[This is the eighth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—June 24, 2012—Revelation 8:2–10:10
Several weeks ago when Jason Myers-Benner brought our children’s story, he said something that helped inspire this sermon. The book he read was great, but it told us that hens lay their eggs when they are sitting down. Jason said that, no, hens actually stand up when they lay.
“The book is wrong,” Jason said. That struck me as kind of a subversive thing to say. “The book is wrong.” Are we supposed to entertain that thought? I think so, as Jason showed us.
So that made me think. Could we imagine saying this about the Bible? “The book is wrong.”
Jason obviously thought that being wrong about the laying of eggs did not invalidate his book. It still is truthful in important ways. Maybe we could say this about the Bible, too.
Does “the book is wrong” apply to the Bible?
So, I’d like us to do a thought exercise. If you can, come up with a passage or idea or piece of information from the Bible of which you might want to say, “the book is wrong.” I am not intending in doing this to trash the Bible—more so, I think honestly to ask this question might help make the Bible even more meaningful and helpful to us.
So think of a place where you would consider saying “the book is wrong” about the Bible. I will read from one of my candidates, a condensed version of Revelation 8–10. As I read, think about why one might be tempted to say “the book is wrong” in this text. And think about other parts of the Bible.
I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. With the first trumpet, hail and fire, mixed with blood, hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up. With the second trumpet, a great mountain was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the sea creatures died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. With the third trumpet a great star fell from heaven onto a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. A third of the waters became bitter, and many died from the water. With the fourth trumpet, 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 was darkened; a third of the day was kept from shining, and likewise the night.
Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth!”
And the fifth angel blew his trumpet; I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. Out of the pit came locusts on the earth. They were allowed to torture people for five months. People will seek death but will not find it. They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates were released to kill a third of humankind. The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million.
The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.
And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He held a little scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring. And when he had shouted, the seven thunders sounded. And when the seven thunders had sounded I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.”
Then the mighty angel raised his right hand to heaven and swore by him who created all that is: “There will be no more delay, the mystery of God will be fulfilled, as he announced to his servants the prophets.”
Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, sweet as honey in your mouth.” So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. (8:2–10:11)
So, what did you think of—places in the Bible of which you might want to say, “the book is wrong”?
The standard interpretation of Revelation 8–10
Why would I think in regard to what I just read from Revelation, “the book is wrong”? In a nutshell, it’s the idea that God is a punisher who tries to get people to turn to God (that is, to repent) by bringing down on them these terrible plagues. And yet, for me, at least, when I think the Bible might be wrong, I take this as a challenge to look more closely at what the text is saying—not simply to dismiss it. Though the book might be wrong, it still can teach us.
If we say the book can’t be wrong, if we decree by theological edict that the Bible is perfect, I think we will be closed to evidence that suggests otherwise—and less likely actually to understand the text. Let me suggest, though, that the jury should still be out in relation to our Revelation 8–10 passage and whether it actually is wrong.
We read first here of another series of terrible plagues. We have good reason to think that God initiates these plagues. The first series of plagues in Revelation six, that had a kill-rate of one-quarter began when the Lamb broke the to the great scroll he had been given by the one on the throne.
These were terrible things—wars, famine, disease. Death and Hades were given authority to kill one-quarter of the earth (6:8). This second series of plagues—signaled by seven angels each blowing a trumpet, up the ante further. An angel throws down a great censer filled with incense smoke and then come a series of plagues that result in one-third of the earth burning up, a third of the sea being turned to blood, a third of the waters being turned poisonous, and a third of the light of day and night being quenched.
Just as the first plagues are initiated by the Lamb, it seems, this second series is initiated by God’s angels. What is God trying to do?
The trumpet plagues continue with horrific and destructive locusts that torture people so badly that they seek death. Then comes more war. An army of 200 million that, with the locusts, brings death to one-third of humanity.
Then we get to the point—according to most interpreters. John writes: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And they did not repent of their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts” (9:20-21).
John, it seems, is incredulous. After all this judgment, stiff-necked, rebellious humanity still will not repent. Stiff-necked humanity still will not turn from its idols and turn toward God. So, the text seems to imply, the reason God initiates these plagues is to try to get sinful, idolatrous, rebellious human beings to repent, to turn from their idolatries and to turn to God. That is, the text emphasizes how incredibly stubborn these unrepentant human beings are. Crazy. They see one-third of the earth destroyed and they won’t turn in faith toward the destroyer! Well, yeah….
If this indeed is what the text means to say—that God initiates these terrible plagues in order to get people to repent, and to punish (justly) those who remain stiff-necked and won’t repent (I mean, they have had their chance, right—what more do they need to know in order to repent; turn or burn indeed), those who remain rebellious richly deserve their fate. The point, it seems, is to emphasize just how bad humanity is.
Why might Revelation 8–10 be wrong?
If this is what the text says, let me invoke the Jason Myers-Benner hypothesis: “The book is wrong.” Why would I say this?
Well, for one thing, if this is what God thinks will bring repentance and change, I don’t think God is very smart. God then is a lot like the head of the British air force policy toward Germany during World War II—a man named Arthur Harris, and nicknamed, appropriately, Bomber Harris. Bomber Harris believed that if the British and their Allies bombed German cities and their civilian populations heavily enough, the people would rise up against the Nazis, overthrow them, and embrace the British as their liberators.
Right. The British create a firestorm in Hamburg that became the worst inferno the world had known up to that point. It incinerated tens of thousands of children, women, and old people. And this would lead them to be seen as liberators? In the event, as you would expect, even with the evils of the Nazi government, the bombing of German cities only strengthened the resolve of the German people to stay the course against their ruthless enemies. Plagues are not likely to lead to love for their source.
Yet the vast majority of the interpreters of Revelation that I have read—from the theological right all the way across to the theological left—assume that in Revelation here God brings these plagues in order to get people to give up their idols and turn to God. But does this make sense? Why would people repent and turn toward a God who is such a punisher, one who kills one-third of humankind to show that killing is wrong? And just think. Just as with the bombing of Hamburg, this destruction visited by the plagues can’t help but be quite imprecise, a terribly blunt instrument of judgment that would visit incredible collateral damage upon humanity—taking the young and old, the moral and unrighteous, the kind and unkind.
I tend to think that punishment hardly ever brings about genuine repentance. I have a living memory from 45 years ago. Our junior high coach, interestingly named Mr. Smartt, decided to require that each member of his teams would get a crew cut or else be punished by being unable to play. Several of us were not willing to do this. So we didn’t play. It was a terrible punishment for some of us, but the main result was bitterness, not repentance. In at least one case, a very promising athlete gave up on sports altogether.
A second reason is that this view of God as the spearheader of punishment simply is not true to the Bible—all things considered. Now, of course the biblical materials do give us powerfully mixed signals. There are images of punishment—though perhaps not as many as we may think. But it is simply a fact that we can’t hold on to all of these views of God. We need to choose which ones provide the interpretive core.
I choose Jesus. He gives us a view of God as healer, not punisher. See his story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus taught that we should be merciful, even loving our enemies, in order to be like God. Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Hosea himself gave one of the most clear capsule pictures of God: Despite the people’s unfaithfulness, “I am a holy God and I will come in mercy, not in anger” (Hosea 11).
So, if Revelation teaches a punishing God, one who makes plagues in order to get people to repent and when they don’t justifiably condemns them, if this is what the book teaches, we should say, I think, that “the book is wrong.”
But, notice that I say if this is what Revelation actually teaches. If most interpreters are right. I need to be convinced, though, that the book itself is wrong in this case. Maybe it’s actually the interpreters who are wrong. Maybe our cultural assumption that of course God must be a punitive God is what’s wrong.
A different reading of Revelation 8–10
As I have been trying to show in my Revelation sermons up to now, we have good reasons to think that Revelation’s message actually is not one of God creating plagues to try to bring about repentance. If God were to do this, it would actually be a lesson in how not to get repentance. I believe that John’s overall message is much more sophisticated and profound than the simplistic reward and punishing views that even some of the best interpreters of Revelation hold. We should interpret these plague visions in light of what comes before them and what comes after them in Revelation.
At the beginning, John insists this book is a revelation of Jesus Christ. And he makes it clear that this Jesus Christ is the Lamb. He is the one whose witness of self-giving love provides the meaning of history. The victory of the Lamb celebrated as decisive in chapter five is the victory of this self-giving love, not a victory of punishing violence. This is the point of the book—revealing Jesus, the Lamb, the meaning of history. Revealing Jesus, the one who equates God with the Prodigal Son’s father. Revealing Jesus, who said be merciful as God is merciful. Revealing Jesus, who said of his killers, “forgive them, they know not what they do.”
And then we remember where the book ends up. What is the outcome of the Lamb’s victory? It is the New Jerusalem. And who is in the New Jerusalem, celebrating with the Lamb and the one on the throne? Certainly, the followers of the Lamb from throughout the book who earn white robes by following the Lamb and his ways. But they are not alone; the New Jerusalem also includes the kings of the earth, bringing the glory of the nations into this holy place, this place of wholeness. These kings hide from God in chapter six and they are the leaders of the inhabitants of the earth who do not repent in chapter nine. They lead the armies of the Beast. The plagues have created fear and resistance. They actually serve the purposes of the Beast. But repentance does come, in the end. The kings of the earth embrace the Lamb. How can this be?
Well, I think it is clear that the message in 9:21 about the people not repenting is not so much about how stiff-necked humanity is (though, tragically, we are). The message, actually, is that plagues are a terrible way to try to get repentance. And God does not use them for that purpose.
In light of the refusal to repent in chapter nine, what we will see over the next several chapters is a creative (and not always easy to understand) series of images. These images show how God actually does work to bring about repentance. The inhabitants of the earth are transformed and the nations are healed by means other than punishing judgment.
In a nutshell, God’s means for healing are the continuation of the Lamb’s witness to self-giving love. Right after the statement about the refusal to repent, John sees a new angel—who brings to mind earlier visions of Jesus. This angel’s presence signals a change in focus. What follows are visions of witness by followers of the Lamb—this witness leads to martyrdom. But, ultimately, to healing—healing even the kings of the earth.
Redirecting the narrative
There is a mysterious statement at the end of the trumpet plagues in chapter ten. John sees a mighty angel. And with the shout of this angel, John hears seven thunders. It appears that more plagues are on the way. But John is told not to write them down.
And with this stopping of the plague cycles, the story takes a turn. We are reminded that the plagues are not how God brings in the New Jerusalem. They do not get repentance. God’s healing work is totally different.
If we look closely at the mighty angel in chapter ten we see a link with the initial visions of Jesus in chapter one: like Jesus, he has a rainbow over his head, a face like the sun, and legs like pillars of fire.
The rainbow might be the key—a symbol of mercy; a symbol that God is committed to creation. The rainbow tells us that these plagues do not actually come from God. We start to get a clearer sense of where they come from with the image of the terrible locusts here who are agents of the powers of evil (the star fallen to earth who opens the bottomless pit).
Instead of reporting the thunders, another series of destructive plagues, John starts to tell of the martyr/witness of the Lamb and his people. The two witnesses of chapter 11. The woman and her offspring of chapter 12. The 144,000 of chapter 14. These are the ones who, through their persevering love, reveal the content of the great scroll—God’s coming city of wholeness that includes even God’s human enemies. These visions, as we will see, are a call to us also to follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
How do we think, then, of the plagues? They express of God’s impersonal “wrath,” not God’s personal punitive anger. John struggles with a creative response to the questions of the plagues and God’s sovereignty and the power of God’s love. There is a sense that the plagues are linked with God’s work. God does not desert creation and God brings healing. But in their direct expression, the plagues are the work of evil and serve evil. God’s love sees to it that evil does not win—but only through Jesus’ way of persevering compassion and mercy that resists the cycle of violence.
In the end, it is mercy that wins the day. But its victory is amidst the terrors of a broken world—the only kind of victory that matters, complicated as that is.
The twentieth-century is rightly called “the century of total war”—modern-day plagues almost as terrible as the plagues of Revelation. These wars were evil; they did not come from God. Yet, amidst them, some few did witness to the way of the Lamb: the rescuers of Jews and gypsies, the conscientious objectors and war resisters, those who sought to reconcile enemies, the relief workers.
These are the pointers to the Lamb’s victory—and they confirm the truths of this book we call the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Chapter eight through ten commentary