Imprecatory Prayers?

With all of the study that takes place each week in the lead up to teaching a section of scripture, I often stumble across really good teaching by theologians and pastors whose mind is far more developed than my own. I greatly admire men like G.K. Beale, James Hamilton, Tom Schreiner, and D.A. Carson to name a few. I may not agree with them on every point, but often their wisdom and insight into passages of Scripture is very edifying.

The past few weeks/months I’ve been reading and studying closely the book of Revelation. In my notes on this site I’ve shown how the prayers of the saints in chapter six (the 5th “Seal”) actually serve as a catalyst for the judgments that God sends upon the earth. The power of prayer, and God’s ordination of it as a means through which He works, is plainly seen in these verses. But it leads to an interesting question: should we pray these kinds of imprecatory prayers? And if so, how ought we to think about and go about this?

In his commentary on Revelation, James Hamilton provides some wonderful insight that has been profitable for me, and perhaps would be worth your time to consider:

If you have ever wondered whether you should pray the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms, let me encourage you to look again at the way the martyrs pray for God to “avenge” their blood in 6:9-11. You bet you should pray those imprecatory prayers. Pray that God would either save His enemies, those who oppose the gospel and the people of God, that He would bring them to repentance, or if He is not going to do that, that He would thwart all their efforts to keep people from worshiping God by faith in Christ. Pray that God would either save those who destroy families and hurt little children or thwart all their efforts and keep them from doing further harm. Those prayers will be heard. Pray that God would either redeem people who are right now identifying with the seed of the serpent, or if he is not going to redeem them, that he would crush them and all their evil designs. God will answer those prayers.

Amen!

 

Revelation 7 and the 144,000

Revelation Chapter 7 (Interlude)

Introduction

I will borrow from several parts of Beale’s introduction because I have found it helpful for showing how chapter 6 and 7 tie together:

Revelation 7:1-8 explains how believers are sealed so that they can persevere through the first four tribulations (he is referring to the four horsemen) enumerated in chapter 6. The vision of 7:9-17 reveals the heavenly reward for those who do persevere. It amplifies the brief picture of the saints in 6:9-11, who have finally entered into God’s presence, after having successfully completed their course of suffering (see esp. 7:13-15). 7:9-17 also describes the kind of rest that the exalted saint were told to enjoy (6:11)…Saints who suffer in the tribulation are encouraged to persevere as they reflect on the divine protection they have through God’s sealing them and as they recall the promise of their future heavenly reward.

Therefore, the sealing of the saints explains further how Christ will “keep them from the hour of trial” which is “to test the earth-dwellers” who have persecuted them (cf. 6:10). All these connections concern matters that precede the final judgment and reward, so chapter 7 must function as an interlude or parenthesis in its placement after chapter 6. Yet the chapter also has a future aspect, especially toward the end (vv. 15-17). From this perspective the chapter is also an answer to the concluding question of 6:17, “who is able to stand”: before God and not suffer the wrath of the last judgment? This is the definite answer to 6:17 and the main point toward which the visionary narrative of 7:9ff drives.[i]

Hamilton rightly says that, “This chapter is important because we will see later in 9:4 that those who are sealed will not be harmed, and we see in 14:1-5 that this group stands with Jesus, redeemed, on Mount Zion. The fact that God seals his servants also informs the number of the beast in 13:16-18, which seems to be a satanic imitation of God’s sealing of his servants.”[ii]

7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.

There are obviously no “corners” to the earth – Columbus helped us figure that one out some time ago – and just as obvious is the fact that God knew it all along! But the meaning here is a simple literary device to mean that the reach of the power of the angels was worldwide.

What are they holding back? The “four winds”, which I tend to believe equate with the four horsemen from chapter 6. For in Zechariah 6 they are equated as the same thing:

And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.[iii] (Zechariah 6:5)

Beale explains:

This identification becomes clearer from understanding that the sealing of believers in vv 3-8 explains how they can be protected spiritually from the woes of the four horsemen, which they must endure. Therefore, the identification of the winds with the horsemen means that the sealing of believers in vv 2-8 takes us back even before the time when the four horsemen of 6:1-8 are unleashed.[iv]

7:2-3 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, [3] saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

The Seal and the Passover

The seal of God here is the mark of ownership and of protection that indicates that you are God’s own possession and that your salvation has been secured. A brilliant picture of this occurred prior to the Exodus when God instructed Moses to adorn the lentils of Jewish homes in Goshen with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death would know to pass over those homes in the midst of a devastating night-time slaughter of the first born of all Egypt. That night, thousands of years prior to John’s vision, an entire generation was taken away by the Sovereign of all life.

And it is those plagues – the 10 plagues that wracked Egypt prior to the Exodus – that serve as one of the main OT backdrops of the first four seal judgments (the four horsemen), but especially come to mind in the Trumpet and Bowl judgments in the coming chapters. They are modeled after those plagues, and are meant to serve as a reminder of God’s power and sovereignty, as well as His plan for anti-typical fulfillment of a final exodus from sin, death, and a fallen world; He will lead His people to a new land.

Now, the seal is the opposite of the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast is just another way of saying you are a child of the enemy, as opposed to a child of God.

It is a harsh reality that we must come to grips with that all those who are not children of God are, in Biblical terms, categorized as children of Satan, because they are under His control. This reality goes back to Genesis 3:15 where the seed of the Woman was to battle it out with the seed of the Serpent. It didn’t take long before the first battle commenced – Able was the first physical casualty in a war that would stretch for thousands of years. Jesus taught this dichotomy clearly:

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, [40] but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. [41] You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” [42] Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. [43] Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. [46] Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? [47] Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:39-47).

Paul emphasized this as well:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).

It is only through the grace of God that one is saved from the enemy camp. Indeed, Jesus came to make enemies His friends:

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:9-10).

And this seal is that which indicates that we have been snatched from the enemy camp, and are in the army of God’s glorious elect. It is also an indication of protection from all the evil plagues I mentioned were about to befall mankind. Not protection from difficulty, or struggles in this life. The Israelites were spared death, but yet they endured many of the plagues the Egyptians endured, and then wandered in the wilderness and had a tough go of it for many years before being granted entrance into the Promised Land. So too are we protected ultimately.

Beale explains this well I think:

The nature of this protection is spiritual. This is apparent from the fact that believers and unbelievers suffer similar physical afflictions. But, whereas these trials purify God’s servants, they harden the ungodly in their response to God (so 9:19-21). The seal is closely related to the salvation of the people who bear it. This is evident from 14:1-4, where the group that has “written on their foreheads” the names of Christ and the Father (vs1) is also said to be redemptively “purchased.”[v]

Now, more poignantly, the seal is especially that which protects us from what Revelation refers to as “the second death.”

The sealing of the elect is the answer to the question posed in 6:17, “who is able to standin the great day of the Lord’s judgment. Well, the answer is that the elect are able to stand because God has sealed them. Tom Schreiner sums up nicely:

Those whose names are written in the book of life are enrolled because the Lamb has been slain on their behalf (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). The 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:1-8) only because they belong to the Lamb. His death is the source of their life. The sing a new song of salvation and have the name of the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads because they have been redeemed by the Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5).[vi]

A Reminder of the OT Imagery

In this way we can see the importance once again of knowing our Old Testament. I’ve said again and again in class how these OT images and stories would have been automatically conjured up in the minds of 1st century believers hearing John’s symbolic descriptions. Their minds would work with OT imagery the same way ours works when we hear the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Immediately we think: Star Wars! And all the stories and characters flood to mind in milliseconds. The same is true for the original readers of John’s letter. Therefore, we much be extra studious to understand their minds, and seek to know the OT backdrop which colors the words of this book.

7:4-8 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: [5] 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, [6] 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, [7] 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, [8] 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

There are four general theories[vii] of who makes up this group of 144,000.

  1. The dispensational view, which takes it literally as 144,000 exact people, they see it as Jewish Christians coming out of the great tribulation. “This is based on the presupposition that John’s language is to be understood literally except where he states explicitly otherwise.”[viii] The issue is that hermeneutically their literalization of the number is incorrect – every number in Revelation is figurative, why would this be different? Also, their view that a rapture of Christians will take place prior to a period of tribulation is further error that compounds the mistake.
  2. Some classic pre-mills view this group as figurative, standing for the Jews who are partially hardened but will be come to faith en masse when Christ comes back (Romans 11:24-26). The issue with this is that the Romans 11 passage talks about salvation en masse, whereas this pass in Rev. 7 has in view a remnant of people. They seem to be conveying two different ideas.
  3. Some see the 144,000 as Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first century who will emerge from the horrors of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. My issue with this is that it doesn’t seem to accord with the context. If chapter 7 is an explanation of chapter 6:1-8, which I believe is evident, then one would have to say that the four horsemen were only corresponding to that destruction which took place in 70 A.D., with the following 5th seal emphasis on Christian martyrdom. However, I’m not sure that historically this has been the emphasis coming out of 70 AD (not that its not possible I suppose). It would either damage the recapitulation hermeneutic more generally, which we have seen manifold evidence for thus far, else it might suppose that all of the trumpets and bowls are referring to that time in 70AD, something that the global nature of their descriptions seem at odds with.  
  4. Lastly, there is the view that the number is figurative and that the group here is “the complete number of God’s people” (so Beale). I believe this is correct because every other number in Revelation is figurative, and because the context of the passage demands this conclusion.[ix]

I believe there is ample evidence to point to the fact that what is being represented here is not simply a special carve out of ethnic Jews, but a figurative description of the church across all time. While futurists believe that this group of people are Jewish believers coming out of a literal 7-year tribulation period after the rapture, not all premillennial futurists agree. Both Mounce and Ladd disagree, saying that the 144,000 is symbolic for the church in the tribulation.[x] That being said, I just don’t see these ideas as working very well, and believe Schreiner, Beale, and Hendriksen to be on the right track here. This is evidenced by the figurative nature of 144,000.

Beale explains the 144,000 number, and generally Hendriksen and others say the same thing:

144,000 is the result of the square of twelve multiplied by one thousand or the multiple of the squares of ten and twelve multiplied by ten. The use of twelve (and perhaps ten) heightens the figurative idea of completeness. The square of twelve may be merely the number of the tribes of Israel multiplied by itself or, more likely, the twelve tribes multiplied by the twelve apostles. Chapter 21 confirms this suggestion, where the names of the twelve tribes and of the twelve apostles form part of the figurative structure of the heavenly city of God, “the new Jerusalem.”[xi]

Hendriksen picks up on this citation of chapter 21 and says, “Entirely in harmony with this representation we read in Revelation 21 that the holy city Jerusalem has twelve gates and twelve foundations. On these twelve gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the twelve foundations were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21:9-14). We also ready that the wall is 144 cubits in height (21:17).”[xii]

In other words, the number 144,000 is a number meant to represent something, not specifically count individuals. And that something it represents is “the sealed multitude of…the entire Church militant of the old and new dispensations.”[xiii]

Schreiner helpfully discusses the idea and provides a useful summary snapshot:

Some interpreters, of course, understand the 144,000 as literally referring to Israel. The arguments presented previously (cf. his NT theology chapter 17) suggest that John uses “Israel” symbolically to refer to the new people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel point now to a greater fulfillment: the church of Jesus Christ. The 144,000 is symbolic in that it is twelve squared and multiplied by one thousand. It represents, then, the totality of God’s people and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. It also represents God’s army in that it is comparable to the census of Israel s God’s army in the OT. God’s warriors are those who suffer for other sake of the Lamb. The church of Jesus Christ is, then, the true synagogue of God, the place where his people father together. The church does not cancel out ethnic Israel, for the names of the twelve tribes are on the gates of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:12). But the true Israel, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, finds its fulfillment in the church of Jesus Christ.[xiv]

Lost Identity

I sometimes feel obliged to spend more time refuting the dispensational viewpoint because of its odd predominance in our culture at this time in history. So I want to give one more angle on this group of 144,000 as food for thought.

One of the main difficulties with the dispensational viewpoint on this number representing Jewish Christians from literal tribes is that those tribes were completely obliterated during the Assyrian exile. Beale notes that there was still a possibility that some tribal identity existed in the first century A.D. (e.g. Acts 26:7), it seems that many Jews even at this time didn’t have a specific tribal identity. And while dispensationalists like Walvoord argue that God still knows who is from what tribe,[xv] even that argument has two issues

  1. Intermarriage: Of course God knows everything, but what is it that object of His knowledge? Are there some people who have somehow accidentally remained of purely Reuben, or Judah, or Benjamin blood? Assuming God knows the blood lineage of all mankind, it is still highly doubtful that given all the intermarriage in the last 2000+ years that there remain on earth now (or in the future) those who are purely of the blood of one or another of these tribes.
  2. Context: Beale says, “Even if it were viable (and my first point were null), it would have to remain speculation until more evidence from Revelation 7 or elsewhere in the book could be adduced to support it. Instead, the immediate and broad contexts point to a transferal of the tribal names to the church.”[xvi] That broader context could include the noted parallel of chapter 7 with 14:1-4. In those verses the 144,000 are said to be those who are “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God” (14:4) – in my mind this draws from NT literature in which we are told the church (James 1:18 perhaps picking up on Jeremiah 2:2-3?) and Christ (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18) are the firstfruits of God (The church due to the nature of its unity with Christ – see Romans 6-8). That they are redeemed from mankind emphasizes again that they are a remnant, and that they are not simply from Israel, but more globally from “mankind.” We will discuss this more when we come to chapter 14.

An Odd List

Now there are some oddities with the tribal list. First, it is missing the tribe of Dan and also missing Ephraim. Futurists like Walvoord say that this is either because the antichrist will come from Dan, or because these tribes were guilty of idolatry.[xvii] But there is no such biblical evidence to support the former, and the latter could be said of all of the tribes!

Hendriksen says, “To say that the symbol ultimately indicates Israel according to the flesh is wrong. The apostle certainly knew that ten of the twelve tribes had disappeared in Assyria, at least to a great extent; while Judah and Benjamin had lost their national existence when Jerusalem fell, in AD 70. Besides, if Israel according to the flesh were meant, why should Ephraim and Dan be omitted? Surely not all the people in the tribe of Dan were lost.”[xviii]

Of course some of this doubles down on what I already mentioned before, but I believe it’s sometimes helpful to hear it from other sources and perspectives.

Another oddity is that Judah is listed first in the list. In my mind there could be some influence here from Genesis 49 where Jacob blessed his sons and predicted that from the tribe of Judah would come a king – that king, as we now know, was Jesus.[xix]

Hamilton sums up some of these oddities, “…in this list that John gives in Revelation 7:5-8, he leaves out Dan, lists Manasseh but not Ephraim, and lists both Joseph and Levi. So john has twelve tribes listed, but this list doesn’t match the way that the Old Testament generally listed the twelve tribes.”[xx]

Hamilton thinks that perhaps Walvoord is right in saying that the omission of Dan and Ephraim (which was the name also equated with the northern kingdom of Israel) might be due to idolatry. But it is hard to say for sure.

7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, [10] and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Some objections are given by the dispensastionalists that these two groups can’t possibly be the same people. One group is described as coming from every tribe and nation and the other is described with a number and as Israelites. But the similarities outweigh the differences. The second group seems to have emerged from the tribulation because they were sealed (which was something mentioned of the first group). It also seems likely that, “on this understanding, just as John heard that Jesus was a Lion in 5:5 and then “saw” Jesus as a Lamb in 5:6, so also John “heard” the number 144,000 in 7:4 and then saw an innumerable multitude in 7:9.”[xxi]

Therefore, John looks and sees something that previously he only heard. If verses 4-8 are representative of the church from across all time, which I believe these are, then verse 9 is the visible representation of what John heard in verses 4-8. And what an amazing thing he saw!

John sees a vast multitude, a very diverse group of people. They seem to be people represented from all the nations of the earth. Their diversity transcends tongue and ethnicity, and their unity is found in that they all have white robes and palm branches in their hands, and they all cry out with a very loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11-12 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, [12] saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The angels, and elders and specifically the four living creatures all agree with the words of the church and say “Amen!”

One of the things that came to mind here was how in Isaiah 6 we are told that “one angel called to another”, that is to say that one of the Seraphim cried out in praise to God to another angel, and as if in agreement they all join together crying “holy, holy, holy” – the trisagion, He is three-times holy. And we see something similar here as well where all of God’s creation is joined together in one mind in praise to God. One group praises God, and the other seeks to echo their praise with praises of their own.

If worship is two parts: one presenting one’s body before the Lord (i.e. Romans 12:1-2), and the second presenting one’s praise before the Lord, then this group has both covered. They “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God” – but it is not an empty worship of body alone. The body is only part of the worship…

Note now the content of what they are saying about God. They acknowledge these things about and to God:

Blessing – He is the origin of all blessing, for “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Therefore it is right to bless God with our tongues for all He has given to us, and for who He is intrinsically, and that is just what they do here.

Glory – Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory we are told (Hebrews 1:1-3), but what is this glory? The glory of God is defined by John Piper as the visible and outward manifestation of His holiness – it is his holiness “gone public.” But what is being said here is that all glory, that is, all praise for goodness, is due to God. He is the only person who deserves “glory” or to be “glorified” in the truest sense of the word.

Wisdom – This is a more complex praise than it might seem at first. Wisdom is by definition a “right use of knowledge”, and we know that Christ was the very embodiment of wisdom, and that God is the keeper of all wisdom. If God was not wise, then all of His knowledge could be used to terribly ineffective or dangerous ends. But He is wise – Paul calls God the “only wise God” (Rom. 16:27) in a similar doxological moment. The idea is that the angels and elders acknowledge that to Him alone belongs wisdom. It is like saying, “God only you know all the ends from the beginning, and only you are the right governor of all history and creation, and we would never want it any other way.”

Thanksgiving – Because of these truths we are to be grateful to God for all He has seen fit to do for us. Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

Honor – Honor is specifically a word that I think fits rightly with kingship. Honor is not simply thanksgiving, or gratitude, it is rather paying respect to one who is due respect. That respect is not due only for what that person does or did, but for who they are. On earth we have a tendency to somewhat begrudgingly honor our authorities because they are in a place above us; God has put them there, thus we honor them. But in heaven honor is due to God because of His own intrinsic person and His authority over all things.

Power/Might – I will treat these two together. Though Power might be thought of as an intrinsic quality, whereas “might” in the Bible (at least in my studies) brings to mind God’s power in action. It is by His “might” that the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and so forth. Often the two ideas are held together – as in Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength (power) of his might” (insertion mine). I love this because the idea is that God’s power is always used toward the right ends. It is not man’s power, which is used often toward wrong ends. This power of God is ultimate, and it is used in righteousness.

These are the character qualities, the attributes, if you will, that are on the minds and lips of the angels and servants of God. They end the praise by acknowledging the everlasting nature of the kingdom of God and of His person: “be to our God forever and ever!”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The Explanation of the 144,000

And as if you haven’t figured it out already, the question is asked in verse 13 in a manner that reminds me of a teacher looking to his pupil to make sure they are paying attention. “Who are these people, John? Have you figured it out yet?” John punts, and the explanation is forthcoming, they are the ones who have come out of the “great tribulation.” Furthermore, they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Note that they are coming out of the “great tribulation”, which is to say that they will persevere through all the plagues of the four horsemen who will tear the earth apart until the final judgment of God comes at the return of His Son.

This phrase “great tribulation” is one which the dispensationalists have taken to mean a literal 7 year period of tremendous strife and horror on the earth.

Jim Hamilton, has several pages of solid points refuting this incorrect idea. Let me now read you some of his best excerpts:

Dispensationalist interpreters understand “the great tribulation” to refer to Daniel’s seventieth week (cf. Daniel 9:24-27), the final sever years of human history. I have indicated (in the chapter on Revelation 6-16) that I think Daniel’s seventieth week is the whole period of time between the two comings of Christ. I think this because the New Testament indicates that with the resurrection of Jesus, the last days began.

So the age to come has been inaugurated. The final period of human history, Daniel’s seventieth week, is the whole period between the ascension and the return of Jesus.

This also means that the whole period of time between the ascension and return of Jesus is a period of “tribulation.” Jesus told his disciples in John 16:33, “In the world you will have “tribulation.” Paul told the churches in Acts 14:22, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” In Revelation 1:9 John told the churches that he was their “brother and partner in the tribulation.” Jesus said to the church in Smyrna in 2:9, “I know your tribulation,” then told them in 2:10 that they would have tribulation for ten days.

So it seems that the whole period of church history, the time between Jesus’ ascension and return, is a period of tribulation…Right before the end, it does seem that there will be an intense period of persecution at the very end of history. But I think it is a mistake to expect a literal final seven years.

…I think it more likely that John means this as a description of all believers in Jesus. Thus, what John sees and recounts in Revelation is meant to encourage the churches to whom he writes. They are facing tribulation, and John tells them that God seals his servants to preserve them through the tribulation. God makes it so that though they are killed, they will overcome because they will not stop trusting Jesus.[xxii]

Now, the idea of something becoming white by spilling blood on it is nonsensical to the one who interprets these things literalistically. If we were literalists, we would have to say that this is a great mystery and there must be some kind of magic they are using to make their garments white – what are they using? What kind of blood is this anyway that the Lamb has? You may snicker, but you see the point of my hyperbole, do you not? We must interpret that which is metaphor in such a way as we are informed by the context. In the NT the blood of the lamb is said to cleanse us from our sins.

Elsewhere John writes:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

The author of Hebrews alludes to this same truth as well:

…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14)

Therefore we must trust that the blood of Christ is that which will cleanse us and shield us from all harm on this earth – it is the blood of His sacrifice which protects our salvation. There seems to be a strong parallel here with 6:9-11. The saints there not only are under the alter (perhaps a symbol of protection from the four horsemen), but they are given white robes (vs. 11) and told to rest a little while longer. So too those here in chapter seven who emerge from the tribulation are given white robes – their garb is the same because they are of the same group, the elect of God.

7:15-17 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [16] They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. [17] 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.”

This promises mirrors that which we find in the end of the book as well. It is a wonderful promise that for those who are God’s elect, He will shelter them and bring them to their final resting place, which will be in a land flows with “springs of living water.” Therefore for those who are parched, God will give ultimate satisfaction. What Jesus gives spiritually now in “living water” we will receive physically later.

Lastly, we are told that God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This perhaps is the most wonderful verse in the entire chapter, because it 1. Acknowledges the tear-inducing struggle we face while we walk upon this earth, and 2. It showcases the tender mercy and love of God for His children.

The all-powerful God of heaven and earth understands your pain and struggle. In fact, He ordained these events in order that as you live through the plagues of the horsemen, you might be refined as gold, a choice stone in the city of God, the New Jerusalem. On that day He will heal your hurt and your scars, and mend all the pain that has caused tears to flow.

The Psalmist knew the truth that for those whose God is the Lord, they are ultimately protected from all the evil on this earth:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. [2] I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” [3] For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. [4] He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. [5] You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, [6] nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. [7] A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. [8] You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. [9] Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— [10] no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. [11] For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. [12] On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. [13] You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. [14] “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. [15] When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. [16] With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91)

Footnotes

[i] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg.’s 404-405.

[ii] Hamilton, Pg. 188. He’s really spot on here. And gives a great introduction, part of which includes a wonderful analysis of the main point of the chapter, which is that, “God is able to seal his servants and protect them from all danger, winning praise from them” (pg. 188).

[iii] There is also a background from Jeremiah 49:36 here. That verse says, “And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come.” Beale comments in his footnotes on pg. 407 of his longer commentary, “Standing in the same tradition as Zechariah, and therefore possibly also behind Rev. 7:2-3, is Jer. 49:36, where ‘the four winds’ are divine agents of judgment against a nation.”

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 406.

[v] Ibid. Pg. 409-410.

[vi] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 429.

[vii] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 416.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] It might be noted that Beale offer’s Bauckham’s view as a 5th alternative, but I don’t see it generally as fitting that way, but rather as an enhanced understanding of point 4. Namely, Bauckham says that the 144,000 represent an army of God’s people. The tribal lists, and the census terminology seems to be taken from the OT, and the parallel with 14:1-4 where the 144,000 is spoken of in militaristic terms, seems to only solidify this impression. Far from a separate view, it is a view that supports the figurative number of 144,000 (something Beale himself sees), but adds a dimension of conquering in the same way that the Lamb conquered (cf . Beale pg. 423) by enduring the suffering of the four horsemen.

[x] Steve Gregg, Pg. 133.

[xi] Ibid. Pg.’s 416-417.

[xii] Hendriksen, Pg. 110-111.

[xiii] Ibid. Pg. 111.

[xiv] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 751.

[xv] See Beale Pg. 415 and Greg Pg. 133.

[xvi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 419.

[xvii] Steve Gregg’s Commentary, Pg. 133.

[xviii] Hendriksen, Pg. 111.

[xix] Beale rightly remarks, “The priority of Judah here emphasizes the precedence of the messianic king from the tribe of Judah and thus refers to a fulfillment of the prophecy in Gen. 49:8 that the eleven other tribes ‘will bow down to’ Judah.” Beale also says that Ezekiel 34:23-25 further develops this motif of Judah being the head of the tribes (pg. 417). Hendriksen also talks about the priority of Judah in his commentary (Pg. 111).

[xx] Hamilton, Pg. 190.

[xxi] Ibid., Pg. 192.

[xxii] Hamilton, Pg.’s 194-195. I still omitted many good things he had to say. He also talks about how the phrase “great tribulation” does not exclusively refer to a final period of difficulty and then quote Rev. 2:22 and discusses that a bit more.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Chapter 6

Chapter six takes us to the next stage of John’s vision with the scroll and its seven seals. Let us recall that the book/scroll represents the future destiny of mankind. Unlike the scroll of Ezekiel which emphasized judgment, this scroll speaks to both judgment and reward.

Historic pre-millenialist George Ladd puts it this way:

The book itself contains two things which complement each other; the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the fathering of his saints into His kingdom; and the judgment of God upon the evil demonic powers which have oppressed his people.[i]

He rightly calls it the “book of destiny.” And this book is only able to be opened by the slain Lamb, that is, the Son of God Jesus Christ.

This is why we begin chapter six verse one with the opening of the seals by the Lamb, which Douglass Kelly tells us, “The Lamb is in charge of history” and “He is behind the unleashing of historical forces that bring devastation and munificent changes in our lives and in the history of the world; the Lamb is behind them, for Rev. 6:1 show him opening ‘one of the seals’ that controls the future.”[ii]

There are various interpretations as to what we are about to read about – especially as to when these things are to take place.

But I think that Revelation 4-5 provide the backdrop for Revelation 6-8 and the breaking of the seals. Remember that chapters 4-5 celebrate the victory of Christ’s defeat over death, his victorious resurrection and his ascension to the throne.

With this in mind, also keep in mind that the images and storyline in Revelation is informed by what the prophets already predicted – specifically Zechariah 6, Ezekiel 5 and 14, Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 32, Jeremiah 15&16 and of course Daniel 7. Additionally, in the case of chapter six, there definitely a parallel in the synoptic gospels to the Olivet Discourse (esp. Matthew 24).

Therefore, as James Hamilton says, “I think this presentation of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is a kind of schematic that represents the flow of history – inspiring rulers that leave wars and devastation in their wake.”[iii]

I’ll get into the summary of this view after we look at the verses specifically.

But before we do that, let’s examine the OT and NT context for this passage…

OT Parallels and Synoptic Parallels

Like the other parts of Revelation, John’s vision is informed by things Jesus has already taught during His time on earth, and the principles embodied in OT imagery.

Hamilton, Beale, Mounce, Ladd and other see a definite parallel between the Olivet Discourse and what is going on here in Revelation 6. Hamilton says, “I think that Revelation 6 in Matthew 24 are complementary presentations of world history between the first and second coming of Christ.”

Some of the key verses in Matthew 24 state:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” [4] And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. [5] For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. [6] And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. [7] For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. [8] All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. [9] “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. [10] And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. [11] And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. [12] And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. [13] But the one who endures to the end will be saved. [14] And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)

You can see the parallel here with false Messiah’s (the white rider), with famine, pestilence, war and tribulation. All of these things are described by the four horsemen.

There is also significant OT imagery that forms the backdrop. Beale says:

Most obvious background is Zachariah 6:1–8. There four groups of horses of different color or commission by God to patrol the earth and punish those nations that they see a person God’s people (Zechariah 6:5-8). These nations were raised by God to be a rod of punishment to his people, but they inflicted more tribulation on Israel than they should have. God will punish them for their transgressions as a vindication of his jealous love for Israel (Zechariah 1:8-15). Therefore, the horses in Revelation 6:1–8 signify that the natural and political disaster throughout the world are caused by Christ in order to judge unbelievers who persecute Christians and in order to vindicate his people. This vindication will demonstrate his love for his people and his justice, and already maybe anticipated an answer to the cry for vengeance in 6:9–11.[iv]

That passage goes as follows:

Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. [2] The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, [3] the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. [4] Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” [5] And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. [6] The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.” [7] When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he said, “Go, patrol the earth.” So they patrolled the earth. [8] Then he cried to me, “Behold, those who go toward the north country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country.” (Zechariah 6:1-8)

Beale says, “Ezekiel 14:12–23 is also formative for this section (cf. deut. 32:23-25). Ezekiel 14:21 is explicitly quoted in Revelation 6:8b, where it functions as a general summary of the preceding trials of conquest, sort of, and famine, the first two of which include ‘death.’”

That passage goes like this:

And the word of the LORD came to me: [13] “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, [14] even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord GOD. [15] “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, [16] even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate. [17] “Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, [18] though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered. [19] “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, [20] even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness. [21] “For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! [22] But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. [23] They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 14:12-23)

Beale explains, “The point of Ezekiel 14:21 is that all Israelites will suffer persecution because of rampant idolatry (14:3-11). The purpose of the trials is to punish the majority of the nation because of rampant idolatry and simultaneously to purify the righteous remnant by testing their faith (cf. 14:14, 16, 18, 20, 20-23). The same dual-purpose is likely in mind in Revelation 6, except now the church community is the focus of the judgments. The faithful will be purified, but those who compromise through idolatry and become disloyal to Christ will be judged by the same tribulations.”[v]

“Therefore, the segments from Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Leviticus provide The compositional paradigm for Revelation 6:1–8…Revelation 6:1–8 deals not only with judgments on the world of unbelief but also with persecution of Christians, since this is a theme shared by all three versions of the synoptic apocalyptic discourse (e.g. Luke 21:12-24).”[vi]

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

6:1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”

What we see here is that the four living creatures, that is, the Cherubim, repeatedly say, “Come!” and once they say this each successive horse comes forth in action. These angels are before the throne of God and obey His commands. In Ezekiel we read of how like lightening they fire off throughout the earth obeying the commands of the Holy One (cf. Ezekiel 1:14, 19, 20).

What this means is that the judgments brought on by the horses are all directly ordained by God. He has decreed these things for a purpose. In point of fact, this sequence of events shows that as the Lamb is the one breaking the seals, it is the Lamb who is ordaining that all of these things take place.

6:2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.

There seems to be three interpretations of who this white rider is, and two of them are mainstream and shared by most commentators. Either the rider is Jesus coming to conquer (as in chapter 19), part of Satan’s forces of evil – a messianic pretender, of sorts (as in Matthew 24), or a third interpretation is that it is the proclamation of the gospel (as in the sword of the spirit and the conviction of the word – Christ coming to “cast fire on the earth” etc.).

Hendriksen and Ladd make good cases for this being Christ, due to the white garments, the nature of the word “conquer” and the parallel with chapter 19. But Mounce, Beale and Hamilton look even more in-depth at this and rule this interpretation out. Their extensive investigation convinced me that it is best to interpret this rider as part of the whole – all four describing simultaneous events occurring in history between Christ’s first coming and His return.

As Mounce says, “The arguments against Christ as the writer of the Whitehorse, however, are of sufficient strength to make the identification unlikely. A comparison of chapter 6 and 19 shows that the two writers have little in common be on the fact that they are both mounted on white horses.”[vii]

Furthermore, the parallel with Matthew 24 and the false messiah’s Jesus mentioned in that discourse is striking.

Hamilton says, “Let’s think for a moment about messianic pretenders. This first horseman looks like Jesus, the rider on the white horse in chapter 19, but he isn’t Jesus. Remember, those who do not worship the one true and living God who ever exists in three persons, the same in essence, equal in power and glory, will worship false gods. They may not call what they worship “god/s,” but they will worship themselves or money or success or sports team or video game or learning or power or per prestige or some utopian vision of the good life. Humans will worship.”[viii]

Beale cites 2 Corinthians 11 and says:

Therefore, the first rider represents a Satanic force attempting to defeat and oppress believers spiritually through deception, persecution, or both (so 11:7; 13:7). The image of the rider may include reference to (1) the antichrist, (2) governments that persecute Christians, or (3) the devil’s servants in general…”white” elsewhere in the book does not primarily connote victory but the persevering righteousness of Christ in the Saints. Here white male referred to the forces of evil as they try to appear righteous and thus deceive by imitating Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).[ix]

That Corinthians passage goes like this:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. [14] And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. [15] So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)

There are several other great reasons for believing this is part of the whole – not the least of which are literary concerns for the summing up of the four horsemen as all part of one unit (see Beale’s notes on verses 7-8).

6:3-4 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” [4] And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

This is part of the idea of wars that will occur during the time between Christ’s first coming and His return. There likely aren’t specific wars in mind, but rather wars in general.

Beale says, “…the idea of Nations battling one another and the attendant conditions of such warfare are not primarily thought of, although they are included. Uppermost in the mind are the antagonistic actions of Satan’s forces aimed at the communities of both faith and unbelief. Therefore, the fourfold Old Testament formulas concerning the judgment of literal warfare has been expanded by John to include woes of spiritual warfare.”[x]

6:5-6 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. [6] And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”

It is commonly accepted that this black horse deals with famine, which is normally the result of wars upon the earth, though it is not necessarily limited to a condition of war.

The economic situation here is one of severe inflation. As Beale explains:

A denarius was a day’s wage (cf. Matthew 20:2), and a quart of wheat was about enough for one person for three days, although three quarts of barley was enough for a typical family for one day. The prices listed here are about 8 to 16 times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time. Therefore, those suffering from the famine will only be able to buy limited food quantities for their family, and there will be nothing left over to provide for any of the other necessities of life such as “wine and oil.” That the trees and vines producing oil and wine are not affected further emphasizes the limited aspect of the famine.[xi]

Some say that the leaving out of wine and oil as part of the pestilence and famine indicates that there will be inequity between rich and poor. That could be true, and I think that it may be the case. But I like how Mounce reasons that it would be an odd thing for the Lord to declare for this to specifically be the case. As he says:

The warning about the oil and one has been variously interpreted. Some feel it was added to underscore the social inequities existing in a time of scarcity. It is the poor, not the rich, who suffer. Oil and wine, however, were not luxuries, but part of the basic commodities of life. It would also be difficult understand why the lamb – the voice “in the midst of the four living creatures” – would issue an order favoring the rich and aggravating the plight of the poor…It is simpler to take it as a natural limitation to the famine.[xii]

6:7-8 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” [8] And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

These verses serve as a sort of summary of the preceding verses. Death is the natural end to all of the afflictions of the first three horses. False prophets, war, famine all lead to death. Therefore these are a sequence of chronological events, but a description of the multifaceted threats to life that we face – both believers and unbelievers – while living upon the earth.

Beale rightly says, “These final four plagues have a partial effect, since the last horseman summarizes the previous three and the disaster he brings is limited to “a fourth of the earth.” The four woes do not harm every person without exception.”[xiii]

As you see the different trials and tribulations that are poured out upon the earth you start to see how Jesus is showing John the familiar imagery of the OT, while more specifically using the Olivet Discourse (what He had already said during His time on earth) as the template for his teaching. Therefore, we see a consistency between the teaching of Jesus during His time on earth, and what John sees in this vision.

Conclusion

These judgments describe what Daniel described in chapter 7 of his prophecy when he spoke of the four kingdoms of the earth. They describe all the evil that will come upon the earth in the time between the two advents of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus has been resurrected, His ascension and reign are described in chapters four and five, and He controls all of world history. In the time before His second coming Jesus ordains all manner of evil, wars, plagues and tribulation showing that He alone is in control of all things as the potter is with the clay, and He is moving human history along toward a definite goal.

Why would the Lord do these things? Why would He ordain that evil should come upon the earth? Hamilton explains:

Why would God allow these things? I think that God wants a clear contrast between what results from embracing his rule and what results from rejecting it. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the true God and embrace false gods. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the rightful king, The Lords Messiah, Jesus, and replace them with some chump who looks good and speaks well. So God let’s these fools have their day in the sun, and he lets all the mayhem and ruin that results from their pride and folly to defile this world. God let’s all this happen so that his wisdom, his power, his righteousness will be seen clearly. God wants people to know that only he can bring peace, justice, security, and happiness. God wants to be worshiped as God, and he wants people to embrace the rule of king Jesus, the Messiah.

Beale concludes[xiv]:

In summary, through his death and resurrection, Christ has made the world forces of evil his agents to execute his purposes of sanctification and judgment for the furtherance of his kingdom. This is most clearly seen in the reference to Jesus is sovereignty over “death and Hades” in 6:8, which is a further development of chapter 1: Through his death and resurrection Christ has power over, “death and Hades” (1:18) and now he uses them as his agents to carry out his will. God intended that the suffering of the cross should have both the redemptive and a judicial purpose (i.e., with respect to the latter, the cross becomes a basis of judgment for those rejecting it’s saving significance).[xv]

 

Footnotes

[i] Ladd, Pg. 95.

[ii] Kelly, Pg. 111.

[iii] Ladd says, “As the lamb breaks each of the first four seals, for horses right forth on the earth as instruments of the divine purpose: the first is white, the second read, the third black, and the fourth pale. The background for the symbolism is found in Zachariah 6:1 where the prophet is given a vision of four chariot strong by horse of different colors: red, black, white, and dappled gray. These four chariots right out to the four winds to patrol the earth as instruments of God’s wrath upon the enemies of his people.” Page 96

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372

[v] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372-373

[vi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 373. I am deeply indebted to the way in which both G.K. Beale and Jim Hamilton exposited this chapter. Their in-depth work has been so very helpful that I couldn’t have fully come to my own conclusions without their wisdom. Ladd, Mounce, and others were, of course useful, but Hamilton and Beale really logically think through every option to the point where one is able to judge better what to make of the passage.

[vii] Mounce, Pg.153

[viii] Hamilton, Pg. 178

[ix] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 377

[x] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 383

[xi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 381

[xii] Mounce, Pg. 156

[xiii] Beale, Longer commentary, Pg. 385

[xiv] On page 388 of the longer commentary, Beale goes on to address some of the concern of God being the “author of evil” as some say this passage must indicate or somehow avoid etc. Here is what he says: Some commentators do not think there is a theological problem, since they do not view Christ as the immediate cause of the judgments. The problem is sometimes avoided by adopting secondary textual variants that view John as the recipient of the address “come,” while on the other hand, Christ is sometimes conjectured as the recipient of the address (see on 6:1). Those rejecting these two alternatives offer theological presuppositions about God’s holiness in love in order to deny the direct link, and there is the consequent assertion that Christ only “permits” or “tolerates” the four Horsemen to execute their woes. But not only do the commands issued to the horseman by the chairman argue against such an idea, but the major Old Testament passages behind 6:2–8 without exception have God is the ultimate cause of the judgments (so Zachariah 6:1–8; Ezekiel 14:21; Leviticus 26:18-28).

[xv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 385

To the Church in Philadelphia

From yesterday morning’s Sunday School lesson…

To the Church in Philadelphia

The church at Philadelphia was a church beset by weakness, but one who had stayed true to the only True Lord.

Philadelphia earned its moniker from a king of Pergamum named Attalus II (Philadelphus). Attalus was both true and loyal to his brother Eumenes, and that reputation had far outlasted his life. He reigned along with his brother, who was ill, and when his brother died he took his widow as his own wife.

Attalus was a very culturally refined man, and emphasized the arts – even inventing a new king embroidery!

The city itself was founded as a sort of missionary city for the spread of Hellenism throughout the Pergamenian Empire. Ramsey says, “The intention of its founder was to make it a centre (sic) of the Greco-Asiatic civilisation (sic) and a means of spreading the Greek language and manners in the eastern parts of Lydia and Phrygia.”[i]

So here is where Eastern and Western cultures meet and meld together. A very interesting experiment which actually went pretty well. Well before the time of this letter the whole region spoke Greek instead of Lydian. Hellenization had taken hold.

3:7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

Our text begins with a quote from Isaiah 22:22, which states:

And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. (Isaiah 22:22)

The context of the verse from Isaiah is in reference to Eliakim, who God promotes to take the office of another man who has been found wanting/lacking in God’s eyes. Eliakim is pictured in the text as God’s chosen instrument for the task at hand, namely (I believe) the priestly duties in Jerusalem.

Beale comments, “The point of the quotation is that Jesus holds the power over salvation and judgment. In 1:18 the stress is on his sovereignty over death and judgment, while 3:7 the emphasis is on his authority over those entering the kingdom. John compares the historical situation of Eliakim in relation to Israel with that of Christ in relation to the church in order to help the readers better understand the position that Christ now holds as head of the true Israel and how this affects them.”[ii]

The idea here is that the local unbelieving Jews are as worthless and contrary to the Lord’s true heart as the former priest Shebna (from Isaiah’s day), and Eliakim is a type of Christ who will righteously lead the church/Israel.

There is some Messianic fulfillment of the typology here, according to Beale (who gives 5 reasons why this is so). One of the red flags to this that “whenever David is mentioned in connection with Christ in the NT there are usually discernable prophetic, messianic overtones.”

There is also a striking resemblance to Isaiah 22:22 and Isaiah 9:6-7 which is the passage we commonly have come to know as referring to Christ:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. [7] Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

So we see clear similarities between the Messiah in Is. 9 and Eliakim typologically in Isaiah 22.

What does this all mean though? Beale says, “Ethnic Israel, which was claiming to be the divine agent wielding the power of salvation and judgment, no longer held this position. Christ’s followers could be assured that the doors to the true synagogue were open to them, whereas the doors remained closed to those who rejected Christ.”

Therefore these keys symbolize the fact that Jesus is in control of who is let in heaven – contra popular jokes, it isn’t Saint Peter at the pearly gates determining whose coming and going! It is Jesus. He is the one who determines who is allowed into the blessed realm.

3:8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Surely we think of the fact here that Jesus himself is the door to salvation. This is what He says in John 10:

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (John 10:7-9)

Matthew Henry says, “He opens. He opens a door of opportunity to his churches; he opens a door of utterance to his ministers; he opens a door of entrance, opens the heart; he opens a door of admission into the visible church, laying down the terms of communion; and he opens the door of admission into the church triumphant, according to the terms of salvation fixed by him. [2.] He shuts the door. When he pleases, he shuts the door of opportunity and the door of utterance, and leaves obstinate sinners shut up in the hardness of their hearts; he shuts the door of church-fellowship against unbelievers and profane persons; and he shuts the door of heaven against the foolish virgins who have slept away their day of grace, and against the workers of iniquity, how vain and confident soever they may be.”

3:9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.

Different churches have different struggles. For the church at Philadelphia, the issue pertains mostly to local Jews are causing them issues. Jesus is brutal in his framing of the issue. I couldn’t help but think back to times in the Bible when God re-named someone, like Abram who became “Abraham.” Later Jesus would “name” the Pharisees “brood of vipers” and so forth. The point is that when God “names” something He cuts right to the heart of the matter, and sometimes His assessment is very very frank. Every time I feel a tad bit sheepish for my own frankness in a loving rebuke, I read passages like this and remember again that God is brutally honest in His naming, and in the case of those who cause his children to stumble, he minces no words. In this case, he’s affiliating the local Jews with the “synagogue of Satan”!

It is a reminder to all who read this that there is nothing hidden from the eyes of the all-knowing, all-seeing God.

Historically speaking, even the Talmud speaks of the money loving, morally compromised Jews in this region when it states, “the wines and the baths of Phrygia have separated the ten tribes from Israel.” Beale says that the Jews of this area had compromised their religion and mixed it with Roman customs and religion.[iii]

Interestingly, Beale makes the point that there is some ironic fulfillment here in Jesus’ statement “I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.” For there are many passages in Isaiah and the Psalms that speak of the gentiles being made to bow down before Israel. The point here is that the these Jews have compromised their true religion, have rejected their Jewish Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are Jesus now states they will bow down before the true Israel of God, His elect children in Philadelphia.

Therefore the fulfillment comes but not in the way expected on the surface. And Beale argues that it will be the realization of this irony that will make them jealous and save many of them (which is exactly what Paul argues in Romans 11):

The understanding of Rev. 3:9 as an ironic reversal of the Isaiah prophecies sees it as parallel to Romans 11:11-31, where Gentile salvation is a missionary tactic on Paul’s part of bring about Jewish salvation. Paul quotes Isaianic prophecies in Romans 11:26-27 and views them as fulfilled in apparent reverse manner, since the pattern of Isaiah 59-60 places Israel’s salvation first, which then sparks the homage of the Gentiles (thus Paul uses “mystery” in 11:25 to introduce the quotes from Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9 in Romans 11:26-27).

This is a complex thing to think about when you read so many passages and start digging deeper. But the simple way to think of it at the 5,000 foot level is that the Jews had hard hearts and refused their Messiah when He finally came. Despite this, many will be saved through jealousy of the gentiles, who are receiving the blessing of prophecies fulfilled in a way that would not have been before easily understood, hence the term “mystery” in Paul’s writing.

When we step back from this and think about all God is doing here and His grand plan, we simply have to join with Paul, who, after considering what we just mentioned, ends the 11th chapter of Romans in doxology:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! [34] “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” [35] “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” [36] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

3:10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.

This is speaking not of tribulations, or the final tribulation, but of the final judgment of the world. Those who keep the word of God are those who are his children and who will escape the final judgment.

3:11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.

This is the exhortation that the church was called to, and to what we are called to. We are called to “hold fast”! And it is the Spirit of the Lord who will give us the endurance and power to hold onto what we have. For it is he who truly holds our souls in his hands.

And it is very much like Jesus to warn His followers to be on their guard, to be ready and to “be alert” (Eph. 6) for the time of his coming. We are to live in a state of alertness.

3:12-13 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. [13] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Here believers are referred to as “pillars” in the temple of God – they are part of the Temple” and therefore part of the New Jerusalem which comes down from God out of heaven. This is an allusion to what John will write later:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

Now we are getting into more of the symbolic nature of the book of Revelation. Many go straight to chapter 21 and say “look there’s going to a new Jerusalem and this city is going to be where Jesus reigns from, and its going to be a literal city with literal dimensions and He is going to reign over a literal 144,000 and a literal “Israel” – and by “literal” they mean the wooden definition of the word.

However, it is clear from chapter three here that there is symbolism used throughout this book, not to confuse us, but to help us get a better grasp of what Jesus is telling us. It enriches our understanding of what he’s conveying once we have a clear understanding of the context.

In this case, the wooden literal interpretation of this saying would not work. After all, you don’t believe that Jesus is going to turn you into a stone pillar do you!?? Is that your great destiny, to stand as a composite of limestone for eternity? Of course not, that’s silly. We must be consistent as possible in our application of how these word pictures are used in the book. So that when we read of John saying these things in the context of this book, we cannot then say, “well you are going to be spiritual pillars, but the city of Jerusalem is going to be physical.” Let us not make distinctions that John or Jesus himself does not make.

But what is the point of the imagery? The point is to say that He is gathering all his elect together to himself, and that he is building a kingdom, a family. We will all be part of that family – a big part, pillars, in fact. Pillars are important parts of the building of Gods. This is just to say that redeemed mankind, his image bearers, will makeup an important part of His eternal kingdom.

James Hamilton says that our main takeaway is that, “If we are to stand as oaks of righteousness, we must keep the word of Jesus.”

When I was reading this passage I was reminded of an important passage in Isaiah which speaks of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. It says that the Messiah will, “…grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).[iv]

Samuel Rutherford once said, “The Great Master Gardener, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in a wonderful providence, with his own hand, planted me here, where by his grace, in this part of his vineyard, I grow; and here I will abide till the great Master of the vineyard think fit to transplant me.”[v]

The images are slightly different, but the point is the same: God has planted us here in this world of affliction to grow strong amidst the trials of this age. But when our Lord returns, his mighty oaks, his “pillars” will show forth his goodness. We are all pillars to our God, “living stones” being built up into a great and glorious city, the New Jerusalem.

The Close

He closes this letter like he does the others, with an exhortation to “hear” what the Spirit is saying. And as a reminder, this is a similar truth to what Jesus was say during his earthly ministry. He was always calling on people who “had ears to hear” to obey his word. Having ears to hear is having the Spirit’s supernatural work within us to help us “hear” and understand what it is He is saying to us. Paul explains as follows:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:12-16 ESV)

Conclusion

The call here by Jesus is to hold fast to the Lord Jesus, to that original confession that we made as Christians. It is a call to even those who are weak, like those at Philadelphia. In our weakness he is much stronger (2 Cor. 12) and we must call upon him in all our trouble and despair. Even in persecution and distress. Even in financial instability, sickness, and death. We must not look at our own weakness, but to His great and mighty strength.

We must look to Him, knowing that we are branded with His name – we are his own. His ownership is all over us. He has not only made us as creations for himself, but has sovereignly called us to himself according to his great purpose and mercy. So we have reason to hope – and to look to Jesus, the “founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

 

 

 

[i] Ramsay, Pg. 391.

[ii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 284.

[iii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 287.

[iv] Incidentally, when the word “oaks” here is not necessarily referring to a particular type of oak tree, but to a large tree (see Alec Moyter’s commentary on Isaiah).

[v] Samuel Rutherford, the Loveliness of Christ, Pg. 1.

The Call of Gideon

This past Thursday our small group took a look at Judges chapter 6 wherein we learn of the call of Gideon.  Gideon was a man who no one would have picked as the next rescuer or “Judge” of Israel.   The plight of God’s people in this chapter is dire.  They are suffering under cruel oppression, and their hearts are as black as can be.  They have no desire for true repentance, and only seek deliverance for the sake of freeing themselves from their foreign enemies.

As the group studied the passage, we hit on three major themes in the chapter:

  • True Repentance = True Freedom
  • A fresh look at God’s holiness and how we encounter that today
  • It is very often that God uses our weaknesses to teach us about Himself and bring Himself glory

Below are my notes from the chapter, I hope you enjoy!

PJW

Introduction

Chapter 6 introduces us to Gideon, who is listed in the Hebrews 11 hall of faith along with Deborah and Barak and Sampson in the following context:

By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (Heb. 11:31-34)

Gideon is a most unlikely hero, but actually takes up a lot of space in the book of Judges – in fact, as Morris notes, 100 verses are spent detailing his story, which is more than any other Judge in the book.

The scene is set in the first few verses of the book where we find the situation for Israel is not a good one.  Dale Ralph Davis comically comments about the plague of Midian:

For seven years they (midainites) left Israel no ‘sustenance’ or means of sustenance. The same scourge and terror every year: invade from the yeast, cross the Jordan, hit the bread basket in the Plan of Jezreel, sweep southwest as far as Gaza in Philistian, practicing their clean earth politic. Seven years of it. You are hungry, poor, and tired. Every year, as sure as income tax, Midian’s buzzards come.

It’s in this frustrated, beaten down state that our story begins, and where God intervenes in a way that, at first, is unusual…

6:1-2 The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. 2 And the hand of Midian overpowered Israel, and because of Midian the people of Israel made for themselves the dens that are in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds.

The cycle of sin is beginning again –isn’t this familiar! The people once again do what is evil in God’s sight, and this time they are given into the hands of Midian.  Note the total sovereignty of God here.  Many times in our own lives we have bad things happen to us but we say ‘this isn’t from God’ – but how do you know?

We know that God is not the author of evil, and yet we know that He uses evil people and circumstances to bring about His good will for our lives (Rom. 8:28).  We know that He did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all (Rom. 8:32) in order that His glorious purpose would triumph through Christ’s death.

The Israelites, however, were not holy, righteous, or in anyway obedient to the Lord.  And God punished them in order to bring them back to Himself (Heb. 12).  

6:3-5 For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. 4 They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. 5 For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in.

Note that Midian was not interested in political control of Israel, rather they were interested in simply plundering the nation of its resources.  Israel became their food pantry and its inhabitants nothing more than nice in the cupboard who fled to holes in the mountain at the first sign of trouble.  Indeed in the eyes of Midian, they were simply pests who needed exterminated.

6:6-10 And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord.7 When the people of Israel cried out to the Lord on account of the Midianites, 8 the Lord sent a prophet to the people of Israel. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of slavery. 9 And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 And I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.”

This is the most devastating situation Israel has ever faced.  They are completely impoverished and are scratching a living off the rocks of the land (cf. Tolkein).  They have been driven by their circumstances to final cry out to the Lord.  But what do they get in return?  They get a sermon instead of salvation (cf. Keller).

Before God will deliver them from their enemies He wants them to understand very clearly why they have been punished and “brought very low” at the hands of Midian.

It is significant that God didn’t simply raise up a judge to save them right away.  Instead He wanted to make sure they heard His word and knew His heart.

This is the way it is today, is it not?  We need to hear the word of God and listen to what the Spirit has to say through His inspired Word. It is the Word which is necessary for correction and rebuke and encouragement. It is our very life, as Moses was fond of saying:

And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:45-47)

And the author of Hebrews connects the living and active word of God to its ability to give the Christian rest and peace – but also adds a warning that it is by this word we will be judged:

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:11-13, ESV)

Godly Grief

In Tim Keller’s study of this book he rightly calls us to recognize that there is a difference between repentance and regret.  Paul describes this in 2 Corinthians:

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:10)

The difference between worldly sorrow and Godly sorrow and repentance are vast. Their outward manifestations are similar, to be sure.  But the motivation for each is different.  A worldly sorrow mourns over the things that have been lost by the circumstances brought about in our lives, whereas a Godly sorrow mourns over the sin itself and the dishonor and rebellion shown toward the God who saved us.

The beautiful thing about true repentance is that it allows us to get past the sin and sorrow of past failures, unlike worldly regret that lingers and places the shackling burden of guilt around our necks.

Keller says this, “When we realize that God has forgiven us and we haven’t ‘lost’ Him, we feel that earthly results are rather small in comparison. We say: I deserved far worse than what happened. The real punishment fell on Jesus, and will never come to me. 

The natural follow up question we need to ask ourselves is this: What are we sorry about and why? And do we need to truly repent of those things instead of just feeling regretful about them?

6:11 Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.

What we find here is that the Israelites were so fearful of the Midianites that even the common tasks of beating out wheat was done undercover.  Gideon is beating out the wheat in a winepress – obviously not the most convenient place to do this task, but it was likely not the first place a Midianite would search for grain on a raid of the countryside. 

6:12 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” 

I think it’s pretty crucial here that we recognize that Gideon wasn’t that big of a deal.  He’s probably not being modest when he later says that he’s the least of all in his father’s house.  Yet the Lord says that he’s this mighty man of valor – that’s a pretty amazing title!

Wouldn’t you love to be known as a man or woman of valor?  What is it in him or about him that gives the Lord reason for assessing him this title?  The answer is…nothing.

As we’ll see in later chapters, the story of Gideon is the story of God using the weakness of man to accomplish His ends.  Note that verse 12 says, “the Lord is with you” in conjunction with “O Mighty man of valor.”  It is these two ideas that go hand in hand.  The fact that the Lord is with Gideon is the very reason why he is going to be mighty in battle. Chapters 7 and 8 confirm this for us.

In addition, there is a correlation between verses 12-16 and verse 34 where we learn that God “going with” Gideon is going to be in the form of the Holy Spirit.  It is God’s presence with Gideon that allows him to accomplish all that God has set before him.

Now we have the advantage of knowing what comes later, but Gideon did not, so his own lack of might is exposed (ironically) by this statement and he reacts…

6:13-16 And Gideon said to him, “Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 And the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” 15 And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” 16 And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”

Gideon has made the mistake that so many of us make during out own struggles.  He equates the difficulties with the Midians as meaning that God isn’t with them.  This simply isn’t the case – which is both reassuring and terrifying.

We need to understand that God has sent the Midianites to plague Israel – God is meticulously sovereign here.  He is using the decedents of Moses’ second wife to bring about utter destruction and calamity and He is doing it with eyes wide open. God is in that place alright, He is in Israel throughout her pains and throughout her oppression.  His arm of judgment has swept through the land in an effort to bring Israel to her knees in true repentance.

We often struggle with the idea that in the worst times in our lives God is with us.  It doesn’t feel like He’s with us. It doesn’t seem like He would want us to go through this evil or that trial.  But the worst evil in this world cannot blink an eye or bat an eyelash without permission from the throne room of God.  Think of Pilate and what Jesus said to him:

Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11, ESV)

Therefore God will use evil to accomplish good and use the weakest and least accomplished as His instrument to do this.

6:17-21 And he said to him, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. 18 Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay till you return.” 19 So Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour. The meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the terebinth and presented them. 20 And the angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them.” And he did so. 21 Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes. And fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. And the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight.

It’s worth noting here that this angel of the Lord seems to be a Christophany and not simply an angel like Gabrial.  The text indicates that this is “the angel of the Lord” but also says, “the Lord said to him” in verse 16.  Not only this, but in verses 17-21 the angel seems to be accepting of the offering that Gideon makes.  As a rule angels don’t accept offerings or worship from men.

Later on we’ll see Gideon ask God for a sign of the fleece, and I’ll just address that briefly here.  Why is Gideon asking God for signs?  Does this justify our asking God for signs?

First, Gideon is asking God for confirmation of His presence and of His plan.  He wants to make sure that this is really God and that He will really be with him.  He is asking God for divine revelation of His holy character.  He isn’t putting God to the test as we commonly think of it (think Satan’s testing of Jesus in Luke’s gospel).

Dale Ralph Davis says, “Gideon shows how highly he values Yahweh’s promise by wanting to be sure it is Yahweh’s promise…Gideon proposed that his offering become the laboratory for God’s assuring sign.”

This is why we can’t ask for similar things from God.  Our motivation is usually something like this (paraphrasing Tim Keller), “God I really want to get this job, so please have them call me today if it is your will that this happen.”

Gideon isn’t asking for help making decisions.  He’s learning more about the character of God – he’s asking God who He is, and seeking to learn more about Him.

6:22-24 Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” 23 But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” 24 Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and called it, The Lord Is Peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites.

There are many parallels with Moses and Abraham here, as noted earlier, but when we read of Gideon’s reaction to the revelation of God’s presence with him, he shouts aloud something that reveals his knowledge of God from Moses’ own experience.  We read in Exodus 33 the following account:

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:18-20, ESV)

So not only does Gideon realize this, but he also understands that he has seen the Lord face to face – not in the fully revealed splendor of His glory, but in a way that even Gideon could understand.  Likely He was clothed in appearance as a man.

We read time and time again in Scripture that when people encounter God their first reaction is one of woe.  They immediately realize that they are sinful, unholy people and that God’s grace has come upon them.  This is true for Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Mary, Paul and here we see it in Gideon.

As Davis says, “Here is an amazing paradox. Gideon must have assurance of Yahweh’s promise, but, when the assurance comes, it terrifies rather than fortifies him.”  Such is the case when we encounter the holy. As Davis continues, “This sort of talk (vs. 22) is strange to us, because we have no real sense of the terror and awesomeness of God, for we think intimacy with God is an inalienable right rather than an indescribable gift. There is nothing amazing about grace as long as there is nothing fearful about holiness.”

Note also how in each case of God revealing Himself to these Godly men and women, He has a task for them and reveals to them that He is going to use them for something extraordinary – here God is revealed as a God of peace and grace.  It is not that Gideon didn’t deserve to die, but that God spared him in His grace.

I wonder if we need to step back sometimes after spending some time in the Word and get a deeper understanding for the holiness of God.  This is the God who is said to be “a consuming fire” who “dwells in unapproachable light.”  Paul describes Him in this way:

…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:14-16, ESV)

The magnificence of His presence is something we often take for granted.  It is right, therefore, to spend some time in awe of who God is, and who we are. Sinners before the throne of grace, saved by blood – and saved as Gideon was for a purpose (Ephesians 2:10).

6:25-27 That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it 26 and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order. Then take the second bull and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah that you shall cut down.” 27 So Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had told him. But because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night. 

So Gideon obeys the Lord and follows the commands God gave him.  But he does so in the middle of the night.  I think it’s interesting that he would do this.  I mentioned earlier that God shows meticulous sovereignty over this situation and here is another example of that sovereignty.

God knows the character of Gideon, He knows what he will do and how he will do it.  Gideon is certainly a coward for not immediately obeying God in broad daylight and he allows fear to rule his life – fear for his life actually probably kept him alive for God’s task and allowed the people in that area to see that God was moving and stir them to recognize that something was afoot.

Just as God knew that Joseph’s dreams would provoke the young man toward pride and a propensity toward annoying his older brothers and father, God also knew that Gideon would be too cowardly to cut down the Baal in broad daylight.  God uses the weaknesses and sinfulness of His children to accomplish His will.  He plans and ordains all things – and that means all things.

6:28-32 When the men of the town rose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was broken down, and the Asherah beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar that had been built. 29 And they said to one another, “Who has done this thing?” And after they had searched and inquired, they said, “Gideon the son of Joash has done this thing.” 30 Then the men of the town said to Joash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has broken down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah beside it.” 31 But Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you save him? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down.” 32 Therefore on that day Gideon was called Jerubbaal, that is to say, “Let Baal contend against him,” because he broke down his altar.

Isn’t it ironic how all these people get upset and want to kill Gideon for what he did in tearing down there alters?  This mob was standing up for Baal, but as Joash points out, if Baal was a real powerful being he should be able to take care of himself, thank you very much.

So Joash stands up for his boy, and I find this really commendable.  There seems to have been at least some honor in this family or at least in this man, despite the fact that he was a man who worshiped multiple deities!

Anyway…the irony is that God is the one who in this story has vowed to stand up for Israel.  God is the one promising to be with Gideon as he leads Israel to victory of its’ enemies, and God is the one who will empower Gideon…as we’ll see soon in verse 34.

SIDE NOTE: The ESV Study Bible has a nice blurb on Asherah and what it was, “Asherah may function as both the divine name for a particular goddess or, as in these verses, refer to sacred wooden poles erected at places where she was worshiped (vv. 26, 28, 30; cf. 1 Kings 15:13; 18:19; 2 Kings 17:16). Most frequently, these sacred objects are called “Asherim” (e.g., Ex. 34:13; Deut. 7:5; 12:3; 2 Kings 17:10). 

6:33-35 Now all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East came together, and they crossed the Jordan and encamped in the Valley of Jezreel. 34 But the Spirit of the Lord clothed Gideon, and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him. 35 And he sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, and they too were called out to follow him. And he sent messengers to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they went up to meet them.

Now the scene is set and things are coming into motion.  We read that the Midianites and their buddies the Amalekites along with other nomads from the East are all ready to raid the breadbasket of Israel.  They’ve all gathered together and are encamped in Jezreel, which is north of where Jerusalem sat, and southwest of the Sea of Galilee.  This is really close to home for the Israelites, and so once again their crops and their daughters were in peril.

However, as the author is describing the situation, he bookmarks Israel’s impending doom by noting that the Spirit of the Lord had “clothed” Gideon.  What does this mean, “clothed”?  I think the best way to understand it is “empowered supernaturally.”  As Block notes, “if anything positive happens to Israel in the book of Judges, the credit must go to God.”  And so, “the same Spirit which possesses the divinely called deliverer compels the recipients of the summons to respond to his call.”

In his book ‘God’s Indwelling Presence’ Tom Schreiner (citing James Hamilton) says, “The Old Testament speaks of the Spirit “rushing upon” someone not to describe a conversion experience (e.g., the expression is not used of Abraham or Rahab), but rather the Spirit’s empowering leaders who will deliver the nation.” 

6:36-40 Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, 37 behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” 38 And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. 39 Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” 40 And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.

As I mentioned earlier, Gideon’s test of God is not like our test of God.  Yes it seems that Gideon was testing God out of unbelief and probably fear (for he was not a warrior and was about to lead an army into battle).  But what Gideon seems to be getting at here is a search for the character and power of God.

Gideon deeply desires to ensure the God is with him, and that God will be the one doing the fighting on their behalf.  Even though it seems silly to ask God for these signs, we see Moses do the same thing in Exodus 4.  One of the ways I think we can know that Gideon was asking with deeper motives was God’s gracious response toward his request.  Gideon was weak, and needed to know that God would be with him, for without God there’s no way that this man would be able to conquer his enemies.

As we continue on in our study over the next several chapters, we’re going to see that one of the major themes of God’s empowering use of Gideon is His desire to use those who are weak to accomplish great things in order that He might get all the glory.

It is no different today.  We need to learn that, as JI Packer says, “weakness is the way” of God, and as Paul says:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, ESV)