The drama of Revelation’s second vision (Revelation 4:1-16:21) comes to a climactic moment when the seventh trumpet sounds. The whole of heaven–the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, myriads of angels and the great multitude–have seen the seven seals opened and all seven trumpets sounded. Heaven anticipates something dramatic.
The seventh horn is trumpeted and “loud voices in heaven” announce the coming reality.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
The significance of this announcement is difficult to overestimate. It is the goal of God’s work in the world, that is, that the reign of God through the Messiah would destroy hostile powers and fill the earth. It is the essence of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.”
The announcement comes as an accomplished fact to which the twenty-four elders respond. The “loud voices in heaven” are apparently the heavenly host, or perhaps God’s own inner circle (such as the four living creatures). The redeemed, represented by the twenty-four elders, respond by getting off their thrones, falling prostrate before God and worshipping the one who sits on the throne.
We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
and have begun to reign.
The nations were angry,
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your saints and those who reverence your name
both small and great
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.
The thanksgiving hymn explains the meaning of the announcement. It is a eucharistic offering to the Pantokrator (Almighty) Lord God–the one who sits on the throne as the who always has been and continues to be–who now has begun to execute his reign on the earth through his great power. The “time” has come and God’s “wrath” has come.
This timing is about the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and promises. It is for what the church has prayed. Psalm 2 forms the backdrop for the hymn. The nations have raged against God, but now the time of God’s wrath has come (cf. Psalm 2:1-5). The nations have raged against God’s anointed (God’s Christ), but now God’s reign will defeat the kingdom of this world (cf. Acts 4:24-30). The hopes of Psalm 2 are now realized.
The transformation of the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God’s Christ is the moment when the world is set right, when God’s righteousness prevails. This “setting right of the world” involves judging the dead–the righteous (holy ones [saints], prophets and those who fear God’s name) are rewarded and those who destroy the earth are themselves destroyed. The hostile powers to the kingdom of God are overthrown because they are bent on destruction. They have martyred the saints of God but the martyrs have overcome through martyrdom. The church–the martyred witnesses of Revelation 11–is not delivered from martyrdom but through martyrdom. This is victory.
What, however, is the meaning of this announcement at this point in the drama of Revelation? Many readers of the Apocalypse divide the book at this point into two halves, chapters 1-11 and 12-22. I think this ignores the literary and visionary divisions within the book (“in the Spirit” at 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). The recurrent theophanic description (“peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake”) unites the second vision (4:5; 8:5; 11:19 and 16:18) as it concludes the seven seals, thunders and bowls of wrath. Chapters 4-16 function as a unit that progressively describes the disintegration and end of an empire (the seals only affect 1/4 of the earth, the trumpets 1/3, and the bowls of wrath the whole earth).
The climatic announcement at Revelation 11:15, then, comes in the middle of this progression within the second vision. Even though it announces an accomplished fact, the drama is not yet complete. The final battle has not yet been won. The temple of God is still in heaven (Revelation 11:19) rather than coming to the new earth as the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-5). The drama has not yet reached its final stage; the story is not over.
So, what is the point of the announcement if it has not yet happened in the flow of the drama? In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, heaven itself announces the future as if it has already happened. Among Hebrew prophets this is known as the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as it if it were a past event; the future is as certain as the past.
Heaven is certain, and consequently the saints on the earth who are suffering and dying may be certain as well, that the future reign of God will fully come. The nations (including Rome) will be defeated, the martyrs will be rewarded, and the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of God and the Christ. God will win.
The church is encouraged to follow the Lamb like the two witnesses in Revelation 11. Even though the nations rage against God’s anointed people, God’s wrath will one day destroy those who are destroying the earth. Empires will fall, and the kingdom of God will fill the earth.
That future is as certain as the past. Thanks be to God!