Silence in Heaven
By Dr. Sigve Tonstad
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour (Rev 8:1).
This is a strange text, to say the least. It is also a text that knows more than it says, a detail from the panoramic mural depicting the end of all things in Revelation. If ever there was a need to grasp the whole in order to make sense of the parts, this text would be it.
Consider the following elements:
- When the sealed scroll is introduced in the heavenly council (5:1-2), it is understood that the scroll represents a reality that weighs heavily on the heavenly councilors. Moreover, drawing on the allusion to Ezekiel 2:9-10, it is evident that the scroll to a large extent represents a known reality, a reality of “lamentation, and mourning, and woe” (Ezek 2:10).
- No one has what it takes to open the scroll (5:3). This is the moment of silence at the beginning. I think this moment should be understood in the following way: First, a mighty angel calls out in a loud voice, “Who has what it takes to open the scroll and break its seals?” The question focuses the problem facing the heavenly council. And what is the answer? There is no answer. Or rather, the answer is silence, “unaccustomed silence,” as one commentator has put it.
Why is it so hard to find anyone who has what it takes to open the scroll? Why, and I am imagining this, is everyone staring at the floor? Why are all squirming in their seats, including the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders? Why isn’t anyone saying anything? Why do the members of the heavenly search committee return to session, having screened potential candidates in heaven, on earth, and in the netherworld only to report back to the committee that they found no one who could do it (5:3)?
Let us imagine that the sealed scroll represents a proposal that comes before the heavenly council for a vote. Will anyone vote for it? Will anyone even ask to speak on its behalf? The answer is ‘no’ on both counts. Will anyone vote against it? Silence is the answer to this question because silence is tantamount to a ‘nay’ vote. Silence is a de facto vote against human reality in its present form and a vote against the divine plan of action with respect to present human reality.
We have a workable analogy in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov has argued that the suffering of innocent children is not worth the price whatever high and inscrutable purpose God may have in mind. Toward the end of his tirade, he extracts from Alyosha the concession that if it were up to him, he, no more than Ivan, would not agree to let the tears of even one little child be one of the building blocks of future harmony. “Would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?” Ivan demands to know. (1) “No, I would not agree,” Alyosha answers softly. (2)
The four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, and the multitude of voting members in the heavenly council say even less, but their silence has the same meaning. No, they would not agree to be the architects of present human reality. Specifically, they find the divine plan of action to be woefully inadequate. The silence at the beginning of the proceedings in the heavenly council is therefore the silence of disapproval. We could also call it the silence of distress.
What we have, in so many words, is a crisis in the heavenly council. We are witnessing a crisis of confidence in the divine government.
- The Lamb that has been brutally slaughtered, now appearing in the middle, is God’s solution to this crisis. He has “won the war;” he has what it takes to take the scroll and to break its seals (5:5). Can we break this down to some of its constituent elements?
First, the Lamb does not change present human reality. The content of the scroll, the source of the distress, is not altered. The first four horses are not sent out to pasture in meadows of green; the content of the scroll is still “lamentation, and mourning, and woe” (Ezek 2:10).
Second, the Lamb’s ability to open the scroll is inseparable from the reality of “being slaughtered” (5:6). This is the most important fact in the immediate context; indeed, the most important scene in the entire book. Why is it that Jesus, himself a victim of violence, has what it takes for the heavenly council to come to terms with a reality that threatens its confidence in God? We cannot afford not to have some sense of why this revelation makes the difference.
Third, then, the slaughtered Lamb should be seen both as a fact of history and as a divine commitment. I’ll take a shortcut here, but I do not think I am running much of a risk: God has not authorized suffering in its excruciating particularity, but He has authorized freedom. The distress (and disgust) in the heavenly council cannot be seen only as a repudiation of suffering. It must also be seen as a critique of the ideology that made suffering possible. And what is that ideology? It cannot be anything other than freedom. God has authorized freedom, to be sure. Is the heavenly council telling him to surrender this commitment? Revelation, as I understand it, actually says that the heavenly council has lost confidence in the principle and policy of freedom.
But now, in the presence of the slaughtered Lamb, the council has second thoughts. The members are reconsidering their vote. The slaughtered Lamb, therefore, is both an act of revelation and of persuasion. God has in Christ entered human history in defense of His ideology of freedom. Freedom, we are told, will not be surrendered. God has not, as the usual story goes, mainly paid a high price for our salvation. He has also paid a high price for freedom. He has, as it were, drawn a line in the sand, insisting that He will not retreat on freedom.
This statement is not lost on the heavenly council (5:8-14). The impact is profound and immediate. Admitting imperfection as to how this should be expressed, we might say that Jesus has championed the cause of freedom to such an extent that the heavenly councilors decide to change their vote.
Fourth, looking downstream in the story, freedom is writ large on other features in Revelation. At the end there is a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem (21:1-2). Readers have wondered whether the city represents ‘place’ or ‘people,’ often opting for ‘people’ as the preferred interpretation (cf. 21:2, 10; 19:7, 8). But the city is also a place. And it is a place espousing a certain ideology to the point that it will check would-be entrants at the gate as to whether they want to live in such a city. A city where the gates are never shut and where there is no night (21:25) must be a place that has staked its future on freedom – trusting its inhabitants to make it a safe place apart from any external constraints or surveillance.
- It is now time to move to the seventh seal and to the silence at the end (8:1). What lies between the introduction of the sealed scroll and the breaking of the seventh seal cannot be seen only as a reality that unfolds along a temporal axis in a simple linear action. To the extent that we keep our eyes on a linear or sequential action in history, we must relate it to the problem that the story is addressing. And the primary purpose of this story is not to foretell history but to solve the deepest problem of theology and existence. The ‘silence at the end’ will not resonate –if silence can resonate – unless we relate it to the silence at the beginning.
It should be quite easy to anticipate that the silence at the end is different from the silence at the beginning. Silence of doubt and disapproval has been replaced by silence of awe and wonder. Why, however, does this silence occur only at the end of the revealing reality? Why does it not happen until we get to the seventh seal?
This brings us to the reason why I believe the seventh seal (8:1) is the worthiest text for the ending of Revelation, better than other worthy candidates. I’ll break this down into four points:
First, on the point of structure, neither a scheme of recapitulation nor a scheme of sequential events is adequate for the relationship between the seals, trumpets, and bowls. Calling ours a ‘revelatory view’ (in contrast to recapitulation or sequential view) is better, but its structure defies simple spatial categories, three parallel lines for recapitulation and three cycles of seven lined up in sequence for the sequential view. A better image is the notion of a “wheel within a wheel” (Ezekiel 1:16; 10:10). This notion accommodates a more complex and dynamic relationship between these cycles, and it is respectful of the character of the divine action that comes to view in Ezekiel, a very important background text for the setting of Revelation. Our attempt to represent this is too simple, but I think it is a step in the right direction. In the representation below, the silence at the end occurs at the tip of the arrow.
Second, on the point of narrative, the seventh seal is unique in making silence its ‘content.’ All the other seals refer conspicuously to events in the arena of history. ‘Silence in heaven,’ however, is a response and not an event, or rather, it is a response to things that have been revealed. The sixth seal (6:12-17), for instance, seems to denote a reality that roughly corresponds to the second coming of Jesus, or the ending of the seventh bowl (16:20), or the judgment (20:11), or all of them together. The seventh seal is subsequent to the sixth, and is, in my proposal, subsequent to everything that is revealed in Revelation. It is the ultimate scene and the bottom line for the revealing intent of the book. The seventh seal unveils the response to all that has been revealed, and the response is one of awed approval and stunned silence. To be sure, the silence of disapproval at the beginning has been turned into a silence vastly exceeding what the tame notion of ‘approval’ is able to convey. Phrasing this in terminology that might resonate in Loma Linda, we might say that at the beginning we have the question, ‘Can God be trusted?’ At the end we have the answer, and the answer is ‘yes.’ “Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate” (Isa 52:14-15).
Third, between the appearance of the Lamb in the middle (5:6) and the breaking of the seventh seal (8:1) human and cosmic reality have been fully revealed. On this point it will be necessary to modify my earlier contention that the sealed scroll contains a known reality only. Obviously, it contains more than that. Specifically, looking at its content from the point of view of the ending, it also contains the resolution of the cosmic conflict: the attempt of the demonic to steal the identity of the Lamb (13:1-18), the battle of Harmagedon (16:12-16), and the demise of the forces of evil on the outskirts of the beloved city (20:7-10). The silence at the end is exactly that, silence at the end, when the cosmic conflict is over.
We are not making this up. To the attentive re-reader of Revelation, it will be evident that the entire story of the book has been sketched before the opening of the seventh seal within the context of the seven seals. Consider the following texts, all appearing in Revelation’s narrative before the opening of the seventh seal.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9).
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:13-14).
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:16-17).
In these passages we witness the redeemed “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). We learn that they “have come out of the great ordeal” (7:13; cf. Dan 12:1; Rev 16:12-16). And we have the sweeping depiction of the end that will never end, here including a detail that is not even found in the last two chapters of Revelation: the Lamb (always to be seen as the slaughtered Lamb) “at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life” (7:17). It is therefore not in the least contrived to suggest that the seventh seal conveys the response of the heavenly council when the whole story of God’s ideology and action has been revealed.
Fourth, however, we must return to the point of ideology that is at the center of the conflict. Jesus persuades the heavenly council to his point of view (for freedom) when he appears as the slaughtered Lamb ‘in the middle.’ At that point he has, as it were, successfully defended the ideal of freedom. But at the end of the story there is more, and I’ll state it like this: When the din of battle dies down outside the beloved city (20:7-10), a battle happening entirely within and among the forces of the losing side of the conflict, freedom has defended itself. In the context of the cosmic conflict story of Revelation, Satan said that there was a freedom deficit in the government of God (3:1). This outrageous lie has now been exposed for what it is and was. Instead of God being hostile to freedom, we have seen that to the heavenly council, the problem has been too much freedom and too little restraint on evil. At the end of the story, certainly contrary to what the members of the council would have done, there is a new burst of freedom for the opposing side in the conflict (20:1-10). We discover that in God’s way of doing things, “Satan must be released” (20:3). And we realize that it is the logic of freedom that leads to Satan’s release at the end (20:3, 7). It is within the logic of freedom, precisely the quality said to be lacking in the divine government that Satan goes forth to work his own demise (20:1-10). Freedom, the occasion for all evil and suffering (note that I do not say ‘the cause’), has worked in such a way that it is also the solution. In this sense, I suggest, freedom has defended itself. God has not backed down from the ideal of freedom at any of the crisis points in the story.
In conclusion, the seventh seal reveals the response of the heavenly council to the most vexing problem of cosmic reality. It is fitting, extremely fitting, that our text says that “there was silence in heaven” (8:1) because it was in heaven that it all began, and it is in the halls of heaven that God has presented and defended His case. The slaughtered Lamb in the middle of the throne has indeed won the war. At the point when everything in human and cosmic reality has been fully exposed, we read that “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev 8:1).
Let there be silence on earth, too.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Pevear and Volokhonsky translation), 245.