Ted Grimsrud—April 2, 2012
John enters the door into heaven at the beginning of chapter four and begins to describe what he sees. First it’s a vision of the throne room—which turns out to be a vision that reassures the reader of God’s on-going presence and worthiness of continued worship from all creation. This reassurance forms the first of a set of bookends that is matched at the end of the book with the vision of the New Jerusalem that returns to the image of the “one on the throne” (21:5) being worthy of praise and adoration.
It’s is essential that we keep these two references to the one on the throne’s mercy and healing love—and power—as we enter into reflection on the visions that come between the throne room and the New Jerusalem. In some ultimate sense, those visions must be seen as serving the purposes of the healing power of the one on the throne.
To emphasize that the intentions of the God of Revelation are healing, the first vision after the throne room account (chapter 5) portrays the power of the Lamb, seen in faithful witness and crucifixion followed by resurrection and vindication, to take the scroll. Because of this power, the Lamb receives that same all-encompassing worship from the entire animate creation. The power of the Lamb leads to the liberation from the powers of sin and evil of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9). And these liberated people for a nation of the their own that stands in resistance to the nation ruled by the Beast.
So, with the context set—God as ruler, the Lamb as liberator, the nation of Lamb-followers established—we turn to a new set of visions within the broader vision of one on the throne establishing the New Jerusalem.
Revelation 6:1-8—The four horses and their riders
We are never told in Revelation exactly what the “scroll” is that the one on the throne turned over to the slain and risen Lamb (5:7). The way chapter five presents this scene clearly infers (once we read the entirety of Revelation) that this scroll contains the message to be fulfilled with the coming down the New Jerusalem. The visions between chapters five and twenty-one convey the process of the scroll being opened so the healing message may come to fruition.
The first step will be to break the seven seals that keep the scroll closed (5:1). No one had been found to break these seals and open scroll—hence John’s bitter weeping in 5:4. Finally, the opener arrives, in a genuine sense a mighty king (5:5), but a king who conquers through persevering love (5:6). Now, with 6:1, this conquering Lamb begins his work.
What follows must be interpreted very carefully. We must remember first of all that all references to “the Lamb” are references to the Lamb of persevering love (that is, the “Jesus Christ” the book of Revelation reveals, 1:1). So whatever the Lamb does should be understood as consistent with this persevering love.
Then we must note right away in 6:1 that all that the Lamb is doing at this point is breaking the seals. The actual contents of the scroll are not yet revealed—the contents, we could say, that come from the One on the throne and are directly linked with the will of that One. The events that accompany the breaking of the seals can’t be linked directly with the content of the scroll because that content has not yet been revealed.
The seal-breaking events that are envisioned in chapter six, therefore, need not be seen as the direct expression of God’s will. In fact, what we know of God from chapters four and five should cause us to assume that these terrible events described in chapter six are actually contrary to the will of God and the Lamb. One interpretation of a forthcoming vision in chapter twelve concludes that the terrible traumas that befall the earth beginning with 6:1 are in fact the consequences of the dragon (Satan) “making war” on God’s children (12:17).
The events associated with the breaking of the seals, like the events later associated with the blowing of the trumpets (chapters eight and nine) and the pouring out from the bowls (chapters fifteen and sixteen), are actually (though dramatically stated) simply some of the on-going events of human history. In linking these events with the breaking of the seals, John seems to be telling us that with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Lamb, we are now as never before situated to understand and respond to the violence and domination and injustice and destruction the dragon wreaks on earth, so often through the dragons human minions—the empires and the kings of the earth.
When the “four living creatures” call out “Come!” (NRSV) with the breaking of each of the first four seals, they are not asserting that God Godself directly sends forth war and famine and death. Rather, they are commanding John’s attention. Each creature cries out and each time John “looks.” What John sees, finally, is “Death and Hades…were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth” (6:8).
The passive tense (“were given”) that avoids naming the source of the authority Death and Hades receives is another way of pointing to the indirectness of God’s involvement in these events. Probably the ambiguity here is intentional. There is a sense that Death and Hades get their authority from the dragon. The dragon is the one who desires the destruction of “a fourth of the earth.” Yet, John cannot allow that to be the last word. The dragon is not the final authority. The fate of the earth is not destruction but healing. And so, somehow the wars and famines do not operate outside of God’s providential involvement to bring history to its healing end (again, the story of this healing end makes up the content of the scroll).
The role of the Lamb, then, in these initial plague visions, is not to be the source of war and famine, but to signal that the dragon-inspired destruction will not defeat or negate the Lamb’s victory and ultimate healing work. So, the lesson to be learned from the Lamb’s presence here is a reminder to follow his way of persevering love even in the face of war and famine.
Revelation 6:9-11—The cry for justice
Throughout the book of Revelation, the pattern of Jesus (faithful witness, death at the hands of the powers that be, and vindication through resurrection) stands as both the fundamental path the conquering Lamb followed that actually provides the decisive victory the book celebrates and as the fundamental path the followers of the Lamb are to take as well.
The opening of the fifth seal reminds John’s readers again of this pattern. With the breaking of this seal, John sees the faithful witnesses who had followed this path to the bitter end and now await their vindication. One step in the vindication is that they received “white robes” (throughout Revelation a symbol of those whose lives were conformed to the pattern of Jesus).
We should remember again the character of the one the faithful witnesses were imitating—that is, the one whose response to his killers was, “Lord, forgive them.” It is difficult to imagine Jesus seeking revenge against his enemies. He called for and practiced love and forgiveness (even 70 times 7).
So, it seems counterintuitive to imagine that the faithful witnesses here are calling for punishment and revenge. If they were seeking such they would not have received white robes. Rather, the better understanding of their cry comes with a more literal translation of the word translated in the NSRV as “avenge” (6:10).
The root of edikeis is –dik, often translated as “just” or “justice.” The cry from the witnesses, thus, may be understood as a cry for justice, not simply revenge. “How long will it be before you bring justice in response to the violence of the inhabitants of the earth.” This could be understood, then, actually as a call for healing not punishment. How long until the contents of the scroll are revealed and the New Jerusalem come down and the inhabitants of the earth are healed of their warring madness?
The response to the witness’s cry confirms this reading. They are told to continue to rest, with the assurance that indeed vindication and healing are coming. We have to read to the end of Revelation to get a clear answer as to what this “vindication” will entail. The New Jerusalem does “come down” (chapters 21-22) and at that point the nations (whose citizens are the “inhabitants of the earth”) find healing from the fruit of the tree of life that straddles the river of the water of life (22:1-2)—as do even the “kings of the earth” (the human rulers who led the “inhabitants” in their murderous ways).
In the meantime, for God’s own purposes, history continues. As an inevitable part of history, those who follow the Lamb’s path of resistance to the ways of the Beast will continue to suffer the consequences. That notion that “the number” of martyrs is yet to be “completed” (6:11) could be understood more in relation to the need for sustained resistance that will lead to martyrdom during this time between Revelation 5 and Revelation 21 than that God has a set number of martyrs that must be achieved before the end.
Revelation 6:12-17—The ultimate earthquake
The opening of the six seal leads to a terrible, all-encompassing earthquake, powerful enough even to knock the stars out of the sky (6:13). This earthquake image comes from numerous Old Testament prophets (e.g., Isa 13:10; Ez 32:7-8; Joel 2:30-31; Amos 8:9; Zeph 1:15). The “earthquake” reflects terrible chaos and judgment—though in actual life things continue. The earthquake does not literally end the story.
Here, John seems to convey with the earthquake vision a condemnation of the corruption of the nations and empires that are the agents of the dragon in plaguing humanity with wars, famine, and pestilence. All the dynamics of death fueled by the dragon are summed up in this vision of judgment. Their seemingly inexorable domination will not stand as it stems from rebellion against the true God of creation.
That the earthquake image actual is a political image rather than a literal vision of an actual earthquake may be seen in the list of those who flee in terror: “the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free” (6:15). The earthquake, that is, is actually God’s condemnation of the ways of empire that victimize and violate so many people.
This vision concludes with an extraordinarily paradoxical image. The great ones are hiding in terror from “the wrath of the Lamb.” What in the world? I suppose it is possible for a real-life lamb to get angry, but vicious anger is not what we associate with lambs. Nor is it what we associate the Jesus, the Lamb. Is there another way to understand “wrath”?
Actually, there is. The use of “wrath” here actually may well be another way that John emphasizes the indirectness of the involvement of God in these terrible events of human self-destruction and catastrophe (events, remember, that are characteristic of all eras of human history). “Wrath,” as used throughout the Bible, often tends to have the connotation more of “God gave them up” (Rom 1:24) or God left them to the dynamics of cause and effect than of God’s direct and person punitive anger.
This “earthquake,” then, could be seen as the destructive political consequences of “the kings of the earth” idolizing power and domination and exploitation—approaches to governing that inevitably lead to famine and pestilence and war. The role of the Lamb then becomes one of revealing the idolatry behind the kings (mis)rule for what it is.
The story in the gospels of Jesus’ faithful witness (which involved confronting misused power, both in individual leaders and in systems of domination) leading to the terrible violence against him by the religious and political structures (who were claiming to be God’s agents in the world) leading to vindication by God in resurrection (thus exposing the powers-that-be in their rebellion against God) actually involves a revelation of the “wrath of the Lamb.” It is “wrath” in the sense that through his consistent love, Jesus actually challenges the powers-that-be and makes more clear than ever before their illegitimacy as God’s agents.
The “face of the one seated on the throne and…the Lamb” is indeed wrathful toward the kings (6:16-17) because it is unrelenting in its rejection of the dominating ways of the kings. This rejection delegitimizes the kings and they simply cannot “stand” (6:17) in the presence of such wrath. The powers of darkness wither in the presence of genuine light.
The Lamb is utterly contrary to the “great ones” (Mark 10:42). They try to crush his way of freedom from idolatry. In doing so, they place themselves in the center of God’s wrath. The result is their destruction, as Revelation’s visions will continue to emphasize.