The seven lamps in heaven are often interpreted as the Christian congregations that John transmits letters to in Revelation 1-3. Those letters were critical, suggesting that the congregations were swept up in a struggle against selfishness. They were meant to epitomize the “Spirits of God” represented by the lamps, but had not yet achieved that end.
But what are the lamps? Given that the Most High must love his enemy just as we were taught by Christ, the lamps must be perfections of the behaviors unleashed when the seven seals are broken. Those behaviors actually serve a beneficial purpose in God’s plan: they preserve us from being consumed by love, and thus allow us to continue to receive it.
So by identifying the vices hidden in the scroll of seven seals, we can identify the seven Spirits of God by considering how the vices are changed into virtue by love.
Imagine Mary in Bethlehem, having delivered the precious gift of love to the world. What would it have felt like, carrying that burden for nine months, feeling her belly swell with the urge to heal the world? And then finally to hold him in her arms, to nurse him at her breast?
In “Spotlight on Christmas,” Rufus Wainwright compares this bond to earthly wealth:
Don’t forget all the horses and toys
Never could fix the poor little rich boys.
Don’t forget all the diamonds and pearls
Never could fix the poor little rich girls.
Don’t forget Jesus Mary and Joseph
Once were a family, poor but rich in hope.
Don’t forget that what kept them above
Is Unconditional Love.
In Revelation 4 and 5, we are introduced to the poor little rich children of heaven, the proud elders, highest among the angels. They gaze upon the seven lamps of virtue like children with noses pressed against the toy store window.
Before the throne seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
[NIV Rev. 4:5-6]
But at least we imagine that the angels understand the value of those gifts! John does not even name them for us before the terrible scroll of seven seals chases the lamps from our minds.
Why did the Most High not just destroy the scroll?
To understand, we should return to love and its opposite, selfishness. Love has no meaning unless your self meets my self and chooses to let love enrich the relationship. The exchange of love only happens if we have gifts to exchange – if your self has something that my self does not.
For example, let’s say that I have bread and you have honey. If we choose to share, we can make a meal.
What blocks love is selfishness – to withhold my gift, taking your gift without giving something in return. Even if you still love me, sooner or later you will run out of honey to give.
Unless you steal honey from someone else, allowing my selfishness to infest your other relationships.
I’ll give you permission: you should protect yourself from my selfishness. That means doing things that would be seen as selfish – it means not giving me honey when you know that I have been keeping my bread from you.
In other words, to love others, we must be selfish toward those that are selfish.
What about love? Can it be selfish? Can it consume us with feeling, making us unable to work, sleep and eat? That happened to me when my son was sick, but it also happens when we fall in love. Is that healthy?
Do we need to protect ourselves from love?
This is the problem and opportunity of the scroll. It contains all the behaviors of selfishness, all its tricks and secrets. But don’t those tricks and secrets also deserve to be loved, to have a special purpose to fulfill? And if we use them well, won’t they protect us from being consumed by love?
Remember what Jesus said [NIV Matt. 5:43-45]:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Concluding [Matt. 5:48]:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The Most High asks us to do nothing that he would not. The Most High loves selfishness, for it is what preserves us against His great power, ensuring that he still has us to love!
But if selfishness receives its love, how does the Most High prevent selfishness from taking over Creation? As for us, how can we be loving and selfish at the same time?
Jesus commanded [NIV Matt. 22:37-40]:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
The Most High asks us to call love into the world, but not for ourselves – only for our neighbors.
This is how it works: when we love someone else, our hearts and minds secure them against being overcome by love. It is not love that we cherish, but their eyes, their touch, their speech. Love passes through us to make those features stronger, purer, more delightful.
We love those qualities for selfish reasons, of course: they bring us joy. But if we try to love ourselves – to create that joy without our beloved, love has no way to reach us. We become “the poor little rich boys (and girls)” that Wainwright laments.
This opens our eyes to the last part of God’s plan: the perfection of selfishness through love for others. We can serve ourselves only by loving others. To me, then, the number of the lamps and the number of the seals is not an accident. They are the same kinds of actions, but one set is turned to the service of love, while the other serves only the self.
We can name the lamps if we can name the nature of the seven selfish behaviors freed as the seals are broken. We need find only what the seals become when love for others is added.
The challenge is that John isn’t always told what the selfish behaviors are – he is told only to come and see their consequences. Worse, since they are behaviors, rather than actual events, what John sees is not very specific. We see kinds of people and kinds of events, not actual people and actual events.
For this reason, many have tried to interpret the seals, each with their own purpose. Some physicists, for example, link them to the seven directions of motion that are hidden in their grand theories of everything. I’m not going to argue against those writings. What is important to me is that people understand the strength that comes from allowing love to change us.
If my understanding helps you to love yourself and the people around you, that is truth enough for me.
So let’s start:
The first seal reveals a tyrant. Tyrants force others to do their will – often to gather wealth and power. This is domination. A true leader finds wealth and power to help the weak. We call that stewardship. So the first seal – domination – combined with love becomes stewardship.
The closeness of these ideas is found in the way that different translators write Genesis 2:15. Some say that Adam was given “dominion” over Eden; others said that Adam was given “stewardship.” Which word is preferred tells us much about the speaker. Do they think that the world should serve man, or man serve the world?
The second seal reveals conflict, poison of our relationships. When we get to know people, we learn things that can be used to hurt them. When they do the same, violence can come. In a certain sense, diseases use the chemicals of life to harm us. With love, knowledge can be used to heal divisions between people, and the ill effects of disease. Then we enjoy harmony. With love, conflict becomes harmony.
The third seal reveals a rider carrying scales. Scales are used to measure value, and the words of the rider show that he is a sharp dealer. This is opportunism – getting the most out of people and posessions. With love, the desire to get the best value drives innovation – the seeking for the best way to solve a problem. With love, opportunism becomes innovation.
The fourth seal unleashes death. Death separates us from our friends and family, hiding them behind its veil. It was this veil that Jesus imbued with his love, making it a wall that separates hostile parties until they are ready to make peace. With love, death becomes peace.
The fifth seal reveals victims hiding under a throne, demanding vengeance. This is how the past controls the future – by enforcing enmity upon its children. This is the story of the Hatfields and McCoys, or of Romeo and Juliet. When combined with love, however, wrongs are not just proclaimed, but righted. Vengeance becomes justice.
The sixth seal is described by its victims as wrath. Wrath creates fear without cause, making us unable to think clearly, and so easy to control. We often become angry when someone we love is hurt, but when we use that emotion to try to help people live well together, our service is fueled by passion. It was passion for his people that drove Jesus to the cross. Wrath, when combined with love, becomes passion.
In Revelation, the seventh seal is not opened until Chapter 8. To complete the naming of the seven lamps, though, let us consider it here. When the seventh seal is opened, the angels begin to sound their trumpets. As each trumpet is sounded, a terrible destruction befalls the earth. Destruction can also lead to change. When we change something to serve another, we are creative. With love, destruction becomes creation.
Creation – where have we heard that before? Why, in the book of Genesis. The story of heaven told in Revelation has almost come back to the beginning of the Bible. We should expect, then, that the seven trumpets should match up with the seven days of creation.
Let’s summarize today’s study:
In our lives, we know that wealthy children often miss out on being loved. The proud princes of heaven, isolated from love, may be sad in the same way.
Why can’t the angels come to love? In our earlier lessons, we looked at the idea that the angels could not come close to love because they would misuse it. Today we looked at the threat posed by love to the angels. Love’s power could consume them, just as love sometimes consumes us.
To avoid being consumed by love, we need protection. The Most High gives us that protection by coming to us through those that cherish us, ensuring that strength is brought to the qualities that bring them joy. For this reason, Jesus commanded that we love God and others, rather than being concerned with loving ourselves. In that way, love serves to create shared strength.
The best thing is that in receiving that love, we don’t have to give up ourselves. Rather, love takes our selfish habits and turns them to good.
Having considering how the vices of the seven seals are changed with love, we can now name the seven lamps of virtue that stand before the throne of God. Stewardship, harmony, innovation, peace, justice, passion, and creativity are sacred gifts that bring strength and joy to everyone.