When the United States military invaded Iraq several years ago, much was made of the overwhelming military force that was to have the effect of “Shock and Awe.” The seventh seal describes a “Shock and Awe” that is a polar opposite of this:
“When the Lamb broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” (Revelation 8:1)
30 minutes of celestial silence? What in the world is this referring to?
Thus far we have considered the invitation to the seven churches (which includes us) to come through the open door with John (4:1) and to gain understanding about the war in heaven and God’s plan to restore peace once again. In this scene, God is depicted in all of his glory, might and power, receiving praise from four living creatures and twenty four elders. Surprisingly, as none other than the Almighty God holds a scroll in his hand “no one in earth or heaven was found worthy to open the scroll” (5:3). We recognized that only in Jesus is God’s character fully understood and vindicated. When God became a “slaughtered Lamb,” praise in the book of Revelation escalated from merely “four” and “twenty four” to “thousands and millions.” God became a human being and subjected himself to the fate of a common criminal. In Jesus, we understand for the first time that God is not only all-powerful but also infinitely humble and forgiving – a God who can be trusted with infinite power. The breaking of the seventh seal brings us full circle back to this most critical understanding.
As the Lamb breaks each successive seal, Satan, who initially masqueraded as an angel of light, is gradually exposed until his reign is seen to result in nothing more than suffering and death. The cry of complaint in the fifth seal describes this suffering: “God, how can you allow this to go on? Where are you? Why don’t you use your power to stop this?”
Up to the opening of the fifth seal, there is confusion, even among God’s friends, about the suffering and chaos on planet earth. A God of love and power who allows children to starve? Many assume, based on the suffering we see every day, that there is no God or if he does exist that “He is a malign thug,” according to Mark Twain.
The answer to the difficult question, “How can an all-powerful, loving God allow a universe filled with pain and suffering” may in part be explained by the notion of free will. For God to pour out all of his love on us he had to grant us the freedom not to return his love. Love and free will must go hand in hand. God could not create Adam and Eve and say, “You are absolutely free…well, that is, unless you should choose to reject me. If you do that, I’ll either kill you or I will manipulate the circumstances so that you don’t experience any negative consequences of leaving my side.”
If this were the pre-condition we would never be free in the first place, would we? Love requires that God allow us the freedom to leave his side and to experience the natural consequences of that choice. It is this awful suffering associated with sin and rebellion that the first four seals reveal. In fact, imagine if God went around preventing all of the natural consequences of rebellion! Imagine a world that is totally disconnected from God, but yet God stepped in to insure that there was no hunger, war, or persecution. Wouldn’t this completely prevent us from understanding how destructive Satan’s rule on this planet has been? And wouldn’t this action on God’s part once again represent a restriction on our freedom? Love and free will must go hand in hand. Listen to God’s painful words:
“Very well, then, I will give you freedom: the freedom to die by war, disease, and starvation.” (Jeremiah 34:17)
God had to allow things to play out. He could not win our hearts and persuade us of his love by eliminating Satan and his followers, nor could he force us to love him and trust him. God was left with no choice but to take the slow and painful road of suffering and humiliation in order to win our love in this cosmic conflict.
God knows that ultimate “power” is love and truth, not coercive power. The answer to the complaint of the fifth seal finally arrives in the seventh seal, an answer that is totally unexpected!
“Just watch my servant blossom! Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd! But he didn’t begin that way. At first everyone was appalled. He didn’t even look human– a ruined face, disfigured past recognition. Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback, kings shocked into silence when they see him. For what was unheard of they’ll see with their own eyes, what was unthinkable they’ll have right before them.” (Isaiah 52:13-15)
What will shock us into silence will be to understand the unthinkable way in which God chose to save, heal, and restore us back to trust:
“Who believes what we’ve heard and seen? Who would have thought that God’s saving power would look like this? The servant grew up before God–a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look. He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum. But the fact is, it was our pains he carried– our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures. But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him–our sins! He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through his bruises we get healed. We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And GOD has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him. He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word. Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence. Justice miscarried, and he was led off– and did anyone really know what was happening? He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of my people. They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man, Even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true.” (Isaiah 53:1-9)
God became a humble servant. God experienced on his own human body the worst that life has to offer. God’s “power” that won the cosmic conflict was to become an embryo and to spend nine months inside a womb, live the life of a humble servant, and then allow his own creatures to torture him to death. In Jesus, we see that love does not conquer by killing the opposition, but by laying down one’s life for others. In Jesus, we see that the road to victory for each of us involves taking the downward path of humility and service for others. In Jesus, we see that even God was willing to fully identify himself with the worst of our suffering. And if we are tempted to grumble against God in the face of our own hunger, persecution, torture and death, we see that Jesus (God!) also experienced hunger, persecution, torture and death. In Jesus, we see that the all-powerful God loves his suffering children so much that he is willing to experience the worst of their pain in order to win them back to his side.
This Isaiah passage tells us that “we thought” that God was punishing him. The reality is that it was God in human form who went through pain and suffering, “even unto death.” Jesus experienced the consequence of our sin which is to be separated, given up, or abandoned by the Source of life – “My God, My God, Why have you abandoned me?”
When we personally experience pain, suffering or the anger of others, we can find peace by beholding the overwhelming love of God revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. Our identity is not defined by our experience, but by the God of Calvary who loves us so much that he gave his life for us.
One day, the realization of God’s love as revealed by Jesus will give an entirely new meaning to the expression, “Shock and Awe.” A stunned silence is the only response one can have in the face of God’s love.
Tonstad’s book is excellent on this point:
“The scroll confronts the council with a seemingly insoluble predicament, a veritable crisis in the divine government, highlighted by the tears of the Seer (5:4) and by the silence of everyone else (5:3). The breaking of the seals signifies that this predicament has been fully worked out, and with the breaking of the seventh seal comes a sense of closure to the heavenly council…Only when the Lamb in its slaughtered state is allowed to exert a commanding influence on the entire scene will the representative biblical imagery for the silence in heaven receive its due…[The text in Isaiah] is about silence – the silence of shock and awe in the face of an entirely unexpected manifestation. Revelation presents an analogous situation when the heavenly council confronts a disclosure that defies expectations, but the relationship between these texts consists of more than an analogy. The startling nature of what is disclosed, causing kings to ‘shut their mouths because of him’ according to Isaiah (52:15), belongs organically to the vision of the ‘lamb that is led to the slaughter’ in the original Old Testament context (Isaiah 53:7). Moreover, both texts describe the fate of the Lamb, one anticipating it, the other one after the fact…What leads to silence in the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah is precisely that the Servant has been violently abused – ‘so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals.’ (Isaiah 52:14), and this reality lies behind the description of ‘a lamb that is led to the slaughter’ (Isaiah 53:7). In the heavenly council there is silence, too, and the silence comes about when the council is brought face to face with the slaughtered Lamb, presented and acknowledged as the victor and revealer in the cosmic conflict…All the seals are broken, signifying that the issue confronting the heavenly council has been resolved by the Lamb. Silence in this context serves as the reflective corollary of praise, and in this sense the proposed idea of ‘rapturous amaze’ is not far off the mark.” (1)
There is another possible meaning of this “silence in heaven” – for next time.
– Written by Dr. Brad Cole
- Tonstad, “Saving God’s Reputation”, pg 139-141