Rev 11:15-19; Psalm 2, 2 Sam 6, Luke 1:42-45.
Our last two sessions on the Apocalypse presented a new story embedded within and placed around the sounding of the last three trumpets. Up until chapter 10, we had been watching in sequence as the sounding of the trumpets heralds tribulation cast on earth—hail, a mountain, an evil figure being cast to earth, and other disasters. The seven trumpets themselves were enfolded within the seventh seal that closed up the scroll in the Lamb’s hand: in their unsealing, some of the mysterious knowledge of God concerning human affairs was disclosed. But chapters 10 and 11 have given to us a peak into the “little scroll” eaten and digested by St. John, who is called to testify in a bitter-sweet way concerning nations, kings, and the tribulation of God’s people. Last week we heard about the martyrdom and exaltation of the two ideal witnesses, whose dramatic story was folded around the sounding of the sixth trumpet. The end of their witness, their ascension into heaven after death, takes place after a period of 42 months or 3 ½ years—a time period that we will see yet again as we look into chapters 12 through 14. But now, in the last part of chapter 11, we return to the series of the trumpets, and the final trumpet. As Oecumenius describes what is happening, “The vision now returns to the previous narrative from which it departed” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 11.15–19). It seems that the sounding of the seventh trumpet is a fit finale for the faithful witness we have seen depicted in the two men of God, who “followed the Lamb” to death, and beyond.
As the trumpet sounds, we see beyond, too. And what we see is heralded by the loud voice that proclaims the victory and rule of our Lord:
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying,
“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
who is and who was,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
but your wrath came,
and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints,
and those who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (Revelation 11:15-19)
So, then, our expectations are again thwarted by the narrative. We expect a strike against earth after the sounding of the trumpet, and instead we get a scene of worship, a declaration, and a glimpse within the temple. The seventh trumpet was to issue in the third woe, but we do not see that yet. Instead we receive only a hint of the “time” (kairos) of judgment to come, and a notice regarding heavenly pyrotechnics (with no description yet of their effect on the earth). We may be impatient to find out what will happen, but John’s vision has its own strange logic, and before we see the filling out of the third woe on the earth, he has something to tell us about God’s people. It will be two full chapters before the seventh trumpet gives way to another series of seven, the bowls (chapter 16), and we will finally hear about the resultant final woe.
We must put this aside for now, and concentrate upon what John is telling and showing us. The seventh trumpet sounds, and John hears a voice of victory, implying that the war is already over. The reign has begun of the One who was, and who is—and, of course, who always will be, for “He” shall rule “forever!” When John says He, does he mean the Father or the Son or both? This rule, it seems, is jointly taken by the Lord God and his anointed one, who, as we have seen, rightly sits in the midst of the throne. Yet He is also in the midst of the 24 elders who worship the Lord, celebrating the triumph that they have seen in Christ, who, like the Father, “was” and “is” (Rev 1:18). The song sung by these representatives of God’s people concerns the being of this God, the actions in Christ whereby He has re-established His reign (but, of course, God is always King), and by which the “wrath,” and the judgment, inevitably will come.
Tyconius tells us that this declaration, catalyzed by the trumpet, “refers to nothing other than the church, which is praising the Lord and is in the sound of the trumpet giving thanks to him without end.” The ancient theologian also reminds us that wrath and judgment are not a peculiar theme to the Apocalypse, for as St. Paul says, “the one who destroys the Temple of God, God will also destroy” (cf. 1 Cor 3:7; Commentary on the Apocalypse 11.16–18). Indeed, the concern of our sovereign Lord is not only for His people, who are His Temple, but for the whole cosmos that is His—there cannot be beatitude or the victory of the good while godless destruction ravages the world.
Again, we pause to consider the implications of “destruction” and God’s wrath, indeed, the wrath of the Messiah-King. Here it must become apparent that though the opening of the seals and the sounding of the trumpets were followed by destruction, that destruction cannot be laid at God’s feet, for His will is to remove such evil from His creation. “Wrath” may be an uncomfortable theme when applied to God, but it is far different from the passionate and unmeasured pique shown by human rulers. With God, it is the righting of wrongs, the removal of disease, the judgment of what insists upon dying. And, as we have seen, the victory comes through the slaughtered Lamb, who takes human woes upon Himself. Even more, those who follow Him closely follow a similar fate before victory can be seen. It is the way of the Apocalypse to boldly place the witnesses of Christ within His struggle, not to rapture them out of it as pampered puppies—as some superficial American eschatologies insist loudly today.
No, the song sung here is both joyful and sober—victory entails judgement. The seventh trumpet may yield, as the Venerable Bede puts it “the eternal sabbath and of the victory and dominion of the true King” (Explanation of the Apocalypse 8.2, 11.15). Yet it also calls for judgement against those who rebel. Indeed, the song echoes many of the themes found in Psalm 2:
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
The LORD is, of course, no despot, as we see when we read to the end of the Psalm, which assures us, “blessed are all those who take refuge in Him.” It is not the LORD who needs us to make Him King. It is we who need this King to make us fully human, and to remove the “destroyer” that takes resident within and among us. For God’s judgment comes as bitter-sweet—bitter to those who will not choose life, and remain in darkness, and sweet to those both small and great, who fear his name.
St. Andrew of Caesarea calls attention to Jesus’ parable of the talents, suggesting that “in the prophets and saints and those who fear God’ we are perhaps to recognize the three orders of those who produce fruit a hundredfold, sixtyfold and thirtyfold” (Commentary on the Apocalypse, 11.15–18). The rewards, then are for all who seek refuge in Him, for that is the very purpose that He has come among us as the slaughtered, yet standing Lamb. John’s vision simply repeats what we have heard in Jesus’ parables, or even in the earlier book of Daniel—that when the Messiah is fully revealed, then we must be prepared for an accounting, a division of sheep and goats, a resurrection to life or (paradoxically) to death. We may hope that all will heed this warning, but cannot hope that full salvation may come without justice.
After the hymn by the elders, we get a rare glimpse into the holy place, which is divinely opened to our eyes. And there we see the Ark! Nothing at this point is described concerning this ark, this holy throne for God, this sign of His presence. That must wait until chapter 12! But there it stands before us in spotlight. It is as though that is all that we see in the holy place. For the Jewish people, that ark spoke of God’s dwelling with them, of His forgiveness when blood was spilt upon it, of what He had done in past ages to redeem them from slavery. But for us, it speaks of even more! It speaks of one of the “great” servants, the most holy of all, upon whose lap the infant Lord was enthroned.
Hear St. John of Damascus: “For instance, the ark represents the image of Our Lady, Mother of God, so does the staff and the earthen jar.”
Hear St. Hippolytus: “At that time, the Savior coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, which was gilded with pure gold within by the Word, and without by the Holy Ghost.”
Hear St. Ephrem: “There arose from the rib (of Adam, i.e. Eve) a hidden power which cut off Satan as Dragon. For in that ark, a book was hidden that …proclaimed the Conqueror. There was then a mystery revealed, in that the dragon was brought low.”
Hear St. Athanasius: “O noble Virgin…You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which Divinity dwells” (Homily of the Papyrus of Turin).
Hear St. Cyril: “If we look back to the way of the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten, we shall see that it is…as in an ark that the Word of God took up His abode.” (The Adoration and Worship of God in Spirit and in Truth, PG 68, 293)
And then, there is our Akathist celebration:
Rejoice, Tabernacle of God the Word,
Rejoice, Ark gilded by the Spirit,
…Rejoice, O Bride without Bridegroom!
Are all these flights of fancy, with no Biblical grounding? No, indeed, Luke’s gospel itself subtly identifies Mary as the true ark. For as she comes to greet Elizabeth with the babe in her womb, the story is told so that we can do nothing but recall the coming of the ark to Bethlehem. David dances before the Ark, while the pre-born Baptist leaps within the womb. David says, “How shall the Ark of the Lord visit me?” while Elizabeth says, “who am I that the mother of the Lord should come to me?” The Ark stays and blesses its host for 3 months, while Mary stays with her cousin for the same time (Luke 1:42-5, cf. 2 Sam 6:9-11). And the virgin herself is described as “overshadowed” by the Spirit in the same language that is used of the divine “overshadowing” of the Ark (Luke 1: 35/Ex 40:34).
Indeed, the gospels and the fathers proclaim the Theotokos to be the Ark, and so it is no far reach to see this in John’s visions. (I am not claiming that John INTENDS this meaning, but that the vision is open to it!) Here we glimpse the mystery of God, hidden within the Ark! As we heard earlier in the book of Revelation “But in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God, as he announced to his servants the prophets, should be fulfilled” (Rev 10:7). So, here, laid bare before our eyes, seen in the opened Temple, is the true Ark, holding within the Bread of life. We will hear more about this mystery in the next part of John’s vision, which concerns a woman great with child.
Our passage gives us hope, even while it ends with a warning. The first trumpet issued in hail and fire. This last trumpet rumbles with thunder and hail. We are left in suspense, waiting until we see the images of the next chapter, which will show us the human Ark up close, and also the bitter-sweet situation in which we, the followers of the Lamb, find ourselves.
This is not a vision for the faint of heart. Yet, in glimpsing the inner court of the Temple, and the Ark within, we know that God is with us!