The Seventh Seal
Whenever the fear of the end of the world has gripped Christian communities, the book of Revelation has received renewed interest. In Europe after World War II, the threat of nuclear annihilation produced such an atmosphere. While interest in Revelation often revolves around trying to “decode” its sequence of events or reflecting on its violence and graphic imagery, the Swedish film writer and director Ingmar Bergman instead took Revelation 8:1 and its meditation on silence as a starting point for his film Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal), considered a classic of world cinema.
The son of a Lutheran pastor, Bergman drew much inspiration for the imagery of The Seventh Seal from medieval art, including the medieval tradition of the “Dance of Death.” Bergman set the film in medieval Sweden during the Black Death, and it revolves around a chess match between a knight, freshly returned from the Crusades, and Death himself. The knight is consumed by his terror of God’s silence, and in his literal contest with Death, he is forced to reflect on the difficulty of faith, saying at one point “Faith is a torment – did you know that? It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.” The existential torment of the knight is juxtaposed against the faith of a “holyHoly is a term that originally meant set apart for the worship or service of God. While the term may refer to people, objects, time, or places, holiness in Judaism and Christianity primarily denotes the realm of the divine More fool” (a juggler who sees visions of God), and the bitter nihilism of the knight’s squire.
Through the experience of its characters, Bergman’s film leads its viewers into asking the same question that Revelation asks: After death and destruction, how do we have faith when what follows seems to be God’s silence?
Handel’s MessiahThe Messiah was the one who, it was believed, would come to free the people of Israel from bondage and exile. In Jewish thought the Messiah is the anticipated one who will come, as prophesied by Isaiah. In Christian thought Jesus of Nazareth is identified... More
Revelation is a singing book. The heavenly praise that John captures in his visions has inspired composers and hymn-writers alike. In the western world, perhaps the most famous of the pieces that Revelation inspired is the oratorio Messiah, written in 1741 by Georg Frederic Handel.
Handel’s oratorio is an extended meditation on the nature of Christ as the Messiah, divided into three parts. The first part contains settings of prophecies from IsaiahIsaiah, son of Amoz, who prophesied in Jerusalem, is included among the prophets of the eighth century B.C.E. (along with Amos, Hosea, and Micah)--preachers who boldly proclaimed God's word of judgment against the economic, social, and religious disorders of their time. More that lead into the proclamation to the shepherds from the Gospel of LukeThe "beloved physician" and companion of Paul More. This setting of Luke 2 is one of the reasons that Messiah has become a popular piece to be performed around the Christmas season. The first part concludes with a piece dedicated to Christ’s earthly ministry. The second part is divided into two halves. The first half focuses on Christ’s passionPassion is the theological term used to describe Jesus' suffering prior to and including his crucifixion. The Passion Narrative (the portions of the Gospels that tell of the Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus) are often read in church during Holy Week. More, death, and resurrection. The second half highlights the preaching of the Gospel into the world, the rejection of the Gospel, and God’s ultimate vindication. The famous Hallelujah Chorus caps off the second part. The third part describes the day of judgment and the final victory of the Messiah over sin and death.
Though the influence of Revelation can be seen throughout Messiah, two places in particular deserve further note. The first is the aforementioned Hallelujah Chorus. Though much of the chorus is taken up by flourishes on the word “hallelujah,” the piece also features lines from Revelation arranged like a motet: “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (19:6), “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (19:16), and “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (11:15). While originally arranged for a small ensemble, the Hallelujah Chorus has become a popular mass choir piece and in some churches, it is an annual feature on Easter Sunday.
The second place that Handel borrowed directly from Revelation is in the conclusion to the whole oratorio. Part three ends with a piece titled “Worthy is the Lamb,” which is a setting of the hymn of praise from Revelation 5:12-13 “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, and wisdomWisdom encompasses the qualities of experience, knowledge, and good judgment. The Old Testament book of Proverbs, which sometimes invokes a Woman as the personification of Wisdom, is a collection of aphorisms and moral teachings. Along with other biblical passages, it teaches, "The fear of the... More, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessingBlessing is the asking for or the giving of God's favor. Isaac was tricked into blessing Jacob instead of his firstborn Esau. At the Last Supper Jesus offered a blessing over bread and wine. To be blessed is to be favored by God. More.”
Who is this Host?
Not all of the hymns inspired by Revelation take their cue from the songs that John hears the heavenly choruses sing. Some, instead, take John’s visual imagery as their foundation. One such hymn is the great Dano-Norwegian funeral hymn “Den store hvide flok” translated variously into English as “Who is this Host Arrayed in White?” or “Behold a Host Arrayed in White.” Written by the Danish pietest Bishop Hans Adolph Brorson, “Den store hvide flok” transforms John’s vision of the saints from every nation (7:9, 13-17) into a Lutheran hymn set to a folk tune from Heddal in Telemark, Norway.
Brorson’s own life was filled with sorrow; he had a son who was committed to a mental asylum and his first wife died at a young age. In “Den store hvide flok” he captures the comfort in John’s vision, the hope that one day our tears will be wiped away and that the sorrows of our earthly life will be transformed into praise before the throne of God.
Brorson wrote his hymn in the context of the beginnings of the Lutheran missionary movement in Denmark and Norway, and it traveled to the United States with Lutheran immigrants from Norway. Its last stanza, especially, became a treasured favorite of many missionaries: “For now you live at home with God/And harvest seeds once cast abroad/In tears and sighs./See with new eyes/The pattern in the seed.” The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg composed a setting of “Den store hvide flok” that is still a popular piece for men’s choirs.
Holy, Holy, Holy
One of the ironies of the book of Revelation is that though the book’s violent and, at times, strange imagery has inspired skepticism, it has also inspired some of the best loved hymns in the English language. For example, though Lutherans are not especially known for their interest in Revelation itself, in the middle of the 20th century, the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” was sung at the beginning of every worship service in many Lutheran churches.
“Holy, Holy, Holy” was written by Reginald Heber, an Anglican Bishop, and is set to the tune Nicaea by the English clergyman John Bacchus Dykes. “Holy, Holy, Holy” was featured in the hymn collection Hymns Ancient and Modern. Hymns Ancient and Modern was a product of the Oxford movement led by John Henry Newman and sought to bring hymns based on biblical texts by the church fathers back into popular usage. Heber’s hymn is a mixture of a paraphrase and direct quotation of Revelation 4:1-11. This mixture can be seen in the repeated “Holy, Holy, Holy” which is taken from the song of the four living creatures (4:8), whom Heber replaces with the “cherubimThe cherubim are winged creatures who support the throne of God. These creatures were reputed to be a part of the ark of the covenant. In the book of Isaiah God is said to be enthroned above the cherubim. More and seraphimSeraphim are a class of celestial beings mentioned in the story of the call of Isaiah. In Christian theology these beings are the highest rank of angels. They sometimes appear in Christian hymnody where, in unceasing chorus, they praise God. More,” drawing from the prior vision of Isaiah 6, where the prophet sees seraphim surrounding God’s throne and singing, “Holy, holy, holy.” Heber’s hymn differs from Revelation in its explicitly trinitarian language. The Spirit moves throughout Revelation, but in his hymn, Heber joins the praise of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together into “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
JesusJesus is the Messiah whose life, death, and resurrection are God's saving act for humanity More Knocking at the Door
Revelation presents many images for Jesus, images as far-ranging as a slaughtered lamb and a conquering rider on a white horse. One image that captured the imagination of 19th and 20th century Protestants was that of Jesus knocking at the door (3:20). Depictions of Jesus knocking at the door are not common before the modern period. One of the first influential portrayals of this scene was William Hunt’s The Light of the World.
Completed in 1854, Hunt’s painting features Jesus, crowned and carrying a lantern, knocking at a door overgrown with weeds. The picture became quite popular in 19th century England and was a source of inspiration for Victorian poets. A century later, in the United States, a second painting on the same theme exploded in popularity. Warner Sallman, a Swedish-American painter from Chicago, had become famous for his 1940 painting the Head of Christ. Shortly thereafter, he produced another painting, Christ at Heart’s Door, an allegorical take on Revelation 3:20 in which Jesus stands knocking at a door, framed by an illuminated heart. Sallman’s painting met a receptive audience in the evangelical crusades of the ’40s and ’50s as exemplified by the ministry of Billy Graham. Within Graham’s altar call paradigm, Christ knocking at the door served as a ready-made image of the need for the non-believer to make a decision for Christ.
Revelation in the CanonA canon is a general law or principle by which something is judged. The body of literature in the Old and New Testaments is accepted by most Christians as being canonical (that is, authentic and authoritative) for them. More
The book of Revelation has had an uneven reception in terms of its place in the New Testament canon. Many of the early church fathers received it enthusiastically. Justin MartyrTo be a martyr originally meant to be a witness in the legal sense - that is, to bear witness in legal proceedings. In the context of Christianity martyrdom indicates a person, like Stephen in the book of Acts, who was killed for maintaining his... More, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen all considered it worthy of inclusion in the New Testament, though it is important to note that they considered the book to be the writing of the discipleA disciple is a person who accepts and follows the pronouncements of a teacher. Jesus chose twelve disciples (also called "apostles" in some of the Gospels) to follow him and bear witness to his message Anyone who (like them) follows Jesus is engaged in Christian... More John, the son of Zebedee. For these early interpreters, the connection of a book to an apostleDerived from a Greek word meaning "one who is sent," an apostle is a person who embraces and advocates another person's idea or beliefs. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus called twelve apostles to follow and serve him. Paul became an apostle of Jesus... More carried great weight.
By the fourth century, doubts began to surface as to the authorship of Revelation. Dionysus, bishop of Alexandria, did not consider John, the son of Zebedee to be the author and some even thought that it was written by a Christian heretic, Cerinthus, on account of its premilleniarian theology. Later, Cyril of Jerusalem, an important early theologian of the liturgy, excluded Revelation from his list of canonical books.
In the western church at least, these doubts about Revelation did not exclude it from the canon, and its acceptance by Athanasius and Augustine of Hippo helped to solidify its place. In the Reformation, however, Revelation came under scrutiny again. Martin Luther at first reacted negatively to the book, though (similarly to his treatment of the EpistleAn epistle, simply, is a letter or message. As many as twenty-one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are epistles, letters written to churches or persons for instruction, pastoral care, or discipline. More of James) he later spoke more kindly of it. Ulrich Zwingli did not consider it scriptural, and though John Calvin did not condemn it, it was also the only book that he did not write a commentary on.
The Four Living Creatures and the Four Evangelists
In Revelation 4, John sees a vision of “four living creatures,” one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a human being, and one like an eagle. John’s creatures resemble the ones in EzekielA prophet during the Babylonian exile who saw visions of God's throne-chariot, new life to dry bones, and a new Temple. More 1, though in Ezekiel’s vision, each creature has four faces, one for each of the animals. This combination of creatures became associated with the four evangelists in Christian art. MatthewA tax collector who became one of Jesus' 12 disciples More was associated with the human creature, since his Gospel starts with Jesus’ human genealogyGenealogy involves the study and tracing of families through the generations - in short, family history. One genealogy in Genesis traces the nations descended from Noah. In the New Testament Matthew traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham, while Jesus' genealogy in Luke goes... More. Mark was associated with the lion because his Gospel depicts Jesus’ triumph over Satan. Luke was associated with the ox because his Gospel begins by associating Jesus with the TempleThe Jerusalem temple, unlike the tabernacle, was a permanent structure, although (like the tabernacle) it was a place of worship and religious activity. On one occasion Jesus felt such activity was unacceptable and, as reported in all four Gospels, drove from the temple those engaged... More and its liturgy. Finally, John was associated with the eagle because his Gospel begins with an ethereal logos understanding of Christ. The four Gospel writers as the four creatures became a feature of Gospel cover pages in illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. It also became a feature of church architecture, often with Christ in the center.
ApocalypseAt its root, being derived from a Greek word meaning "unveiling," apocalypse refers to a revelation of a divine or previously unseen reality. Some ancient Jewish and Christian literature used the term to describe destruction or cataclysm. Paul describes his encounter with Jesus Christ as... More and Post-Apocalyptic
In the original Greek, the title of Revelation is the Apocalypsis of John. Apocalypsis is the first word of the whole book, and our English word “apocalypse” is derived from it. Originally, an apocalypse meant “something that is revealed,” hence the Latinized title Revelation. The book received its name because it contains John’s recounting of the visions that were made known to him (1:1).
John’s visions gave their name to a whole genreA genre is a type or category of something, often literature. Form criticism (see) begins with sorting biblical literature into various genres. More of ancient literature, the “apocalypses,” all of which feature strange visions and angelic interpreters, just like Revelation. In popular usage, however, Revelation’s descriptions of the plagues and woes of the end times has led to the equation of “apocalypse” with the cataclysmic end of the world. In addition, we refer to something extraordinarily destructive as “apocalyptic.”
In a twist on the apocalypse, the early 21st century has seen the emergence of the popular genre of post-apocalyptic books, television shows, and movies. While they begin with the idea of world-shattering cataclysm, these popular takes go on to imagine life after (or in the midst of) an apocalypse. Interestingly enough, as Revelation itself predicts, the characters in these post-apocalyptic worlds are not drawn to faith by the disasters that they encounter, but instead wrestle with nihilism and hedonism.
In Revelation 16, John describes the demonic spirits who gather the kings of the world and assemble them “at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon” (16:15-16). Just as “apocalypse” has lost its sense of hidden things being revealed, for many, this place, often spelled Armageddon, has lost its geographical sense. It has become another name for the cataclysmic end of the world. The geographic sense, however, endures in some circles and has become the basis of complicated end-of-the-world theologies.
To begin, it must be stated that it is not clear whether John intends Harmagedon (which in Hebrew appears to mean the “Mountain of Magedon”) to refer to a real place. There is a tradition of identifying “Magedon” with Megiddo, the city where King JosiahJudean king noted for his reforms of Israel's worship in the time of Jeremiah More died while fighting Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (2 Kings 23:29-30). However, the names of the places are not the same in Greek. Revelation refers to Magedon, but the name for Megiddo in the SeptuagintThe Septuagint is a pre-Christian (third to first century BCE) Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures. It is believed that the term Septuagint derives from the number of scholars-seventy (or seventy-two)-who reputedly did the work of translation. More (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) is Maggedo. Despite this obvious difference, the identification endures and has captured people’s imagination, especially in American theology. Various groups of American interpreters, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the theological movement known as Dispensationalism, have taken the location of Megiddo as a key sign that the second coming of Christ will be preceded by wars in the Middle East. The turbulent history of that region since the re-founding of the state of Israel has paradoxically led to both disappointment of apocalyptic hopes and continued interest in predicting Armageddon.
The Archangel Michael
In the midst of the cosmic battle in Revelation 12, war breaks out in heaven (12:7). The forces of the dragon are opposed by a heavenly force led by Michael (12:7). Because Revelation refers to him as the leader of the angels, he has traditionally been referred to as an archangel, which is Greek for “chief or head angel.”
Michael and angels more generally have a long history that stretches into the Old Testament, all the way back to Genesis. One of the first appearances of angels in the Bible is at the well of Beer-lahai-ro, where the angel brings the promises of God to HagarSarah's maidservant, Abraham's concubine, Ishamel's mother. More (Genesis 16:7-14). They continue to feature in the narratives of the patriarchsOriginally patriarchs were men who exercised authority over an extended family or tribe. The book of Genesis introduces Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the three patriarchs of the people of Israel. More and the prophetic works, but it isn’t until the book of DanielAn interpreter of dreams who was delivered from the lions' den. More that an angel with a name appears. Once again, that angel is Michael, and he is described as “one of the chief princes,” who fights on behalf of God’s people against the prince of PersiaPersia was a southwestern Asian country. The Persian empire was a series of empires that occupied what is currently Afghanistan and Iran from 600 B.C.E. forward. Rulers of the Persian empire mentioned in the Bible are Cyrus and Darius. More (Daniel 10:13). It is this theme of Michael fighting against the enemies of God that Revelation and later Christian tradition took up. Michael came to be seen as the chief adversary of Satan; a tradition recorded in Jude narrates how he and Satan fought over the body of MosesProphet who led Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land and received the law at Sinai More after his death (Jude 9). Michael came to be seen as the protector of the church, which was the people of God, and in the Renaissance, paintings of Michael defeating Satan became a popular theme.
The Number of the Beast
The cryptic nature of John’s visions has inspired many to believe that they are in need of decoding. While it is more likely that the visions are meant to be descriptive pictures with broader application, that has not stopped many from trying to find specific references for John’s prophecies. An especially popular source of speculation has been the reference to the “Number of the Beast,” which is given as 666 (13:18). Interestingly, there is some debate among scholars of New Testament manuscripts as to the actual number of the beast. Early papyrus fragments and one of our best preserved early codexes contain a different number, 616, and Irenaeus also makes reference to alternative numbers of the beast.
Though scholars working with the number 666 have often identified it with the Roman Emperor, Nero Caesar, other identifications have been proposed in the popular imagination. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the prophet Muhammad was often identified with the number, though his name does not fit without considerable wrangling. In the 1980s, the name was associated with U.S. President Ronald Wilson Reagan because his first, middle, and last names all have six letters. In a funny circumstantial twist, after leaving office in 1988, Reagan moved into a house in Los Angeles whose address was 666, but had it changed to 668.
The Mark of the Beast
While the Number of the Beast has inspired many to try and decode its secrets, perhaps an even more fertile ground for speculation has been the “Mark of the Beast” (13:16-17). Some have interpreted the Mark very broadly, for instance, Seventh Day Adventists regard celebrating worship on Sunday as the Mark of the Beast. However, other speculators focus on John’s point that “no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark.” This remark has caused some groups to search for the mark in modern global financial systems. For instance, the introduction of barcodes caused renewed interest in the Mark of the Beast.
A concern with more staying power emerged in the early 2000s in the United States, with fears of the Mark centered around the development of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) microchips. The idea behind the microchips was that, if implanted under the skin, they would allow people to pay for goods and services without having to carry cash or credit cards. Though the technology is now used to mark and identify lost pets, it did not catch on among people. Fear of the technology has, however, continued. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it resurfaced in the concern that the vaccine was a secret route for the injection of microchips. More simplistically, vaccine cards were also denounced by some as the Mark of the Beast. Together these concerns illustrate both the staying power of John’s language, but also the impossibility of identifying his prophetic words with specific technological developments.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
In times of unrest and strife, Revelation receives renewed attention, and one such moment in the history of the United States was the American Civil War. At the beginning of that bloody conflict, Revelation inspired one woman to write one of the most enduring American patriotic songs. That woman was abolitionist and suffragist, Julia Ward Howe, and the song became known as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The song is suffused throughout with apocalyptic imagery, but the first verse is a meditation on Revelation 19:11-15. Like John, Howe narrates the hymn as a set of visions, beginning with the first line “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The second line, “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” is a direct reference to Revelation 19:15 and Christ’s role in treading out the winepress of God’s wrath. The third line, “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” also alludes to Revelation 19:15 and the “sharp sword” with which Christ will “strike the nations.”
Post-Civil War, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” has continued in its popularity, even appearing in some hymnals under the title “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” The lyrics of the hymn took on new urgency during the Civil Rights movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often quoted them in his speeches and sermons, including “How Long, Not Long” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
El Greco’s Vision of Saint John
The intense visual imagery of Revelation has inspired many artists to try and capture John’s words on canvas. One influential piece to emerge from this effort is The Vision of Saint John by El Greco, a 17th century Greco-Spanish artist. The painting is also referred to as The Opening of the Fifth Seal.
As the two names for the painting imply, the painting depicts both John and the opening of the fifth seal (6:9). John, with his hands raised like a modern-day street preacher, dominates the lower foreground of the canvas. Behind him, the souls under the altar cry out and receive white robes from above. El Greco painted The Vision of Saint John for a side altar of the Church of Saint John the BaptistJohn the Baptizer was the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah, preaching a gospel of repentance and preparing the way of the Lord More in Toledo, Spain. After his death, it was removed from the church and the upper half of the painting was destroyed in a disastrous restoration effort in the late 19th century. It is believed that the upper half showed the lamb opening the fifth seal. El Greco’s painting exerted considerable influence on the development of modernism in art, especially on the early cubist works of Pablo Picasso. This can be seen most readily in Picasso’s revolutionary painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which reflects and plays on the figures and motifs from The Vision of Saint John.
Premillennialism and Postmillennialism
At times during his visions, John makes reference to what seem to be specific durations of time, and the specificity of these time periods has led to much theological wrangling. This wrangling can be seen in the debate between two theological camps known as Premillennialism and Postmillennialism.
Premillennialists and postmillennialists differ based on their interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6 in which John describes the binding of Satan for a thousand years. During this time period, John also proclaims that “the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God” will be resurrected and they will reign with Christ for a thousand years. Both pre- and post-millennialism agree that the end times will feature a thousand years of peace and prosperity (“the millennium” in which the world will be ruled by the people of God). However, the difficulty of pinning down John’s elusive language has led to the premillennial/postmillennial split: Premillennialists claim that the second coming of Christ will happen before the thousand year reign (and thus Christ will reign with the people of God), whereas postmillennialists claim that it will occur after the people of God have ruled for a thousand years.
One of the ways in which this difference between the two groups plays out practically is that postmillennialists often hold that they must bring about the thousand year reign of the people of God so that Christ will return. This manifests itself in evangelism and missionary efforts. Premillennialism, in contrast, is frequently associated with apocalyptic views of the end times such as the Rapture.
Albrecht Durer and Gustav Dore
Though separated in time by three centuries, the German artist Albrecht Durer and the French artist Gustav Dore are united by their fascination with both Revelation and wood block prints. Modern-day Bibles tend to be almost exclusively text. It was, however, previously quite common to include many illustrations in Bibles, and both Durer and Dore illustrated many Bibles through the artistic medium of woodcut. The images contained in Revelation gave much room for them to express their artistic gifts and it is interesting to compare the ways in which Durer, who lived during the Renaissance, and Dore, who lived in 19th century France, treated the same scene. These can be seen in their depictions of John himself (Durer, Dore), the four horsemen (Durer, Dore), and the dragon in pursuit of Mother Church (Durer, Dore). The variations which the two artists found in the scenes from Revelation highlight the flexibility of John’s language and should give pause to those trying to draw literal, historical conclusions out of Revelation’s text.
John the Revelator
The book of Revelation has inspired more than just classical music and hymns. In the American South at the turn of the 20th century, John as an inspired prophet was taken up as a forerunner of the founders of American blues music. John’s extemporaneous visions were seen to correspond with the emergence of the blues as an improvised genre of guitar playing, with the blues guitarists themselves taking on the role of inspired prophet.
John as a god-fearing man also served as a counterpoint to the legends around some blues musicians, such as Robert Johnson, who were said to have received their ability to play the guitar from the devil. This link between Revelation and the blues was codified in the song “John the Revelator,” first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1930. Johnson’s rendition of the song focuses on the opening of the seven seals. Later versions, including recordings by Son House, expanded to include references that spanned the biblical story from the FallThe fall refers specifically to the disobedience of Adam and Eve when they listened to Satan rather than adhering to God's command not to eat the fruit from the tree. When people act contrary to God's will, they are said to fall from from grace... More to the Passion and Resurrection.