What Did John See?

David Cowles

Oct 15, 2022

The Bible doesn’t tell us what John saw, but it does tell us that the breaking of the seventh seal was followed by half an hour of total silence. Why?

In the Christian tradition, the climax of cosmic history is the advent of the New Jerusalem, the triumph of the Kingdom of God. Paul said it best:


“Then comes the end, when he (Christ) hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death…When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.“ (I Cor. 15: 24 - 28)


That’s the climax. But, of course, there are mini climaxes all along the way, events best described as the eruption of the eternal Kingdom of God into history. Just glance over at God’s ‘Highlights Reel:’


Creation

Exodus

Torah

Incarnation

Resurrection

Ascension

Pentecost


Not too shabby! Is it too much to hope that some NFL team might draft God in the first round? I wonder if he needs an agent?


The final book of the Christian Bible, The Book of Revelation (sometimes called Apocalypse), is a book of climaxes. The ultimate cosmic climax comes in the final chapter (Rev. 22): “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end…I am surely coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”


This is the climax, not of the Book of Revelation, but of all Scripture, of all history, of the universe itself; but the climax of Revelation itself comes much earlier (6:1 – 8:1) with the breaking of the seven seals. That is Revelation’s pivot point.


While John of Patmos (the self-proclaimed author of Revelation) looks on, the Lamb (Christ) opens the seals. As each seal is broken, an aspect of reality is revealed:


First Seal – Crown (authority)

Second Seal – Sword (power)

Third Seal – Scales (judgment)

Fourth Seal – Death and Hades

Fifth Seal – Martyrdom

Sixth Seal – Cosmic Catastrophe


John “watched (and listened) as the Lamb broke open” each seal in turn. Each seal brought new and terrifying sights and sounds: a voice like thunder, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Death and Hell itself, the blood of martyrs.


Then, with the breaking of the sixth seal, “there was a great earthquake, the sun turned as black and dark as sackcloth, and the whole moon became like blood. The stars in the sky fell to Earth like unripe figs shaken loose in a strong wind. Then the sky was divided, like a torn scroll…”


But even this is still just preparation for the great event yet to come, the breaking of the seventh seal, the fulcrum on which Revelation balances.


The first five chapters (Rev. 1 – 5) brought us up to the breaking of the seals. In Chapter Six, the first six seals were broken. Chapter Seven specifically prepares us for the climactic breaking of the seventh seal.

No doubt, the breaking of the sixth seal is a tough act to follow. What can the Lamb possibly do for an encore? What do you think? What do you think happened when the seventh seal was broken? Write your own ending to cosmic history!


Ok, spoiler alert, here goes: “When He (Christ/the Lamb) broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven for about a half an hour.”


Not what you were expecting? We are told that John of Patmos ‘watched’ as each of the first six seals was broken, and his watchfulness was rewarded each time with a fantastic vision. Undoubtedly, John watched as the seventh seal was broken as well.


The Bible doesn’t tell us what John saw, but it does tell us that the breaking of the seventh seal was followed by half an hour of total silence. Why?


  • It is finished! The sound and the fury of life is spent. Now it is time to learn what, if anything, it signifies (Macbeth).

  • The seventh seal is like the seventh day (Sabbath), the seventh year (Sabbatical), the seventh cycle of seven years (Jubilee). It inaugurates a period of life-affirming rest. (Imagine, a religion whose highest value is rest – Requiem Aeternam!)

  • Silence speaks ‘louder’ than any ‘sound’ ever could. Revelation is not lacking in special effects. Normally, we experience sound against a background of silence; in Revelation, we experience silence against the cacophony of the Apocalypse. Silence becomes figure.


Consider the final chorus (Amen!) of Handel’s great oratorio, Messiah. Midway through this varied but bombastic summation of the ‘greatest story ever told,’ the orchestra and the chorus suddenly fall silent and stay silent for several measures. This is the pivotal musical moment corresponding to the pivotal moment of salvation history in Revelation.


The ’rest’ in Handel’s Amen! is one of the most profound moments in all of western music. Is this the effect John of Patmos was going for?


Perhaps, but we have not yet answered the question, “What did John see?”


He saw something, even if that something was nothing (e.g., the abyss). Whatever John saw, it must not have been anything like what he was expecting. For 30 minutes he stared in silence. And he was not alone; his silence is echoed by the angels and saints attending the Lamb.


Could it be that the seventh vision was so profoundly shocking that no one, human or angelic, could manage to eke out a single sound? So, shocking that long afterwards, recalling in tranquility all his visions, John still could find no words to express the seventh?


What about you? What do you think John saw?


In any event, with the breaking of the seventh seal, our story must be done. Nothing more than a short doxology could possibly be needed to bring the story of the Bible to its momentous close, right?


Well, not according to John of Patmos. He needs 15 more chapters to get to “Amen! Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22: 20) Whatever for?


Not that these 15 chapters are boring…far from it! These are the chapters that casual readers usually think of when they think of Revelation. This is the time of trumpets, scrolls and bowls, the time of plagues and beasts, and even a dragon. It is the age of the Antichrist.


Undoubtedly, these are the most violent 15 chapters in all of scripture. What can be going on here? To answer that, we’ll need to skip just a bit ahead, 1,750 years ahead that is.


Prior to 1848, European revolutionaries believed that Utopia lay just behind the veil. Properly align the political (democracy) and economic (socialism) stars and Utopia will emerge almost immediately from the shadows, where it has been lingering for millennia, waiting to be born. This was the tacit assumption behind Enlightenment sociology. Do we still believe some version of this today?


Karl Marx knew better. So did Engels and Lenin. They understood that Rome was neither built nor destroyed in a day. Political and economic asymmetry is deeply ingrained in our Atlantic culture.


By the time Marx appeared on the scene, the euphoria of 1776 and 1789 was gone. The rosy optimism of Kant, Hegel, and the Utopians had been dimmed by the harsh realities of power politics. This was neither the bourgeois republic of Franklin, nor the ‘minimal state’ of the Bakunin.


The United States was headed toward a civil war, partially fought to defend the institution of slavery, while France was still in the throes of a series of restored monarchies, self-proclaimed empires, revolutionary councils, and state organs of terror.


Marx et al. saw that the anciene regime would not go away quietly.


The founders of modern communism anticipated a tumultuous transition. They called it the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Just as the Church was the vanguard of Christianity, so the party would be the vanguard of communism.


Sidebar: We all know how that worked out, don’t we? The proletariat ended up being the object of the dictatorship rather than its subject. Being in the vanguard is never easy. Today, we rightly find fault with some of the church’s behavior. Well and good, but charity asks us to remember that other vanguards have fared no better.


This insight of Karl Marx (1848) was shared by John of Patmos 1,750 years earlier. Living toward the end of the first century and/or at the beginning of the second, John did not have the luxury of hoping for a peaceful transition of power. He knew exactly how high a mountain needed to be climbed, and he knew that could not happen without blood and tears. But he never doubted that the world would get there eventually.


A ragtag bunch of fishermen and itinerant preachers from Galilee, a section of the empire disdained both by Rome and by Jerusalem, would overcome the mightiest political, economic, and military power in the history of planet Earth. Of course! What else?

 

Image: Matthias Gerung - Ottheinrich-Bibel, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 8010. Page 287r: John's Vision of Heaven, Revelation 4:1-11, 5:1-14. Public Domain.

 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.

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