Sunday, December 8
Revelation 15:1-8: This shortest chapter in the Book of
Revelation introduces the imagery of the seven bowls of plagues, which will
be poured out in the next chapter. The ocean of blood, with which the
previous chapter ended, has now become a kind of Red Sea (verses 1-3), thus
inserting the theme of the Exodus. This theme itself, of course, is
appropriate to the outpouring of the plagues. Other components of the Exodus
theme likewise appear in this chapter: the Song of Moses, the cloud of the
divine presence, the tent of testimony, and so forth. The "sea of glass"
(verse 2) we have already considered in Chapter 4. Beside this sea stand
God's people who have passed over it in the definitive Exodus. They are
musicians, harpists to be exact, identical with the one-hundred and
forty-four thousand whom with saw with the Lamb in the previous chapter;
there was harp music in that scene too. These elect have "overcome," the
very thing to which John had called the seven churches in Chapters 2-3. They
are now beyond the power of the beast to harm them.
John sees in heaven the tent of testimony from the Book of Exodus, the
traveling tent of the divine presence that Moses and the Israelites carried
through the desert. This tent, however, is "heavenly," which means that it
is the original model, the very pattern that Moses copied (Exodus 25:9,40;
Acts 7:44; Hebrews 8:5). Since the tent is a place of worship, we are not
surprised that John sees seven angels coming out of it, clothed in priestly
vestments (verse 6; cf. Exodus 28:4; 39:29), very much as Jesus was clothed
in the inaugural vision (Revelation 1:12-13).
The tent itself is full of the cloud of the divine presence, the very
cloud that led the Israelites through the desert of old. When that tent was
dedicated in the desert, the divine cloud took up residence within it
(Exodus 40:34-38). That cloud later took residence in Solomon's temple (1
Kings 8:1-12), where Isaiah beheld it (6:1-4). In prophetic vision, Ezechiel
saw that cloud return to the second temple built in 520-516 (Ezechiel 44:4).
The hymn in verses 3-4 should be compared with Solomon's prayer at the
dedication of the temple, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 6:14-42. Both prayers,
to begin with, are offered "at the sea" (verse 2; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13).
Both prayers thank God for His mighty works, invoke His righteous judgments,
and request the conversion of all the nations. Finally, in response to each
prayer, fire comes down from heaven (verses 5-8; 2 Chronicles 7:1-2).
Monday, December 9
Revelation 16:1-9: Three of these four plagues are right
out of the arsenal of Moses. Sores on the flesh of the bad guys (verse 2)
were Moses' sixth plague. As in the account in Exodus, the intent of this
plague is that the idolaters should repent, but in neither case does it
happen. The second and third plague here (verses 3-4), the changing of water
into blood, are identical to Moses' first plague, which was regarded, we
recall, as a rather easy plague, in the sense that even Pharaoh's magicians
could do it (Exodus 7:22).
Here in Revelation, these two plagues are related to the great bloodshed of
persecution caused by the enemies of God's people (verse 6; 16:5-7). This
crying out of the altar puts one in mind of the earlier scene where the
souls (that is, the blood) of the martyrs cried from the altar (6:9-10). In
that earlier scene the saints prayed for justice to be done on earth, for
the righteousness of God to be vindicated in history. Now, in the present
instance, the voice from the altar praises God that such justice has been
done, that God's fidelity has been made manifest.
The fourth plague does not appear in Exodus at all; Moses had been able to
blot out the sunlight, but not even he was able to make the sun hotter. Even
this plague, nonetheless, does not bring the idolaters to repentance (verse
Tuesday, December 10
Revelation 16:10-21: The final three bowls of plagues
stand parallel to two other biblical texts: the plagues of Egypt in the Book
of Exodus and the trumpets from earlier in the Book of Revelation.
The darkness of the fifth bowl (verse 10) corresponds to the ninth plague
in the Book of Exodus (10:21-29). The sixth bowl, the drying up of the
Euphrates, includes the proliferation of frogs, which corresponds to Moses'
second plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 8:2-6). The hailstones that accompany
the seventh bowl (verse 21) are parallel to Moses' seventh plague against
Egypt (Exodus 9:13-26).
There are also parallels between these three bowls of plagues and the
three final trumpets that appeared earlier in Revelation. Thus, the fifth
bowl (verse 10), like the fifth trumpet (9:1-2) causes darkness over the
whole earth. The sixth trumpet brought forth an invading army from east of
the Euphrates (9:12-19); so does the sixth bowl (verse 12). Finally, at both
the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl there are bolts of lightning, peals
of thunder, and an earthquake (verse 18; 11:19).
The sixth bowl of plagues here is composite. There is, first of all, a
drying up of the Euphrates, so that the Parthian armies can march westward.
This puts one in mind of the drying up of the Jordan, so that the Israelites
could move west against the Canaanites. Because of the great difference
between the two instances, however, this symbolism should be read as an
example of theological "inversion" (in the sense used by the American
novelist Steinbeck, who often employs biblical symbols in this way), so that
the identical image is used for both good and bad meanings. With respect to
the drying up of the Euphrates, John knew a precedent in Jeremiah (50:38),
who spoke of the drying up of the waters of Babylon, to facilitate its
capture by the Persians. Indeed, John will have a great deal to say about
the fall of Babylon.
Verse 15 contains a well known saying of Jesus, in which He compares His
final return to the coming of a thief in the dead of night. This dominical
saying is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew (24:43) and Luke (12:39).
The final battle takes place at Armageddon (verse 16), which literally is
"hill of Megiddo." Megiddo sits on the edge of the Plain of Esdralon and was
in antiquity the site of two famous battles, in each of which a king was
killed. In Judges 5 the Canaanite king Sisera was slain there, and 2 Kings
23 describes the death of Josiah there in 609. In John's mind, Armageddon
symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.
Wednesday, December 11
Revelation 17:1-6: John's vision of the woman on the
scarlet beast is better understood if one bears in mind certain features of
his cultural and religious memory.
First, Israel's prophetic tradition had fought against ritual
prostitution, one of the standard religious practices of Canaanite religion,
which Israel's prophets for centuries struggled to replace. Also, this
tradition frequently spoke of idolatry under the metaphor of fornication, a
metaphor further suggested by the prophetic perception of Israel as bound to
God by a spiritual marriage. This perception is well documented in two
prophets of the eighth century, Hosea and Isaiah.
Second, a century earlier Elijah had opposed the immoral cult of Baal, which
was sponsored by the Phoenician princess Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. For
this reason, Jezebel came to personify, in Israel's memory, the witch, the
wicked woman of loose morals and much given to sorcery. As in the instance
of Naboth's vineyard, as well as the death of many prophets, was also
remembered as a woman responsible for the shedding of innocent blood; Elijah
complained that she had put a price on his own head. This theme has been on
John's mind; he has already described a certain woman at Thyatira as a
Jezebel (2:20-23). The memory of Jezebel is certainly part of the picture of
John's image of the woman on the scarlet beast.
Third, Israel's wisdom tradition, especially as found in the Book of
Proverbs, spoke of wisdom as a man's true bride, in intimacy with whom he
was to spend his whole life. Opposed to this bridal wisdom was the "loose
woman," Dame Folly, personified in the prostitute. This opposition
undoubtedly arose from the simple observation that a good marriage to the
right woman teaches a man, if he is teachable, how to conduct his life well
and wisely, whereas that same man is brought to ruin if he consorts with a
meretricious woman. The whore, then, was as bad a figure in Israel's wisdom
literature as she is in the prophetic literature.
Fourth, John seems also influenced by certain infamous and profligate women
in the more recent history with which he was familiar. In the previous
century, for example, there had been the famous femme fatale, Cleopatra,
while in his own lifetime John knew of Herodias, whose success in murdering
John the Baptist surpassed even Jezebel's efforts against Elijah. Even more
recent to John's time there was Berenice, the daughter born to Herod the
Great in A.D. 28. If any woman of John's era could be seen as a whore of
international fame, it was Berenice, of whose activities we know chiefly
from the historian Josephus. By the year 48 she had been widowed twice, once
from her own brother, to whom she bore two children. For several years she
lived in incest with another brother, Agrippa II, in whose company we find
her at the trial of St. Paul in Acts 25:13,22-23; 26:30. Shortly after this,
Berenice was married to King Polemo of Cilicia, but she did not stay long
with him. During this period of her life she was mocked by the poet Juvenal
(Satires 6). Later on, according to Tacitus (Histories 2.2) and Suetonius
(Lives of the Caesars, "Titus" 7), she was the mistress of Titus, who was
obliged to abandon her in order to become emperor, Dio Cassius tells us
(66.15). When John described a "loose woman," in short, none of his readers
were at a loss to know what sort of woman he had in mind.
The woman in this vision is certainly the personification of the city of
Rome, sitting on her seven hills. John did not have to personify Rome; it
was already done by Rome's political endorsement of the goddess "Roma," in
whose honor John knew of temples at Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamos. In the
east, Roma had also been assimilated with certain local and traditional
The woman here is not only a whore; she is a drinker of innocent blood, in
the tradition of Jezebel and Herodias, the latter remembered especially in
the Asian churches as the one responsible for the death of their beloved
John the Baptist. Clothed in scarlet and adorned with gold, she appears as a
sort of queen, whom John calls Babylon, much in the style of Jeremiah
51:12-17, a text that must be read in connection with John's vision.
Thursday, December 12
Revelation 17:7-18: We have already seen why the
number seven is the symbol of perfection. Now, in the assertion that the
seven heads of the beast are "seven hills" (verse 9), the seven is inverted
to serve as a parody of perfection and completion; that is, perfect and
complete evil. The seven hills are, of course, the seven hills on which sits
the city of Rome, the urbs septicollis, as Suetonius called it (The Lives
of the Caesars "Domition" 5). Classical literature is full of references to
this topographical feature of the city (Vergil, Aeneid 6.783; Georgics
2.535; Horace, Odes 7; Ovid, Tristia 1.5.69; Martial, Spectacles 4.64;
Cicero, Letters to Atticus 6.5). In short, "the woman you saw is that great
city" (verse 18). The seven head also put one in mind, of course, of the
mythological seven headed Hydra of many ancient sources, from early
Canaanite myths to The Labors of Hercules.
When the angel goes on to identify the heads with seven kings (verse 10),
the identification is less clear. Various speculations are possible in this
respect. For instance, if we count Julius Caesar as the first emperor
instead of Augustus, then the sixth "head" in verse 10 would be Nero, whom
we know to have been a persecutor of the Christian Church. It is not
necessary to be quite so literal, however; it may be the case the seven here
is to be taken as a symbol for the whole, much as the seven churches of Asia
are symbolic of the whole Church. (After all, there were certainly more than
seven Christian churches in Asia a the time. There was the church at
Colossae, for instance, to whom St. Paul wrote an epistle.) Likewise, it is
not necessary to be too specific about the ten horns that represent ten
kings in verse 12; it is possible that the image serves no purpose besides
that of reminding us of the ten kings in the Book of Daniel, an image we
examined earlier. The important thing to remember is that these coming ten
kings will finally destroy Babylon/Rome itself (verse 16). That is to say,
the demons ultimately destroy those who work for them.
Verse 14 speaks of the war between the beast and the Lamb. Lambs generally
do rather badly in combat with beasts, causing us to recall that Jesus
conquered evil by being defeated by it. All Christian victory involves the
Friday, December 13
Revelation 18:1-8: This chapter deals with the city of
sin, Babylon. It is not a prophecy of the downfall of Rome, such as that of
A.D. 410 for instance, but an affirmation of hope for the downfall of what
the pagan Roman Empire stood for. In this vision a bright angel is seen; the
very earth is illumined by his brightness. He appears with a message of
concern for everyone who suffers oppression. His message (verse 2) is a
direct quotation from Isaiah 21:9, and the imagery reminds us of the
overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. The overthrow of this city is related to
its place in the world of economics and commerce (verse 3), which John sees
to be idolatrous (cf. Colossians 3:5).
John's complaint against the economic and commercial idolatry of his time
should be regarded against the background of the Bible's prophetic
literature, especially Amos and Isaiah, who spoke out frequently against the
unjust practices of the business world that they knew: price fixing,
monopoly, an economic system based on widespread unemployment, and so forth.
Actually, such considerations are among the most common in the Bible.
John's exhortation is that the believers get out of Babylon (verse 4),
which is a direct quotation from Jeremiah 51:45. In that latter text the
Jews were being exhorted to flee Babylon so as not to share in that ancient
city's peril. "Going out of" a place in order not to share its destruction
is a theme that appears rather often in Holy Scripture. One thinks of Noah
and his sons "getting out" by building the Ark, for instance. Lot and his
family are led out of Sodom by the angels, and the Israelites flee Egypt,
and so forth. In Chapter 12 the woman in heaven was given two eagle's wings
so that she could flee to the desert, and in the gospels Jesus tells His
disciples to flee Jerusalem prior to its destruction. The spiritual message
in all this is that those who belong to Christ must put some distance
between themselves and those elements of existence that are inimical to man
(cf. John 17:6,11,14-16).
Saturday, December 14
Revelation 18:9-24: And why is the fall of Babylon so
bad? Because it is bad for business! Babylon's overthrown means very low
profits on the stock market. Verses 12-13 list various products that won?t
sell any more. The "futures" in frankincense and chariots are down by
sixteen points, and the shekel is in free fall! Everyone calls it a
"crisis," and they are right. In fact, John uses the Greek word krisis
("judgment") to describe it (verse 10). The crash, when it comes, comes
quickly, in a single hour (verses 10,17,19). John says that those who weep
over Babylon do so from a distance (verse 10). That is, Babylon has
mourners, but no helpers. At this final hour of her career, no one will
stand with her. No one wants to be associated with her. She was part of an
order in which true friendship had no place. It was an order founded on
shared interests and profits, not on love. Babylon is bewailed, not for
herself, but for her lost investments. In short, the fall of Babylon is bad
for business, and John borrows heavily from Isaiah 23 and Ezechiel 27 in
order to describe her plight.
We observe that John does not see Babylon fall. An angel tells him that it
has already happened. John, that is to say, has no violent vision. There is
no projection, here, of a vindictive spirit; it is, rather, the divine
resolution of a cosmic problem. The fall of Babylon is not seen; it is
revealed to John in a vision of light. John is not interested in revenge but
in justice, in the setting right of the world order, and the right order of
the world requires the overthrow of Babylon and idolatry, and materialism,
and the hedonism for which Babylon stands as a symbol. Her fall is
particularly related to her shedding of blood (verse 24). Babylon is thrown
into the sea like a stone (verse 21). She is swallowed up in her own chaos
(cf. Jeremiah 51:60-63; Luke 17:2,24-30).
John particularly notes the loss of musical instruments and technology,
components of human life first devised by the sons of Cain (Genesis
4:17-30). Indeed, there has often been something a bit ambiguous about such
music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed "the sound of
the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of
music" for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when
instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God.
In fact, nonetheless, God designated musical instruments as appropriate to
His own worship in the tabernacle and the temple. And, once again, in the
Bible's final book heaven resonates with the sounds of trumpet and harp,
whereas the damned are forever deprived of such music. The sinful
descendents of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will never hear