Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 7: marking the righteous souls

This is the sixth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 6, six seals and four horsemen. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

First tonight, two addenda to previous readings. (I could modify those entries but I'm writing this on a daily basis in a semi-journal way, and I see from the stats that at least some people are reading it, so I'd rather leave the entries as they are.)

When writing about chapter 5, I said that I knew no musical setting of the final song, by all the peoples of the earth and heavens. Well I still don't (though some must exist), but I did come across another setting of "worthy is the Lamb" text that is the culmination of Messiah - in German, it's also used as a text at the end of movement 6 of Brahms' Deutsches Requieum: "Herr, du bist w├╝rdig" (Lord, you are worthy).

And after I wrote last night about the blotting out of the sun and moon in chapter 6, I read today the end of a novel about the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver). One of the final events before the culmination of the seige by the Ottoman Turks was the disappearance of the moon, as a result of a volcanic eruption at Kuwae in Vanuatu (in the Pacific Ocean) in 1452 or 1453, which had big consequences throughout the world. The moon was a symbol of Constantinople, so its disappearance was taken by the people of the city as an omen. Not so different from the account in Revelation.

On to chapter 7. Here we see the righteous souls being marked out so that they will not be harmed by the coming terrors. The angels who had been given power to damage the earth are told to wait. Then a rather specific number of people are 'sealed' with a mark of protection on their foreheads - 144,000 made up of 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Each tribe is named in turn with their 12,000 sealed people, in a style reminiscent of the endless lists in the early books of the Old Testament. The number is symbolic of course - twelve tribes, twelve thousand people, a square of twelves; but that hasn't stopped countless numbers of commentators agonising over who is included. There are entire sects devoted to counting themselves into this number.

And this despite the following verse which lists a 'great multitude' who are also apparently to be made safe from the coming troubles, who we are later told are those who suffered in the great ordeal (the various persecutions inflicted upon believers). A brief glance at the NIV study bible notes that I have on my phone Bible app tells me that there are no fewer than three schools of thought as to when Christians will be affected by this 'tribulation' and whether they'll be safe in heaven before it happens or not.

I'm quite impatient with this kind of literal reading of Revelation. We must all read scripture in ways that are appropriate for us, under the guidance of the Spirit, but it seems pretty clear to me that to read it as a direct foretelling of the future is pretty inadequate. The book has always preoccupied Christians, because of its scale and implications both for individuals and for humanity as a whole; but American evangelicals have created some really bizarre ideas from the book, such as the idea of the rapture and a prediction movement to figure out when the end times are coming. This could be harmless, except that it has a big hold on the imagination of some Christians, and is said in some cases even to influence their actions to bring about the end-times. Given that the incoming American government is likely to have some of this kind of rightwing evangelical in their number (though Trump is not especially religious himself), that seems rather worrying...

It also raises the question: what of those who are not marked out for protection? Are they not worth considering? How does this fit with a God of love? Because bad things are coming to the unprotected.

All that said: the poetry and imagery in the book is stunning in places. The latter half of this chapter was the daily lectionary reading for All Saints Days (1st Nov) this year. I heard it on the daily Pray-as-you-go podcast, and subsequently used it as opening devotions at a church meeting two days later. It talks of the souls of those who have died, their worship of God, and that they hunger or thirst no more. I think it provides a huge degree of comfort to people in grief or remembering back on loved ones who have died. The question of the literalism is irrelevant to this comfort.

Image: Caitlin Trussel

One more phrase to mention: the people robed in white are said to have 'washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb'. I've heard the phrase 'washed in the blood of the Lamb' on and off through evangelical sources. It's always seemed to me rather distasteful, a bit ghoulish. It's become attached to the theology of substitutionary atonement which I find brutal and unpleasant and quite out of keeping with a God of love, but it's good to see its scriptural basis - here in Revelation it could mean many things, and many theologies.

There were two more songs in this chapter, but the first similar to the phrase songs we've heard. The second, of comfort and calm for those in white, is repeated again in chapter 21, and I might look at it then.

So let us leave the righteous souls in their place of safety and comfort. For there is worse to come for the rest of the world in the next chapter.

Next reading: ch 8+9, angels, trumpets & disasters

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