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Crisis in the Heavenly Council


I am about to start a comment on the most important section in Revelation. How to start? It is necessary to begin with a word about expectations.

“Managing expectations”’ is an important element of strategy in sports and politics. Ahead of a big sports game, the coach will play down expectations. He or she is afraid that his team will become complacent if he projects a stance certain of victory (exception: Muhammad Ali). He would rather see the other side overconfident. Ahead of a major election, the candidates tone down expectations. They are afraid that voter turnout will be low if they seem confident (exception: Donald Trump). Two years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel got wind of negative Election Day polling. “The Arabs are voting in droves,” he tweeted. The tweet was a signal to the electorate: our side is losing. Experts agree that the expectations-lowering tweet had an impact. Loyal voters flocked to the polls, and the Prime Minister was re-elected.

I worry about readers’ expectations for the next leg in Revelation. It is the prospect of low expectations that bothers me. Let me ask this, yes or no:

I am concerned that readers have a ho-hum attitude toward the scenes in Revelation 4 and 5 and its extension all the way to 8:1, “When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). If you were limited to one of the occasions in my informal poll, which will it be? Would you rather do the Sermon on the Mount, or Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Let my bias show: I would attend the heavenly council. Don’t miss this opportunity. Don’t leave before the seventh seal has been broken! Prepare to become speechless!

Open Heaven

“After this I saw — and look! — a door stood open in heaven! And the first voice which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, spoke to me again, saying, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this!’” (4:1, translation mine).   

Heaven’s open-door policy is amazing. You don’t find this in Moscow or Beijing — or in London or Washington, D.C. A policy of transparency is not high on the list of those who wield power. This Power is an exception. Let me suggest three things from chapter 4, each one in contrast to widely held stereotypes.

First, even the best interpreters — and I mean the very best — tend to see the transition to heaven as a contrast between two realms. On earth, there is chaos. In heaven, there is calm. Or this: on earth, there is strife; in heaven, there is serenity. Or this: on earth, there are problems; in heaven, there are solutions.

Re-readers of Revelation know better. Revelation does not show a contrast between earth and heaven. On earth, there is strife. In heaven, there is strife, too. On earth there is chaos. So there is in heaven. On earth we have problems. So does heaven. We are sleepwalking if we somehow have come to see the transition from earth to heaven as a contrast. Yes, earth has problems, but the problem began in heaven! (12:7-12). Yes, earth knows a thing or two about strife, but heaven knew it first! Yes, we struggle down here on earth, but heaven is at a loss what to do, as well!

Second, it is not hard to see why interpreters think the way they do. Heaven is a busy place, to be sure, and the anatomy of heaven’s power structure is strange. We see four living creatures “in the middle of the throne” (4:6) and twenty-four elders in the immediate vicinity, also seated on thrones (4:4). What keeps them so busy? “And day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’” (4:8).

I have loved Revelation since I was a little boy, but I dreaded this text. I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist home in a small village in the south of Norway. Each Sabbath, we had Sabbath School. When we grew older, we were expected to participate with the adults, usually with my father, my mother, a visitor who shared SDA convictions about the Sabbath but not about the state of the dead, and sometimes my half-brother, six or seven people in all. My father loved the Bible, and the lesson study went on and on. On and on, yes, for two hours, sometimes three.

When I read in Revelation that the living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing, “Holy, holy, holy!” — “day and night without ceasing” — I thought about our long, drawn-out Sabbath School. Why would they go on “day and night”? How insufferable! I pictured myself sneaking off for a break, to get a respite from the monotony. I even felt sorry for God, thinking that God, too, might want to have a break.

Luckily, I was not at that time aware of the scene reported in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or my distress would be worse. Solzhenitsyn describes a conference in the Communist Party where the participants are applauding Stalin for yet another trite line in his long speech. They clap, standing, and it goes on and on — five minutes, then six, then seven, then eight. Will it ever end? Nine minutes, then ten. The attendees are about to collapse. Then one official brings it to a close. A day or two later he is arrested, then charged on a flimsy pretext, then sentenced to ten years in prison. On his way out, an official tells him, “Don’t ever be the first one to stop applauding!”

Is this heaven’s way — a place where no one stops applauding, possibly fearing reprisals?

As an adult, I have read the following a little later in Revelation, “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been cast out (eblēthē), who accuses them before our God day and night’” (12:10).

Do you see it? In the heavenly perspective, there are two sides. The two sides do not agree. We do not have a scene in monochrome and monotone, repeating the mantra “holy, holy.” We have two sides engaged in a fierce contest. There is no letting up on the other side; it keeps at it “day and night” (12:10). The activity is a staple of the opposing side in the cosmic conflict, as here: “And he opened his mouth to slander God, slandering God’s name and God’s dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven” (13:6, translation mine).

The songs in Revelation are many. “Holy, holy, holy!” is one of them. These songs are integral to the story line, and they stand as clarifiers and culminations in the text. Most readers hear in the songs a voice of proclamation and a voice of acclamation. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete. Missing from most representations is the voice of accusation. These scenes are electric with conflict, the voice of accusation aiming to establish a view that is intensely critical of God. The other side responds in voices of proclamation and acclamation, saying of the other side that it is trading in slander and “fake news.”

Third, therefore, and briefly: Revelation’s main concern is cosmic, not Roman. This cannot be said too strongly. Interpreters who imagine a contrast between earth and heaven — on earth, commotion, in heaven, calm — believe that John’s horizon is primarily life in a Roman imperial context. Paul Duff has shown convincingly that Roman imperial concerns are hard to find even in the messages to the seven believing communities. We need, as we say on the West Coast of the United States, a larger view.

The Sealed Scroll

And now to the sealed scroll in chapter 5.

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice,

            “Who has what it takes

                to open the scroll

                and break its seals?”

And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I wept and wept profusely because no one was found to have what it takes to open the scroll or to look into it (5:1–4, translation mine).

Do you feel the tension, the apprehension, the sense that heaven is at a loss what to do?

Adela Yarbro Collins, a Roman Catholic scholar and one of the greatest experts on Revelation in this generation, feels it.

The first four verses of chapter 5 imply that the heavenly council is faced with a serious problem. In the context of the Apocalypse as a whole it is clear that the problem facing the heavenly council is the rebellion of Satan which is paralleled by rebellion on earth.  Chapter five presupposes the old story of Satan’s rebellion against God which leads to the fall of creation…The tears of the prophet express the desire of the faithful to have this situation rectified.

“I wept and wept profusely.” By this token alone, the scene in the heavenly council is more important than the Sermon on the Mount (amazed audience, no tears), the Gettysburg Address (the praise came later), or the “I have a dream speech” (hopeful, no need for tears). The heavenly council is in a crisis mode. Why is everyone silent? Why are the four living creatures staring at the floor? Why are the twenty-four elders looking at the ceiling? The search committee has come up empty-handed: no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth. The impasse is broken by this scene:

And one of the elders said to me,

     “Do not weep!


     The Lion of the tribe of Judah,

          the Root of David,

          has won the war,

     so that he can open the scroll

          and its seven seals!” (5:5, translation mine).

I must close, or you will say that I am my father’s son, going on and on day and night without ceasing. Here are some questions before we close.

1. Should the drama in the heavenly council be understood within a cosmic or a Roman framework?

2. Is the crisis centered in the sealed scroll ignorance about future events or awareness of present reality, well known to heaven and earth?

3. Is the problem of the heavenly councilors that they don’t know or that they don’t understand?

4. Is the scene in the heavenly council best described in terms of investiture, enthronement, or revelation?

5. Does Revelation struggle to establish a high view of Christ or does it assume a high view? That is, is the Christology a goal or merely a premise for the book’s theology?

6. Is the impasse broken by what the Lamb reveals as he breaks the seals or by what he is shown to be (5:6)?

7. Is the message of Revelation focused on the revelation in the middle of the throne and in the middle of history, not in the past in relation to John and not in the future?

And I saw

   in the middle of the throne,

   [in the middle of] the four living creatures,

   and in the middle of the twenty-four elders

a lamb standing

   as though it had been killed

   with violence,

having seven horns and seven eyes (5:6, translation mine).

Let the conversation continue, day and night, if necessary. It will not be my fault if it does.


Further Reading:

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


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by Chris Brignola on Unsplash


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