Scripture Class on Revelation 17-22

Here are notes that describe the narrative sequence of these chapters, explain some key terms of Revelation and give questions for reflection on our own call to beatitude.

 

The eschatological judgment (17:1-22:5)

Since God’s medicinal intervention against the two idolatries – the traditional one and that of the Beast –  has not borne fruit in repentance, God now intervenes with his eschatological judgment. That judgment takes place in four phases, in an inverse order to the appearance of each of these enemies earlier in the book:

17:1-19:10    on Babylon

19:11-21      on the two Beasts and the kings of the earth

20:1-10        on the Dragon or Satan

20:11-15      on Death or Hades

In our tolerant age, we cringe at tones of absolute punishment or vindictiveness. We consider ourselves enlightened and merciful. However, in these descriptions of judgment, the word of God teaches us that there can be no compromise with evil. Let us see in what terms that judgment is depicted.

 

Judgment on Babylon (17:1-19:10)

The sentence on Babylon is related in two phases: an announcing phase (ch. 17) and a post-factum phase (18:1-19:10). These correspond to each other as prophecy and fulfillment. In the former, Babylon is described symbolically as a prostitute seated on a scarlet beast, holding a cup full of blasphemies, drunk on the blood of the saints and of the witnesses to Jesus, and having on her head the name “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.” Then, an angel explains to the seer the meaning of these various features, as well as of the dealings of the kings of the earth with her, concluding with “the woman whom you saw is the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth.” (Note here the typical apocalyptic trappings of image and didascalion.) All the symbolism combines to make this woman utterly repulsive to the viewer. As well, the statement that “they will fight against the Lamb but the Lamb will conquer them” states that she is the archenemy of the faithful.

 

The actual destruction of the city is not recounted but the fact of its destruction is indicated by a series of hymnic passages: a hymn of exultation over her destruction (18:1-8), a hymn of lament on the part of those who had intercourse with her (18:9-19), and again a hymn of victory and exultation (18:20-19:4). In the first hymn, an angel not only announces “Fallen is Babylon the great!” as in Isa 21:9 but also “Flee from her!” as in Jer 51:9. The seer warns his flock to beware of being complicit in her sins so as not to be implicated in her punishment, for God will repay her not just according to the law of talion but double for her crimes (18:6). The second hymn is a funeral lament, spoken by three groups successively: the vassal kings who had intercourse with her, the land merchants who made profit by dealing with her, and the sea merchants who bewail her lost splendor and riches. Here there is a marvelous list of the many wares that they traded, a veritable list of luxury goods of the time. Lastly, the third hymn is a renewed cry to rejoice over the ruined city, emphasizing the decisiveness of her defeat: no more sound of harpers and musicians, of flutists and drummers…no more craftsman…no light of lamp…no sound of bridegroom or bride. (18:22-23) The reader is invited to rejoice over the fittingness of her punishment – God has vindicated the blood of his servants shed by her hand (19:2). Here the cry of the martyrs in 6:9-11 is finally heard and given relief.

 

What are we to say of these chapters? They are vindictive but are they also edifying? These chapters are dominated by an ethical approach to history. The actions of men and of nations are not morally indifferent, nor can dealings between persons and groups be regulated merely by the law of the fittest or the law of profit.  Moreover, there must be justice in history. The potentates of the earth can swagger and boast all they want but all is in God’s hands and will follow his decree. In the end, all will become subject to the Lamb, who is king of kings and Lord of lords (17:14). For all the emphasis on judgment in these chapters, it is nonetheless not the dominant note. The rejoicing over the smoke of Babylon is a rejoicing at God’s victory but this victory is only a prelude to the wedding supper of the Lamb (19:7.9). This is the positive side of the judgment: that all the faithful will be joined in an intimate communion with the Lamb, a communion so intimate that the only human reality to which it can in some way be compared is the union of man and woman. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never more be heard in Babylon but the one who is faithful now will be part of the eternal union of Bridegroom and his bride, the Church.

 

The heavenly Jerusalem

In chapters 21-22, we must make a distinction between 21:1-8 and what follows in 21:9-22:4. The former passage still belongs to the eschatological judgment cycle of 17:1-21:8. The reason is that the showing of the new Jerusalem in 21:9 parallels the showing of the other city, Babylon, in ch. 17 and so must indicate the beginning of a new section. The passage 21:1-8 must therefore be an anticipatory passage.

 

In this anticipation of the new Jerusalem in 21:1-8, the city is designated as the tent of God with men, recalling the tent of the Presence in Exod 25:8-22 and 36:8-24. Likewise, Ezek 37:27 and 48:35 spoke of God dwelling with men. This alludes to the OT covenant formula, “I will be their God and they will be my people”, a formula which can certainly be used between unequal partners, as are God and his vassal peoples here. Here the formula is enhanced in two ways: 1) by allusion to the “God-with-us” of Isa 7:14 and 2) by the changing of “his people” to the plural “peoples”. All nations will therefore be joined into one people. What follows in Rev 21:4 is the list of benefits that had already been promised in eschatological texts of Isaiah: 25:8; 35:10; 65:19. Then follows a declaration of God’s omnipotence and a summons to decide.

 

In 21:9-22:5, there are 4 parts, each with an introductory formula: “And the angel showed me the holy city…” (21:10) or “In it I saw no temple because…” (21:22). They are in two pairs of two:

  • 21:10-14 and 21:15-21a describe the city from the outside (the city wall, the perfect proportions of the wall and city, the precious material of its foundation and gates)
  • 21:21b-27 and 22:1-5 lead us inside the city and to the blessedness found there (city square, temple, those admitted and those excluded, the river and tree of life, the throne, the servants of God who will reign forever)

Notice how the description of the eschatological city combines earthly and heavenly traits. Earthly traits are the description of walls, gates and construction materials, essential components in describing any city. Heavenly traits are the perfection, splendor, costliness, and holiness beyond all imagining of both the outside and the inside of the city. The earthly shows that it is made to welcome man; the heavenly shows that it is angelic in proportion. But the city is not a treasure chest of jewels: it is filled by the confluence of kings and peoples bringing their treasures, as the prophets announced; and the servants of God praise Him who reigns there…

 

The epilogue

The last 15 verses of Revelation contain a variety of statements and it is not always easy to know who is speaking. However, the passage can be divided into 3 parts based on predominant vocabulary:

  1. 22:6-10 – focus on John’s book itself: its words, its intended audience, the prophecy it contains; John and the angel are the main subjects
  2. 22:11-15 – shift of focus to the moral life and to reward or exclusion from it; Christ is the main subject, who announces his coming and his bringing a reward of eternal life for some and a judgment of exclusion from the city for others
  3. 22:16-21 – a return to the focus of 22:6-10 (the angel, the prophecy, the book) but now the dominant subject is Christ with his promise of coming soon; the Spirit and the Bride express their longing for his coming.

 

Notes on some terms

Tree of Life

This image is at the opening and closing of the biblical canon. It expresses the gift of God before sin (Gen 2) and the return to paradise after the redemption (Rev 22). It stands in the center of the garden in both instances. As in Gen 2:10 and in Ezek 47:1-12, so in Rev 22, there is a stream which makes it fruitful so that its leaves serve as medicine for the nations. It bears fruit twelve times a year because its fruit is destined for the twelve tribes of the people of God. The tree is highly to be desired: blessed is the man who can pluck its fruit (letter to the church of Ephesus) and cursed is the one who will be torn away from it (for having distorted the book of John of Patmos – 22:19). To eat of its fruit and to drink of the water of life is Revelation’s poetic way of describing what other NT writings call “eternal life”.

 

Numbers

Numbers in the book of Revelation are not intended for calculations but to express the quality or action of the main players. The fundamental numbers are 7 and 12, with their multiples. 7 marks the image of God (7 lampstands which are the 7 spirits), of Christ (7 horns and 7 eyes), and in the opposite camp, of the Dragon (7 heads, 7 crowns) and of the Beast (7 horns, 7 heads). 7 is used to describe the action of Christ (7 messages, opening 7 seals) or of God (7 plagues), while those in the opposite camp have an action that is 7 cut in half (3 times and a half, 42 months, 1260 days). The number 12 is the traditional number of the tribes of Israel and of the apostles; here too, it characterizes the people of God: the messianic Woman has 12 stars on her head, the eschatological city has 12 gates and foundations. Just as 3.5 is half of 7, so 666 is 12 cut in half in the order of hundreds, tens and units. 4 is the number of cosmic perfection: there are four living creatures in the heavenly court, the eschatological city is perfectly 4-sided. In Revelation, the author uses the numbers as theology and as exhortation.

 

The first resurrection

Revelation speaks of a “first resurrection” (20:5-6) and of a “second death” (2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8), and these imply that there is also a second resurrection and a first death. The “second death” is the fiery pool into which are hurled the two Beasts, the Dragon, and death; this is what we call “hell”. As for the “first resurrection”, John of Patmos equates it with the beginning of the thousand-year reign, and the latter seems to mean not so much a historical period as a dimension of history in which God continually brings justice to the victims of Babylon and of the worship of the Beast. (In the wake of St. Augustine, who noted the literary device of recurring periods of seven, we can explain the thousand-year reign as a periodization, a stretching out of things over an extended narrative which be collapsed into one account). The “first death” seems to be what we refer to as natural physical death, while “second resurrection” refers to life in the new Jerusalem, as opposed to being hurled forever into the pool of fire which is the second death.

 

Relevance of the heavenly Jerusalem to our faith

Some questions to apply the consoling message of these chapters to ourselves are:

 

  • How does the corporate salvation described in the heavenly city combine with the individual salvation described in the promises to the victorious – e.g., 21:6-7 or in the letters to the 7 churches?
  • What are the traits of the full happiness in God or beatitude that is promised us?
    • immediate access to his presence
    • mutual belonging (covenant formula)
    • elimination of any cause for sorrow or pain, any variation that signifies mutability (day/night)
    • full delight: all that is best and most pristine – protection/security (tent), inheritance, food/drink (tree of life, water of life)
  • What are the criteria for admittance to this blessedness: see 21:8?

 

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