Why doesn’t The Books of the Bible show the “seven sevens” in the book of Revelation?

Q.  If The Books of the Bible is supposed to show the “natural literary outlines” of the biblical books, why doesn’t it highlight the “seven sevens” that structure the book of Revelation?

It’s true that many interpreters do see a pattern of seven sevens in the book of Revelation.  While the details can differ, the basic outline is usually something like this:
• seven letters
• seven seals
• seven trumpets
• seven signs
• seven bowls
• seven great enemies defeated
• seven last things

It’s also true that the letters, seals, trumpets, and bowls organize the episodes in their specific parts of the book.  For example, we don’t hear about John being told all at once to sit down and write seven letters.  Rather, he’s told at the start of each one, “Write to this church,” and we hear the content of that letter before he’s told to write the next one.  Similarly, the events following the opening of each seal are narrated before the next seal is opened.  And so forth.

Albrecht Dürer (woodcut), Seven Angels are Given Seven Trumpets

It would certainly be elegant if we could show that a pattern like this structures every part of Revelation.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

For one thing, only four of these “sevens” are actually named specifically in the text: the churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls.  The other supposed series of “sevens” are not named or identified as such in the text, suggesting that no such further series are being used as intentional structuring devices.

And are they really even “sevens”?  Of the so-called “seven signs,” for example, only five are introduced by vision formulas:
– “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun.”
– “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon.”
– “And I saw a beast coming out of the sea.”
–  “Then I saw another beast.”
– “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb.”
Interpreters sometimes identify two other “mystical figures” as “signs” in this part of the book, the woman’s child and Michael the angel.  But these are actually characters in the ongoing narrative who are not presented as the focus of a given vision the way the others are.  (Remember, the question is whether the elements in a given “seven” structure a series of episodes.)  Besides, if the child and the angel count as “signs,” then why not count similar characters in the narrative as well, such as the earth, which helps the child, or the 144,000 who follow the Lamb?

As for “seven great enemies defeated,” it is true that after the seven bowls, Revelation describes the defeat and destruction of several enemies.  These are named, interestingly, in the reverse order of their original appearance in the book, suggesting some possible structural significance: Babylon, the beast, the false prophet, the dragon, death, and hell.  But the depiction of the sequential destruction of these enemies does not supply the structural outline for this section in Revelation.  Rather, almost all of the section is about the destruction of Babylon; the destruction of all the other enemies is narrated more briefly at the end.

And this would be only six enemies anyway. Gog and Magog need to be added to make seven, and they break up the general pattern.  They are not mentioned earlier in the book, only briefly here, and they are introduced and destroyed in the middle of the reverse-order sequence, between the beast and the dragon.  (For that matter, why do they count as only one enemy, when “death and hell,” which are always mentioned together, are counted as two?)

Finally, as for the “seven last things,” these are not listed or identified in the text, so interpreters need to pick and choose from among the many features of the closing visions to get a total of seven (for example: the new heaven, the new earth, the new Jerusalem; the river of life, the tree of life, the book of life; the throne of God).  But even so, once again these elements do not structure the episodes in this part of the book.

So if we try to outline Revelation based on “sevens,” what we actually get are four explicit sevens and three other sections that cannot be organized consistently into a sevenfold arrangement.  Besides, an outline of “seven sevens” is not able to encompass one of the key parts of the book: John’s vision (right after the letters) of the Lamb receiving honor from the creatures around the heavenly throne.

If, on the other hand, we take the phrase “in the Spirit” as our structural cue, as explained in the “Invitation to Revelation” in The Books of the Bible, and as developed in more detail in the Daniel-Revelation study guide, we find that this phrase appears explicitly at the start of four major sections, providing a comprehensive structure for the book and its contents.

Nevertheless, an outline based on “seven sevens” is to be commended in one regard:  it reflects an attempt to recognize the literary-structural signals that the book of Revelation itself is sending, rather than to rely simply on traditional chapters and verses as guides.  As a result, in several parts of the book such an outline yields a structural understanding very close to the one we have indicated in The Books of the Bible, at least in terms of the arrangement and progression of individual episodes.

This illustrates that much about the structures of the biblical books can be recognized implicitly, so that even interpreters who are committed to different outlines can end up in broad agreement at many points.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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