Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Examining events of the sixth seal in Revelation 6-7


If you’re like me, you may have interpreted the events of the fifth seal (martyrs under the altar) as describing the Christian martyrs during in the days of the early church 2,000 years ago. 

But when we come to the events of the sixth seal in Revelation 6 – sun darkened, moon turned to blood, falling stars, major earthquakes, mountains and hills moving around, everyone trying to hide themselves—we tend to say to ourselves, “Well, that hasn’t happened yet, so I guess we’re somewhere at the end of the fifth seal.”

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the events of the sixth seal and I recently came to the conclusion that we aren’t looking at the whole story.  The problem is the chapter break that starts Revelation 7.  Revelation 7 has things that are part of the sixth seal, but because the tone is so much more positive, we don’t realize that belongs in the picture too.

So, just for the sake of this particular post, I’m going to pretend that everything in Revelation 7 has been tacked onto Revelation 6 with extra verses.  (Revelation 6 only has 17 verses, so everything after that is actually Revelation 7.)

12 And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?
18 And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.
19 And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea,
20 Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.
21 And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
22 Of the tribe of Juda were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand.
23 Of the tribe of Aser were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Nepthalim were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand.
24 Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand.
25 Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.
26 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
27 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
28 And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,
29 Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.
30 And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
31 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
32 Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.
33 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
34 For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

Do you see how this helps us? The sixth seal doesn’t just have scary stuff in it. It has wonderful stuff too. 

If anything, we suddenly see there is a major contrast set up between two different groups of people.  The first group is “kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man,” (v15) which you’d think covers just about everybody.  But then the second group is “them which were sealed . . . an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel” (v21) and “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands” (v26).  And we realize that these are the redeemed.

Let’s explore the differences between these two groups to see what we can learn.

The first group hides in the dens and are desperate to be hid from the face of God on the throne.  They question whether anyone can stand in the day of God’s wrath.  It is easy to see they are full of fear. The second group, rather than hide from the throne, stand before it, clothed in white robes, and all seem to be celebrating the salvation of God and ascribing blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, and power to God.

The first group is scared of the wrath they anticipate is coming.  The second group is described as having come “out of great tribulation” (v31), but they don’t seem to dwell on exactly what they had to go through. But they’ve already come out of it and they look forward to salvation to come.  It seems their tribulation has been redemptive because of their faith on Christ, so they have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.

The first group has a lot of focus on their earthly status levels – kings, great men, rich men, chief captains, mighty men, free men, bondmen.  In the second group there is no mention of status.  We only know they were part of all nations, kindreds, and tongues.  This gives me a sense that there is much greater equality among the second group.

Yet another contrast between these groups is their expectations of what will happen.  The first group says fearfully, “The great day of his wrath is come,” yet if you notice, they turn out to be wrong because the angels hold back the winds to prevent hurt to the earth, sea, and trees.  There’s a delay instead.  The second group cries, “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb,” which is their anticipation of salvation to come.

Do we see those two groups today?  I’d say we do. Can we tell which one we belong to? I’d admit sometimes I see what’s happening and I just fear what more could be coming. That suggests to me that as much as I’d like to be part of the redeemed, I haven’t yet developed the faith in Christ that I need to stand unshaken.  We can ask ourselves, “Am I afraid of meeting God, or can I stand in His presence with confidence?”

Now, let’s look at some other interesting things. 

You recall that the fifth seal has the martyrdom of Christians in it, and the sixth seal has 144,000 of Israel sealed in their foreheads.  So now we come to a very important question—where does the Restoration occur in all of this?  Where do we locate it?  If 144,000 of Israel are being sealed, then that means that they have the full gospel and it has already been restored.  So where is that? 

Happily, we get a little hint from Joseph Smith in his revelation in D&C 77:

8 Q. What are we to understand by the four angels, spoken of in the 7th chapter and 1st verse of Revelation? A. We are to understand that they are four angels sent forth from God, to whom is given power over the four parts of the earth, to save life and to destroy; these are they who have the everlasting gospel to commit to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people; having power to shut up the heavens, to seal up unto life, or to cast down to the regions of darkness.
9 Q. What are we to understand by the angel ascending from the east, Revelation 7th chapter and 2nd verse? A. We are to understand that the angel ascending from the east is he to whom is given the seal of the living God over the twelve tribes of Israel; wherefore, he crieth unto the four angels having the everlasting gospel, saying: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. And, if you will receive it, this is Elias which was to come to gather together the tribes of Israel and restore all things. (D&C 77:8-9, emphasis added)

There’s the Restoration—the ascending of the angel in the east having the seal of God.  Now, I don’t know about you, but something about that imagery suddenly strikes me as particularly fitting for representing the Restoration.  An angel ascends in the east, gradually, almost as if he were the sun rising.  Being an angel, he probably shines very brightly.  That sounds very much like Joseph Smith’s rise as prophet.  And he has command over other angels who have the gospel to commit to every nation. He sent out missionaries.

So now, we know where the restoration is, but what about all that scary stuff--earthquakes and sun going dark, and moon turned to blood, and stars falling, and mountains and islands moving all over the place?  When did they happen?  Because verse 18 says that the Restoration happens “after these things,” meaning after the scary stuff.  Did they happen and we missed it all? 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe the scary stuff is meant to be symbolic.  (I’m not going to say that I know this for sure, and I’m not going to say that the literal disasters won’t happen, because it could, but I want to see what we can learn if we consider a figurative interpretation.)  So let’s look more carefully at the scary stuff and see if we can figure out what major events they might be trying to communicate without being literal. Also, there is Joseph Smith Translation stuff in there, so let’s look at that too.

KJV Revelation 6:12-17
JST
12 And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal,
and, lo, there was a great earthquake;
and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair,
and the moon became as blood;

13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together;
and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
And the heavens opened as a scroll is opened when it is rolled together; and every mountain, and island, was moved out of its place.
15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man,
hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;

16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne,
and from the wrath of the Lamb:

17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?


I think we have to start asking ourselves questions here about what kinds of spiritual truths might the Lord want to communicate to us about what is happening in the world.  If this is very symbolic, then what might earthquakes, a darkened sun, a bloody moon, falling stars, an opening heaven, and displaced mountains and islands be representing about what has happened between the time of Christian martyrs and the Restoration?

A great earthquake – major instability. Everything becomes really shaky and you can’t really depend on things. So this could communicate everything from economic to social to governmental to international instability.

The sun becomes black as sackcloth of hair – When the brightest light in the heavens is darkened, that’s really serious.  Might the darkening of the brightest celestial light represent the apostasy? 

The moon became blood – Consider that the moon reflects the light of the sun. So if the sun is darkened, then the moon is darkened as well.  If the celestial light is quenched, then it would stand to reason that terrestrial people have problems too.  Perhaps this tells us that terrestrial-level people become violent.

the stars of heaven fell unto the earth – This is a little ambiguous. If we continue with the pattern of lowered levels of light, stars could represent telestial people falling. 

An alternate idea is to consider that elsewhere in Revelation stars are used to represent particularly righteous servants of God. So here when we are told of stars falling to the earth, it may be communicating how even righteous leaders are falling to temptation.  This fits well with our knowledge of the apostasy.  Comparing these falling stars to figs falling from a tree that is shaken with a mighty wind supports this idea of apostasy.  Likewise, leaders who are not able to endure separate themselves from the main church and fall. 

Now we come to v14, which the KJV says “the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together” and the JST says “the heavens opened as a scroll is opened when it is rolled together.”  To tell you the truth, both these confuse me because the language almost makes it seem contradictory with a scroll opening as each of the roll-y thingies rolling together.  I envision them rolling toward each other, which is certainly not opening.  But I suppose a better rendering would be “as a scroll is opened when it is rolled in synchronization.”

I think the important thing we are supposed to get is that the heavens open instead of departing.  And this is very odd because we automatically think “revelation happens” along with this image, but in this particular place there is nothing said of any angels or Christ being there or anything.  No appearance of any heavenly beings. It is like the heavens open and they are strangely empty.  

You know what?  That sounds a lot like revelation of scientific advances being given.  Telescopes. Secrets of heaven and sciences given as revelation, but no heavenly beings seen in that picture.  That has certainly happened, hasn’t it? 

and every mountain and island were moved out of their places – What might the mountains and islands represent here if all that movement is symbolic?  I suspect that they may represent countries and nations.  If countries and nations are moved out of their places, then that gives us a sense of nations’ status fluctuating over time, border wars and invasions, major displacement of peoples, refugees, immigrations, colonization, wars of independence, changes of government, etc.   How much of that has there been since the Christian martyrdom?  If you’re acquainted with history, a huge amount. Lots of flux.

Okay, let’s look closely at what the scared people say and do.

15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

There are some really odd things in these verses to notice.  The first thing is the range of people who are involved.  The fear seems to affect all levels of society, from kings down to bondmen. Having ruling power doesn’t mitigate the fear, nor does having riches, nor does having authority in the military or being extra strong. 

The second thing to notice is that all these people hide themselves in dens and rocks in the mountains. This makes me think of bunkers and emergency shelters.  That action of taking refuge indicates a desire to survive.  But in the very next verse, these same people are crying to the mountains and rocks, asking them to fall on them (and presumably kill them).  Do you see how weird this is?  They have these refuges prepared to help them survive, and they try to survive, but they don’t want to survive.  Their question “who shall be able to stand?” suggests that there is major concern that nobody will be able to live through it all.  It indicates a concern that quality of life in the great day of the Lord’s wrath will be lessened to such an extent that there won’t be much left to enjoy or that the struggle for survival will become all-consuming.

Do we see and hear people worried about social anarchy and chaos in a coming apocalypse to the extent that they build bunkers and stockpile food and weapons?  They are out there. I think it is very interesting that while the church has taught us to build a year’s supply of food storage they haven’t said anything about bunkers and weapons. They encourage 72-hour kits and emergency preparedness and saving and getting out of debt, but they do not go to extremes.

A second odd thing that I notice is that while these people want the rocks and mountains to call on them (and presumably kill them), they want to be hid from the face of the Lord and His wrath.  But does dying really protect a person from the Lord’s wrath?  No, of course not. So these people don’t really understand the Lord, even if they invoke His name.  But.. they think dying will save them somehow.  That suggests that the thing they are referring to as the Lord’s face and wrath, something they fear is going to judge them, has its source on earth in mortality.  I bet that what they are really worried about is the wrath of masses of angry people.   They fear a social firestorm and angry judgment and they bunker down in anticipation.  But are mobs God?  No.  But how many times throughout history have uprisings been feared?  From what I've read, a lot.

And again, it is worth noting that the four angels hold back the winds that would hurt the earth, sea, and trees, so the anticipated destruction does not materialize as predicted by the fearful people.

Also, with a symbolic interpretation, these events don’t necessarily have to be discrete one-time-only events.  They may continue today.

At this point I have to mention that one of the reasons why I have a problem with a lot of interpretations of last-days prophecy is that it tends to focus on all the scary signs, particularly the natural disasters with a sort of hand-wringing attitude of fear and worry.  Yet somehow I don’t think that is the attitude that the Lord wants us to have.  I can’t imagine the Lord revealing stuff just to scare us.  If we’re told about natural disasters, we know what we should do—be prepared for emergencies.  If we’re told about spiritual disasters, we know what we should do—follow the prophet and keep the commandments.  When Babylon experiences tremors of instability, we know we should build a firm foundation on Christ.  When there are anticipatory worries, we know what we should do—look to Christ and anticipate His salvation.

For that reason, I don’t think the Saints have anything to worry about in the sixth seal.