we seek to approach our reading of this book, it will influence the kind of understanding that results. Because the work does not lay down one simple narrative line; because it is so rich and intricate in its symbolism; because it places layer upon layer, image upon image, it will produce multiple readings with multiple appreciations. Such is the complex nature of interpreting biblical texts.
It is clear to me that, as we read the book of Revelation, we can identify certain literary features which are quite characteristic of apocalyptic literature. The authority of the author is a key concern (1:9–10; 22:8–9) and the declaration is made that what is now being revealed is a mysterious secret (1:20; 10:7; 17:5, 7). This revelation comes direct from God through his authorized messenger (1:1–2, 11–20; 22:8–10).
The warning not to change the text (22:18–19) is characteristic of apocalyptic, as is the regular reminder of the author’s expectation that the present era is coming to an end (2:26; 21:1, 4) and his description of a vision of the beginning of a new era (1:1; 7:9–17; 11:19; 21:1–22:7; 22:12, 20). The role of angels and visions reflects typical apocalyptic features.
Also typical of apocalyptic are the many coded depictions which are conveyed in numbers: four (4:6–8; 5:6, 14; 6:1–8; 7:1–3, 11; 9:14; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4; 21:16); ten (2:10; 12:3, 18; 17:3, 12–16); twelve (12:1; 21:12–14, 21; 22:2); twenty-four (4:4, 10; 11:16; 19:4); 144,000 (7:4–8; 14:1–4); the intriguing 666 (13:18); and, of course, seven, which recurs in numerous places throughout the book (seven letters, 1:11; golden lampstands, 1:12, 20; stars, 1:16, 20; 2:1; angels, 1:20; 3:1; 15:7; spirits, 1:4; 3:1; seals, 5:1; horns and eyes, 5:6; trumpets, 8:2; thunders, 10:3–4; diadems, 12:3; plagues, 15:1, 6; golden bowls, 15:7; 16:1; and seven heads, 17:3, 9–10). Finally, as we have noted, there is the appearance of Babylon as a symbol of Rome (17:5, 18).
The passage from Revelation set for this Sunday (7:9–17) is one of these passages which plays with symbolism in numbers. Just before this passage, the foreheads of 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel are sealed by the lamb (7:1–8). This crowd of 144,000 who had been sealed by the lamb reappear in a later vision (14:1–4). However, the vision of 7:9-17 concerns “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
On receiving an enquiry as to the identity of these people, the author responds, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). I have already reflected on the significance of the theme of sacrifice within the visions of Revelation (see https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/05/01/worthy-is-the-lamb-that-was-slaughtered-a-paradoxical-vision-rev-5/)
This huge, uncountable crowd, drawn from all cultures and nations, surely reflects what we declare in our preaching of the Gospel: the wide expanse of divine grace and love which extends far beyond our immediate, parochial context. And that vision is one that ought to inspire us to be ever-generous and ever-faithful in our ways of relating to other people, for we are all part of this “great multitude that no one could count”.