Reading Revelation: Part 1, Mean, but Not Mean-Spirited

Out at the prison we are about to begin a study of the book of Revelation. Over the last few years we've been working our way through the entire Bible. We started in Genesis and now, at long last, we reach Revelation.

This is going to be an interesting study. The men out at the unit have been thoroughly marinated in dispensational theology. Many of them are convinced that we are in, or approaching, the end times. I have my work cut out for me.

In preparing for the study, I've been looking at various commentaries. One recommended to me by my friend Mark is Brian K. Blount's commentary. Blount's commentary is rare among Biblical commentaries because he's a really great writer, with a flair for vivid, bracing prose. I wanted to use this series to share some of Blount's material from his Introduction, how he approaches the book of Revelation.

Blount opens the Introduction by commenting on John's emotional state in writing the book: "In the literary storm that is the book of Revelation, John writes in anger." In the next paragraph, Blount continues:

Revelation is a mean book; it is not, however, mean-spirited. The line between those two points on the human emotional scale is admittedly razor thin. John's meanness is the effect of a sure cause. It derives from the anger he feels about the injustices that have been imposed upon him and his people, and the even greater injustices that he is sure will soon rise if his people live out their faith in the way that he hopes they will.

You might not like these descriptions, that John "writes in anger" or that Revelation is "a mean book," but Blount sure does grab your attention right out of the gate! And Blount does have a point. Revelation has some pretty grisly passages about the plight of the wicked and rebellious. Are these passages, in their imaginative excessiveness, "mean"? Feel free to debate that word, but the visions in Revelation are very violent and off-putting to many. Just spend time with graphic novel depictions of Revelation and the point is made. Consequently, it's critical when approaching Revelation to know how to handle the violence, pain, and blood. For example, as Blount continues, John has repentance on his mind, not retribution. Blount writes:

John not only allows for repentance; he also encourages it, begs for it, and pleads with those who have joined forces hostile to God's world-transforming intent to come back to God's way of being and doing in the world...

The point is that Revelation is rhetorically excessive because it's polemical. Revelation is trying to accomplish something in the lives of its listeners. Revelation is a jolt. A thunder clap. A five alarm fire. Stated simply, the violence is rhetorical. John's words are trying to kidnap your attention and galvanize your immediate energetic response. Focusing on those rhetorical goals is the proper way to approach the verbal onslaught that is the book of Revelation.

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