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overwhelming odds

I love Scripture. All of it. I am fascinated by it. To have 40 or so authors write separate pieces of the story over 1600 years in three different languages, yet produce a story as unified as the story of the Bible is is nearly incomprehensible. It spans myriad genres of literature. There is wisdom literature found in books like Proverbs. There’s an entire book of song lyrics—the Psalms—that were sung by God’s people to melodies long since forgotten. There are histories (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles), prophecies (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), a category called Law (Genesis–Deuteronomy), the Gospels, letters, and the genre I find most intriguing, apocalyptic.

Apocalyptic literature had its heyday from roughly 200BC to AD100. Parts of Daniel and Zechariah and Ezekiel and all of Revelation are apocalyptic literature. There are many works of apocalyptic that are not included in the canon of Scripture. Apocalyptic literature is characterized by divine revelation through a series of visions. The visions reveal something otherwise unknown to the author through symbolism. This is why Revelation, for example, feels so very strange when we read it. Creatures with many eyes, horses that look like locusts (or are they locusts that look like horses?), numbers used in clearly symbolic ways, and often repeated for emphasis.

In Revelation, John had a series of visions involving the number seven. In apocalyptic seven represents the fullness of God’s perfection. He saw a scroll in chapter 5 that was sealed with seven seals. The specific number isn’t the issue; only one with the fullness of God’s perfection could open it. The scroll contains the fullness of God’s plans for the world. Only the Conquering Lion who is a Slaughtered Lamb could open the seals and thus reveal God’s purposes. He saw seven trumpets and seven bowls, each repeating the fullness of God’s plans for the world, and each culminating with final judgment.

In chapter 9 we read of the sixth trumpet blown:

Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind. The number of mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand; I heard their number. And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.

Revelation 9:13–19 ESV

To properly understand apocalyptic, we must ask how the original recipients would have understood its symbolism. Revelation was written to seven specific churches, all in Asia Minor in the late first century, though the seven represented the fullness of all of God’s churches. How would they have understood this sixth trumpet? Some history is necessary.

In 54BC, the Roman general Crassus invaded Parthia as the Republic sought to expand. He invaded with an army of 49,000 troops, including 35,000 heavy infantry, 4,000 light infantry, and 4,000 cavalry, and others. Crassus and his army of 49,000 faced a Parthian army of just 9,000 mounted archers and 1,000 cataphracts (heavily armored mounted soldiers). Nearly 50,000 highly trained and always successful Roman soldiers versus 10,000. The trouble for Parthia was its king was away with the bulk of his forces fighting another war. He sent these 10,000 merely to harass Crassus’ army, to slow them. Instead of harassing them, this small Parthian army thoroughly crushed Rome, while suffering very few of its own losses. Twenty-thousand of Crassus’ army were killed, with another 10,000 captured. Parthia crushed an army five times their size, with very few losses.

The Parthian army’s strength lay in their archery. The mounted soldiers were highly skilled and could shoot their arrows with incredible accuracy in all directions. They were trained to turn around in their saddles and shoot so that even if they were fleeing a battle, they could inflict incredible damage.

The seven churches John wrote this to were located just west of the Euphrates River. They were on the eastern front of Rome. They were well aware of the danger the mighty empire of Parthia posed to them. Parthia was an ever-present threat to Rome, having handed Rome one of its worst defeats ever. Now think about the vision John has of the sixth trumpet. Four angels were set free at the Euphrates River. This river was east of these churches, and they were right in the way of any invasion into Roman territory. John says the number of mounted troops that were set free was “twice ten thousand times ten thousand”. That’s an army of two-hundred million mounted soldiers. If you lived in Asia Minor in the late first century, you would have known all too well the danger posed by just 10,000 mounted Parthian troops. John sees 10,000 times 10,000—then doubled. Notice that John says “the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails”, and by means of their tails they wound. Whether a Parthian soldier was coming or going, your life was in great danger on a battlefield. Now imagine 200,000,000 of them.

When the seven churches heard this they would have blanched at the thought. The truth John is communicating is that the danger is far, far greater than any could know. The impending slaughter John saw was a third of mankind was killed. These churches would have gasped out loud at hearing this.

We all live with the illusion of safety and security. If we do not feel safe or secure, we pursue it until we do. We can—and should—take necessary precautions against COVID-19. Take plenty of Vitamin D and get metabolically healthy. Wash your hands. Get vaccinated. We can take necessary precautions against financial disaster by building an emergency fund for those unexpected car repairs and those water heaters that leak. We trust the Lord whenever we drive, but we also should put on our seat belts. What John was showing those seven churches, and therefore us today, is that danger is always right across the river or around the corner—or in the shower should we fall and hit our head. That danger is far, far greater than we realize.

One of the aims of apocalyptic literature was to get the reader to look outside himself or herself, to trust in the Lord. The truth is that the future is only knowable if God reveals it to us, and the reason he can reveal it to us is because he controls it. In other words, the only reason Parthia posed a threat was because God allowed that nation to pose a threat. At any time God could end that threat, or he could allow Parthia to cross the river. There’s an even greater truth here. The greatest danger of all is God himself. As dangerous as such a massive army seems to be, it is nothing compared to the power of God. The point of the seven seals and seven trumpets and seven bowls is that God is the one guiding human history. All that happens happens at either his command or his allowance.

It isn’t until chapter 11 that John sees a vision of the seventh trumpet, and as with the seventh seal and the seventh bowl, all competitors to the rule and reign of God are finally and forever defeated:

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, 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 shall reign forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”

Revelation 11:15–18 ESV

As we saw when we went through Revelation several years ago, the great enemy of God is on a leash, and that leash is often let out quite a ways, yet when the hand that holds the leash pulls back, the dog must obey. There is no other way for history to end than for God to be seated on his throne as the undisputed ruler over all creation. We, his people, will dwell on the new earth with him forever, experienced unending peace and security. It is this hope for our eternal future that enables us to face whatever God allows to come our way. He can be trusted. He is in control. Whatever we face in this life, we must recognize that the odds really are overwhelming, but they are overwhelming in God’s favor.