With the beginning of chapter six it becomes significantly easier, and more tempting, to slip into quarrels about hermeneutics and misadventures into decoding symbols. While there are certainly eschatological questions to be answered in the chapters to come and there are serious disputes which require resolution, there are perhaps less contentious truths--though they are not, for this, less important or deliberate on the part of John--which can be embraced. What John offers the readers in the opening of the seven seals and the blowing of the first four trumpets is undoubtedly cryptic. It is even probable that his audience would have found the text equally cryptic, though they may have been less baffled by what was a more typical phenomenon at the time. What is apparent, however, are several central themes which run throughout.
The first of these is the way that John alternates deliberately between destruction and salvation, between judgment and mercy. For four seals, one terror after another is released upon the world. God's agents unleash war, death, conquest, and famine in rapid succession until one quarter of the earth's population is destroyed. Then the narrative jerks violently away to the martyrs of God beneath the altar, and the divine agents are depicted clothing the suffering servants of God and telling them to be at rest. Immediately, the sixth seal is broken and even greator horrors are unleased on the earth, leaving its inhabitants to cry out to the mountains, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb." After spending most of a chapter on the wholesale destruction of the earth, the scene breaks away for a full chapter of the angels proclaiming salvation on the servants of God. "...he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." The imagery is as tender as the former was alarming.
The juxtaposition is not merely a matter of demonstrating that God is both loving and stern. John also goes to great lengths to clearly contrast the responses of the children of God with those who are hopelessly set against Him. The saved, from every tribe, nation, and tongue, cry out together, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" This is almost certainly intended by John to be ironic, considering that mere verses ago the objects of God's wrath sought salvation from the mountains. While the saints offer their prayers to God, the lost pray senselessly to the mountains for salvation. They should have known that God is God over all creation, even the mountains.
Which is the second theme running through the text. The catalogue of destruction which is offered up in the opening of the seven seals and the blowing of the first four trumpets is not some litany of divine sadism and must certainly be more than a mere ennumeration of destructive methodology. Instead, Revelation 6-8 is a creation text supremely concerned with reminding God's creatures in astonishing fashion that He is creator and Master of His creation. God created the myriad and magnificent flora of the earth; with the first trumpet He permits their destruction. God created the oceans and the life which teems in them; with the second trumpet He permits their destruction. God created the fresh water rivers which sustain all life on earth; with the third trumpet He permits their destruction. God made all the lights of the heavens; with the fourth trumpet He permits their destruction. Over the course of the divine drama, God rolls up His heavens, displaces His mountains, casts down His stars, opens up His depths, unleashes His wind, and shakes the very foundations of His earth until all creation is reminded that He is in fact Almighty. Even death, that most pernicious of Christian enemies, is not above God. He is its master and will allow its persistence in accordance with His will, be it through war or through famine. In a trivial sense, the whole passage boils down to the great, familiar Bill Cosby adage, "I brough you into this world; I can take you out of it." Except God can say it to the whole of creation.
Finally, the reader is reminded throughout this text that God is not only a God who judges, who forgives, who creates, and who can uncreate but He is also a God who listens. This would have been uniquely important to the Christians of John's audience who were suffering great trials. One can only imagine the countless prayers for deliverance which were offered up and which, by all appearances, were never answered. It would be a long time before Christ's church ever found longterm safety, and in many places it still languishes in waiting. That we suffer, John reminds us, is not because our God is apathetic. When the saints beneath the altar cry out to God, their pleas are not ignored. They do not get the retribution they are begging for, but it is not because God does not sympathize with them. His plans just supercede our impatience. Later, the prayers--presumably the similar prayers to those before--of God's people are offered up with a censer before the throne. In response, that censer is filled with fire from the altar and cast onto the earth with "peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake." The prayers of the saints were not ignored nor were they wrong simply because they did not result in immediate action. They were heard and answered in power, an expectation that we can share provided that our prayers align themselves with the will of God.
For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.