Earlier this week on the Biblical Prophecy Program podcast, I described my new understanding of the symbolic meaning of the seven-sealed scroll of Revelation as a ‘certificate of debenture.”
This understanding of the scroll makes sense because the nature of the seals express humanity’s accumulated sinful behavior as a debt that they will have to pay back through the wrath of God in the trumpets and bowls.
This view was articulated by the German scholar O. Roller in 1937 (“Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln,” ZNW 26, pp. 98–113). In my program this week, I drew mainly from J. Webb Mealy’s monograph After the Thousand Years (Sheffield, 1992). Here is an excerpt from that volume:
In Revelation 5, which sets the stage for the ‘judgments’ of the seven seals, Christ receives, on the basis of his sacrificial death, the authority from God to reveal in the heavenly courtroom the contents of the seven-sealed document [fn. I follow O. Roller . . . in seeing the seven-sealed scroll as a certificate of debenture, i.e., a legal document that gives an accounting of one party’s indebtedness to another]. It is arguable that the concept of judgment functions no differently in this context than it does in the seven letters. In other words, from ch. 5 on in Revelation, judgment is still to be understood primarily in the sense of proving someone guilty by revealing the facts of the case, as opposed to the sense of punishing someone for a crime.
The first four seals (Rev. 6:1–8), for example, far from revealing divine chastisements, reveal the catalysts through which sinful and murderous humanity is brought to witness against itself. The four horsemen thus represent demonic agencies whose release into the arena of nations and societies tempts them to express their true nature [fn. The idea that God uses (evil) spirits to accomplish this kind of judgment (i.e. the revelation of true motives) is an old one (cf. Job 2.2, 7; 2 Kgs 22,.19–23, and the term satan, i.e., prosecutor). It is also to be found in the eschatology of 2 Thess. 2.8–12].
The central theme of Revelation 5–6, that judgment is God’s sovereign activity of bringing into the open (through Christ) the true character and disposition of human beings, clearly stands as common ground between Revelation and the Fourth Gospel (cf. Jn 3.19; 9.39). The presence of this theme also tends to corroborate Roller’s thesis that the seven-sealed scroll is intended as a certificate of debenture. Christ, the Son of Man and the Redeeming Lamb, has the unique right to make public the truth about mankind which is contained in the scroll. For as the Son of Man, he is a first hand witness of humanity’s debt of sin, and as the sacrificial Lamb, he has paid that debt in full on the cross (cf. Rev. 5.9–10) [fn. For a closely related idea from the Pauline corpus, cf. Col. 2.13–14]. . . . Now, in the sixth seal, the sense is that the prayer [of the martyred saints for God’s vindication] is being answered, and that all human is being ‘caught red-handed.’ Thus people are represented as having a sense of guilt so great that they prefer death to standing face-to-face with a just God and his Christ. . . . (pp. 66–68 emphasis mine).
This meaning of the scroll as a certificate of debenture further supports the prewrath position, because the seals are not viewed as God’s wrath. Rather, the seals are viewed as representing the true nature of the depravity of humanity’s sin, accumulating the debt (debenture) of judgment that will be “paid up” at the day of the Lord judgments when the scroll is opened unleashing the trumpets and bowls of God’s wrath upon sinful humanity.