Monday, January 19, 2015

Revelation: a Book Report (Part 1)

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

I have decided to divide my report on the book of Revelation into two sections: 1.) summary and 2.) interpretation.  This is because, before getting into what the text means, I feel it is important to explain what the text says—it’s overall story and imagery.  It’s a bizarre and wild ride.  Here we go, part 1—summary.

"St. John the Evangelist at Patmos" by Verhaecht Tobias Congnet Gilles (1598)

John’s Vision and Message to the Churches

A man named John, a follower of Jesus, was alone on the island of Patmos when he had a vision of things to come.  He heard a voice, telling him to write down what he saw.  First, he saw a man wearing a robe and golden sash.  His hair was white, and his eyes like fire.  He had a booming voice, and when he spoke a sword came out of his mouth.  He stood in the midst of seven golden lampstands, and held seven stars in his hand.  He told John to write letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

"John's Vision of the Seven Candlesticks (Lamp-stands) by John Henry Fuseli (1796)

To the church in Ephesus, he said, “You are doing a good job overall, but you have sinned a little too.  If you repent and hold fast, you will get to eat from the tree of life.”

To the church in Smyrna, he wrote, “I know you guys are poor, but you are spiritually rich.  Unfortunately, you are going to suffer some more.  Hang on.”

To the church in Pergamum, he wrote, “You live in a place where Satan has power.  Hold onto your faith, and don’t listen to false teachers.”

To the church in Thyatira, he wrote, “You are doing a pretty good job, but beware of false teachers and their pagan practices.  If you hold on, you’ll get to conquer and rule over the nations of the world.”

To the church in Sardis, he wrote, “You are not doing a good job.  Get your shit together, and you’ll get a reward.”

To the church in Philadelphia, he wrote, “I will make you conquerors over those who follow Satan.  You’ll have a prime place in the new world to come.”

To the church in Laodicea, he wrote, “You guys are total slackers!  Shape up, or you’ll be punished.”


The Seven Seals

Then John saw a door in heaven open and he was allowed to enter through the door.  He saw a heavenly being seated on a throne with a rainbow around it.  Around this throne were 24 other thrones with elders sitting on them, dressed in white robes, wearing crowns.  Coming from the main throne was thunder, lightning, and fire.  Around this throne were four strange creatures with six wings each and eyes all over.  One creature looked like a lion, another an ox, another a human, and the last an eagle.  The 24 elders and the four creatures all worshipped the one on the main throne (who, I think, was God).

"The Four and Twenty Elders Casting Their Crowns Before the Divine Throne" by William Blake (1805)

Then man on the main throne held a scroll with seven seals.  An angel asked, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals?”  No one was found to do it, so John started crying.  But one of the elders said, “Look, there is a lamb who has been slaughtered.  He can open the seals.”  So the elders and thousands of angels sang a song of praise to the lamb.

"The Slain Lamb" from a 14th century Latin manuscript.

The lamb opened the first four seals (which must have been hard, as lambs don’t have opposable thumbs) and four horsemen came forth, one after the other—white, red, black, and pale horses.  These four horsemen were given power over one fourth of the earth, to kill people with the sword, famine, pestilence, and wild animals.

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Victor Vasnetsov (1887)

The lamb opened the fifth seal, and the souls of those who had died for their faith cried out from beneath an altar in heaven, “How long before we are avenged?”  They each got a white robe and were told to wait a little longer.

When the lamb opened the sixth seal, there was a massive earthquake, the sun was darkened, the moon became like blood, stars fell from heaven, and the sky vanished like a scroll rolling up.  Everyone on the earth, from kings to peasants, hid in caves and wanted to die, they were so afraid.

Then John saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back great winds of destruction.  Another angel said, “hold back destruction until we hold back those who will be saved.”  John looked and he saw 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel standing below the throne in heaven, wearing white robes, singing praises to God.  These were the saved remnant of humanity, spared from the great suffering to come upon the earth.  Things were about to get really gnarly.

When the lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for half an hour.  Seven angels came forth with seven trumpets, and another angel took fire from the altar of God and threw it to earth and there was thunder, lightning, and another earthquake.

"The Seventh Seal" is a great film by Ingmar Bergman

The Seven Trumpets

The first angel blew his trumpet and hail, fire, and blood fell from heaven and burned up a third of the earth’s trees and grass.

The second angel blew his trumpet and a great burning mountain fell into the sea and turned a third of the oceans to blood, and killed a third of all sea creatures, and destroyed a third of the ships.


The third angel blew his trumpet and a great burning star fell from heaven and burned up a third of the rivers and streams of the world, making their water poison.

The fourth angel blew his trumpet and a third of the sun, moon, and stars were darkened, so the length of daylight was shortened by a third.  At this point, an eagle flew by and said, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth!”  Things were going to get worse.

The fifth angel blew his trumpet and a star fell from heaven and opened “the bottomless pit” (hell?) and smoke rose from the pit and the sky was darkened.  Out of the pit flew great locust monsters and they began to torture everyone who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.  These locust monsters had scorpion tails to sting people.  They had human faces, long hair, teeth like lions, and scales like iron.  The king of the locust monsters was named Abaddon (in Hebrew) and Apollyon (in Greek).

Terrifying locust/scorpion/lion/horse monsters.

The sixth angel blew his trumpet and a massive cavalry army descended upon the earth.  The horses of this cavalry had lion’s heads and serpent’s tails.  Out of their mouths came fire and smoke and sulfur.  They were allowed to kill one third of humanity.  The remaining humans did not repent of their sins.  They were in for more suffering.

Before the seventh angel blew his trumpet, this happened—a mighty angel came down from heaven wrapped in a cloud, surround by a rainbow.  He had a face like the sun and legs like pillars of fire.  His carried a little scroll.  Instead of opening it, he told John to eat it.  So John ate it.

The pillar-legged angel gives John a scroll to eat.

The angel told John to measure the Temple of God.  Then two mysterious prophets (or “witnesses”) spoke against the people of the earth, and they had the power of plagues.  Then a beast came up out of the bottomless pit and killed them.  The people were happy, because these prophets were a nuisance.  But then the prophets came back to life and went back to heaven, and an earthquake killed 7,000 people.

Two dead witnesses.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet and loud voices in heaven sang: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his messiah and he will reign forever and ever.”  The 24 elders in heaven sang, and God’s temple in heaven was opened and John could see the Ark of the Covenant inside.  Meanwhile, on earth, there were more disasters: lightning, thunder, another earthquake, and hail.

The Pregnant Woman and the Dragon

Then John saw another crazy scene in heaven—a pregnant woman crying out in labor.  She was wearing the sun and a crown of stars.  A red dragon came forth with seven heads and ten horns.  With his tail, he swept down a third of the stars.  The dragon was waiting to devour the pregnant woman’s son, but as soon as the baby was born, he was taken up to God and protected.  The woman fled into the wilderness, where she was also protected.

"The Great Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun" by William Blake

Meanwhile, a massive war broke out in heaven.  Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels.  Michael won, and the dragon (who is called Satan) was cast down to earth along with his angels.  There was more singing in heaven.

"Michael the Archangel" by Guido Reni (1636)

Down on earth, the dragon pursued the woman, but she sprouted eagle wings and flew away.  The dragon spat out water to wash her away, but the earth swallowed up the water, and she got away.  So the dragon decided to fight against the followers of Jesus on earth.

The Two Beasts

The dragon (or beast) rose out of the ocean.  On each of his seven heads were blasphemous names.  He had bear-like feet and a lion’s mouth.  One of his heads was wounded, but had healed.  Almost everyone on earth followed this sea-beast and worshipped him.  The beast spouted blasphemy, and made war on the followers of Jesus.  He slaughtered lots of people.

"The Beast from the Sea" (Medieval French Tapestry)

Meanwhile, another beast rose out of the earth.  He had two horns like a lamb, and a voice like a dragon.  His got the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first beast, and even to make idols of it that could actually speak.  This beast marked all of his followers on the hand or the forehead.  The number of this earth-beast was 666.

The Lamb and the Reaper

Then John saw a lamb on Mt. Zion (in Jerusalem) and he had 144,000 followers who were also marked on the forehead.  These people were all virgins.  A series of three angels flew by, each with a different message.  The first told people to fear God.  The second said, “Babylon has fallen!”  The third said that everyone with the mark of the beast would suffer God’s wrath.

Don't fear the reaper.

Then John saw a man in heaven with a giant sickle.  An angel with another sickle joined him, and together they reaped all the grapes of the earth.  These grapes were pressed in a giant wine press and blood flowed out for miles.  This was called the wine press of the wrath of God.  

The Seven Bowls

After some more singing in heaven, John saw seven angels with seven golden bowls of the wrath of God, which each angel, in turn, poured on the earth.  These seven bowls caused the following plagues: 1.) boils on people, 2.) turning the sea into blood and killing all sea creatures, 3.) turning rivers and streams into blood, 4.) the sun scorching people, 5.) the kingdom of the beast plunged into darkness, 6.) the river Euphrates drying up in preparation for a great battle at a place called Armageddon, 7.) huge hailstones falling on people.  After these seven bowls, the earth was seriously fucked up.

"The Giving of the Seven Bowls of Wrath" by Matthias Gerung (1531)

The Whore of Babylon

Then an angel showed John a “great whore” with whom kings of earth had sex.  The whore was riding the earth-beast, wearing expensive clothes and jewelry.  The angel explained that this imagery was largely symbolic.  The great whore represented Babylon (which actually represented Rome), prepared to make war on the forces of good.  Another angel corroborated this elaborate symbolism, and sang a song about the fall of Babylon.  Meanwhile, multitudes in heaven were singing songs of victory to God.

"The Whore of Babylon" illustration from the Luther Bible (1534)

Last Battles

Then John saw a white horse with a rider named “Faithful and True” and “The Word of God” leading the armies of heaven against the great beast.  It was a massive battle, and the beast was captured, along with his cohorts, and they were thrown into a lake of fire.  Scavengers birds ate the dead of the battlefield.  The beast/dragon/Satan was cast into a pit for a thousand years.  Jesus and his followers ruled the earth for this millennium.

When Satan and his cohorts returned from the pit, there was one last battle outside Jerusalem.  God (of course) won this battle.  Then came the last judgment, when the followers of Satan were sent to burn in the lake of fire, and the followers of Jesus were glorified to eternal life.

"The Messiah Casts the Fallen Angels Down from Heaven" by Gustave Dore

The New Jerusalem

The visions of John end, not with people rising to heaven, but with heaven descending to earth.  The ruined world passes away and is replaced by “a new heaven and a new earth.”  A new Jerusalem descends from heaven, and God and his people live there together forever.  It is a beautiful city of gold and precious stones inhabited by glorified humans, heavenly beings, Jesus, and God.  There is no temple because God himself lives among the people.  A river of life flows through the city, and there is a new tree of life beside the river.  This new city lasts forever.

John of Patmos Watches the Descent of the New Jerusalem from God (14th century tapestry)

John ends by telling his audience that all these things are about to happen soon, and to remain faithful to God as they wait for this imminent apocalypse.

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