To make an argument for something that is obvious does not make it more obvious. It is the other way: an argument for what is obvious makes it less obvious. Cognitive science supports this insight. A strenuous argument for what is obvious strengthens the view that the argument aspires to overcome.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent presented himself as someone seeking to know the truth. “There is a malicious rumor out there,” he begins. “I hardly dare to repeat it, but here it is: ‘Has God really said that you cannot eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1)
How should the woman respond? Is there a way to correct the serpent’s misconception, a strong, conclusive argument? Perhaps she can find a text, chapter and verse, that will set the serpent straight? A “thus says the Lord” — that must be it?
She finds her text although she reproduces an amended version. “God said [’āmar], ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’” (Genesis 3:3). The inaccuracies in her answer are minor but telling. God had not “said.” God had “commanded” (Genesis 2:16-17). The woman diminishes the force of the divine command. And then she makes it more severe: “nor shall you touch it” (Genesis 3:3). She corrects the misconception, but she loses the argument! The obviously false view is gaining ground! She is starting to talk like the serpent!
Give her a ten percent discount for thinking that the serpent was sincere. Add ten percent for being beguiled by the serpent’s tone of voice. We shall still be left with eighty percent of the original thesis: to make an argument for something that is obvious makes it less obvious.
The Bowls — and What Is Obvious
I am at risk of falling into the same trap in this comment on the Battle of Armageddon. How so? I am going to say that it is obvious that God is not the one who brings the bowl calamities on the world (Revelation 16:1-21). I will struggle with the temptation to defend my view. If I give in to the temptation — if I proceed to argue on behalf of what I call “obvious” — it will seem less obvious. The temptation to defend my conviction gets worse by the fact that nearly all interpretations are sure that the bowls are sent by God. This is also the view of the Sabbath School Quarterly. God is doing it — it is the hour of divine retribution.
All schools of interpretation share this view, preterist, historicists, and futurists. They agree on little else, but they agree on this. I will try to limit my mistake as much as possible by this assertion: to attribute the bowl calamities to God is a problem of the same order as the serpent’s misrepresentation in the Garden of Eden. It was obvious that the serpent was wrong, and it would have stayed more obvious if the woman had said less.
There is a second clue as we approach the bowls, a limitation that is compositional. In a court of law, a good lawyer will use the closing statement to drive home points already made. He or she will not bring new elements into the case. If he or she does, it will confuse the jury. If we apply this logic to the seven bowls, they fit the lawyer’s strategy only if they are not a novelty. John cannot — this late in the game — bring in something entirely new except to confuse the audience and weaken his case. Likewise, the last movement in a symphony will not introduce a new theme. If it did, the message falls apart. Instead, the fourth movement deepens, expands, and intensifies the theme that has been established in the previous movements. Within a symphonic conception, the seven bowls are like the fourth movement in the symphony. Its function is to bring crescendo, climax, and clarity — as in the Battle of Armageddon (16:12-16). This would not be possible unless the message is obvious.
The “obvious” part of my view is predicated on my conviction that Revelation is symphonic. John is not any less a composer of symphonies than Beethoven or Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Like them, his symphony has a theme, played before a riveted audience. There are variations on the theme, some of them surprising, but each movement moves toward the great climax. In a symphonic conception leading up to the bowls, the seven seals are the first movement (4:1-8:1). The trumpets are the second movement (8:2-11:19). The war-in-heaven retrospect (and prospect) is the third movement (12:1-14:20). The seven bowls are the fourth movement, not limited to the bowl sequence only (15:1-16:21) but extending to the end of the book by the bowl angel that acts as the guide and interpreter till all has been told (17:1; 21:9; 22:2).
To arrive at a view that is obvious, let us retrace our steps in the composition; let us hear the previous movements one more time.
The setting throughout is the heavenly council (4:1-11). Reminders of this setting are scattered throughout the book, in the “sea of glass” (4:6; 15:2) and in tokens of continuity like “harps” (5:8; 14:2; 15:2), “temple” (2:12; 7:15; 11:1, 2, 19; 14:15, 17; 15;5, 6, 8; 16:1, 17; 21:22), and “tent (of witness)” (13:6; 15:5; 21:3). Location matters in life, as a real estate agent once told me, and it surely matters here.
All is not well in the heavenly council. Though some of the greatest interpreters say so, we do not have a contrast between earthly chaos and heavenly calm. Heaven, too, is in turmoil. There is a crisis in the heavenly council, centered on the sealed scroll (5:1-4). Or, as Adela Yarbro Collins puts it, “[t]he first four verses of chapter 5 imply that the heavenly council is faced with a serious problem.” She explains that “the problem facing the heavenly council is the rebellion of Satan which is paralleled by rebellion on earth.” Does anyone disagree with this? Does this view impose on the text an element that is not there? Does this view come as a surprise to anyone reading this text within the Seventh-day Adventist tradition?
When we get to the Song of Moses and the seven bowls, the problem to be solved is still the one that was introduced in the transition-to-heaven vision (4:1). And here is something new. We recognize that the Song of Moses draws heavily on the song Moses sang in Deuteronomy 32. Do we recognize the setting of Moses’ original song? “There is much in this song that gives the idea that it took place in Yahweh’s heavenly court,” says John M. Wiebe of the text in Deuteronomy. Imagine that! Not only is the Song of Moses in Revelation performed in the setting of the heavenly council. The original “Song of Moses” was, too! In Revelation, the hymn is sung in answer to the crisis in the heavenly council — in the wake of the revelation. Perplexity and lack of confidence in God’s ways change to understanding, admiration, and acclaim (5:1–4; 15:1–4).
We should say one more thing on the crisis-theme in this book. Let me call it the problem of the empty chair. If I were to advise a church community or a group of students how to bring to life the drama in Revelation, I would stage the setting. First, I would put a chair (throne) in the middle. This one is for the Ancient of Days. Second, I would put four chairs (thrones) around it. These are for the four living creatures. Third, I would put twenty-four chairs (thrones) outside them, at all four sides of the chair (throne) at the center. These are for the twenty-four living creatures. Then, depending on the size of the audience, I would put as many spectator chairs as possible at the periphery.
And then, right next to the chair (throne) in the middle, I would put an empty chair. This one is for the Shining One (Isaiah 14:12-20), the Covering Cherub (Ezekiel 28:12-19), the person that the poetic imagination put closest to God and closest to the mystery in the middle. This is an empty chair, permanently empty, and the heavenly council is casting about for a meaningful response to the problem of the empty chair.
After the transition to heaven, the seven seals are the first movement in John’s s symphony (4:1-8:1). The theme is introduced. And the first point in the theme is perplexity. We need a Revealer! Can one be found (5:1-4)? Not easily! But there is one, and his role is this: the Revealer is himself the main subject and not only an instrument. When he appears in the middle as the Lamb that was killed with violence (5:6), he is the solution to the cosmic conflict (see also 12:7-12).
To drive the point home: the solution is not historical knowledge of future events. Far from it! It is the Lamb in the middle of the throne and in the middle of history that is billed as Revelation’s solution. Only then comes the exposé that shows the truth about the other side: the white horse of deception (6:1-2), the red horse of violence (6:3-4), the black horse of scarcity and want (6:5-6), and the sickly green horse of death (6:7-8). Not only is the Revealer one who was killed with violence (5:6). He was “killed with violence from the foundation of the world” (13:8).
This is not a statement about God’s enigmatic foreknowledge. It is a statement about God’s knowledge when the cosmic conflict began. God recognized in the Shining One (“Lucifer”) not only a person who was contesting the obvious but also one who — though at that time concealed — was turning into a murderer. The Lamb “was killed with violence from the foundation of the world” because there was an actual killer in the conflict (13:8). These are not theological abstractions. We find the same claim and discovery in the Gospel of John: “he was a murderer (‘man-killer’) from the beginning and does not stand in the truth; whenever he speaks, he speaks the lie…because he is a liar and the father of the lie” (John 8:44).
The exposé continues (8:6-9:21). Say all you want that God is bringing the trumpet calamities on the world. Say all you want that they are punitive. Given that we are listening to a symphony, I will say that this opinion is tone deaf. Revelation is in the business of “aural circumcision” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9). Those who hear the trumpets as divine punishment are not hearing the jarring tonal sounds, helped along by the most overwrought, bizarre imagery in the entire book (9:1-21) — darkness that becomes locusts, locusts that become scorpions, scorpions that become horses, horses that have heads where there should be one but also heads in their tails, heads, too, like the heads of lions, and mouths in their heads and in their tails (9:1-19). And then this: “the power of the horses is in their mouths…with these they inflict harm” (9:19).
Do you say, as most interpreters do, that this monstrosity shows God at work? I say, against most interpreters, that it shows a demonic reality at work. And yes, I say that it is obvious!
This movement covers chapters 12 to 14. I must skip it except to say that it ends with the second-most bizarre text in Revelation. “And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as the bridles of the horses, for a distance of about two hundred miles” (14:20, translation mine). Which city is this? Which battle? Whose horses are drowning in blood?
Let me say it again: it belongs in the category of “obvious” that the trumpet calamities are revelatory, not punitive. It belongs in the category of “obvious” that God is not the acting subject. We see a demonic character at work. Indeed, we see in the fifth trumpet the compressed story of the star that fell from heaven and what he brings to bear on earthly reality (Revelation 9:1-11; Isaiah 14:12-20). The thematic groundwork is in place in our symphony. We are beginning the fourth movement. Should we expect novelty? Is the composer changing his or her theme, his or her tune? Not this composer! We have repetition, intensification, and climax of the theme already known. The theme of the second movement is especially prominent. There, we had many thirds whizzing and hissing through the air, not as markers of quantity but as markers of agency, tail and all (Revelation 12:4; 9:17-19). We had musical kindergarten pedagogy — darkness, locusts, scorpions, horses, head and tails, and heads in the tail.
Here, in the fourth movement, we go over the same ground, with the main difference that it is worse. The claim stands: we have repetition, intensification, and climax.
And yes, what we see is still in the category of “obvious”: we have not moved from revelation to retribution any more than in the trumpet sequence; we have not switched from scenes of a demonic reality at work to seeing the handiwork of God.
First angel: “an evil and vicious sore came on those having the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image” (16:2).
Second angel: “the sea…became blood like that of a corpse, and every living creature in the sea died” (16:3).
Third angel: “the rivers and the springs of water…became blood” (16:4).
Fourth angel: “the sun…was permitted to scorch the people with fire” (16:8-9).
Fifth angel: “throne of the beast, and its kingdom was darkened, and they bit their tongues because of the pain” (16:10-11).
Will we ever see a literal, physical, historical event that conforms to the imagery in the bowl sequence? We have seen some already throughout history, especially in the twentieth century and now, as the climate crisis is accelerating, in the twenty-first. More important, though, is to see the implied contrast in the exposé. We have here, as in the Gospel of John, a delineation of the characteristics of divine action in contrast to the demonic. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says of his opponent in John (John 10:10). By contrast, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Try now to assign the “evil and vicious sore” of the first bowl to Jesus! What the bowls represent in history, past or future, is one thing. What they already represent from the point of view of the heavenly council, is easy to surmise.
Armageddon is the climactic scene in the fourth movement. If the first five calamities in the sequence were the work of God — and punitive, as most interpreters believe — the sixth bowl reverberates with demonic action. We have conspicuous continuity with the trumpet sequence, and we have a climactic scene of revelation.
And the sixth angel poured his bowl out on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order that the way be prepared for the kings coming from the rising of the sun. And I saw coming from the mouth of the dragon, and from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet three unclean spirits like frogs. For these are demonic spirits, performing signs [sēmeia], who go forth to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for war [eis ton polemon] on the great day of God the Almighty. “Look, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his or her clothes so as not to go around naked that they might see his or her shame!” And they gathered them at the place that in Hebrew is called Har-magedon (16:12-16)
Here, the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet are not acted upon. It is not as though they are incapacitated and barely breathing by the bombardment of the first five calamities. On the contrary, they are acting at full and final throttle. The relationship between the act and the agent is obvious. John forgoes the passive voice in favor of a sentence in the active voice. “They,” meaning the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet, “gathered them at a place that in Hebrew is called Har-magedōn” (16:16).
Our lesson makes it appear that it has cut the Gordian knot of “Har-magedōn,” but this is overselling a weak point. “Megiddo” is a weak etymological candidate, and it does not fit well within Revelation’s story line. David Aune does better, noting that the word “occurs only here, where it represents the mythical apocalyptic-world mountain where the forces hostile to God, assembled by demonic spirits, will gather for final battle against God and his people.”
Should we add anything to this? I believe we should add that “Har-magedōn” represents the point when the Shining One will make good on his aspiration to sit enthroned on “the Mount of Assembly” as though he is God (Isaiah 14:12-13). (Paul describes the same reality in Second Thessalonians 2. If you are interested, write to me at [email protected], and I will send you my published paper, “The Restrainer Removed: A Truly Alarming Thought.”
Song of Moses
I am already on the tenth page of this submission (double-spaced), and I must close. I will do it with my translation of the song that precedes the seven bowls, the song that Revelation calls “the Song of Moses that is also the Song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:1-4).
Great and counter-intuitive are your actions,
Lord God the Almighty!
Right-making and trustworthy are your ways,
King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear and speak well of your name?
For you alone are faultless.
All nations will come and worship before you,
for your notion of ‘right act’ has been revealed (15:3-4, translation mine).
This is the best and most clarifying part of the Fourth Movement, more clarifying, even, than the Battle of Armageddon. Something has been revealed in this book. What has been revealed is not only what is “righteous” according to a prior conception of “righteous.” Interpretations of Revelation fail readers badly by their pretension to know what God’s “right act” is. This book works its way with care to the fourth movement, to God’s “counter-intuitive” action and to the revelation of God’s idea of the “right act.” What I call “obvious” in this book is not what I normally would consider obvious. It is rather what this strange book makes out to be obvious. As most interpretations show, that discovery has not been obvious at all.
Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019
Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019
Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019
Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019
Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019
Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019
Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019
Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019
Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019
Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019
Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019
Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019
Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019
Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019
Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019
Timeout: “And Its Number is 666,” February 28, 2019
God Reacts: The Three Angels’ Message, March 5, 2019
Timeout: “The Smoke of Their Torment,” March 8, 2019
Armageddon Retrospect, March 12, 2019
Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.
Image Credit: WikiArt / Nicholas Roerich (Public Domain)
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