As soon as each of the first six seals was opened, John either "saw" something or "heard" something, or both. When the seventh seal was opened, however, he saw nothing and heard nothing for about half an hour (v. 1). Half an hour is not a long time, but half an hour of silence can seem like an eternity, whether it is "dead air" on radio or television or a silent dinner for two after a quarrel between a husband and a wife. To get some idea of the effect, imagine that a church youth group is doing a dramatic reading of the book of Revelation. When it comes to Revelation 8:1, it takes the verse literally so that all speech and all action stops—for thirty minutes—while the congregation fidgets and squirms and probably exits.
The silence is total. It is said to be in heaven (v. 1) only because heaven has been the scene of all that John has just heard and seen in 7:9-17. If there are sounds on the earth, they play no part in John's vision. What is the purpose of the long silent pause? Is it so that the prayers of all the saints can be heard (Beasley-Murray 1974:150)? The prayers of all the saints are not mentioned until the half hour is over (v. 3), and when they are mentioned they are not "heard" but offered up as incense. If, as some have suggested, "the seventh seal is the End" (Caird 1966:104), is the silence merely an indication of nondisclosure—as if John were saying, "Next comes the end of all things, but I am not going to reveal that to you just yet"? Or is the silence a dramatic preparation for the resumption of sound and action? Are we waiting for something more? The fact that the silence is broken by a great deal of noise, peals of thunder, rumblings . . . an earthquake (v. 5) and the blasts of seven trumpets, argues for the second of these alternatives.
At the end of the half hour comes the expected reference to something John saw (v. 2), suggesting that far from being over, the seventh seal is only beginning. What John saw is reminiscent of what he saw in the preceding chapter in connection with the sixth seal: first a group of angels (four in one instance, seven in the other) and then another angel (v. 3; compare 7:2) who in some way determines their course of action, probably because he is greater than they. This parallel confirms the notion that the half hour of silence did not bring the series of seals to an end, but that the seventh seal is still playing itself out.
The one called another angel functions here as a kind of high priest, ministering on behalf of the larger priesthood comprising the people of God (compare 1:5; 5:10; 7:15). Standing at the altar in heaven, he offers up incense that has something to do with the prayers of all the saints (v. 3; compare 5:8). This is the first we have heard of the altar since John's vision of souls "under the altar" in connection with the fifth seal (6:9). There John was allowed to hear the prayers of at least one group of Christian believers—those who had been martyred for their testimony (6:10). His use of all widens the application to the living as well as the dead (Caird 1966:107). Just as the prayers of martyrs triggered the judgments of the sixth seal, so the prayers of all the saints ignite (literally) the judgments of the seventh. As soon as prayer (represented by the smoke of the incense) ascends to the altar of God in heaven, fire from the altar descends to earth as divine judgment (v. 5). The angel's role abruptly changes from that of high priest, or intercessor, to that of judge, or executioner. The anguished plea of 6:9, "How long until you judge the inhabitants of the earth?" is still being answered, no less in the seventh seal than in the sixth. Prayer is the engine driving the plan of God toward completion.
The altar, traditionally the place of God's mercy, ironically becomes here the very source of divine judgment. John's vision thus dramatizes the Jewish view that mercy and judgment are not two contrasting sides of God's character, but are the same thing. Flannery O'Connor captured this in the dramatic end of her novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1988:478), when Francis Tarwater receives his long-awaited prophetic call: "GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY." When the angel pours fire on the earth, John says, there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake (v. 5). Such details echo the scene in heaven before the Lamb appeared, when "from the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder" (4:5). Phenomena that John saw in heaven now make their appearance on the earth, framing the account of the seven-sealed scroll and the opening of its seals, and suggesting that the series is now at an end.
Alternatively, it is possible that these phenomena are intended to introduce the new sequence of seven angels blowing their trumpets, a sequence that will end in much the same way in 11:19: "And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm" (compare also the end of the sequence of seven bowls, 16:18). The great "storm" is under control in heaven because it comes from the very throne of God, but when the angel unleashes it on earth, it brings only turmoil and chaos. The terrible toll of the fire from the altar and the resulting thunder, lightning and earthquake (v. 5) are set forth sequentially in the next four chapters, as the seven angels introduced in verse 2 begin to blow their trumpets.
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