Understanding the Sevens in Revelation
This post is part of the series “Revelation by the Numbers”
Understanding the Sevens in Revelation 👈 you are here
Revelation by the Numbers: 0–1
Revelation by the Numbers: 2–4
Revelation by the Numbers: 5–24
Revelation by the Numbers: 30–1,260
Revelation by the Numbers: 1,600+
Way at the end of the Bible is a scary book called Revelation. Or, depending on which translation you’re reading, possibly called The Apocalypse of John.
I say “scary” for two reasons:
- “Apocalypse” sounds scary. It actually just means “uncovering” or “revealing” or—you guessed it—”revelation,” but because of this book, we tend to use it to mean “the end of the world.” Which is scary.
- Revelation is a notoriously challenging book. It’s full of imagery and metaphors. It freely skips across time, talking about ancient churches and future wars; a false prophet and 2 true witnesses; a lake of fire and a new Eden. And 2,000 years after John wrote it, we still don’t understand as much as we wish.
It also contains a lot of sevens. Let’s let go of all those other things for right now and talk about the sevens.
What is Seven?
Numbers in the Bible serve two purposes:
- To represent actual numbers. Like 1 God, 3 persons, or 12 tribes.
- To represent symbolic amounts. Like 40 days of rain, or 40 days in the wilderness.
Sometimes they serve these purposes at the same time. As a familiar example, it’s not a coincidence that there are 12 tribes of Israel and Jesus called 12 apostles. The fact that there are 12 of each symbolically connects them. But also, that was the actual number of both.
Seven is one of those numbers that can serve both purposes. And it appears all over Revelation.
So what is 7?
Well, it’s 3 + 4. You should have guessed that a post with a number in the title would involve math. But at least it’s easy math, right?
Bear with me: we see 3 in many places in Scripture, but, especially in the New Testament, one specific context stands out: the Trinity. Three is the number of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit1.
We see 4 in a number of contexts, but most often it represents the world: the 4 corners of the earth, or the 4 winds. We see this in the Old Testament:
“And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come.”
And in the New Testament:
“And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
And, of course, in Revelation:
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.
So if 3 represents God, the uncreated being, and 4 represents the whole creation, then their sum, 7, represents the totality of everything. Completeness, or wholeness.
A side-effect of this is that if 7 is symbolically complete, then 6 is symbolically incomplete, insufficient, and therefore unholy. Then 666 is symbolically “triply incomplete” or “divinely incomplete” or “diabolical.” A fitting number for the beast. (What beast? Keep reading; you’ll find out.)
Sometimes you will also see 6 as “the number of man,” for a similar reason: just as 6 falls short of the perfection of 7, so “all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
But we were talking about sevens, and we were talking about Revelation.
There are 23 instances of 7… things… in Revelation. Or possibly fewer, if you decide some of them are actually the same thing; you’ll see when we get there. I told you Revelation was challenging.
There are also 2 sevens scattered throughout the book; we’ll look at them together at the end.
The book of Revelation opens with Jesus dictating to John letters to 7 churches:
In fact, John addresses the entire book to these churches (Revelation 1:4).
But first he transcribes a specific letter to each one, or more precisely to their angels or spirits (Revelation 1:11).
These churches are real historical churches, but they also represent all the churches of Asia2, or possibly the entire global church.
Each church gets a letter, which means there are also 7 letters. These letters are the contents of chapters 2 and 3.
There’s a lot to say about these letters and their structure, but none of them involve the number 7, so we’re moving on.
Those 7 letters are addressed to the spirits, or angels, of the churches. Some people think these spirits are actually the human leaders of the churches, but in Revelation, angels are always actual heavenly beings, so I think John probably really meant angels. He seems to suggest that each church has a heavenly overseer or protector3, and he addresses these letters to them. Also, in Revelation 1:4, the 7 spirits “are before [God’s] throne4”, which pretty clearly suggests who they must be.
There are a few other possibilities. A long time ago, in Isaiah 11:2, we also saw 7 spirits:
“And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
These 7 spirits may also represent the fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit; this interpretation works best if the 7 churches represent the entire earthly church of God.
Whoever they are (again: probably angels), the spirits show up repeatedly in Revelation, not just at the beginning. John refers to them directly in the letter to Sardis (Revelation 3:1); they are before the throne of God (Revelation 4:5); and they are sent into the earth (Revelation 5:6).
Seven Golden Lampstands
John’s vision begins when he hears the voice of Jesus, and when he turns, the first thing he sees are 7 golden lampstands (Revelation 1:12) and “in the midst of the lampstands, one like a son of man” who is pretty clearly Jesus, although like we’ve never seen Him before:
The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.
I sometimes wonder if Peter and James and John saw this image of Jesus on the mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17:2). John’s description also directly calls back to visions from Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:27) and Daniel (Daniel 10:6).
But we were talking about lampstands, not the guy standing in the middle of them.
We learn a few verses later that the lampstands represent the 7 churches (Revelation 1:20), so the churches are arrayed around Jesus as He walks among them (Revelation 2:1), which seems fitting.
The imagery reminds me of Joseph’s dream of the sheaves of wheat (Genesis 37:5–8) and the sun, moon, and stars (Genesis 37:9–11) all standing around him and bowing down to him. And Jesus is infinitely more worthy of glory than Joseph.
By the way, where have we seen lampstands and the presence of God together before?
If you’re thinking “tabernacle”—gold star.
God instructs Moses to build a golden lampstand with 6 branches and 7 lamps, and place it in the most holy place with the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:31–40). Those 6 branches aren’t symbolic of despite the number. To see why, consider that the Hebrew word for “lampstand” is מְנֹרַ֖ת, pronounced “menorah” (surprise!). Imagine a menorah with 3 arms on one side and 3 on the other—a total of 3+3+1=7 lights.
John isn’t seeing a new vision; he’s seeing a very, very old vision, one that Moses saw centuries before and copied as well as he could5.
So Jesus is walking amidst the 7 lampstands, and as He does, He’s holding 7 stars in His right hand (Revelation 1:16). John helpfully explains that just as the 7 lampstands represent the 7 churches, the 7 stars represent the 7 angels of the 7 churches (Revelation 1:20).
Seven Torches of Fire
After Jesus finishes dictating the letters to the 7 churches, John suddenly finds himself in the throne room of Heaven. Apparently that place where he was previously, with Jesus walking in the midst of 7 lampstands, was not the throne room. But here there is a throne, and someone seated on the throne who must be God, and 24 elders also seated on thrones, and 7 torches of fire (Revelation 4:5).
John doesn’t need an explanation this time: he immediately knows that these 7 torches are the 7 spirits of God6, presumably the ones who greet the churches in Revelation 1:4.
What’s the difference between the 7 angels, to whom the letters are written and who are represented by the stars in Jesus’s right hand, and the 7 spirits, who greet the 7 churches and are represented by the 7 torches in front of the throne?
I don’t know. Maybe nothing? They seem pretty similar to me.
What’s the difference between the 7 lampstands and the 7 torches?
I don’t know. Maybe nothing? They seem pretty similar to me.
Sorry. This book is challenging.
The word most commonly associated with Revelation is probably “judgment,” so it’s interesting that the judgments really don’t start until chapter 5. But when they do, it’s with a vengeance. And a 7.
John notices a scroll—written on both sides—in the right hand of the one seated on the throne (Revelation 5:1), sealed with 7 seals. An angel asks what must be a rhetorical question: “Who is worthy to open the scroll?”
Look, God is holding the scroll, and clearly God is worthy, but John nonetheless “began to weep loudly” because nobody could open it.
One of the elders leans over to John and whispers, “Don’t worry; the Lion of Judah—Jesus the Christ—has conquered, and He is therefore worthy to open the scroll” (Revelation 5:5).
John looks up and sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). Wait—the Lamb must be Jesus, right? But Jesus is walking around in the middle of 7 lampstands, which may or may not be the same as the 7 torches here in the throne room. And now the Lamb (I mean, “the Lion of Judah”) is standing “between the throne and the 4 living creatures.” So… is this the same scene, or a new one? John, come on, John.
Anyway, there’s some singing and worship7 and we have to wait an entire chapter to find out what’s going on with these 7 seals.
The first seal (Revelation 6:1–2) unleashes a white horse going out “conquering, and to conquer.” The rider is an imitation of Christ—he even has a white horse—and he is given a bow and a crown (but compare this description to the description of Jesus in Revelation 19). There are many interpretations of this horse and rider. The two most likely to me are “conquest,” because it’s right there in the text, and “antichrist,” because he resembles Jesus in many ways (white horse, weapon, crown, conquest).
The second seal (Revelation 6:3–4) reveals a red horse, whose rider gets a giant sword and permission to set the whole world to war.
The third seal (Revelation 6:5–6) brings forth a black horse, whose rider carries a pair of scales, but not of justice—of famine, as John hears wildly inflated prices for food.
The fourth seal (Revelation 6:7–8) completes the 4 horsemen with a pale green horse whose rider is Death, followed by Hades. This one is interesting, because the first three were not given permission to kill; this fourth one releases and intensifies the power of the first three, adding pestilence to war and famine and killing a quarter of the population of the earth. As of 2019, that’s, um, 1.9 billion people.
The fifth seal (Revelation 6:9–11) leaves off the horses and returns to the throne room, where the Christian martyrs are calling for vengeance on their persecutors. They get complimentary white robes and are politely asked to be patient.
On one hand, you’d think 1.9 billion deaths would be enough; on the other hand, Noah’s flood killed all but 8 people, total.
These martyrs should go back and read the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24–30), because they’re now characters in it: the servants who ask to root up the weeds and are told to wait until the harvest.
The sixth seal (Revelation 6:12–17) begins the cataclysm of the natural world with an earthquake, a blackened sun, a bloodied moon, falling stars, a split sky, crumbled mountains, and collapsed islands. All people, from the great and powerful to the weak and enslaved, find themselves fleeing from the destruction.
Think about these events, and then think about a massive volcanic eruption, like Vesuvius or Krakatoa or Mount St. Helens or Eyjafjallajökull—pretty similar, don’t you think?
The people left on earth universally understand that this destruction is the wrath of the Lamb, and they plead to be hidden from “the face of him who is seated on the throne.” I am reminded that Moses went to the top of a mountain that smoked like a volcano to speak with God, and was informed that no-one could see His face and live.
(Between the sixth and seventh seals, we take a break to welcome the new martyrs into Heaven, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, clothed in white robes like the martyrs who were already there. I know those are twelves and not sevens, but this all takes place in Revelation 7, so it counts.)
The seventh seal (Revelation 8:1) causes silence in Heaven for half an hour, and great confusion among all who read this verse. After all that destruction and death, all the singing and the worship, what could possibly stun Heaven into silence? This is the last seal, and the scroll is finally opened; maybe it has to do with what was written on the scroll?
Or perhaps it has something to do with the 7 angels with 7 trumpets who suddenly appear.
Seven Horns of the Lamb
Before we can look at those angels, though, we have to go back to the Lamb who opened the scroll. He has 7 horns. Horns traditionally symbolize power, and as we’ve said, 7 suggests completeness—the Lamb is all-powerful.
Seven Eyes of the Lamb
The Lamb also has 7 eyes, which is a little weird—don’t try to picture it—but eyes symbolize wisdom, meaning the Lamb is not just all-powerful but also infinitely wise.
John interprets the 7 eyes as the 7 spirits of God “sent into all the earth”—presumably those same spirits from earlier.
Seven Angels with Trumpets
Speaking of spirits, we see again 7 angels in Revelation 8:2—are they the same angels, or a new set of 7? Well, John says they are the ones “who stand before God,” and earlier he called the 7 spirits the ones “who are before [God’s] throne” (Revelation 1:4), so they may indeed be the same ones.
That line of thinking strongly suggests that the spirits are angels, instead of our previous hypotheses about the spirits of God from Isaiah or the work of the Holy Spirit.
(It’s worth noting that in Jewish mythology, there are 7 archangels, of whom Michael (whom we saw in Daniel 10) is one. Only 2 are mentioned by name in the Bible, Michael and Gabriel. The other 5 come from the apocryphal8 Book of Tobit, where Raphael refers to himself as one of 7 “who stand in the glorious presence of the Lord” (Tobit 12:15)—well, only Raphael gets a name there; the other 4 are named by only tradition.)
So the 7 angels each get a trumpet, but before we learn what the trumpets do—you can bet they’ll be catastrophic—we see a single angel who fills an incense bowl with fire from the altar and sends it crashing to the earth with “voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:5). Just in case there wasn’t enough chaos yet down below. (Also, remember the volcano.)
The first trumpet (Revelation 8:7) rains down “hail and fire, mixed with blood” and makes the reader do some math: one third of the earth is burned, and one third of the trees are burned, and all the grass is burned up.
The second trumpet (Revelation 8:8) throws “something like a great mountain, burning with fire” into the sea. Meteor? Comet? I don’t know, but it makes one third of the sea turn to blood, kills one third of the creatures of the sea, and destroys one third of the ships. Back when John wrote this, the ships were nice little sailboats and barges, for the most part. Today, though, imagine the havoc wreaked by the wreckage of a third of the ships. War and trade rely on ships; vast economies of food and everything else depend on ships; the deaths of everyone aboard will be the least of our worries.
The third trumpet (Revelation 8:10) sounds an awful lot like the second, in that it involves a giant flaming something falling into water and corrupting it. But this time, instead of shipping lanes, it ravages fresh water. Drinking water. This something gets a name—wormwood—and it makes a third of the fresh water become bitter, unsuitable for drinking. I bet it doesn’t make the fish happy either, or the people who rely on those fish.
The fourth trumpet (Revelation 8:12) widens our scope to the skies, blackening one third of the sun, one third of the moon, and one third of the stars. I can’t imagine what would do this… except… an earth-shattering nuclear or volcanic explosion could generate enough dust and ash in the upper atmosphere to block the light from the sun and moon and stars. And not just a third of the light, but a third of the heat. Things are not looking good for those left alive.
An eagle that speaks Hebrew flies over John and cries “Woe”—the next three trumpets are going to get worse.
The fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:1) takes a hard left turn from the natural disasters we’ve seen so far: a star, falling from heaven to earth, opens an abyss that unleashes a smothering cloud of smoke, much like the one I hypothesized for the fourth trumpet, actually. More volcano imagery.
Except out of this volcano comes an army of the weirdest locusts you’ve ever heard of. Remember that a locust is basically a feral grasshopper. But these locusts are the size of horses, with golden crowns, human faces, women’s hair, lions’ teeth, armor “like breastplates of iron,” and the power “in their tails” to torment those not sealed by God for 5 months9.
Oh, and they have a leader, that star, named Abaddon in Hebrew and Apollyon in Greek. In Luke 10:18, Jesus says He “saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven” as the disciples did the work He sent them to do; I suspect John just saw a similar event.
The sixth trumpet (Revelation 9:13) builds on the fifth with an army of two hundred million horses, led by 4 angels who had for some reason been bound near the Euphrates, and they are explicitly permitted to kill one third of mankind.
The black horseman released by the fourth seal back in Revelation 6:7–8 already killed one fourth of the humans, so get those calculators out and see that we’re down another 1.9 billion people. Between the horseman of the fourth seal and the horses of the sixth trumpet, we’ve lost (1/4) + ((1/3) * (3/4)) = 1/2 the population of the world.
Also, of course, these horses can’t just be normal horses. No, they have flaming armor and lions’ heads and they breathe fire and smoke and sulfur, which we are told represent three plagues that do the killing. Oh, and their tails are like serpents, just as the locusts’ tails are like scorpions’. Not normal horses.
The seventh trumpet delays quite a bit, all the way through chapter 10 and chapter 11. When it blows, we hear the bass part from Handel’s Hallelujah chorus in Messiah: “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15) This announcement of the eternal reign of God is accompanied by a new song from the 24 elders as well as lightning, thunder, an earthquake, and hail. You know. A volcano.
In between the sixth and the seventh trumpets, John sees another vision: a massive flaming angel who puts one foot on the land and the other on the sea. He speaks, and John hears 7 thunders reply, but a voice tells him not to write the words (Revelation 10:3,4). The angel swears that the great and terrible day of the Lord has finally arrived.
Oh, and the angel is carrying a little scroll—presumably smaller than the earlier scroll with 7 seals—which he gives to John to eat. Yes, to eat.
Seven Thousand Killed
The interlude between the sixth and seventh seals continues with John measuring the temple of God10 and 2 (fire-breathing) witnesses arising to prophesy for 3.5 years (half of 7!) (Revelation 11:1–14). Eventually they are killed by [the beast from the bottomless pit][rbtn-two-horns], but then God raises them to life and then to heaven, and the city they were in—presumably Jerusalem—suffers an earthquake that kills 7 thousand people. I mean, after losing 3.8 billion, 7 thousand doesn’t seem like much, but remember that 7 is a number of completion and “thousand” can be an arbitrarily large number. So “7 thousand” symbolically represents, like, everybody.
Somehow these 2 witnesses, their death and resurrection, are part of the second woe, brought about by the sixth trumpet. There will be a third…
Seven Heads of the Dragon
A new vision arises of a woman about to give birth—clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, wearing a crown of 12 stars. The woman—presumably the Virgin Mary—is pregnant, and about to give birth. A dragon appears, casting a third of the stars from the sky as he positions himself in front of the woman to eat her child as soon as it is born11. Unfortunately for the beast, God is sovereign, and He saves the child by bringing Him to heaven (who could the child be but Jesus?) and sends the woman into the wilderness for—you guessed it—3.5 years12.
Anyway, this dragon has 7 heads and 10 horns and 7 crowns (Revelation 12:3). It’s not clear how many horns go on each head—is it 10 on each? One on each of the first 6 and 4 on the seventh? Split evenly, with 1.428 horns per head? And how do the crowns work with the horns? I don’t know, but things get weird between the dragon and the woman, and Michael the angel gets involved, but none of it involves 7s, so we’re going to move on.
Seven Crowns of the Dragon
I already mentioned them, but they count all on their own!
It’s probably a good time to note that nobody knows what the 7 heads represent, or the 7 crowns. Maybe kings, or kingdoms? John doesn’t tell us.
By the way, the crown of stars the woman wears (Revelation 12:1) is a stephanos, the crown of victory; this crown contrasts with the dragon’s 7 diademata, the crown of kingship. There may be many kings, but only One is the ultimate victor.
Seven Heads of the First Beast
In case Revelation wasn’t confusing enough so far, a new beast appears (Revelation 13:1). It’s not the dragon, but it does have 7 heads and 10 horns. And weirdly, it has 10 crowns (diademata, thanks for asking) instead of 7. I guess that’s 1 per horn, which I appreciate, but now we have the same problem with the crowns as we did earlier with the horns. Maybe the crowns go on the horns instead of the heads…
On the plus side, we learn much later that these 7 heads of the beast represent mountains and kings (Revelation 17:9). Rome is famous for being surrounded by 7 hills; perhaps John has finally given us a concrete symbol.
Seven Angels with Plagues
Wait, wait, wait! If we move on to the next 7, we skip the most famous beast of Revelation: the second beast, with 2 horns “like a lamb” (except the Lamb from earlier had 7 horns) and the voice of a dragon and the authority of the first beast, which has somehow been slain and then raised (also like the Lamb from earlier). This second beast makes the earth worship the first beast, and causes all people to get the mark of the beast, and generally looks as Antichrist as possible. And the number of the beast is the number of a man, and his number is 666 (Revelation 13:11–18).
There’s also a new song for the 144,000 who were previously sealed, and who were also apparently virgins (Revelation 14:1–4). And 3 angels condemning the current state of humanity (Revelation 14:5–13). And the reaping of the saints (finally!) and the treading out of the wine press where the grapes of wrath are stored (Revelation 14:14–20).
Moving on! There’s a new set of 7 angels, most likely introduced by the seventh trumpet that announced the coming judgment of God (Revelation 15:1).
These angels come from “the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven” with golden sashes. One of the 4 creatures around the throne gives them each a bowl like the passing out of offering plates, except these bowls are filled with the wrath of God and are the source of the third woe.
Egypt had 10 plagues, a nice round number, but this is Revelation, where we deal in sevens. So that’s how many plagues we have.
The first plague sounds like Egypt and like Job, causing painful sores on anyone who had been sealed by the beast (Revelation 16:2).
The second plague also sounds like Egypt, turning the sea to blood (Revelation 16:3). Remember those halcyon days of the second and third trumpets, when only a third of the creatures of the sea died? This time, every single creature in the sea dies. In case the previous signs were too abstract, all the fish are gone, and with them the krill, the clams, the oysters, the dolphins, and the whales. The oceans are lost.
The third plague does to fresh water what the second did to salt water: it turns it to blood and kills all its creatures (Revelation 16:4–7). And “the angel in charge of the waters”—who knew such an angel existed?—exults because the wicked had shed the blood of the martyrs, and now they are made to drink blood. Gross.
The fourth plague sounds like global sunburn—”[the sun] was allowed to scorch people with fire” (Revelation 16:8). Now, I’ve had sunburn so bad my skin turned purple, and I’ve gotten sun poisoning as recently as this year. I should take better care of myself. But imagine sunburn so bad that it gets included in a list with turning the oceans to blood.
The fifth plague brings darkness to the kingdom of the beast (Revelation 16:10). How this interacts with a scorching sun—or really, how that sun burns so hot when the smoke is blotting out a third of its light—is anybody’s guess.
The sixth plague dries up the Euphrates (Revelation 16:12). Which, after all the oceans and rivers have turned to blood, seems inconsequential. Except remember Egypt: out of the blooded river come frogs. And in this case, the frogs are 3 demonic spirits that go out the gather the kings of the earth to make war against the Lamb. The frog-demons assemble the armies at “the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16). If this were a game of Clue, we could now say, “Abaddon, at Armageddon, with all the kings of the earth.”
The seventh plague sounds familiar by this point: lightning, thunder, a city-splitting earthquake, the loss of mountains and islands, and hundred-pound hail (Revelation 16:17–21). If you’d been left behind, I bet you’d run to the rock, too.
Seven Angels of Wrath
At first glance, it seems obvious that the 7 angels in Revelation 16 are the same 7 angels from Revelation 15. I’ve only separated them because I’m annoyed that John says in one verse (Revelation 16:6) that the 7 angels already have the 7 plagues, and in the next verse (Revelation 16:7) they are given the 7 bowls of wrath.
Seven Golden Bowls of Wrath
Because the 7 angels of wrath and the 7 angels of plague seem like the same angels, the 7 bowls of plague we talked about above are probably the same as these 7 bowls of wrath from Revelation 16.
As the 7 angels pour out the 7 bowls, the sanctuary of Heaven is blocked off by “smoke from the glory of God and from His power” (Revelation 16:8).
Seven Heads of the First Beast (Again)
We revisit the first beast13—the one with 7 heads and 10 horns—but with a twist this time: “the great prostitute” is sitting on it. An angel explains to John that it “was, and is not, and is to come” (Revelation 17:8). This phrase should sound almost familiar: John greets his audience in Revelation 1:4 from “him who is and who was and who is to come”—God Himself, or possibly Jesus. Just as the second beast was a perversion of the Lamb, this beast is a perversion of that structure.
The woman riding the beast is also a perversion of an earlier image: the woman from Revelation 12:1 whose child the beast tried to eat. That woman fled to the wilderness away from the beast; this woman is brought from the wilderness by the beast.
The angel finally explains the 7 heads: they are 7 mountains “on which the woman is seated” (Revelation 17:9), although earlier the woman “is seated on many waters” (Revelation 17:1), which we later learn are “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Revelation 17:15). (The woman is also “Babylon the great” (Revelation 17:5), “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 17:18). Thanks, John. How many metaphors can you fit into a single symbol?)
The 7 heads are somehow also 7 kings, 5 of whom have already fallen, 1 of whom is in power, and 1 of whom is still to come (Revelation 17:10). This beast is itself the eighth king.
The angel further explains that the 10 horns are also 10 kings who are still to come, for a total of 18 kings. But where the first 7 kings are chronological, these 10 kings are contemporaneous, and they hand their power over to the beast.
The 7 heads of the first beast are 7 mountains, says the angel (Revelation 17:9). The only 7 mountains I can think of are the 7 hills of Rome, as I mentioned above. But the 7 heads are also 7 kings, of whom 5 have already passed away, and it’s not like a mountain to just pass away. I mean, except when meteors and comets are thrown into the sea and the mountains and the islands flee.
We have already mentioned the 7 kings represented by the 7 heads of the beast (Revelation 17:10).
Where have we seen a succession of kings before?
Way back in Daniel 2, Daniel interprets one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams involving a statue made of 5 different materials: gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay mixed with iron. Daniel confirms that Nebuchadnezzar (and by extension Babylon) is the head of gold; by analogy, we assume that Persia, Greece, and Rome are, respectively, the torso of silver, the thighs of bronze, and the legs of iron.
It seems reasonable to try to link these two visions, but we have a problem. In the present time of John’s vision—which may not be John’s time, but the time of the end—the fifth king is already past, the sixth is reigning, and the seventh is still to come. Also the eighth, the kingdom of the beast. So while the first 4 are nice and clean, the final 4 are shrouded in mystery even millennia later.
One piece of the vision that is not mysterious is the fate of these final kings. John sees the kings make war against the Lamb, which is a stunningly bad idea—and indeed the Lamb conquers them all (Revelation 17:14), for which it appears they blame the woman (Revelation 17:15–18).
Two More Sevens
The previous 23 instances of the number 7 are all physical symbols. But John isn’t satisfied with simple sets of sevens. There are 2 more sets scattered throughout the book as if they are waiting for a particularly observant reader to discover them.
You may be familiar with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–11 at the beginning of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount—”Blessed are the poor in spirit” and so on.
Well, “beatitude” just means “blessing,” and indeed there are 7 blessings in Revelation. They share a similar pattern to those in Matthew (“Blessed are [people], for [reason]”). However, whereas Jesus speaks all 9 from Matthew (not 7; I was disappointed, too), these 7 are variously spoken by John himself, an angel to John, or even Jesus.
Let’s take a look.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
This first beatitude is the only one in the first 13 chapters of the book. It’s part of John’s greeting to his readers.
- Blessed are the one who speaks, the one who hears, and the one who keeps John’s prophecy
- For the time of the prophecy is near
- Speaker: John
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
This 2-part beatitude is kind of a call-and-response between the Father and the Holy Spirit. It comes just after 3 angels announce the coming judgment, and John calls for the endurance of the saints.
- Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on
- For they may rest from their labors
- Speaker: the Father and the Holy Spirit
(“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”).
This beatitude comes out of nowhere in the middle of the sixth plague, the drying up of the Euphrates. That’s why the ESV translators put it in parentheses. Also, the speaker is not explicitly identified, but there is only One who comes “like a thief”: Jesus.
- Blessed are those who stay awake
- For they will not be exposed when the judgment comes
- Speaker: Jesus
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
This beatitude comes in the midst of a massive celebration of worship, just before Jesus appears riding a white horse. It doesn’t follow the traditional pattern of telling us why these people are blessed. We have to infer that they are the saints who endured and now celebrate the victory of Christ. That is, the invitation itself is the blessing.
- Blessed are those invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb
- For [unstated; they celebrate the victory of Christ]
- Speaker: an angel
Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
This beatitude mysteriously divides the resurrection of the saints into 2 parts, one before the 1,000-year reign of Jesus, and one after14. It comes after Satan is sealed for those 1,000 years. The first includes Christian martyrs and those who endured the tribulation of the end times without getting marked by the beast; the second includes the rest of the Christians from all of time.
- Blessed are the saints of the first resurrection
- For they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years
- Speaker: John
“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
This beatitude near the end of the book mirrors the first one near the beginning, except it comes not from John the author but from Jesus Himself. Again, the speaker is not explicitly identified, but again there is only One who is “coming soon.” Also, a few verses later John explicitly identifies Jesus, and He says again, “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20).
This beatitude again breaks the pattern by not specifying a reason, but a few verses later we see that those who do not keep the prophecy suffer plagues and death.
- Blessed are those who keep John’s prophecy
- For [unstated; they do not suffer plagues and death]
- Speaker: Jesus
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.
This beatitude summarizes the entire gospel using the imagery of Revelation: those who wash their robes (in the blood of the Lamb, making them shining white) are Christians who confess their sins and are therefore forgiven by Jesus through His death and resurrection, and they are given eternal life and invited into the holy city, the New Jerusalem.
These saints are contrasted with those “dogs and sorcerers” left outside the gates (Revelation 22:15), “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).
- Blessed are those who wash their robes
- For they have the right to the tree of life and they may enter the city by the gates
- Speaker: John
These 7 beatitudes collectively paint a picture of men and women who hear the words of the prophets, endure in the face of tribulation, watch and wait for the coming of Christ, and in the last days are raised with Him to celebrate His victory over death and to enter into eternal life.
If you’re overwhelmed by all the symbols and mystery and confusion, this message of Revelation is nonetheless clear. And the fact that there are 7 of them means that the blessings are complete; they are full; they are extravagant.
We come at last to the final 7, and fittingly they are doxologies, songs of praise and glory to God. Some of these will sound familiar, because they have been turned into popular hymns.
As with the beatitudes, they are sung by various people or creatures or groups throughout the story of Revelation. In fact, the identities of the singers are what separate them. But unlike the beatitudes, they require no interpretation: they are pure songs of praise.
Sit back and let them wash over you, or maybe even join their chorus.
John sings the first doxology:
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
The 4 living creatures sing the second doxology as a call-and-response with the 24 elders:
[Creatures:] “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!
[Elders:] “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
The third doxology comes from the 4 living creatures, the 24 elders, and 100 million angels:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
Every creature in Creation joins in for the fourth doxology, which comes immediately afterward:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
The fifth doxology looks a lot like Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with a great multitude that no one could number waving palm branches and singing:
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
The angels in the throne room join the crowd for the sixth doxology:
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
A final great multitude celebrates the victory of the Lamb in the seventh doxology:
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
We have reached the end of Revelation and the end of the sevens.
Even though we’re now over 7,000 words (I promise I didn’t plan that), I suspect you have more questions than you did when we started. That’s okay. I said at the beginning we weren’t going to uncover all the mysteries of Revelation. But maybe you’re more curious now than you were before, and maybe next time you read it you’ll have some guideposts to help you keep from losing your way.
Three also appears in other ancient traditions as the number of the heavens. ↩
Biblical “Asia” implies roughly the region of modern-day Turkey, not the entire giant continent we think of today. ↩
In Daniel 10:10–21, Daniel has a vision involving angels as protectors of kingdoms; it is somewhat natural to suppose that churches would have protecting angels as well. ↩
Whose throne? Every time I read this, I get thrown off. John gives greetings from “him who is and who was and who is to come,” a phrase that usually means Jesus. This person is seated on a throne—also Jesus. But then John greets the reader also from Jesus Christ. So either the first person is God the Father, about whom all the things we say of Jesus are also true, or John greets us from Jesus and also Jesus, which, I guess, given the way the rest of this book goes, is not out of character. ↩
I wonder about the numbers here: does each lampstand have 7 lamps, like the one in Exodus, or are they single-lamp lampstands? That is, are there 7 total lamps on 7 lampstands, or 49 total lamps on 7 lampstands? ↩
This image explicitly matches Psalm 104:4, “he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire,” which the author of Hebrews later quotes to prove Jesus’s superiority to angels (Hebrews 1:7). ↩
Where by “some” I mean the voices of hundreds of millions of angels (Revelation 5:11) and all of creation (Revelation 5:13) singing a new song to the risen King/Lamb/Lion/Jesus. ↩
Formally, Tobit is technically “deuterocanonical,” meaning from the second canon—the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church include them in their Bible, but Protestants do not. ↩
Five is a weird number. Sevens, twelves, threes, fours, all okay. Five is uncommon in the Bible. ↩
The temple has been measured before, by an angel in a vision of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40–41). ↩
You may remember at this point that Kronos, the leader of the titans of Greek mythology, ate all the children of his sister-wife Rhea as soon as they were born. The last child she replaced with a stone and fed it to him, thus saving the life of Zeus, who later conquers Kronos and frees his brothers and sisters, thereby establishing the traditional Greek pantheon. ↩
There was another woman who fled with her child into the wilderness: Sarai’s servant, Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, who was Abraham’s first son. ↩
I admit I don’t know for sure whether this beast is really the same as the first beast, or whether it’s a new beast. It’s red, like the first beast, and it has the same number of heads and horns, but I would have thought John would recognize it and tell us if they were the same. ↩
Want to really hurt your head? When Jesus dies on the cross, some number of dead saints were raised (Matthew 27:52–52); was this a resurrection event? How does it fit into this narrative? ↩
This post is part of the series “Revelation by the Numbers”
Understanding the Sevens in Revelation 👈 you are here
Revelation by the Numbers: 0–1
Revelation by the Numbers: 2–4
Revelation by the Numbers: 5–24
Revelation by the Numbers: 30–1,260
Revelation by the Numbers: 1,600+