Episode 36: The Book of Revelation (4) Seals and Trumpets
Paul and Dan get back to looking at the book of Revelation. This is the fourth in the series now and they dive into the 7 seals and the 7 trumpets to unpick the pattern and try to imagine what messages the early Christians would have taken from it. They find that the way the sequences of images are communicated continue to confound the expectations of the hearer. But as they unfold, two powerful lessons for Christians of any age emerge – listen in, see if you can hear what a 1st century Christian might have heard!
It’s a little while since the last episode that Paul and Dan did on Revelation, so Dan starts with a recap. This strange last book of the Bible is a letter, addressed to real people in real places, but it’s far from normal! It’s full of apocalyptic imagery which draws from a whole range of Old Testament prophecies. The first few chapters contain mini-letters to 7 different churches in Asia, but then in chapter 4 John is invited to look at things from a heavenly point of view – which is very different! Chapter 5 introduces a sealed scroll and the hearer has the expectation that the scroll contains the answer as to how the view from heaven and the view from earth can be brought together. The lion that is able to open the scroll turns out to be a slaughtered lamb (which is alive again). It’s Jesus – but shown in a way which demonstrates that Christian victory is not about power, strength and fear.
The seals and trumpets
Now Dan and Paul dive into what happens as each seal on the scroll is broken. The first four portray four coloured horses (commonly known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse). They follow rapidly one after the other and Paul explores their descriptions for clues about what they mean. They seem to show the devastating effects of human mis-rule, from invasions to civil strife, with the famine, hardship and disease that often results from conflict. Next up is the 5th seal in which Christians who have been martyred are represented as souls under an altar. They appeal for vengeance but the hard message is that the situation is going to continue until the full number is completed. The 6th seal is full of Old Testament symbols used as portents before the day of the Lord comes and ends with the question: “who shall stand?”. By now, the hearers’ expectations are really built up – the end is about to come!
An unexpected twist
But no… the action pauses and chapter 7 describes the sealing of 144,000, a symbolic number for an innumerable multitude that comes from every nation, who stand before the Lord (Rev 7:9 – in answer to the question “who shall stand?”). When the 7th seal finally arrives in chapter 8, there is silence, which further confounds the expectations of the hearers!
Now that Paul and Dan have reviewed the 7 seals, they outline the pattern: a sequence of 4, then 2 more, then a pause to explain the answer to a question, then the 7th.
Will God’s plagues make people to repent?
When they plough on into the 7 trumpets they find the exact same pattern. A sequence of 4 drawing on the language of the plagues of the Exodus, then two more (with locusts) and again there is a pause in the action to address a problem. This time the problem is stated at the end of chapter 9: despite all these plagues the people of the earth did not repent, they didn’t change. The message seems to be; God could send worse and worse judgements on people, but that won’t change them, something else is needed. The interruption after the 6th trumpet answers that question. Chapter 11 in particular describes two witnesses (which is another, different way of representing Christian believers – like the souls under the altar, the 144,000 and the innumerable multitude). They witness to Jesus, but they are killed and then after 3 and a half days are raised to life again and as a result people give glory to God! This all seems to be saying that Christians witness to Jesus by participating in his death and resurrection. This is absolutely consistent with earlier parts of the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor 10:16-17). It doesn’t mean they all have to be martyred but it does emphasise the level of commitment expected of a follower of Christ!
Some conclusions from the seals and the trumpets
So with that, Paul and Dan try to draw some conclusions. They’ve covered two sequences of seven. The message of the first seems to be that there will be a delay so that others can be saved and brought into the number. Whereas the second sequence seems to say that Christians witnessing to Jesus is what brings people to repent. Through these powerful messages we are maybe starting to get a hint of what it means to “hear and keep the words of this prophecy” (Rev 1:3)
More episodes in the same series
(2) The structure of the whole thing