My retired pastor-friend once joked, “Revelation 8:1 says there will be silence in heaven for half an hour. This proves there will be no women there!” He was joking, of course, but what is this half hour of silence, anyway?
John Gill, fresh off what he considers a peek into the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 7:9-17), returns to interpreting Revelation 8 through the lens of “prophetic history” (that is, seeing the events described in Revelation as playing out in successive church eras). Let’s examine his cut on Revelation 8:1-5
Gill & the 7th Seal (Rev. 8:1)
Gill sees this half hour of silence as the church’s reprieve from persecution during Emperor Constantine’s pro-Christian reign (ca. 306-337 A.D.). He states:
[T]his is to be understood of that peace and rest which the church enjoyed upon Constantine’s having defeated all his enemies, when he brought the church into a state of profound tranquility and ease; and this lasted but for a little while, . . . for in a short time the Arian heresy broke out, which introduced great troubles in the church, and at last violent persecutions.John Gill, comments on Revelation 8:1
The Arian heresy primarily held that Jesus was not God, but rather a created being. It caused deep divisions in the church until the matter was settled at the Council of Nicea. That council concluded Jesus was 100% man and 100% God simultaneously.
The Preparation for the Trumpets (Rev. 8:2-4)
This half hour reprieve opens the way for the seven trumpet judgments, which Gill says bring humanity to the end of time. He suggests the angel mentioned is none other than Christ Himself. Christ offers up to God incense (namely, His Own holy prayers for God’s elect) mingled with all the prayers of the saints at the golden altar. The purpose, Gill says, is to show Christ’s loving care for them before the terrible trumpet judgments. He states:
[N]ow all this is expressive of the wonderful affection of Christ for his church and people, and care of them; that before the angels sound their trumpets, and bring on wars and desolations into the empire, Christ is represented as interceding for them, and presenting their prayers both for deliverance for themselves, and vengeance on their enemies.John Gill, comments on Revelation 8:4
The congregations on earth needn’t fear, however, as he will explain momentarily.
The Timing of the Trumpet Judgments (Rev. 8:5)
In this verse, Christ throws the censer on the earth. Gill takes the “earth” to refer specifically to the Roman empire. The peals of thunder, flashes of lightning, and the earthquake refer to judgments poured forth on the post-Constantine empire, which was largely Christian at that time. For instance, he states:
[B]y fire here are meant the judgments of God, and his wrath and fury poured forth like fire upon the Roman empire, now become Christian; and so was an emblem of those calamities coming upon it at the sounding of the trumpets; and shews that as Christ prays and intercedes for his own people, for their comfort and safety, so he’ll bring down his judgments upon his and their enemies.John Gill, comments on Revelation 8:5
Gill makes clear the congregations will be protected, as they were during the last seven Egyptian plagues.
We can agree with Gill’s ultimate conclusion: This section is meant to show God’s loving care for His congregations by judging the earth-dwellers who torment them. Yet, we still have some questions.
First, is the silence on earth or in heaven? Gill applies it to Constantine’s reign on earth, but the actual text states, “there was silence in heaven.” We wonder why Gill felt it necessary to have a corresponding action on earth. We can’t dismiss that notion entirely, as cosmic actions often have earthly ramifications. Yet, we can’t accept it entirely, either; because the text doesn’t specify it explicitly.
Second, are the judgments limited to God’s enemies? We only need to read ahead a few verses to hear a third of the trees are burned, a third of the waters become bitter, and a third of the daylight is exhausted. It is hard to imagine how the congregations on earth will be exempt from at least some residual effects.
Third, why the quick interpretational switch from a more textual, exegetical approach in the previous section to the “prophetic history” approach here? There is no need to place anything in Revelation 8:1-5 in prophetic history. If we do, we open up Pandora’s box, so to speak. For instance, Gill himself admits some see the “angel” not as Christ, but as (1) the Pope Damasas who prayed in Constantine’s day; (2) Constantine himself; or, (3) Emperor Theodosius when he prayed before battle. We have no controlling parameters at that point; and each interpreter chooses the historical option that best fits his/her preferred timeline.
We quickly can become enamored with Gill (and others) when they match specific texts with precise, historical events. Their mastery of history—which “seems” to fit so perfectly—leaves us in excited amazement. “We’ve finally ‘cracked the code’ of prophecy,” we begin to think. Yet, when we keep asking the simple question, “Is that what the Apostle John meant when he wrote it?” we’re not so certain anymore.
I suppose Gill would tell me what amillennialists have told me time and again, “Keep thinking on it. You’re getting close. You’ll get it, sooner or later.” So, I will keep thinking on it, but I’m quite comfortable storing up these texts in my heart and watching to see how God makes it all work together for His Own glory.