Michael Wilcock is a regular writer for the Bible Speaks Today series, having written four on Old Testament books (the one on Chronicles is particularly good) and two New Testament titles. The book of Revelation provides its own special challenges for a series such as this one, which intends to be expository rather than academic. Wilcock admits from the start that due to the extremely diverse range of possible interpretations encountered in Revelation studies, this book falls somewhere in between the “academic and sermonic”.
Particularly important to Wilcock is the structure of the book. He argues for eight scenes, each with seven sections. Whilst in a few places, his division of the material is less than convincing, his overall scheme does make sense, and is reinforced as he goes through the book by demonstrating the parallels between corresponding sections of different scenes. The book is furnished with the RSV text (reflecting the fact that this is one of the older volumes in the BST series – originally published in 1975).
The letters to the churches are the subject of the first scene, and Wilcock stresses their relevance as the church will tend to follow the same repeating patterns of errors. Scene two concerns the seven seals – which are interpreted as suffering for the church. Throughout the book, there are a number of short excursuses, dealing with problems of interpretation. In one on the meaning of numbers, he provides a useful discussion of 12, 24, 7 and 4, which he uses as he progresses through the book.
Wilcock tries to be even-handed towards those of all schools of interpretation of Revelation, but he quickly dismisses the historicist interpretation, as he sees that each scene is capable of rewinding and going over the same period again. The general approach is reminiscent of John Stott’s recent writing on Revelation in “The Incomparable Christ”, which is is not surprising since Stott is the editor of this book. The four horsemen are thus not a sign of the end, but representative of the suffering that will go on throughout history.
In scene three (the trumpets), Wilcock is careful to harmonise with Matt 24, which he takes as the definitive guide to the end times. The trumpets are specifically warnings and suffering for the ungodly. He thankfully does not provide fanciful speculations on how these might come into effect. Scene 4 is “the drama of history”, and Wicock defends his breaking the book into scenes by showing how various “openings” mark the start of each one. The existing chapter divisions are almost all in the wrong places as far as he is concerned. The “beast from the earth” is identified as false religion, although he seems to imply that miracluous signs are always now a sign of the false church. His paraphrase of the verse about 666 was also interesting (it’s not a problem for us to work out).
Scene five is concerned with punishment for the world, and Wilcock stresses the battle of ideologies that plays throughout history between the world and the church. Many of the symbols both here and in future scenes he interprets as relating to this ideological struggle. In scene six (Babylon the Whore), there is a helpful excursus on identifying symbols and why only some are explained, where he argues that these are not so much symbols as realities viewed from another perspective. He has a particularly interesting interpretation of Rev 17:9-12, which he does not view as primarily prophetical concerning particular kings or rulers, but archetypal of worldly governmental systems.
Finally in scene seven we get onto the subject of the millenium, which is the subject of another excursus. He outlines the options, along with their strengths and weaknesses, and explains why he has chosen an amillennial interpretation. This scene, along with the next give him some opportunity for some excellent devotional reflections on the gospel (e.g. on the book of life, the bride’s garments etc). As he begins the eigth scene, he argues the case for why a book with so many sevens should have eight scenes. This is the scene of new beginnings, just as after the seven days of the week, Jesus rose on the eighth day. This vision is not just of what the church will become, but what the Lord is making us into now. The book rather unexpectedly closes with a strange section explaining that the book of Revelation is unnecessary but beneficial since it is a “sacrement”. The command not to add to the book is understood as a warning not to modify the gospel.
I have always found parts of the book of Revelation difficult to understand, and I can’t pretend to have found a complete explanation in this book. But certainly there are a number of insights that will prove very helpful as I return to study Revelation in the future, and Wilcock’s structural analysis of the book is the most convincing I have heard so far (perhaps until I read another commentary!).