Sunday, July 12, 2015

When the seventh seal opens: Revelation 8

Of all the seals opened in the book depicted in the Book of Revelation, the seventh seal has the most events associated with it.  It stretches over whole chapters and involves seven angels sounding, seven plagues, etc.

If you have the view that Christ comes again as soon as the seventh seal is opened, this chapter shows that is not so.  There’s still a lot to happen. 

I’m going to examine the events at the very beginning of the seventh seal as described in Revelation 8 and try to make sense of it.  I believe there is much symbolic language there that are usually interpreted literally, but I think a symbolic reading is more helpful.  As always, my thoughts are my own, they are subject to revision as I learn more, and they are not to be considered general belief of the church at large.

1 And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

If we take this as literal, it is very odd.  Life is noisy; what do we care if heaven or space is silent for half an hour?

However, if we take it as symbolism, it is rather shocking. As members, we live in a time of continuous, incremental revelation.  The heavens are not silent; they have much to tell us.  For the heavens to be silent for a half an hour tells us that it will seem as though no one is getting any revelation. This is not to say that no one is worthy of it, but that no direction is given for a time.  It is like a period of testing similar to that in the life of Job when he kept asking when the Lord would answer him and for a time the heavens seemed to be made of brass.

But just because the heavens are silent doesn’t mean the Saints stop praying.

2 And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
3 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.

Heaven seems silent, but in verse 2 we are to understand that God is giving out trumpets to angels. That means that preparations are being made for future messages.  In the meantime, ALL THE SAINTS are praying.

We are shown imagery of an angel offering incense at an altar, which is similar to the service of the temple among the Jews. The priest would burn incense in the holy place and pray for the people while the people were praying outside the temple.  To me, this gives a sense of leaders advocating for the people to God and also prayers in the temple.

4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.

To me, this verse communicates that God hears all the prayers, even if He doesn’t answer yet.  This reminds me of Jesus’s parable of the woman importuning the unjust judge, that men ought to pray always and not faint, even if it seems we get no answer.  Keep praying, stay hopeful.

5 And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.

Oh, look! Something finally happens!  I will say frankly that I don’t know whether the act of throwing the censer to the earth is an act of frustration, or if it is to represent holy things brought to the earth. However, I remember that the censer is associated with the prayers of the Saints, and the fire of the altar represents the purifying power of the Atonement of Christ, so it seems like the combination of prayer and Christ’s atonement is what breaks the silence in heaven and begins the subsequent events, difficult as they may be.  It might represent a divine gift or blessing that is camouflaged as a messy, scary thing.

The silence is broken in a very dramatic way – voices, thunderings, lightning, and an earthquake.  These are very visible and obvious things, some of which can be destructive.  I think the Saints will see them as obvious answers to prayer, even if no one else does.

6 And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.

Once again, the preparation is brought to our attention. Heaven continues to prepare further revelation for us, and messengers must be spiritually prepared to share it.

As the angels begin to sound and these plagues begin, I think it is important to note that these plagues do not come without an announcing trumpet.  This reminds me of that scripture from Amos about how the Lord won’t do anything unless he reveals it to His servants the prophets.  I have noticed that when the prophets warn us, they don’t tell us the scary things that will happen. They only tell us what we should do to prepare.  This is the most spiritually beneficial for us. It protects from FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).  And it gives us the opportunity to exert our faith and obey, trusting that it is for a wise purpose.

7 The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.

There are some strange things in this verse which should tip us off that it is symbolic. First, if hail, fire, and blood fall from the sky, why is it that we are only told the green things are burned, but there is no mention of green things beat down by the hail?  It is a physical impossibility.  Also, how does blood fall from the sky? There have to be mortals bleeding outside high up for that to happen, and that is not our reality.  So it has to be symbolic.

I think the green things represent spiritually living people.  There are trees, which are mighty and tall, and could be spiritual giants. Then there is green grass, which is like people who are a little bit spiritually alive and growing.

Hail beats things down, so it might be likened here to persecution and oppression. But that doesn’t seem to cause much damage. 

It is the fire that causes problems, burning one third of the trees (but not all) and burning all the grass.  The fire might be symbolic of serious opposition that must be met with determination and maybe even martyrdom to stay true.  It could be a social firestorm of persecution.  For green things to survive the fire, they’ll have to have deep roots in themselves.  (I’m thinking of Elder Oak’s conference talk about the parable of the sower [].  The lesson for us here is that to survive we do not merely want to have a “grass” testimony.  We need to have a “tree” testimony because even if some of the trees get burnt up, only trees survive, not grass.

What does it say about a society if good people are persecuted and oppressed?  Can a nation with that kind of society endure?  Can its justice and political system be trusted?

8 And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;
9 And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.

I sense that this is also symbolic as well, though that is less obvious. We know about volcanoes, but it seems odd that one mountain could cause 1/3 of the sea to become blood.  Where does the blood come from? That is a lot of blood that is not diluted.  Oceans are very big places.  In the Bible, oceans were considered places of chaos, so that may be what the ocean is meant to represent here—chaos.

So, I think the great mountain burning with fire represents a great nation that is thrown into chaos, with lots of arson and such.  If so, we can easily imagine violence spreading without dilution and eventually corrupting a significant portion of the population as people realize that the system is being twisted and the rule of law is being abandoned because the system no longer protects those who do the right thing.

It is likely that people will form institutions to try to navigate the chaos and anarchy (like boats navigate the sea), but these may or may not work.  But we can at least do our part to keep order by living the laws of God and being willing to work together with others.  The church gives us lots of opportunities with this.

10 And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
11 And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.

We should easily be able to tell this is symbolic because even if a meteor were to fall to earth, it is too much to ask it to have such a precise trajectory as to fall just on the rivers.  And to fall on precisely one third of the rivers even more improbable.  There’s no concern about impact or splash, just on the taste of the water that got hit.  But reading it as symbolism tunes us into a spiritual situation that is worrisome, but something we can cope with.

So this star is a great spiritual light, most likely a church leader, who falls from grace and from their high responsibility.  And they are BITTER.  Probably very bitter about the trouble they have to face in a very risky world.

Sadly, when they fall, their bitterness infects many people who should be spreading the refreshing message of the gospel, which is probably what is represented by Wormwood falling on the rivers and fountains. One third of the waters become bitter too and send out that bitter message.  When it says many men die of the bitter waters, that probably means that the bitter message kills a lot of people’s faith. Very sad.

One of the ways these verses help us is by reminding us that we are responsible for maintaining our own testimonies, whether or not members or leaders in the church around us stay faithful.  I also think it says something about how we need to strive to maintain a positive, hopeful outlook and share that with others, even if others in the church do not share it. 

12 And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise.

This should be pretty easy to tell that it is symbolism.  While we might be able to imagine a situation where the sun loses 1/3 its luminosity, it is very strange that it would go out completely for 1/3 of the day time. 

Instead, we can see that there is some kind of persecution that prevents people from sharing the spiritual light they have during the day, whether they are celestial, terrestrial, or telestial people.  This hints that freedom to talk about religion has been abridged at this time. 

13 And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!

And of course, it would make sense for there to be warnings about the woes to come if the freedom of religion is stifled.  I’ve read that freedom of religion nourishes all others.

I suppose some might look askance at how I read these symbolically instead of literally.  I don’t doubt that there will be physical upheavals in the land and sea, and disaster preparedness can help with that.  But I think this chapter tells us spiritual truths when read symbolically, and it helps me begin to see what steps should be taken to prepare and stay strong: 

--Pray always. When no answers seem to come, we can at least know the Lord is preparing to answer.
--Follow the counsel of the prophets.
--Nourish your testimony so it’s tree-sized, not grass-sized and won’t get beaten down or burned.
--Live the laws of God, no matter what chaos comes.  Keep participating and contributing in church.
--Share positive, uplifting messages with others.  Share hope for the future.
--Even if religious freedom is abridged for part of the time, share your faith in your families.


Ramona Gordy said...

Thanks Michaela
This is fascinating. I wonder if in light of world events, maybe some things can be seen literally. Some things I have found, "Scientists predict that the sun will go to sleep in 2030, and there will be a mini ice age, similar to the one in the early 1600's. The sun won't be dark per say, but less heat? Ground water is down 35% world wide, California is rationing water, and some reservoirs are drying up. The world is on the brink of the 6th great extinction with species of plants and animals becoming extinct 1000 times faster then they did before humans came on the scene. The polar ice cap is melting at alarming speed and the great fear is once it does, how high will the oceans rise? Also there is one white rhino left, and it's a male
Now I am not making light, but I wonder if the events in Revelation the result of gradual, inevitable human events
Also there is a lot of Temple analogies.
Good stuff

Michaela Stephens said...

It might be interesting to read through Revelation and sort out what imagery we tend to take as literal and which we take as figurative and then try to examine WHY we have decided to interpret it that way.

Ramona Gordy said...

I like that idea, my thought was that the language in Revelation as well as most of the Bible is symbolic. The symbols seem to reference something that is familiar, that can be compared or likened too. Also I think that specific chapters in Isaiah can be used to help reference Revelation and understand it better
Its always great to talk with you.

Michaela Stephens said...

Your point about symbols in Revelation referencing Isaiah is a good one. I think others have noted that Revelation draws on imagery from Daniel as well. And of course, there may be more places too from the Old Testament, our notice of which is dependent upon our familiarity of that text.

I enjoy talking to you too.