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Today, we continue our examination of the Book of Revelation with the eighth chapter.  As this is not included in any standard Lectionary, it qualifies as part of Churchmouse Campanologist‘s Forbidden Bible Verses series — equally essential to our understanding of Scripture.

Our reading is taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).  All exegetical sources can be found at the end of the post.

Revelation 8

The Seventh Seal and the Golden Censer

1When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

The Seven Trumpets

6Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them.

7The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.

8The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. 9A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

10The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.

12The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night.

13Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew directly overhead, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

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This chapter describes the opening of the seventh seal (Revelation 6 describes the first six).  Once again, only Jesus Christ — ‘the Lamb’ — has the power and the authority to open it.  Heaven keeps a half-hour silence.

The Lutheran pastor, the Revd Thomas Messer, of Peace Lutheran Church in Alma, Michigan, has studied Revelation extensively and observes that periods of silence appear in Jewish apocalyptic writing of the 1st century.   Silence may precede or follow an important event.  He notes that in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, there is silence before the original creation of the universe.  Similarly here, a silence follows the opening of the seventh seal and the next series of God’s work, in this case, the alarming events which will follow.  We do the same when we observe a prayerful period of silence in church before a service.

We might think of these as ‘knock-on’ events — a series of occurrences set into motion, one providentially following another.  First we have the seven seals, then the seven trumpets, then the seven bowls.  As soon as one series ends, another begins.  The 17th century Calvinist minister and Bible scholar Matthew Henry notes that although these appear to be of a chaotic nature to us

they all make up one wise, well-connected, uniform design in the hand of God.

Before we continue, let’s look at the interpretation of the number seven as used in the Bible.  Some scholars believe that it represents spiritual perfection: seven days of the week, Abraham’s sevenfold blessing, the seven churches of Revelation among the many examples.  However, others, such as Tony Warren, caution that seven signifies completeness and that we should not conflate completion with perfection.  He writes:

It is the ‘all inclusiveness’ of a thing. For example, the seven Churches of Asia (Revelation 1-3) represent the ‘totality’ of God’s congregations (nothing to do with dispensationalism). This can be clearly seen as God says Christ stands in the midst of the seven candlesticks. This signifies that Christ stands in the midst of all Churches ‘which are represented by these seven Churches’ of Asia. Likewise, they are called seven golden candlesticks signifying that they are to be what the Old Testament called the [tamiyd], the ‘Continual’ or the ‘Daily.’ They are to be the light of the world shining continually. This can also be seen in the seven stars of the seven candlesticks (Churches) which are the seven messengers of the Churches, and they are in God’s right hand. These are all the messengers of the Churches whom God holds securely and who do His will (the right hand). The truth is, when God talks to these seven Churches, He is not talking to just those, He is talking to all believers and to all Churches. The totality of them which spans throughout time. We today are part of the seven (totality) Churches to whom God gives these warnings and encouragements.

In verse 2, the seven angels are the Archangels, meaning Gabriel and Michael (whom we know best) along with Suruel, Raphael, Raguel, Saraqael and Uriel (cf. 1 Enoch 19:1-3, 20:1-7; Tobit 12:12-15).  Pastor Messer describes them as the Lord’s ‘elite force’.  They do His most important bidding — making announcements (e.g. the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary) and executing His divine judgments.  Their blasts of their trumpets will indicate a different event — judgment — to follow in this chapter.

Verse 3 contains the words ‘another angel’, which might cause confusion.  However, it is again Christ the Lord, although in a different capacity now as our great High Priest and Mediator.  He takes the censer (a round container which holds incense) and offers the prayers of the saints before the altar of God.  Prayer continues, even in Heaven.  Recall that from our study of Revelation 6 (link above) that the saints’ prayers rise up with the incense to Almighty God, through our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ.

Then, in verse 5, the next series of events begins — the judgments of the trumpets.  Christ fills the censer with fire from the great altar and throws it down onto the Earth, at which point a combination of horrifying natural disasters results.  These are the signals for the archangels to begin their work (verse 6).

Matthew Henry offers the interpretations of the storm of ‘hail and fire, mixed with blood’ (verse 7).  These are far from literal (as today’s are) and most educated (whilst today’s are sensationalist); they are of interest, particularly as they date from a few centuries ago.  Even then, he notes, scholars were divided on the precise meanings, as follows:

– the many heresies which engulfed the early Church — in particular, Arianism

– the invasions which occurred after the reign of Constantine, which ushered in the Dark Ages: the Goths, Visigoths and Vandals among the savage European tribes

– the use of thirds implying judgments or great difficulties after 395 AD befalling a portion of a) the clergy, the laity or b) the crumbling Roman empire, its leaders of that time and its people.

Henry reminds us that the Roman Empire constituted one-third of the known world at the time it fell.

The second angel sounds his trumpet in verse 8.  Again, as with verse 7, the same historical interpretations apply.  Henry points out that the ‘sea’ represented the people alive at the time of the tribal invasions which lasted from 410 to 547 AD.  Yet, he adds, as alarming as this was, God continued to show mercy as only one-third of the people were destroyed. The ships being destroyed (verse 9), he says, represent the plunder and losses which the great trading ports incurred.

Messer interprets these verses as being an enumeration of natural disasters and tragedies that continue to befall mankind.  He, too, notes that these events affect only one-third of people.  Whilst that is still a great number, again, it shows God’s continuing mercy to His people.

Remember that each tragedy and disaster is a wake-up call for unbelievers to turn to the Lord and repent.  These are continuous warning signs.  If we follow Him through His Son Jesus Christ we have hope of eternal adoption and life in Him.  If we ignore these warnings, we stand to lose much more than earthly life.  And that would be a judgment for all eternity, a concept which is difficult for us to fully comprehend.

Henry also relates verses 10 and 11 to events which occurred a few centuries after Christ’s death on the Cross.  He tells us that some scholars believe ‘a great star’ or ‘Wormwood’ is Augustulus who was forced to give up his rule to Odoacer in 480 AD.  Alternatively, he notes, other scholars believe the star is the heretic Pelagius, whose heresy was widespread in the Church.  Wormwood refers to a bitter-tasting poison. (A type of wormwood, tasting of aniseed, is used in the production of the psychotropic drink, absinthe.  C S Lewis called the junior demon Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters.)  So, we may interpret this as either earthly rule becoming corrupt and noxious to its citizens or the damage the Church incurred through heresy and doctrinal distortion.

Whereas Henry and his contemporaries saw these trumpets connecting with the Dark Ages, Messer sees them corresponding to the plagues of Egypt as described in Exodus.  These plagues continue through the last days (until Christ comes again).

The last trumpet to sound in this chapter is the fourth (verse 12).  Once again, these events affect only one-third of the world.  Henry writes that the darkness may refer to the world’s luminaries — a clerical or secular prominence being extinguished or limited in some way.  These may be good people whom the public ignore, to their peril (emphasis mine, for those of us in today’s Church):

Without determining what is matter of controversy in these points among learned men, we rather choose to make these plain and practical remarks:-(1.) Where the gospel comes to a people, and is but coldly received, and has not its proper effects upon their hearts and lives, it is usually followed with dreadful judgments. (2.) God gives warning to men of his judgments before he sends them; he sounds an alarm by the written word, by ministers, by men’s own consciences, and by the signs of the times; so that, if a people be surprised, it is their own fault. (3.) The anger of God against a people makes dreadful work among them; it embitters all their comforts, and makes even life itself bitter and burdensome. (4.) God does not in this world stir up all his wrath, but sets bounds to the most terrible judgments. (5.) Corruptions of doctrine and worship in the church are themselves great judgments, and the usual causes and tokens of other judgments coming on a people.

Those corruptions might be syncretic religious practices which are heavily politicised in parts of the world, New Age Christianity, the Church Growth Movement and the emergent church.  To those who consider themselves believers, be careful out there.  The soul you save could be your own.

The end of this chapter (verse 13) prepares us for even more dreadful events in the Book of Revelation. The trumpets have not yet finished.  Three more have yet to sound.  An eagle flies overhead: a bird of prey which devours flesh.  Henry interprets the eagle as an angel on a dreadful mission.  Messer notes that the eagle is connected with destruction  (Deut. 28:49; Jer. 4:13; 48:40; 49:22; Lam. 4:19; Ezek. 17:3; Hos. 8:1; Hab. 1:8):

The use of ‘woe, woe, woe’, he writes, recalls Hos. 8:1 (“Put a trumpet to your lips, like an eagle against the house of the LORD”) and Jer. 4:13, where the destructive image of an eagle is followed by “woe to us,” together with a threefold sounding of a trumpet (vv. 5, 19, 21) as an announcement of judgment.

Messer observes that these first four judgments are very different from the next three, which will involve supernatural causes.  And, yet, he says that believers should not be afraid:

… this “eagle” which announces the three-fold “Woe!,” can be a source of comfort, for the believer knows that his/her Lord, Jesus Christ, is in control of the events which are about to unfold and can rest assured that, just as He delivered the Israelites out of Egypt “on eagle’s wings,” He will deliver him/her through this series of judgments.

Next week: Revelation 9

Further reading:

Matthew Henry’s Commentary

‘Revelation – Chapter 8 Notes’ – The Revd Thomas C Messer (LCMS)

‘Meaning of Numbers in the Bible – The Number Seven (7)’ – BibleStudy.org

‘The Spiritual Significance of Numbers in Scripture’ – Tony Warren

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