The Bible is full of many puzzles. These enigmas are an important part of the mystique and challenge of the scriptures. One of the most of curious of these riddles is the seven spirits of God.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. – Revelation 1:4-6 ESV
In a book of many bewildering symbols and figures how do we make sense of this one in particular? There are two popular ways of interpreting this. One is saying that they are the seven archangels that stand before God. The other is that it is an allusion to Isaiah 11:2.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. – Isaiah 11:2 ESV
Those of the second view sometimes go on to say that each of the virtues listed in Isaiah is the name and designation of each “spirit”. So the seven spirits are actually the one Holy Spirit who has seven facets, dimensions or aspects.
As for the first view I wholly reject it. The specific phrasing “seven spirits of God” appears three other times all in the Book of Revelation. When we look at all the occurrences it does not suggest an angel of any sort. For example John brings us salutations from the very throne room of God. It is a common New Testament formula to offer greetings in the name of the Father and the Son. The seven spirits are nestled in between God the Father and the Messiah Jesus. The fact that he put them in divine company suggests they are not angels. Apart from this in Revelation 5:6 the seven eyes of the Lamb that was slain are identified as the seven spirits of God. Here they are feature of the crucified Messiah’s person. It is hard to imagine, especially in the context of apocalyptic literature, how the eyes can be interpreted as separate distinct entities all together. It is apparent from my rejection of the first view I am sympathetic towards the second. This however does not mean there are no challenges with the latter. This is especially true when we extend it to mean a seven-fold Holy Spirit which I think is the most popular view.
The first challenge is theological. Any Trinitarian worth his salt will instantly see the challenge of there being seven spirits. In an attempt to mitigate the potentially absurd effects of multiple spirits of God it is rather called the “seven-fold” spirits of God. Admirable as this is, if the text wanted to say that there was Greek for it.
Now it is important for us to note that the creedal formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity came sometime after the New Testament. We cannot anachronistically read back into the text a mode of thinking and understanding which was never theirs. I can confidently say that neither John nor any of the early Christians thought in terms of the Trinity, at least not in the way we popularly understand it. As N.T. Wright points out in his book, “Scripture and the Authority of God”, many of these theological terms are short hands for a larger and a bigger concept. Instead of trying to build doctrines off simple statements we need to unpack them and see what they really mean. When we read passages like this we should not set out to “prove” any creed or we run the risk of eisogesis (reading our own interpretation into the text.) This leads me to the next challenge.
The second issue is related to the first and it is the problem of interpretation. It is no so much an issue of what hermeneutical or exegetical method one should use. The problem is deeper. It is the challenge of how we conceptualize and imagine the Holy Scriptures in our modern cognitive environment. In today’s world we over emphasize left-brain, logical, analytical thinking. There is nothing wrong with being a rational thinker. (In fact there would be something very wrong if you did not think rationally.) The problem lies in when we venerate it to a position where it dominates our thought processes in ways it shouldn’t. In the Bible, as is the case with the rest of life, not all things can be understood in a cold, detached, logical manner. (Even Mr. Spock fell in love!) The seven spirits of God appears in a book where analytical reasoning does not help much.
The Book of Revelation from the very beginning has been a source of mystery and intrigue. The fact that the enigmatic phrase in question only appears in Revelation means we must frame our interpretations within the context of the book. The problem with the angel view and sevenfold view is how they both use numbers. In modern societies we tend to see numbers numerically and not numerologically as well. To make things clear, what I mean by numerology in this piece is the symbolic use of numbers. The number seven is very important both in Revelation and the scriptures at large. God made the world in seven days and on the seventh day he rested, taking up residence in his creation. The number seven is therefore associated with completion and the fulfilment of the purposes of God. It is the symbol of consummation, the divine number. When you journey through the scriptures on the back of this number it brings out some amazing insights. Instead of shackling of our understanding to seven countable spirits we need leave room for symbolic interpretation.
The Book of Revelation is like a composite image. It takes bits and pieces of the scriptures, especially apocalyptic literature, and then synthesises them into a brand new vision of a new creation. The prime feature of this new vision is that the resurrected Messiah is Lord of all. Through his resurrection he has formed a new people of God. It is through this new nation, the Church, that God by his spirit is fulfilling his kingdom agenda. The phrase the seven spirits of God is undoubtedly an allusion to Isaiah but a very intricate one nonetheless.
Isaiah 11 is a Messianic prophecy so it is not surprising that Revelation borrows from it. In the prophet Isaiah there is a strong message about the Messiah being specially endowed with the spirit of God (Isaiah 42:1, 61:1.) One of the signs that the Israelite kings had been chosen by God after being anointed was the manifestation of the spirit of God (1 Samuel 10.) The identification of the Messiah, the ultimate servant of God, with the spirit of God was very important. It showed that he God’s chosen king over his people.
When we take a closer look at Isaiah 11:2 it is hard to support the idea that these are the seven dimensions of the holy spirit. The verse does not give to us seven straight virtues or characteristics. The spirit of the Lord and the fear of the Lord do not fit with the other designations in a sevenfold understanding of the Spirit. “Lord” is not a virtue and fear is not an attribute of God. A more natural reading is that it is YHWH, the Lord, who by his spirit endows the Messiah with these six virtues to be the perfect human servant of God. When John uses the seven spirits of God in Revelation he is drawing upon this messianic imagery.
An interesting thing in Revelation is that the seven spirits are associated with the menorah.
From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God… – Revelation 4:5 ESV
Now the seven branched candelabrum which was found in the temple was basically a central stem with three auxiliary stems on each side, each being paired with a stem on the opposite side (Exodus 25:30-37.)
When you look at the structure of Isaiah 11:2 you can see this same structure. The six virtues are paired in three groups of two, wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord, which all originate from the central stem of the spirit of the Lord. This 6+1 structure is also seen in Genesis 1 where the first three days of creation are paralleled by the second three days and climax on the seventh. Another interesting feature of the description of the menorah is that it resembles a fruit bearing plant. Isaiah 11:1 says,
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. – Isaiah 11:1 ESV
I think this is first of all an allusion to the rod of Aaron that sprouted symbolizing that God had irrevocable chosen the house of David. When we take into consideration verse two, the floral description further enhances the parallels with the menorah imagery. As God had chosen Aaron to be priest over his people, God had chosen the Messiah, the son of David, to be king.
Symbols and figures are used in a very dynamic sense in the scriptures. Instead of looking for one to one matches we need to consider the overall scriptural narrative and see how these symbols function in their native environment. There is far more to be said about the seven spirits of God than what I have elucidated here. We need an intertextual approach to this topic, as well others, where both testaments shine light on each other. This is especially true for the Book of Revelation which draws on a lot of older material.
The seven spirits are simply the seven spirits of God and I see no need in trying to identify them individually. The scriptures do not seem very much concerned with working out such details because they are beside the point. It’s like trying to figure out what the seven pillars of wisdom are in Proverbs. The point of the proverb is the perfection of divine wisdom. Similarly the seven spirits of God indicate the perfect messianic servant of God being anointed with the spirit of the Lord.