What We Believe
i

Thesis Statement

One of the structural principles of the Apocalypse is to set before us different series of pictures relating not so much to successive events as to the same events under different aspects, each series complete in itself and inviting us to think less of its temporal relations to those which precede and follow it, than of the new and different light in which it presents an idea common to itself and them.[2]

This statement represents fairly the synchronous structure of Revelation to be defended in this paper (provided that “the same events” is understood in a very broad sense, as indeed William Milligan does, and not as specific events recorded in history books). The danger is particularly strong in the case of the recapitulationist that the natural desire to find symmetry in the structure will betray him into sacrificing the thought, at least as to proper emphasis, for the sake of establishing a certain formally symmetrical arrangement of the visions. For instance, William Hendriksen, in dealing with the latter chapters, is consistent with his main principle that there are seven parallel sections and “each of them spans the entire dispensation from the first to the second coming of Christ.”[3] In finding indications of the beginning of the Christian dispensation here he is correct; however, the overwhelmingly predominant thought of final judgment pervading the entirety of this section is not sufficiently evident in Hendriksen’s exposition. This is symptomatic of his general fault in not applying adequately his principle that “there is progress in eschatological emphasis.”[4] Whatever may be its dangers of being abused, however, this structural principle of synchronism or parallelism or recapitulation is valid and necessary to a proper interpretation of Revelation. This thesis is here developed by dealing with certain introductory questions, by the exegesis of the climaxes of the main divisions and the consideration of related problems, and by a more direct refutation of the successive-judgment view.

Objections to Recapitulation Refuted

To clear the way for the study of the text and to ground the Revelation of John in biblical apocalyptic, we evaluate three objections of a general hermeneutical character elaborated by David Brown[5] from Marcus Dods’s Introduction to the New Testament against the understanding of Revelation as a presentation largely of ideas rather than events, which historically, and not naturally exegetically, has gone hand in hand with recapitulation.

1. It is “out of keeping with the general purpose of apocalyptic literature,” which is to treat of the “the Kingdom of God oppressed by hostile worldly powers; in both books (i.e., Daniel and Revelation) successive periods in the history of this struggle are definitely though symbolically predicted.”[6]

The idea of the world’s hostility is true enough, as is that of the final triumph of God’s kingdom, which he later adds; but that “successive periods in history” need be involved as of the essence of true apocalyptic is erroneous. Undeniably there are four successive historical empires before the founding of God’s kingdom in Daniel, but far from Revelation being required to share this trait, it would be in direct contradiction to Daniel if it did so. For in Daniel, the coming of God’s kingdom in Christ—the stone smiting the image—does away with world powers. We do not—cannot—interpret this literally, but we do insist that the Old Testament prophet’s spiritual outlook on the state of affairs introduced by the establishment of the messianic kingdom be shared by his New Testament successor. Daniel considered all kingdoms as in principle, or as to the decisive issue, destroyed by Christ’s coming and unworthy of being specifically designated as world empires once the one and only true world Empire of Messiah had been founded. In accord with this is Daniel 7 where the latter issue of the fourth beast, during whose sway Christ’s kingdom is established, is represented by ten horns—ten, the symbolic number of completeness—designating the opposition to Messiah’s people that would develop after the decline of Rome, everywhere throughout the earth, and down through all the centuries to the Judgment—but in no wise describing successive, specific, historical periods. The only exception to this is the detailed emphasis on Antiochus Epiphanes’s anti-type, the little horn which appears among the ten. To this eschatological outlook Revelation is true, for it deals only with the general principles of the world’s opposition to the now established kingdom of God, with the one exception of the final stage of the beast’s activity. For a fuller discussion, see below: The Eschatological Perspective of Revelation.

2. It “fails to present a sufficient motive for its composition.”[7]

First, it is close to presumption to judge what constitutes a proper motive for God’s including any specific form of revelation in his Word. Second, such a consideration is highly subjective, and this is aggravated by Brown’s unjustly limiting the “ideas” to God’s sovereignty, providence, goodness, and final triumph in the vaguest of senses.[8] Third, many of those holding the view Brown disparages find in Revelation thus understood the fairest gem in Scripture, uniting in a fitting consummation of the divine Word the most precious themes of the Bible, illuminating the prophetic element of the Old Testament, elaborating and unifying the eschatological outlines inherent in the teaching of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament, and providing an inspiration by its solemn majesty that is not afforded so impressively anywhere else. Fourth, it is a poor substitute for such to offer, as Brown does, a system of historical events—often of the most obscure, trivial, and irrelevant nature—which but vaguely illustrate major Bible themes and would provide scarcely any practical comfort to the afflicted church.

3. It “fails to present a sufficiently definite guide through its intricacies,” wavering as it does between predictive and more general contents.[9]

Quite on the contrary, grounding the symbolism in other scriptural symbolism is the only legitimate guide. If some portions are more specific predictions than others, no problem is presented, for the more specific portions are always at the beginning and the close of the gospel age where the really epoch-making, eschatological inbreaking of God’s redemptive acts in the world’s history transpires. The long intermediate period is similar enough throughout to describe by the general principles or ideas unfolding therein. Again, Brown’s system of historical events is no improvement, to say the least, for the events move in a narrow rut altogether out of keeping with the universalism of the New Testament and are so hopelessly without demonstrable scriptural relation to the symbols of Revelation that there are as many sets of events as there are proponents of this system of interpretation.

Outline of Revelation

If we are to speak of the beginnings and endings of various series or cycles of visions within the Apocalypse, it is necessary to have the outline of the book in mind. The divisions which commend themselves to me are these:

Introduction 1:1–8
The Church Imperfect in the World 1:9–3:22
The Seven Seals 4:1–8:1
The Seven Trumpets 8:2–11:19
The Deeper Conflict 12:1–14:20
The Seven Bowls 15:1–16:21
The Final Judgments 17:1–21:8
The Church Perfect in Glory 21:9–22:5
Conclusion 22:6–21

The only division of which the bounds are at variance with the usual ones adopted by recapitulationists[10] is that of ‘The Final Judgments’ (17:1–21:8). Some demonstration seems required:

1. Within these bounds all the main characters previously introduced are dealt with in respect to their final destinies: Babylon and the Beasts in 17:1–19:21; Satan in 20:1–10; unbelievers in 20:11–15; and overcomers in 21:1–8. This unity of theme is much disregarded but appears to me decisive and is confirmed by the following considerations:

2. This section begins with one of the seven angels that had the seven bowls coming to John and saying, “Come hither,” promising to show the judgment on the harlot-Babylon with whom are associated the kings of the earth and earth-dwellers who sinned with her. So, the next section, if divided as here suggested, begins (21:9) with the angel of the seven bowls series coming to John with the invitation, “Come hither,” promising now to show him the bride, the wife of the Lamb. The objection cannot be pressed that the material in 17:1–21:8 exceeds the statement in 17:1–2 of what is to be shown the Seer. For although nothing is said in 17:1–2 of the Beast, the harlot appears at once (17:3) in relation to the Scarlet-colored Beast, and this is undeniably within the proper bounds of this division. The various characters are so closely related that in the discussion of this theme of final judgments they all of necessity appear in relation to Babylon and become legitimate subjects to develop in this section.

3. “Their (i.e., sinners’) part shall be in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death,” (21:8), supplies a fitting climax to the theme of judgment, especially since judgment on evil ones predominates in this section. Its appropriateness as the closing verse of this division appears also in that this is the last statement in the Revelation dealing in a positive fashion with the destruction of the wicked. It is true that 21:27a mentions sinners as not entering into the Holy City, but the obvious intention of this is to describe the perfection of the city (compare 21:26 and 21:27b) in a negative way, not the destiny of sinners.

4. If the division is made at 20:1, as by the majority of recapitulationists, the resultant division would be the only major one in Revelation not marked by obvious formal boundaries, if not in the first verse, at least in those immediately following (compare 8:3ff). The amillennialist is wont to do this thinking, perhaps, to strengthen the case for his interpretation of 20:1–10 thereby, whereas the premillennialist is more likely to point to the series of “And I saw” phrases (19:11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, 11; 21:1) and insist that to make a major division at 20:1 is to fly in the face of the obvious formal indications which become impressive by their very accumulation. The latter is correct—on this point. It does not avail to claim that the introduction of a new character, Satan, in 20:1–10, constitutes a new major theme. Just because a red horse gallops forth at the opening of the second seal, nobody will claim the second seal is a new theme since the preceding and following seals introduce different horses! The seals unify all. So, Satan is introduced to develop the same theme of Final Judgment which both precedes and follows 20:1–10 and unifies all.

As a matter of fact, however, I think this strengthens the amillennial view of 20:1–10 since it makes these verses of one piece with what has preceded. Then just as the discussion of the Beast’s final judgment took us back to the beginning of the Christian era (17:8, 10), so the binding of Satan (20:2–3) may readily be understood as going back to the same point before his final judgment is presented (20:10). On this basis, the newness of the main character in 20:1–10 can be appealed to, to show how unlikely it would be for these verses to follow chapter nineteen in chronological succession.

Climaxes of the Major Divisions of Revelation

The most conclusive feature in the proof that the major divisions of the Apocalypse are parallel in their temporal scope rather than chronologically successive is that the climax of each formal division is the end of the gospel age. Further confirmation arises from the observation of the same phenomenon at the climax of certain parenthetical visions contained within the boundaries of the major divisions. The seven letters to the churches precede the visions proper—see below on progression in the Apocalypse—and do not close with a picture of the end of this age. Futurists who claim that 4:1 on deals with the final segment of this age only, usually torture the seven letters into the form of a historical succession leading up to the end, but to no avail.

SEALS: The seals reach the end of the age already in their sixth member (6:12–17).

(a) The vision is beyond doubt based on Jesus’s Olivet Discourse.[11] There these astronomical phenomena and the terror of the unbelieving accompany “the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” The cataclysm of the sixth seal is, therefore, also the end.

(b) “The great day of their wrath is come”—ἦλθεν (ēlthen) (6:17). This “great day” in Scripture is the consummation of all things. (Compare 1 Thess. 5:2–3; Mal. 4:1; Joel 2:10–11). Swete takes the language as symbolical of national-social changes and decay toward the end, and therefore at this verse, though recognizing that the language refers to the end itself, he is forced to makeshift, “fear anticipates the actual event—there have been epochs in history when the conscience of mankind has antedated the judgment and believed it imminent.”[12] Fatal to this is the obvious fact that 6:17 is no longer in the first person as 6:16’s “Fall on us, and hide us.” This is the inspired comment of the Seer on what has preceded and cannot possibly be construed as the mistaken notion of the terror or conscience-stricken. The only reason for so construing it is that an anti-recapitulation view demands such. I believe this is the most vulnerable spot in the entire book for the opponents of our view who can elsewhere present a somewhat plausible interpretation by calling all the climaxes anticipations or interludes and by appealing to their telescopic-structure concept. None of these escapes works here. The case for the non-recapitulationist absolutely breaks on 6:17.

(c) The lists of natural catastrophes and varieties of unbelieving men affected by this judgment is in each case seven, the number of divine completeness, especially in dealing with the world; this is emphasized by the πᾶς (pas) before the last two members of each list.

(d) The characteristic of wrath is not appropriate to the Lamb during the time when the sincere offer of salvation is being made based on the Lamb that was slain. Such is appropriate only when the day of salvation is past, and those who have rejected him receive their due.

(e) The removal of the “heaven” (6:14) corresponds to the heavens fleeing away in connection with the Great White Throne Judgment (20:11), which is admittedly the end.

Since the sixth seal has introduced the great day of God’s wrath, what are we to expect in the seventh seal? There is much dispute as to what constitutes the contents of this seal. The answers range from one verse, 8:1, to the whole of the Apocalypse from 8:1 on. This is probably the most crucial single point in the book for an understanding of the structure.

Düsterdieck presents a telescopic structure of the Apocalypse whereby each of the seals, trumpets, and bowls-series evolves out of the preceding one. He argues at length against recapitulation and in favor of temporal succession, largely on the basis of the seventh seal.[13] We are led to expect by the crisis to which things have come at the sixth seal, the climactic effect of which is heightened by the visions of chapter seven, that the opening of the seventh seal will reveal the extreme end and final catastrophe, and that with “a certain fulness of significant contents.”[14] This expectation is not at all met if we limit the contents of the seventh seal to “there followed a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour” (8:1). It is fully met if we accept the view that the trumpets and all the rest of Revelation evolve out of this seventh seal and form its contents.

In answer to these remarks of Düsterdieck we advance the following considerations:

1. The sixth seal does not lead us to expect a final catastrophe for the simple reason that it is itself the final catastrophe that befalls this fallen world. Beyond the cosmic cataclysm and the unspeakable terror of eternally lost souls in the presence of the wrathful Lamb and the throne of God revealed in the sixth seal, what final catastrophe is there that needs to be considered with any fulness of contents? Only the lake of fire remains, and Revelation nowhere elaborates with fulness upon that state. Furthermore, the blessed estate of the righteous in glory has already been dwelt upon at length in the second parenthetical vision of chapter 7 by the time we reach 8:1. We conclude, therefore, that a brief summary statement only should be expected at the opening of the seventh seal. This is exactly what we have. It takes the form of an impressive period of silence; the fact that the duration of this period is described in approximate terminology—ῶς (ōs)—indicates that this was the impression made on the Seer and that the half-hour is not meant as a symbolic number. Surely if we put ourselves in the Seer’s place in the midst of these tremendous visions and especially at this point when the air has just been filled with the shrieks of the lost and praises of the saints, we must acknowledge that a period that seemed like a half-hour of purest silence would make and leave an indelible impression.

Granting that silence itself is a legitimate symbol, what better way could be found to present this symbol?—in fact, what other way? A priori, silence seems as legitimate a symbol as its opposite, a thundering noise. If the latter stands for God’s judgments going forth, why should not the former symbolize God’s judgments completed? This meaning is confirmed when we answer the question, “What is the connotation of silence in the prophetical language of Scripture?” In Isaiah 47:5 and 1 Samuel 2:9 the wicked are assigned to the silence of darkness, consequent upon the vengeance of God. In Zechariah 2:13 silence prevails because God has delivered his people and dwells in their midst.

Düsterdieck’s puerile objection[15] against the silence obtaining on earth since it is said to be in heaven, is flatly contradicted by Zechariah 2:13 which relates “before Jehovah” with the silence on earth! This would leave the way open also to find Revelation 8:1 at least partially fulfilled in the silence of the lost in their eternal abode, or for a view like Fairbairn’s (see below).

Habakkuk 2:20 associates silence with God’s being in his holy temple. All of these ideas fit admirably into the final, eternal state which the seventh seal is required to symbolize. In the light of prophetical usage, this silence of Revelation 8:1 is a rich and comprehensive symbol, indeed. Fairbairn interprets: “The struggle of conflict is over, the noise and tumult of war have ceased, and the whole field lies prostrate before the one sovereign and undisputed Lord.”[16]

2. Still another possible view which has at least as much to recommend it as Düsterdieck’s is that the silence represents a withholding of revelation. Revelation 7:13–17 corresponds very closely to Revelation 21:1–8. Now since the only revelation in the entire book that marks a material advance beyond what is related in the sixth seal and 7:13–17 is the final vision of the holy city immediately after 21:1–8, it may be that immediately after 7:13–17, in 8:1, we have silence because the time had not yet come to present this last crowning vision, even though the preceding material leads to that point.

3. There are grave flaws in Düsterdieck’s interpretation both materially and formally:

(a) He is forced to read into silence—with no semblance of biblical warrant—the idea of hushed, still excitement in anticipation of the coming trumpet judgments. But where is the information on the part of the heavenly host concerning coming judgments? To ground the anticipations of the heaven-dwellers, he must drag the vision of the seven angels with the trumpets forcibly into the half-hour period of silence and thus willfully ignore the fact that these angels are clearly separated as a distinct vision by the phrase “And I saw,” which is a common manner of dividing visions in Revelation.

Quite similar is the view of A. Pieters. Concerning the sixth seal he says: “In Scene 3 of this Act (see program) men begin to be aware of the gathering storm”[17] (the removal of the heaven as a scroll, Pieters apparently considers a gentle spring zephyr). Then of the seventh seal, “So the hosts of heaven stand silent, in breathless expectancy, waiting for the solemn pageant to proceed. Notice that this silence is, again, a purely dramatic touch, having no prophetic or doctrinal significance in itself, but placed here because the principles of dramatic art require it.”[18] Such extreme insistence on the resemblance of the Revelation to a drama cheapens the divine Word as much, if not more, than classifying biblical apocalyptic on a mere par with and as of one cloth with other early apocalypses which Pieters is careful to guard against.[19] It is asking too much of us, to require us to cease comparing Scripture with Scripture to determine Scripture’s meaning, in favor of comparing Scriptures with the devices of the Greek stage!

(b) From a formal viewpoint it does not seem warranted to consider the cycle of trumpets as evolving from the cycle of seals. The trumpet cycle is clearly marked off as a formal unit by the phenomena of 8:5 which are repeated at the close of the cycle (11:19). Also, the seven-sealed book does not appear again, though—if the remainder of the visions constituted the contents of the seventh seal—we should expect that when its revelations were exhausted there would be a final reference to it, at least.

Furthermore, the ease with which 8:1 might seem to blend into 8:2 is altogether in keeping with other transitional passages in Revelation, which is simply an evidence of a good literary style. The transition from the trumpets to the next cycle is so smooth that there has been dispute whether 11:19 goes with what precedes or “should be the beginning of the next chapter, introducing a new vision.”[20] Compare also the beginning of the bowls cycles (15:1); this major heptad is “another sign in heaven,” and thus blends with the earlier signs of the previous cycle (12:1, 3). Again, the last two major divisions have an affinity to the bowls’ cycle, for they are introduced by “one of the seven angels that had the seven bowls” (17:1 and 21:9). In so subtle a way the Revelation is even in its formal arrangement made a living, moving organism, rather than a row of detached blocks of material.

4. Even though it be granted that Düsterdieck’s view of the formal relation of the seventh seal and the trumpet series were correct, this would not at all militate against recapitulation. For instance, Milligan writes, “We cannot, therefore, separate the trumpets from the seventh seal. The former are not independent of the latter but are evidently developed out of it, although the succession is one of thought rather than time.”[21]

Also, Düsterdieck’s interpretation of the half-hour silence, if accepted, does not put recapitulation into discard. Lenski understands the silence with Düsterdieck as the hushed expectation of the heavenly hosts but does not conclude that what follows is the contents of the seventh seal. Rather, the climactic nature of the sixth seal decides him on the need of recapitulation if the book is to continue.[22]

But the shining example that all of Düsterdieck’s arguments do not avail against recapitulation is Düsterdieck. For in his view the great final catastrophe is not introduced immediately in the trumpet series but much later. Meanwhile the visions immediately evolving from the seventh seal describe “the trial of the patience of saints who are regarded as awaiting the day of the Lord.”[23] When we observe that Düsterdieck admits that in the sixth seal “the day of the Lord begins,[24] it becomes apparent that Düsterdieck is himself a recapitulationist.

We reaffirm, in concluding this matter, that the cycle of seals brings us to the Judgment at the sixth seal and into the eternal state in the silence of the seventh. As to formal structure, the evidence is wanting for the view that the visions are arranged in telescopic fashion; and even were this not the case, the essential synchronous nature of the revelations of the visions would be unaffected.

Endnotes

[1] This text is the ThM thesis of Meredith G. Kline for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, 1946.

[2] William Milligan, Lectures on the Apocalypse (London: Macmillan, 1892), 100.

[3] William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1944), 25.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] David Brown, The Structure of the Apocalypse (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1891), 31ff. The source of Brown’s three objections is a quote from Marcus Dods, Introduction to the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1888), 243–44.

[6] Ibid., 31–32.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 28.

[9] Ibid., 31.

[10] Compare Hendriksen, op. cit., 42–43.

[11] Matt. 24:29–30; Mark 13:24–26; Luke 21:25–27; compare 2 Pet. 3:10–12.

[12] Henry Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1907), 95. So also Isbon Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1919), 266.

[13] Friedrich Düsterdieck, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Revelation of John (Meyer’s Commentary on the New Testament), (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1887), 260–63.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 262.

[16] Patrick Fairbairn, Prophecy, Viewed in Respect to its Distinctive Nature, its Special Function, and Proper Interpretation (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1865), 407.

[17] Albertus Pieters, The Lamb, the Woman, and the Dragon: An Exposition of the Revelation of St. John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937), 124.

[18] Ibid., 131.

[19] Ibid., chapter 2, especially 31–32.

[20] Ibid., 157.

[21] Op. cit., 51.

[22] Richard Lenski, Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation (Columbus, Ohio: Lutheran Book Concern, 1935), 266.

[23] Op. cit., 263.

[24] Ibid., 233, line 21.

Meredith G. Kline (1922–2007) was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church who served as a professor Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2021.

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Ordained Servant: August 2021

Our Adult Children

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