PMT 2014-028 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In my last blog article (PMT 2014-027) I began answering a reader’s question seeking evidence for recapitulation in Revelation. In the last article I explained the question before us. In this one I will resolve that question.
We may discern strong thematic evidence of Revelation’s cyclical movement in its several passages that appear to be world-ending (earth-shaking, sky-falling catastrophes) or others that appear to signal the return of Christ long before Revelation’s conclusion. For instance, if taken literally, the sixth seal’s judgment is a universal, history-ending catastrophe: the sun darkens, the stars fall, the sky is split, and every mountain is shaken (6:12–17). Yet Revelation continues for another fourteen chapters, presenting more judgments before presenting its glorious outcome (Revelation 21–22).
Such cosmic-destruction passages also end the seven trumpets (11:15–19) and the seven bowls (16:17–21). The coming of “the son of man” in 14:14–20 also appears climactic; yet according to dispensationalists his second advent does not actually occur until Revelation 19, forcing them to interpret ch 14 proleptically. My understanding of these climaxes is that each one of them ends in the AD 70 judgment of Israel as the old covenant is finally and forever closed and the new covenant is powerfully and publically confirmed. Further evidence in this direction is the fact that Babylon, the main earthly enemy of God’s people, falls several times: 14:8; 16:19; 17:16 (cf. 5); 18:2.
An unmistakable example of recycling appears when we compare the bowl plagues (15:1—16:21) with the trumpet plagues (8:6—11:15). The first trumpet and bowl plagues affect the earth (cp. 8:7; 16:2); the second, the sea (cp. 8:8; 16:3); the third, rivers and springs (cp. 8:10; 16:4); the fourth, the sun (cp. 8:12; 16:8); the fifth, “the bottomless pit” causes “darkness” (9:2) = “the throne of the beast: becoming “darkened” (16:10); the sixth, the “river Euphrates” (cp. 9:14; 16:12); the seventh, results in completion: “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (11:15) = “It is done” (16:17).
It would seem even that the fact of climacteric spiral is demanded in the very structure of the ongoing visions. That is, the first six seals appear to progress toward a conclusion, but when the seventh is opened (8:1–5), another series launches (the trumpets, 8:6ff). The first series has its apparent climax, but then builds again toward a new climax. This is climacteric spiral at work.
We should note that no opponent of recapitulation takes the progress as relentlessly forward working. Classic dispensationalist Robert Thomas (Revelation, 1995: 542) holds to a rather strict chronological approach: “The results of this study lead to the conclusion that the overriding structural plan of the Apocalypse is that of progression . . . . The chronological movement in the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls is always forward, never backward or static. The predictions forecast future events that will follow one right after the other in the same order as the book unfolds them.” Yet even he allows some mingling of past and future, disjunctive intercalations, and so forth as in 11:15–19; 12:1ff; 19:1–4, 7–9 (Thomas 1995: 43, 103, 104, 106–07, 113, 355, 365–66). For example, he comments on one passage: “this passage is part of an intercalation which is not a part of Revelation’s strict chronological sequence” (366). In his Excursus 3 on the matter, he confesses: “The progressive sequence of the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls does not, however, rule out some measure of recapitulation in sections of intercalation” and “that Revelation contains recapitulation in that sense is undeniable” (540, 541).
John employs cycles of judgment to increase his rhetorical effect on his audience. Blount (120) points out that “like any good rhetorician, John hammers home his single message by rearticulating it in a variety of ways.” In fact, John’s use of recapitulation with variation was a popular rhetorical convention in antiquity. Ben Witherington (Revelation, 130) cites the first-century BC Latin book Rhetorica ad Herrennium (4:42:54) in this regard: “We do not repeat the same thing precisely — for that to be sure, would weary the hearer and not elaborate the idea — but with changes.”
But in John’s case he is not simply avoiding wearing out his audience as a writer seeking increased scroll sales. Rather he is earnestly ministering to Christ’s followers who are being hounded by the Jews through their continually stirring up of the secular authorities against them (2:9; 3:9; cp. Mt 10:17–19; Ac 16:20; 17:7; 18:2; 21:11; 24:1–9; 25:1–2). As John emphasizes the worsening judgments to befall Israel, he is urging Christians to continue in the faith, to endure to the end through it all (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:10; 14:12; 21:7; Mt 10:22; 24:13). At the same time he is warning unbelieving Israel about her coming judgment — as does Jesus Lk 19:41–44//, Peter in Ac 2:14–40, Stephen in Ac 6:12–14, Paul in 1Th 2:14-16, and the writer of Hebrews in Heb 8:13; 12:26–29.
Hermeneutics authority Milton Terry (Biblical Apocaclyptics, 1898: 22) well-notes that “all such apocalyptic repetitions serve the two-fold purpose of intensifying the divine revelation and showing ‘that the thing is established by God and that he will shortly bring it to pass’” (cp. Ge 41:25, 32). Craig Koester (Revelation and the End of All T hings, 39) adds further that “an outline of the book looks like a spiral, with each loop consisting of a series of visions” so that “with increasing intensity the visions at the bottom of the spiral threaten the readers’ sense of security.” He sees in this method a comforting rationale: “each time the clamor of conflict becomes unbearable, listeners are transported into the presence of God, the Lamb, and the heavenly chorus” in visions appearing “at the top of the spiral.”
It even seems that the three septets reflect a perspective from three aspects of Israel: The seals emphasize the people, as we see in their climax in the protective numbering of the 144,000 and the vision of the great multitude in heaven in Revelation 7 (these will be spared God’s judgments). The trumpets emphasize the temple, as we may discern from their beginning at the golden altar of incense in heaven (8:3–5) and in their climax in the trampling of the earthly temple (11:2) and the opening of the heavenly one in 11:19. And the vials highlight Jerusalem, as we note in their climax in the judgment of the great city in Revelation 16:19; 17–18. Of course, all of these focus on first-century Israel whose judgment is Revelation’s theme.
One supposed glaring weakness of recapitulation is that at 15:1 these bowl judgments are called the “last” and are therefore chronologically distinguished from the seals and trumpets which precede them (John Court, Revelation, 7; Walvoord, Revelation, 225; Robert Thomas, Revelation, 1995: 231). But this “last” series is last in John’s presentation of three cycles of seven, not necessarily last in historical chronology. Greg Beale (Revelation, 786) argues that the reference to “the last” (tas eschatas) simply gives us “the order in which John saw the visions and not necessarily the chronological order of their occurrence in history” (cp. Boxall 217). This is dramatically significant in that the internal progression intensifies for effect — from one-fourth, to one-third, to the whole. Thus, “it makes more sense to read the seals and trumpets as different versions of the same story told by the bowls” (A. Y. Collins 1980: 190). 
1. “Revelation 18: Taunt-Song or Dirge?” in in L’Apolcalypse johannique et l’Apocalyptique dans le Nouveau Testament, ed. by Jan Lambrecht. BETL 53; Gembloux: Ducullot/Leuven: University Press, 1980, 185-204.
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