Lighting Up the Apocalypse 28: The Sign of the Seven Angels, the Song, the Sea, and the Smoke

(Revelation 15; Ex. 40:35; 2 Chronicles/Kingdoms. 7:2-3; Is. 6:4; Ezek 1:22;10:4; 44:4)

Chapter fifteen of the Apocalypse leads us into the final sequence of judgment, in which Babylon is ultimately overthrown.  All the players in this short chapter are righteous—God, the Lamb, the angels, the four cherubim, and the redeemed worshippers.  Any who think that judgment is incompatible with the righteous and true God must take this vision seriously, for as John the seer tells us, it also is “a sign in heaven.”  And what is seen in heaven makes its impact upon the earth.

Here is the vision:

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and wondrous: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is completed.

And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass commingled with fire—and also those who had triumphed over the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing on the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds,

O Lord God the Almighty!

Righteous and true are your ways,

O King of the nations!

Who will not fear, O Lord,

and glorify your name?

For only you are holy.

All nations shall come

and worship you,

for your righteous decrees have been made manifest.”

After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened,  and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests.  And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever,  and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.

The episode is flanked by seven angels that carry bowls of judgment.  At first all we hear is that they are bringing the final plagues, with which God’s “wrath” is to be accomplished.  But at the end, we are given more details: they are dressed in priestly garb, and so what they are about to do is a mediated action from God; they are given their tasks by the four mighty creatures who look upon God’s face, and who earlier in the Apocalypse were seen to orchestrate the worship of heaven.  This sign, too, comes from the Holy One himself, and is as important to humankind as the heavenly worship is.  An important word is also seen associated with the seven angels, both at the beginning and at the end of the passage—the verb “to be fulfilled,” or “to be completed.” This is the same word that the evangelist hears Jesus utter on the cross as he dies: “It is accomplished.”  Clearly, then, what the angels are about to do is something planned, executed, and fulfilled on behalf of the Almighty One.  They come out of the sanctuary at God’s bidding.

This is confirmed by a further detail of the vision: we see redeemed humanity standing by (or perhaps, upon) a great fiery sea of glass, singing about the majesty and truthfulness of God, accompanied by harps given by God Himself. They are not in the sea, but seem to either have passed through it (like the Hebrews through the Red Sea) or are standing upon it in mastery (like Peter with Jesus), no longer affected by its soul-searching water and fire.  Here, it would seem that the two biblical images of the sea come together—first, there is the mystery of the ocean itself for a people that was not really sea-faring, and with all the memories of sea monsters and the chaos of the deep as part of their cultural heritage;  second, there is the symbolic bronze “sea” in the inner courtyard of the Temple, used to make the priests ritually pure.   This redeemed host is a people of priests who have been purified, and who have come out of an ordeal, like the Hebrew people when chased by Pharoah’s army.  They are not harmed by anything in the deep, which is calm and translucent like glass, rather than turbulent and dark (with things lurking beneath!) as in nature. St. Andrew of Caesarea, in speaking of the first reference to this sea in Rev 4:5, suggests that it symbolizes the “multitude of the heavenly powers” as well as the “clarity, spotlessness and calmness” of the life to come. This interpretation reminds us of Ezekiel’s mystical description of the cherubim, who have, over their heads, an expanse that shines “like crystal” (Ez 1:22).  St. Andrew then amplifies in his commentary on Rev 15:2 by speaking about the “multitude of those to be saved” as well as their brilliance and purity. Further, the reference to “fire” speaks of the power of God’s holiness, which comes with purging to the redeemed, but pain to those who resist God. Both by ceremonial ablution, and by being plunged, with Christ into the vicissitudes of the fallen world, these are now purified, and have conquered over the Enemy, and all his wiles.

And so they sing —both the song of Moses, who exulted that the  LORD had triumphed gloriously, and the song of the Lamb, who has restored and lifted up all those who  “follow Him wherever He goes.” They sing both of God’s righteousness and His might, with the hope that all the nations will come to Him.  Here is no contrast of God’s love and God’s justice, but all comes together.  We are reminded of that other time when God’s plans were “made perfect,” or “complete,” upon the cross. “Fear” and “giving glory” harmonize, as we glimpse who the Lord really is.  It is not a matter of leaving behind the pictures of God in the Old Testament (as some have wanted to do, down through the ages), but of fulfilling or completing them with what we see about God in the slaughtered-standing-ascended Lamb.  God’s righteous decrees, as well as His heart-breaking death for us, show us who He is.  As the Psalmist puts it: “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85/84:10).

These seven bowls, then, are heralded by a sign in heaven, by seven angels of purity, and by the song of the redeemed which holds together the entire scope of salvation history, recognizing God in His righteousness and His faithfulness. The pictures help us to understand more clearly what is meant by that troublesome phrase “the wrath of God.”  It is important again to understand what God’s anger is not— it is not variable, uncontrolled or passionate in the human fashion.  God’s anger is not opposed to God’s love.  It is not the dark side of an inscrutable God, but the just and apt response to that which is opposed to truth, to that which ravages God’s good creation, to that which consumes rather than nurtures.  God does not “change” when His anger is expressed.  Some have seen God’s “anger” only to be how God’s love is subjectively experienced by human beings when they are not in tune with God.  For example, David Bentley Hart suggests this when he says, “The wrath of God in Scripture is a metaphor, suitable to our feeble understanding, one which describes not the action of God toward us, but what happens when the inextinguishable fervency of God’s love toward us is rejected”  (“The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics” p. 62). Certainly we must understand that God’s anger is not like ours, just as His love transcends any action or sentiment that we can conjur up.  However, mechanistic language such as “what happens,” or subjective language such as (“what we experience”) rather leashes the power of God’s “inextinguishable fervency.”  The directed actions in our reading—the seven angels, the bowls, the commission of the four creatures, the hymns of the redeemed—all speak of an active God, whose “wrath” accomplishes what He plans.  Here, as we have seen, is a directed action, come to fruition.

It is helpful to remember that the word thymos, normally translated as “wrath” or “anger” can also be translated as “passion” or “passionate longing,”—what Hart glosses as “fervency.”  This translation brings its own difficulties, however, since the only way we humans can think about “passion” is in terms of our changeable nature, and God never changes. We may be tempted, then, to think think about this, as some have done, in terms of how each of us in our various conditions experiences God.  But God is also the great Actor, the One who shows “righteous deeds” and “judgments”—He enacts the fulfillment of all things, including victory over His enemies.  “Let God arise!  Let His enemies be scattered.”  Wrath, then, is an expression of His character, and not incompatible with His love.  We do not simply judge ourselves (though we do this, by our actions).  He also is the great Judge, bringing all to fulfillment, so that the nations will indeed flock to Him.  This is a great mystery, for we are asking about aspects of a divine nature that remains partially hidden to us, though seen in Jesus.  The same God-Man who took the children in His arms cast out the money-changers in the Temple.  The same God-Man who encouraged the adulterous woman framed parables of warning to the Pharisees.  The same God-Man who engaged the Samaritan woman in theological discussion told the Sadducees that they were completely wrong about the resurrection.  Judgment and mercy are not at odds in Him.  So, then, the phrase “God’s vehemence” is perhaps a good way to gloss “God’s wrath”—so long as we do not forget that God is the Only one, who in His unchangeable and holy nature, expresses apt anger against all that is evil.

In case we are tempted to dismiss chapters like this as exceptions, we are left with a sign of God’s holy presence at the end of the section—the glory cloud of God.  Here, it fills the heavenly sanctuary until the accomplishment of God’s purposes, just as it filled the tabernacle with Moses, the temple with Solomon, and the heavenly Temple before the startled eyes of the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (Ex. 40:35; 2 Ch/4 Kingdoms 7:2-3; Is. 6:4; Ezek. 10:4; 44:4).  God’s presence is so strong that no one can stand before Him:  until all is accomplished.  And once this is done, we will, with Christ, enter into His presence, and worship with those others by the sea of glass.

2 comments:

    1. Rod, lovely to hear from you. Glad you are enjoying the series. YOu might want to know that there is no S on the end of Revelation, though many people say it that way.

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