What does the book of Revelation say? (part 6)

Ted Grimsrud

6. An Angry Lamb? (Revelation 6:1-17)

[This is the sixth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

It is not too difficult to see in Revelation one through five a nice message of peace, the Lamb as the way. But then with chapter six, the plagues begin. For most readers of Revelation, this apparent turn toward judgment seems to come as a relief. But let me suggest something that might seem counter-intuitive—or at least contrary to the most obvious reading of Revelation 6—or at least contrary to Christianity’s teaching about God’s anger. I don’t think we should read these verses as being about God’s punitive judgment.

But most interpreters of Revelation seem automatically to assume that Revelation six is about God’s punishing judgment, directly visited upon the earth. As if the one on the throne who endorses the Lamb’s persevering love as the basis for the opening of the scroll now starts to rip things apart. As if the Lamb himself all of a sudden becomes angry. Think about it though, can you imagine an angry lamb? I believe it is clear that the metaphor in Revelation of the Lamb means to evoke a sense of gentleness, not punishing anger.

Bringing together two truths

So what then might be going on in Revelation six?

John brings together two truths. First, he affirms that the one on the throne made, sustains, and heals creation. The scroll that the Lamb took from the one’s right hand truly does contain the story of the healing of heaven and earth. And this healing will happen through persevering love, expressed most fundamentally in the Lamb’s path of faithful witness. But the second truth cannot be avoided: The world we live in remains powerfully alienated, the home of terrible injustices, violence, and domination. The need for healing remains all too obvious—as does the reign of the powers of greed and inhumanity.

How can we understand and affirm God’s care for creation and all that is in it in face of the brokenness that is so apparent? That is the question Revelation six tries to respond to with these horrific visions of destruction. But does God add to creation’s hurt with punishing judgment? How could this be in light of what we learned from Revelation four and five? 

“Breaking the seals” as a metaphor

I suggest we best see the opening of the scrolls as a metaphor. The Lamb in this way provides insight into how we understand the world we live in right now. These are not visions of a future catastrophe a punishing God is going to visit on rebellious creation. Rather they are visions into the world in which we live.

A key number in Revelation is “3½.” It contrasts with seven years (the time of wholeness). The three and a half years (or 42 months or 1260 days) refer to the time of the present—our time of brokenness. We will read in other visions that the plagues last these 3½ years. The plagues characterize the time before the establishment of the New Jerusalem and the brokenness of the world we live in.

That the Lamb opens the scrolls does not mean the Lamb causes the violence and destruction but rather tells us that we are to understand the various expressions of hurt and damage in our world from the Lamb’s perspective. Note, as well, with the four riders, the passive voice: “a crown was given” (6:2); “its rider was permitted” (6:4); “they were given” (6:8). This passive voice makes the source of the plagues ambiguous. The source actually could be the Dragon. Chapter 12 will imply this. But even if in some sense we are to think of God as involved in the plagues, the passive voice creates distance. If it is God, in some mysterious providential way, God does not reach down to make the plagues happen. Many other wills shape these dynamics—especially those who oppose God.

“Wrath” and God and the Lamb

But what about the “wrath” here—“the great day of their wrath” (the one on the throne and the Lamb)? What does “wrath” mean? “Wrath” in the Bible actually most often means something more indirect and less personal than anger. In fact, often the word “wrath” is used alone. The English translators add “God’s.” But it just says “wrath,” not “God’s wrath.” In Romans one, Paul talks about the outworking of “wrath” being that “God gave them (the idolaters) up,” not that God directly punished them. Wrath has to do with the processes of life.

So, we may link the wrath of God and the Lamb with God’s respect for human choice. God lets us make our choices and then face the consequences. Revelation six, then, does not picture an active, punishing, angry God and an angry, vicious Lamb. Rather, Revelation six, through the breaking of the scrolls, helps readers understand better the world in which we live so we might better follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

A key image in the chapter points in this direction, though it is commonly misunderstood. Interpreters usually assume that God’s punishing vengeance is fueled by the cries of the martyrs “under the altar” spoken of in 6:9: “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:9). Clearly a cry for punishing revenge, right? Well, not so fast….

The key word here is often translated “avenge.” However, the word, more literally, could be translated “bring justice.” It is a “justice” term. Biblical justice is not not so much vengeance as restoring relationships. So maybe this is what the martyrs cry out: “How long before you heal creation; how long before you transform the inhabitants of the earth?”

Because, notice two more things. First, each of the martyrs was given “a white robe” (6:11). The white robes throughout Revelation are the garments worn by those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. The Lamb’s attitude toward those who took his life was “forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Does it not stand to reason that those who are closest to Jesus, to the point that they receive the reward of the white robe, would share his views about the treatment of offenders? And then, second, after their call for justice, the martyrs are told to remain patient. This “3½ years” of struggle will continue a bit longer. Then God will answer your pleas. This promise makes us want to peek ahead in Revelation to the ending.

God’s answer

How is the call for justice answered? Let’s peek at the end of Revelation, the vision of the New Jerusalem, renewed heaven and earth, the completing of the story from the inside of the scroll. The story ends in the New Jerusalem. “The nations will walk by [the light of the glory of God], and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:24). The justice of God heals even God’s greatest enemies. How does this happen? Let those with the white robes remain patient, follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and trust in God’s true justice.

It turns out that maybe Revelation has more coherence than many think. Visions of the slain Lamb as the meaning of history in chapters 5 and 19 bracket the plague visions that make up chapters six through eighteen. These plague visions, then, also illumine the Lamb’s sovereignty, the sovereignty of love. They do not contain predictions of God certain punishing judgment on creation. Rather, they contain insights into what actually is going on in our world right now—and how this is to be negotiated by people genuinely committed to the ways of peace.

The book has a clear message: Cry out, passionately cry out, for justice—for God’s healing justice. And follow the Lamb’s way, strive for the white robe of love and compassion.

Link to index for “What does Revelation say?” blog posts

Link to part seven of this series

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