The Seventh Seal

Today’s title has generated much interest in filmdom history, most particularly in a 1957 Swedish (sjunde inseglet) fantasy film adaptation written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Set in Sweden during the Black Death, it bespeaks of the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and how he attempts to ward-off his own death in a game of chess he plays with the personification of Death; as the film progresses we see whether he wins or loses his life…but no spoilers here. The film is so popular that when one googles “the seventh seal”, the majority of images that pop-up are from this adaptation:

But now onward to the 8th chapter…

The Seventh Seal, 8:1-5

Rev 8:1 The Lamb then broke the seventh seal, and there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

Rev 8:2 Next I saw seven trumpets being given to the seven angels who stand in the presence of God.

Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. A large quantity of incense was given to him to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that stood in front of the throne;

Rev 8:4 and so from the angel’s hand the smoke of the incense went up in the presence of God and with it the prayers of the saints.

Rev 8:5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it from the fire of the altar, which he then hurled down onto the earth; immediately there came peals of thunder and flashes of lightning, and the earth shook.

A deafening silence occurs after the opening of the seventh seal:

When the Lamb finally opens the seventh seal, however, we are met not by a vision of the end, but by an eerie silence. Why silence? Primarily, this is good dramatic effect. All heaven waits breathlessly for the final events to unfold. The heavenly beings who have been lavishing God and the Lamb with songs of praise now stand quietly in hushed anticipation. G. B. Caird noted, “It is as though there is one bar’s rest for the whole orchestra and choir of heaven before they launch on the second of John’s symphonic variations.”

The silence perhaps carries a deeper significance, however. Some scholars have noted the passage in 2 Esdras 7:26-44 that describes the events of the end time. After the end of the messianic kingdom on earth, “then the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings” (7:30). As a period of silence preceded the first creation (cf. 2 Esd 6:39; 2 Bar. 3:7), a period of silence will precede the new creation by God. (Smyth Helwys Bible Commentary)

What is more, silence itself is an indication of the majesty of the Unborn—no-thing else in the created order comes close to its sublime and noble stature. What comes next is just as uplifting, the angelic-censer overflowing with sweet-smelling incense. This brings to mind my time in seminary over 40 years ago, concerning a certain antiphon from psalm 141 that is chanted during evening prayer in the chapel: “My prayers rise like incense, my hands like an evening off’ring.” I can still envision the clouds of incense that rose heavenward, indeed very sweet-smelling like frankincense, which oftentimes it was. The censer is known as a therible; close at hand was the “boat” that housed the incense:

The next vision of the angel hurling-down the fiery-censer brings to mind an image of him winding and swinging it above his head like some Olympic star before sending it crashing down into the earth:

The First Four Trumpets, 8:6-13

Rev 8:6 The seven angels that had the seven trumpets now made ready to sound them.

Rev 8:7 The first blew his trumpet and, with that, hail and fire, mixed with blood, were hurled on the earth: a third of the earth was burnt up, and a third of all trees, and every blade of grass was burnt.

Rev 8:8 The second angel blew his trumpet, and it was as though a great mountain blazing with fire was hurled into the sea: a third of the sea turned into blood,

Rev 8:9 a third of all the living things in the sea were killed, and a third of all ships were destroyed.

Rev 8:10 The third angel blew his trumpet, and a huge star fell from the sky, burning like a ball of fire, and it fell on a third of all rivers and on the springs of water;

Rev 8:11 this was the star called Wormwood, and a third of all water turned to wormwood, so that many people died; the water had become so bitter.

Rev 8:12 The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were blasted, so that the light went out of a third of them and the day lost a third of its illumination, and likewise the night.

Rev 8:13 In my vision, I heard an eagle, calling aloud as it flew high overhead, ‘Disaster, disaster, disaster, on all the people on earth at the sound of the other three trumpets which the three angels have yet to blow!’

Trumpets in the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish worlds were primarily used as heralds of important events rather than as musical instruments. They were used as military instruments—to sound an alarm, gather the troops, pass on orders, inspire courage, terrify the enemy, and herald victory. They were used in religious ceremonies to announce special feasts or fasts, to secure the attention of the gods, and to accompany various acts of worship. In the Jerusalem temple, trumpets sounded daily to announce the opening of the temple gates and the time of the morning and evening sacrifices. In Jewish tradition, the blowing of trumpets was associated with eschatological events, also. In Joel 2:1, the command is given to “blow the trumpet in Zion . . . for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near.” Zeph 1:14-16 describes the day of the LORD as “a day of trumpet blast and battle cry.” In 2 Esd 6:23, the sounding of the trumpet is one of the signs of the last days. The eschatological association with trumpets is found in the New Testament writings as well (Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; and 1 Thess 4:16). (ibid)

The content of the trumpet series is a free adaption of the ten plagues against the Egyptians which preceded the exodus (Exod 7-10). (JBC) I’m always amazed of the extent of destruction that is depicted in the Book of Revelation. Why punish the entire cosmos for the evil deeds committed by man? Truly a depiction of a vengeful and vindictive divinity, yea, to destroy all that he has created? Why bother to create it in the first place if it’s all going to be torn down at some point. Then again, it shows just how much humanity has been entrusted with; that’s why it’s so important to be faithful and caring stewards of creation.

Like the description of the word Wormwood as the name of that falling star. Wormwood is a bitter substance:

The imagery of a star polluting the water indicates that this is punishment from heaven, that is, divine punishment. Wormwood is the popular name of several related plants. The wormwood mentioned several places in the Bible (Deut 29:18; Prov 5:4; Jer 9:15; 23:15; Lam 3:15, 19; Amos 5:7) is probably a small shrub with hairy, gray leaves that was known for its extremely bitter taste. In the Bible, wormwood is often used figuratively to refer to bitterness and sorrow, particularly as those characteristics are associated with the aftermath of divine judgment. Although the plant is not poisonous, John uses his literary license to enhance the effect of this bitter plant. (ibid)

Wormwood is an apt description for the bitter-taste that the divinity has in his mouth regarding his fallen creation—hence he spews it all out! The flying Eagle depicted here is also an apt image for the harbinger of destruction, although the word aetos can also be defined as “vulture”. Vulture somehow seems more appropriate, for the devastated landscape is truly a deathscape.

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