The Importance of Structure
The old expression that says one cannot see the forest for the trees can be quite applicable to one’s effort to understand Revelation. Before trying to understand all of the specific details within Revelation, one should step back to see the overview of Revelation. This overview perspective is profitable because it allows one to see that the text of Revelation is laid out in a highly structured manner. This structure is intended to provide the proper context to the passages within. Thus, understanding the meaning of the structure is actually crucial to understanding Revelation.
We’ll explore this meaning using the principles described in How to Interpret Revelation.
The Structure of Revelation
Revelation is easily the most structured book in the Bible. Its structure is best described by using different levels, with increasing degrees of detail.
The Top Level Structure
At the highest level, the following structure is rather easily seen:
- Chapter 1
Preface: The author informs us regarding himself, the purpose of the book and the circumstances in which it came about.
- Chapters 2 through 3
Messages to the Churches: Christ gives messages of both commendation and warning to the churches in advance of the end times.
- Chapters 4 through 22:5
The Main Body of Prophecy.
- Chapter 22:6 to end
Epilogue: The author brings closure with final admonitions and encouragements.
As you can see, the third part, which I call the Main Body of Prophecy, covers the bulk of Revelation; a bit over 18 of its 22 chapters. This large third part has its own structure, as discussed below.
The Structure of the Main Body of Prophecy
The structure of chapters 4 through 22:5 is also quite evident:
- Chapters 4 through 5
Introduction of End Times Prophecy: God reveals the purpose to be accomplished during the end times.
- Chapters 6 through 8:1
Wave #1: The Seals.
- Chapters 8:2 through 11
Wave #2: The Trumpets.
- Chapters 12 through 15
The Summation that Precedes the Bowls.
- Chapters 16 through 19
Wave #3: The Bowls.
- Chapters 20 through 22:5
Christ’s Reign and the Final Kingdom of God: We see what happens after Christ’s return, beginning with the Millennial Kingdom and on to the final new heaven and new earth.
Dominating the Main Body of Prophecy are the four middle parts (parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 above). These consist of three sections that I’ve called “waves”, and between the second and third waves is an important special section that I’ve called The Summation that Precedes the Bowls. The three waves themselves each share a similar structure, as discussed below.
The Structure of the Waves
Each wave consists of seven “events” - It is only natural to assume that each sequence of seven events are chronological. The number seven itself is also highly significant (this point will be discussed later).
Each wave includes an “interlude” - In addition to the seven events, each of the three waves include another body of text that I’ve called an interlude.
- The interlude for the seal wave is found in chapter 7, and it is embedded between the sixth and seventh seal events.
- The interlude for the trumpet wave is found in chapter 10 through chapter 11 verse 13, and it is similarly embedded between the sixth and seventh trumpet events.
- The interlude for the bowl wave is found in chapters 17-18, and it is embedded within the text of the seventh bowl (this claim is explained toward the end of the chapter 16 commentary).
It is important to note in each case, the interlude is embedded within the narration of it’s associated seven events. This tells us that the interlude for a given wave should be considered to be part of that wave. It is like the bridge section of a song: Even though the bridge section isn’t one of the verses of the song, it’s still as much part of that song as the verses.
What does the interlude for each wave do? In each case, the interlude discusses the wave from a broad perspective. Unlike the specific events, the interlude provides information about the wave itself as a whole.
Understanding the association between a wave, its events, and its interlude helps the interpretation process. For example, the things that we read about in the trumpet interlude should be regarded only as part of the time period and purpose associated with the trumpets. This helps immensely with developing a sense of timing and understanding about how all these events relate to each other.
Understanding the Structure
We have reviewed the structure of Revelation, but what is the purpose of this structure? Below are some logical propositions to get us started toward answering this question.
1. The structure must have purpose - The prophetic vision of the future is primarily laid out in the form of three waves, (1) seals, (2) trumpets, and (3) bowls. Even before we understand what this structure means, we should at least assume that it’s meaningful. God is not being whimsical.
2. The purpose should understandable – We should assume that a proper understanding of the structure is well within our grasp. As such, we should not expect it to be exceedingly complicated. God’s servants are expected to readers of scripture, but not necessarily geniuses who must all unravel some deep or confounding mystery. Otherwise, it would defeat the stated purpose of the book to inform God’s servants about the future (Rev 1:1).
3. The purpose is to provide context – The text of Revelation describes many future events, but without many direct statements about timing. This is why the timing of events is always a major point of disagreement among theologians. However, the text of Revelation is contained and presented by the structure of Revelation. The structure should therefore provide the (otherwise missing) context by which we may understand how these events relate to each other, both in timing and in purpose.
3. Each wave has seven events, giving them the meaning of “wholeness“ - We should assume that the idea of wholeness implied by the number seven is applicable to each wave (seals, trumpets, and bowls). This means that each wave should not be seen just as a sequence of seven events, but rather as one whole event that has been divided into seven parts. For example, the creation was one whole event, even though its description is divided into seven days. Seeing each wave as one whole event has a wonderful simplifying effect on our understanding of Revelation.
4. Each wave must have a meaning revealed in scripture – It’s easy to say that the three waves must each represent one whole event, but this claim is futile unless there are in fact three whole events revealed in scripture that need to be fulfilled. If not, we would have no defensible way to say what the whole events are, let alone what it means for them to be fulfilled.
We should therefore expect to find three major events revealed in scripture, which are not yet fulfilled, that will correspond with the three waves of Revelation.
5. Our understanding of the three waves must agree with the prophets – The Old Testament prophets said many things about the end times, and any correct understanding of the three waves of Revelation must agree with what these prophets revealed.
Interestingly, the prophets described the end times mainly as three apocalyptic time periods:
(1) The 70th Week of Daniel.
(2) The Time, Times, and Half a Time.
(3) The Day of the Lord.
Proposing a Hypothesis
Based on the propositions above, we are looking for an explanation for the three waves (seals, trumpets, and bowls) such that they each represent some whole purpose unto themselves, and that each purpose must be revealed in scripture. The best possible explanation would be:
- Relatively simple, such that it is readily understandable by His servants (Rev 1:1).
- Free of human “inventiveness” and preconceived notions.
- Revealed as directly as possible by scripture.
What could satisfy these requirements better than a simple one-to-one correspondence between the three waves of Revelation and the three apocalyptic time periods revealed by the prophets? What could be more natural than the idea that a wave that contains seven events should represent the time period that contains those events?
This proposal is very attractive because it is so simple and direct. It should really be one of the first ideas we consider.
Of course, however attractive it appears to be, this proposal cannot be accepted unless it can be credibly demonstrated. For now, I’ll propose it as a hypothesis that needs to be tested. We’ll develop this hypothesis and evaluate it in the sections that follow.
The Three Apocalyptic Time Periods
We should first review the three apocalyptic time periods revealed by the Old Testament prophets, and later see how they compare with Christ’s own description of His return to earth.
The End Times According to the Prophets
(1) The 70th week of Daniel (7 years)
Dan 9:27 - “And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”
As explained in The 70th Week of Daniel, this is a seven year period. It begins with a ruler who makes a firm covenant with Israel for seven years, but at the midpoint there will be an abomination in which this ruler stops the sacrifices in the sanctuary, in opposition to God and His people. This event at the midpoint divides it into two 3 1/2 year periods. In the end this wicked ruler will meet his decreed destruction.
(2) The Time, times, and half a time (1290 days)
Dan 7:25-27 - ‘He will speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One, and he will intend to make alterations in times and in law; and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time. 26But the court will sit for judgment, and his dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever. 27‘Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him.
Dan 12:7-11 - “7I heard the man dressed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, as he raised his right hand and his left toward heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever that it would be for a time, times, and half a time; and as soon as they finish shattering the power of the holy people, all these events will be completed. 8As for me, I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what will be the outcome of these events?” 9He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time. 10“Many will be purged, purified and refined, but the wicked will act wickedly; and none of the wicked will understand, but those who have insight will understand. 11“From the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days.”
This title expression should be understood as time (1 year), times (2 years) and half a time (1/2 year), which adds up to 3 1/2 years.
From Daniel 7, we see that this time period will be marked by a wicked ruler who will wear down and conquer the saints and he will speak out against the Most High. This period concludes with this ruler being destroyed forever and the everlasting kingdom of Christ and His saints will be established.
From Daniel 12, we see that this period will shatter the power of God’s people. As a result many will be purged, purified, and refined. When the period of shattering and purifying is over, then all of these events will be completed. All of this is in harmony with what we read in Daniel 7.
Daniel 12 continues by mentioning the stopping of sacrifices and the abomination of desolation. This immediately connects the time, times, and half a time with the 70th Week of Daniel, which began with the stopping of sacrifices and an abomination at the midpoint of the seven-year period (Dan 9:27). In other words, the time, times, and half a time period begins at the midpoint of the seven-year 70th week of Daniel.
Somewhat surprisingly, Daniel says that the amount of time going forward from this abomination is 1290 days. This is surprising because 3 1/2 Biblical years would normally be calculated as 1260 days (3.5 x 360), and this 1260-day figure is mentioned twice in Revelation (Rev 11:3, Rev 12:6). What this means is that the period called time, times, and half a time includes an additional Biblical month (30 days). The completion of all these events mentioned in Dan 12:7 must include all the things described in Daniel 7, which includes:
- 1260 days for the reign of the wicked ruler (Dan 7:25).
- 30 days for the destruction of his kingdom and establishing the eternal kingdom (Dan 7:26,27).
Side note: One might not agree with the assertion that the time, times, and half a time extends for 1290 days because Dan 7:25 says that the persecution will last for time, times, and half a time. How can the time, times, and half a time also include the period that follows in which the wicked ruler’s kingdom is destroyed?
The answer is that the efforts to destroy Israel will continue even during the time of destruction. In fact, the final effort to destroy Israel will be the Battle of Armageddon, which will be the moment that God completes His destruction of the wicked ruler’s kingdom. God will protect Israel from these attacks during the entire 1290-day time, times and half a time.(Rev 12:14).
(3) The Day of the Lord (30 days)
Isa 13:9-13 - “9Behold the day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, To make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises And the moon will not shed its light. 11 Thus I will punish the world for its evil And the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud And abase the haughtiness of the ruthless. 12 I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold And mankind than the gold of Ophir. 13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, And the earth will be shaken from its place At the fury of the Lord of hosts In the day of His burning anger.”
Joel 2:10-11 - 10Before them the earth shakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 11The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?
Joel 3:12-17 - 12Let the nations be aroused And come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat, For there I will sit to judge All the surrounding nations. 13Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, tread, for the wine press is full; The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great. 14Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. 15The sun and moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness. 16The LORD roars from Zion And utters His voice from Jerusalem, And the heavens and the earth tremble. But the LORD is a refuge for His people And a stronghold to the sons of Israel 17Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, Dwelling in Zion, My holy mountain. So Jerusalem will be holy, And strangers will pass through it no more.
Clearly, this is the time of God’s wrath. The references to the Lord thundering ahead of his army and roaring from Zion and uttering His voice from Jerusalem tell us that the Day of the Lord also includes the visible return of Christ in wrath. That God will be dwelling in Zion shows that the kingdom of God has to the earth. Christ shall begin to reign as king.
One who reviews all of the Day of the Lord references in scripture will see that there are three signs commonly associated with this time period:
(1) Darkness (sun and moon going dark)
(2) Armies of the nations gathering against God and His people Israel.
(3) Shaking of the earth (e.g. an enormous worldwide earthquake).
Note that the purpose of the Day of the Lord is to punish sin. Isa 13:9 calls this time an extermination of sinners. Isa 13:11 says God will end the arrogant and proud. This period would certainly include the destruction of that wicked end times ruler and his kingdom mentioned in Daniel 7 and 9.
Important Observations: Please note that these three apocalyptic time periods have different lengths of time, but they all conclude with God’s wrath against the wicked (in particular, the destruction of the wicked ruler and his kingdom) and the establishment of the eternal kingdom. Therefore, all three of these apocalyptic time periods overlap as the approach the end.
To be specific:
- The Day of the Lord marks both the end of the wicked ruler’s reign and the beginning of God’s reign on earth.
- The Time, times, and half a time begins at the midpoint of the 70th Week of Daniel and overlaps the 70th Week from the midpoint to the end. We say this because it includes not only the 1260 days of persecution against the saints, it also includes the period that follows in which the wicked ruler’s kingdom is destroyed and the eternal kingdom established (Dan 7:26-27), for a total of 1290 days (Dan 12:11). That is, this period will encompass the Day of the Lord.
- The 70th Week of Daniel has seven years, that includes an abomination at the midpoint, and it extends all the way to the end where the wicked ruler meets his decreed destruction (Dan 9:27). That is, this seven-year period must encompass both the time, times, and half a time as well as the Day of the Lord.
The End Times According to Jesus Christ
Christ’s own account of His return in the Olivet discourse (e.g. Matthew 24) easily agrees with the three apocalyptic time periods foretold by the prophets.
Matt 24:15-16 - 15“Therefore when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains.
Jesus is clearly referring to the abomination mentioned in Daniel 9 (associated with the 70th Week) and in Daniel 12. This marks the beginning of the time, times, and half a time period. He says that this abomination will be followed by severe persecution from which the people in Judea should flee. After this, Jesus went on to describe the terrible difficulties of the subsequent days (Matt 24:17-20).
Matt 24:21-22 - 21“For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. 22“Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
Jesus identifies this difficult time as a great tribulation, and it is so severe that the elect are nearly all killed. This must correspond to the portion of the time, times and half a time period in which the wicked ruler is wearing out the saints and conquering them, foretold by Daniel (Dan 7:25).
In fact, Jesus says that the elect would have been completely killed, except that for their sake, those days will be cut short. This seems to go hand in hand with the view (discussed above) that the time, times and half a time period extends for 1290 days. This 1290-day period (which starts right after the abomination) will begin with 1260 days of severe persecution by the wicked ruler, followed by 30 days in which God destroys the kingdom of the wicked ruler. Matt 24:22 says that the elect (i.e. the saints) will not suffer for the full 1290 days, but only 1260 days. The 1290 days were cut short.
Matt 24:29-30 - 29“But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory.
Jesus says that the tribulation will be immediately followed by the signs of Christ return. He mentions darkness and shaking, mourning upon the earth, and His visible return in glory. This fits exactly well with the Day of the Lord, as described by the prophets.
Testing the Hypothesis
We’ve seen the three apocalyptic time periods foretold by the prophets, and we’ve seen that they (as expected) agree perfectly with Christ’s own description of His return to earth. Of course, no interpretation of Revelation can be correct unless it also agrees with the prophets and with Christ.
Now it is time to test our proposed hypothesis that the three waves of Revelation correspond directly to the three apocalyptic time periods spoken by the prophets. This proposed hypothesis can be best described using a simple chart.
The chart below shows how the three apocalyptic time periods and the three waves of Revelation match up in the end times, according to the hypothesis:
Note: Seal #7 is not shown in this chart — it is discussed in the chapter 8 commentary.
Fortunately, there are several stringent tests we can use to test the validity of this hypothesis. The hypothesis would be falsified if any test fails.
TEST #1 – Setting the Chronology
If the three waves of Revelation correspond to the three apocalyptic time periods foretold by the prophets, then we should expect that the three waves would be presented in correct chronological order. Since the three time periods all end at the same time due to overlapping, their chronological order must be determined by when they begin.
- The seals (1st wave) correspond with the 70th Week (1st period to begin).
- The trumpets (2nd wave) correspond with the time, times, and half a time (2nd period to begin).
- The bowls (3rd wave) correspond with the Day of the Lord (3rd period to begin).
This test forces us to use this particular correlation as we go forward. We are not free to choose a different correlation that might better suit our hypothesis.
TEST #2 – Content Agreement
Naturally, the overall content of each wave of revelation must be agreeable with the events and descriptions of it’s corresponding apocalyptic time period. This doesn’t mean that every event must be described in both places, but there should be some events which are described in both places, and they must fit the chronology according to the hypothesis.
Testing the content of the seals vs. the 70th Week: Below, we see a proper correlation between the seal events and the events of the 70th Week of Daniel:
|70th Week||The Seals|
|Begins with a ruler appearing. He makes a covenant with Israel for seven years.||Begins with 1st seal, when a conqueror appears and he is given authority.|
|At the middle of the week, he breaks his
covenant, and takes creates abomination,
stopping the sacrifices. This shows his opposition to God’s people.
|In the fifth seal, we see that God’s people are about to face a period of martyrdom.|
|At the end of the week, this wicked ruler is destroyed.||In the sixth seal, we see God’s wrath coming to the earth.|
Testing the content of the trumpets vs. the Time, times, and half a time: Below, we see a proper correlation between the trumpets and the description of the time, times, and half a time:
|Time, times, and half a time||The Trumpets|
|This includes a 3 1/2 year period where a wicked ruler causes the the saints to be murdered and Israel to be attacked.||In the the context of the trumpets we see that Israel will face attack for 3 1/2 years (the 42 months of Rev 11:2), that attempts will be made to kill their two leaders, with the wicked ruler eventually succeeding (Rev 11:7). Also, the people of earth will be unrepentant about their murders (Rev 9:21).|
|This period is called “time, times, and half a time“.||The wicked ruler mentioned in the context of the trumpets (the beast of Rev 11:7) is described in more detail later, and we see that he shall reign for 42 months while he conquers the saints (Rev 13:5-7). During that same time, Israel will be attacked and defended by God for a period of time called “time, times, and half a time” (Rev 12:14). It appears that the angel we see in the trumpets (Rev 10:5-6) is the same (or similar) angel we saw declaring “time, times, and half a time” in Daniel 12:7.|
|At then end of this time, the wicked ruler’s kingdom is destroyed and the kingdom of God will reign on earth.||In the context of the trumpets, an angel declares that all things spoken by the prophets will be completed in the seventh trumpet (Rev 10:7). In the seventh trumpet, the wrath of God comes against the enraged nations, the kingdom of God comes to earth, and Christ begins to reign (Rev 11:15-18).|
Testing the content of the bowls vs. the Day of the Lord: Below, we see a proper correlation between the bowls and the Day of the Lord:
|Day of the Lord||The Bowls|
|This will be the time of God’s wrath.||The bowls are introduced as being the completion of the wrath of God (Rev 15:1,7).|
|The sun and moon go dark.||The fifth bowl describes darkness.|
|Nations are aroused to come against Israel.||The sixth bowl describes the gathering of an army at Armageddon (in Israel).|
|The earth will be violently shaken.||The seventh bowl describes an earthquake unlike any other, which causes all mountains and islands to be destroyed.|
|The nations will be shattered.||The bowls conclude with Christ appearing with a rod of iron (Rev 19:15), alluding to His shattering of nations in Psalm 2:9. He will tread the wine press of God’s wrath, alluding to God’s wrath in Isa 63:2-3.|
|Christ begins his reign as king upon the earth.||Christ returns to earth bearing the title King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev 19:16).|
TEST #3 – Overlapping with Time Periods
If our hypothesis is correct, then we should expect to see that the waves of Revelation overlap the apocalyptic time periods in the same manner that time periods themselves do.
Specifically, we should see that: (1) the seals encompass the time, times, and half a time, (2) the seals encompass the Day of the Lord, and (3) the trumpets encompass the Day of the Lord.
Testing for overlap between seals and the time, times, and half a time: Do we see anything within the seals that could be overlapping with the time, times, and half a time?
Yes. The fifth seal tells us that there will be a little while longer in which the number of martyred saints must be completed: “…they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.” (Rev 6:11).
The time, times, and half a time is when the saints are being persecuted nearly to death. Therefore, the martyrdom described by the fifth seal may be seen as a summary of the time, times, and half a time, hence they overlap.
Testing for overlap between seals and the Day of the Lord: Do we see anything within the seals that could be overlapping the Day of the Lord?
Yes. The sixth seal describes many of the things associated with the Day of the Lord:
“12I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; 13and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. 14The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. 15Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:12-17).
The Day of the Lord is the time when we see things like darkness, armies, the great earthquake, and the return of Christ in wrath. Therefore, the apocalyptic events described by the sixth seal may be seen as a summary of the Day of the Lord, hence they overlap.
Testing for overlap between the trumpets and the Day of the Lord: Do we see anything within the trumpets that could be overlapping the the Day of the Lord?
Yes. The seventh trumpet describes things associated with the Day of the Lord:
“15Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” 16And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17saying, “We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. 18“And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:15-18).
The Day of the Lord is the time of God’s wrath against the nations, and the beginning of Christ’s reign as the kingdom of God has come to earth. Therefore, the wrath and reign of Christ described by the seventh trumpet may be seen as a summary of the Day of the Lord, hence they overlap.
TEST #4 – Overlapping within Revelation
This test is similar to the previous test, except now we are looking for overlap within Revelation itself. If the three waves represent the three overlapping time periods as our hypothesis proposes, then the waves also must overlap with each other. We should therefore expect to see examples of a single event that is described multiple times. The descriptions of such an event should appear within the context of two or more different waves, and specifically in places where those waves overlap. These descriptions may include details that were not revealed by the Old Testament prophets.
We should recognize that Revelation has another section in chapters 12-15 which is not part of any single wave, although it encompasses both the time, times, and half a time (trumpets) and the Day of the Lord (bowls). Consequently, this section may also contain descriptions of events which are described elsewhere. To give this section a name, I call it the Summation Preceding the Bowls.
As we read straight through Revelation, we do see a number of events that seem to be described multiple times. When we see cases like this, we should ask:
Is Revelation describing different events that just happen to be very similar, or are we seeing multiple descriptions of the same event?
If the different descriptions appear in different contexts (i.e. in different waves or in the “summation section” of chapters 12-15), and arguably at a point in time where those different contexts overlap chronologically, we may rightfully argue that the event itself occurs only once, and it is only being described multiple times. Finding several cases like this would tend to confirm our hypothesis.
Below is a list of cases where similar descriptions of events are found in Revelation. We will test to see if they may be single events being described multiple times due to overlapping.
Multiple descriptions for Persecution of the Saints
These passages give similar descriptions of saints being conquered on earth and being martyred.
Rev 6:11 (martyrdom: the fifth seal)
Rev 9:21 (unrepentant murders: between fourth and fifth trumpets)
Rev 11:3,5,7 efforts to kill Israel’s two witnesses during 1260 days: prior to seventh trumpet)
Rev 12:13-17 (persecution of Israel and “her offspring”: time, times and half a time summation)
Rev 13:5-10 (persecution of saints for 42 months: time, times and half a time summation)
Testing the hypothesis: All of these descriptions of persecution align chronologically. The fifth seal and the first six trumpets represent the 1260 days of persecution during the time, times, and half a time period.
Multiple descriptions for Saints in Heaven
These passages give similar descriptions of scenes in which the saints appear in heaven. In all cases, we see many voices in heaven, joined by the twenty-four elders, all around the throne praising God and proclaiming the accomplishment of His purposes.
Rev 7:9-17 (toward end of great tribulation: in context of the seals)
Rev 11:15-16 (at end of great tribulation: start of seventh trumpet)
Rev 19:1-5 (at end of great tribulation: start of the seventh bowl).
Testing the hypothesis: All of these descriptions of saints in heaven align chronologically, in that they are all scenes toward the end of the great tribulation. The scene from chapter 7, showing a great multitude coming out of the great tribulation, would seem to be very near, if not at, the end of the great tribulation).
Multiple descriptions for Periods of Darkness
These passages give similar descriptions of the sun and moon being darkened.
Rev 6:12 (sun and moon darkened: part of the sixth seal)
Rev 16:10 (darkness: the fifth bowl event)
Testing the hypothesis: Both of these descriptions of darkness align chronologically. The sixth seal and the bowls both describe the Day of the Lord (the sixth seal is summarized, while the bowls give greater detail).
Multiple descriptions for Worldwide Earthquakes
These passages give similar descriptions of a great quake causing mountains and islands to be moved from their places.
Rev 6:12,14 (great earthquake: part of the sixth seal)
Rev 16:18,19,20 (great earthquake: the seventh bowl event)
Testing the hypothesis: Both of these descriptions of great earthquakes align chronologically. The sixth seal and the bowls both describe the Day of the Lord (the sixth seal is summarized, while the bowls give greater detail).
Multiple descriptions of the Visible Return of Christ in Wrath
These passages give similar descriptions of God’s wrath accompanied by the return of Christ. The latter two references make use of the same “Wine press of God’s wrath” metaphor.
Rev 6:16,17 (presence of Christ on day of wrath: part of the sixth seal)
Rev 11:15,17,18 (Christ’s wrath against the nations; reigns on earth: part of seventh trumpet)
Rev 14:14,19 (wine press of God’s wrath: Day of the Lord summation)
Rev 19:11,15,16 (Christ returns with wrath as king; treads wine press: end of bowls).
Testing the hypothesis: All of these descriptions of Christ returning in wrath align chronologically. The sixth seal summarizes the Day of the Lord, the seventh trumpet also summarizes the Day of the Lord, the end of chapter 14 is a preview of the Day of the Lord, and chapter 19 concludes bowls, which collectively represent the Day of the Lord.
Multiple descriptions of The people who face Christ’s wrath
These passages give similar descriptions of the people who will face the wrath of Christ when He appears. These descriptions include kings, commanders, great or mighty men, and then every man, both free men and slaves.
Rev 6:15 (people trying to flee from Christ’s wrath: part of the sixth seal)
Rev 19:18 (people about to be slaughtered in Christ’s wrath: end of bowls).
Testing the hypothesis: Both of these descriptions of people facing Christ’s wrath align chronologically. The sixth seal summarizes the Day of the Lord, and the account of Christ’s return in chapter 19 marks the conclusion of the bowls and of the Day of the Lord.
Multiple descriptions of Judging the dead after the time of God’s wrath
These passages give similar descriptions of what happens after the wrath of God strikes the earth (i.e. after the Day of the Lord). These descriptions say that God’s wrath will be followed by a time of judging the dead, both the righteous and the unrighteous.
Rev 11:18 (after wrath comes judgment of dead; both righteous and wicked: end of trumpets)
Rev 20:4,5,12 (dead are resurrected for judgment, righteous then unrighteous: end of bowls).
Testing the hypothesis: Both of these accounts of judging the dead following God’s wrath align chronologically. The seventh trumpet in chapter 11 briefly summarizes God’s wrath against the nations and then mentions that the time has come for judging of the dead (both righteous and unrighteous). Christ’s wrath against the nations, described at the end of chapter 19, is followed by the judgment of the dead (both righteous and unrighteous) in chapter 20.
Conclusion of Tests and the Overlapping Model
The proposed hypothesis that the three waves of Revelation (seals, trumpets, and bowls) correspond directly to the three overlapping apocalyptic time periods (70th Week of Daniel, Time, times, and half a time, and the Day of the Lord) has passed all the stringent tests above. Without attempting to calculate any probabilities, I’ll just state that the chances of that happening if the hypothesis is wrong, would seem to be rather remote.
Passing these tests gives a sense of confirmation to the idea that Revelation could properly be interpreted using this simple proposed hypothesis. We may now even call it a theory.
So, we may now proceed to use this theory for interpreting Revelation. The approach to interpreting Revelation this way should be given a name. Since the most distinguishing feature of this theory is that the waves overlap, I’ll call this approach the Overlapping Model.
The Overlapping Model vs. Non-Overlapping Models
For the reasons given above, the view presented in this website operates on the theory that the three waves (seals, trumpets, and bowls) each represent a specific apocalyptic time period foretold by the prophets. As such, they start at different times, but they overlap as they approach the final wrath of God and visible return of Christ. I’ve called this view the Overlapping Model.
However, most of the commentaries on Revelation seem to take a different approach. Either they don’t see any overlapping at all, or they things overlapping some other way. For the sake of discussion, I’ll refer to the differing views generally as Non-Overlapping Models.
The view I am presenting appears to be in the minority (and perhaps no view is accepted by the majority), I feel obligated to provide some reasons for why I believe this Overlapping Model is to be preferred.
General Redundancy Issues
One who reads straight through Revelation will observe several apparent redundancies. These redundancies are described above in the “TEST #4″ section above. These apparent redundancies can make Revelation seem very confusing, and other interpretive models require some inventive (and often unintuitive) explanations to account for them. However, with the Overlapping Model, we recognize that that there is overlap between the following time periods:
- The fifth seal is a summary of the first six trumpet events.
- The sixth seal is a summary of the bowls.
- The seventh trumpet is a summary of the bowls.
- The portion of the Summation before the Bowls (from Rev 12:7 thru chapter 13) occurs during the great tribulation (i.e. the trumpets).
- The portion of the Summation before the Bowls (Rev 14:14-20) is a summary of the bowls.
By accepting that these time periods overlap, we saw that all of the apparently redundant events fall into chronological alignment. This alignment allows one to observe that these apparently redundant events each occur only once. There are actually no redundancies at all.
By way of analogy, consider how current events are reported in printed news articles.
- First, the headline provides a terse statement of what happened.
- Then the lead paragraph will provide a summary of the story.
- Finally, the article body will explain what happened in greater detail.
Naturally, the headline, the lead paragraph, and the article body will, to some extent, say the same thing. It would be a huge mistake for the reader to think that the repetition between these different parts are reporting separate but similar events! It would also be a mistake to see this repetition as redundant. The same idea applies to the way we read Revelation. The same event is simply being described in different places and with different levels of detail, and it would be a mistake to not recognize this structure.
The Overlapping Model recognizes that Revelation is structured in an analogous way, and should be interpreted as such.
Specific Redundancy Issues
Commentaries based on Non-Overlapping models generally suppose that the end times will feature two occasions in which the world goes dark, and two great world-wide earthquakes which cause all the mountains and islands to move. The idea that these events come in pairs come from the passages below:
- First Period of Darkness (sixth seal): and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood.
- Second Period of Darkness (fifth bowl): the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became darkened
- First Worldwide Quake (sixth seal): there was a great earthquake; … and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
- Second Worldwide Quake (seventh bowl): there was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth, so great an earthquake was it, and so mighty. … And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.
This is a problem because there are other places in the Bible where these darkness and earthquake events are described, and they mention only one period of darkness and one worldwide earthquake. This includes the writings of multiple Old Testament prophets (e.g. Isa 2:19, Isa 13:10, Isa 24:19-21, Joel 2:10, Hag 2:6-7) as well as Christ’s own description of his return (Matt 24:29-30).
However, if we use the Overlapping Model, we accept that the sixth seal is a summary of the bowls. Since the first description of these two events appear in the sixth seal, it is only natural to see them described again when the bowls are described in detail. Thus, both of these events occur just once, which puts them in exact agreement with the prophets and with Christ.
More Problems with Two Worldwide Earthquakes:
Having two vast worldwide earthquakes is particularly troublesome. Commentators who support a Non-Overlapping Model propose that the first earthquake (the one described in the sixth seal) is a “lesser” earthquake. This claim is pinned on a modest difference in wording between the two earthquake references. Specifically, in the sixth seal it says “every mountain and island were moved out of their places”, while in the seventh bowl it says “every island fled away, and the mountains were not found”.
But does this wording difference really demand two great earthquakes? No. If every island fled away and every mountain could not be found, is it safe to also say they were moved out of their places. The second account can easily be seen as a somewhat more detailed and finalized version of the first account. On the contrary, if the author really did intend for us to understand these as two different earthquakes, why would he go out of his way to make the two accounts sound so similar?
Side note: Some may argue that the earthquake mentioned in the sixth seal cannot be the same as the one in the seventh bowl because (1) the seventh bowl says “the mountains were not found” and (2) the sixth seal says that men “hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains“. They reason that because there were mountains present to hide in during the sixth seal, it cannot be the seventh bowl in which all mountains disappear.
But this argument is based on unnecessary constraints. All we know is that there were mountains when the earthquake began, but by the time the earthquake was over, the mountains could not be found. We have no idea how long took for them to disappear, and there is certainly no reason to think that they all just vanished at as soon as the earthquake began, leaving men with no place to hide.
In fact, in the sixth seal, we that men “said to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us…’“. From this, we may reasonably conclude that the mountains were disappearing due to explosive volcanic force, which would logically go hand in hand with an enormous worldwide earthquake. For all we know, there was plenty of time for men to hide (or try to hide) before all the mountains disappeared. In fact, even after a mountain explode, people could still try to hide among the rocks of the mountain, which may have been cast miles away into cities. In any case, there is no argument that prevents the seventh bowl earthquake from being the same earthquake described by the sixth seal.
Another problem with the two-earthquake view is the supposition that it is even possible to have a “lesser” worldwide earthquake that, on one hand causes all mountains and islands to be moved from their places, and yet on the other hand it allows for life to continue on somewhat normally for a few years afterwards! This idea is geologically untenable. An earthquake that moves an island even a few feet causes catastrophic devastation in that region. If an earthquake were to cause all mountains and islands to be moved from their places, it would be an unimaginable global catastrophe from which there would be no short-term recovery.
It is much more reasonable to believe that an earthquake of that magnitude could only occur once, because the world as we know it will be destroyed. This more reasonable belief agrees exactly with the single earthquake that prophets described, and it is supported by Revelation if we use the Overlapping Model.
Side Note: Some interpreters take an altogether different view whereby they see the mountains and islands symbolically representing kingdoms and nations. It is true that the Bible sometimes uses mountains to refer figuratively to kingdoms (islands is questionable). However, the reference in Revelation 6 mentions the “rocks of the mountains” and the reference in Revelation 16 says that “the cities of the nations fell“. This strongly indicates that it’s most appropriate to interpret literally — that is, these are literal mountains and islands that are moving as a result of an actual earthquake.
The Meaning of the Scroll Given to the Lamb
In Chapter 5, Jesus (depicted as the Lamb) is given a seven-sealed scroll. He is not given any trumpets or bowls, just the scroll. What then could this scroll represent? The answer comes from observing what is accomplished as the seven seals of that scroll are opened. However, what the seals accomplish varies depending on which model you choose.
- If you choose a Non-Overlapping Model, then the seals end with the supposed “first and lesser” worldwide earthquake mentioned in the sixth seal (Rev 6:12). Apparently, that earthquake occurs at some intermediate time long before Christ’s return. Thus, the seven-sealed scroll represents only a portion of the end times, but not the final things such as the ”second and greater” quake (Rev 16:18), nor even the return of Christ.
- If you choose the Overlapping Model, then the seals cover the entire end times period from start to finish including the trumpets and bowls (which are overlapped by the seals). It concludes with the wrath of God, the one great earthquake, and Christ’s return as king. Thus, the seven-sealed scroll represents the complete fulfillment of the Great Promise of the kingdom of God on earth. This understanding is also much more defensible when one considers the context surrounding that seven-sealed scroll (as explained in the chapter 5 commentary).
Which makes more sense? Does it make sense for Christ to be given a scroll that represents only a portion of the total time and purpose of the end times? I think not. That scroll must represent the completion of that purpose from start to finish, which means that the Overlapping Model makes the most sense.
Based on all of the above, I believe that the Overlapping Model provides by far the most reasonable and scripturally defensible understanding of the structure of Revelation. It causes many things to fall neatly into place, which gives a sense of confirmation for this model.
Perhaps most importantly, the Overlapping model is simple. It is based on the rather natural idea that the waves of revelation correspond directly with the time periods foretold by the prophets, and it doesn’t require much human inventiveness or cleverness. Because of this simpleness, there is much less for theologians to argue about. This model is simple and direct enough that we might reasonably see it as a way for all of God’s servants to know the things that must quickly take place, just as claimed in Rev 1:1.
Therefore, I have used the Overlapping Model as the foundation for interpreting Revelation. Having now gone through the entire book thoroughly enough to write a commentary, I have not seen any reason to doubt it. On the contrary, I have found that it has only gained confirmation. I believe you will also find that this model provides an understanding of Revelation that is more consistent and less complicated than any understanding you may have had before. I have attempted to present this understanding in the commentary pages and other articles on this site.