The Seven Spirits in Revelation

When I was a kid I remember being really weirded out by the seven spirits before God’s throne in Revelation. Here I was, still trying to figure out the Trinity, when all of the sudden there were now seven Holy Spirits, turning God into a Holy Nonanity? Of course, if no one tells you how a complicated book like Revelation works, you’re bound to be confused like that.

Now if you’ve done your research, then you’ve seen that most have come to the conclusion that these seven spirits are an allusion to Isaiah 11:2 where the Holy Spirit is described with 7 attributes.

And the (1) Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the (2) Spirit of wisdom and (3) understanding,
the (4) Spirit of counsel and (5) might,
the (6) Spirit of knowledge and the (7) fear of the Lord.

And so there you go: This reference makes the seven spirits of Revelation out to be the singular Holy Spirit. And since Revelation is constantly alluding to passages from throughout the Bible, it’s well within the John’s (the author’s) technique to do the same here.

But something about this explanation never fully appealed to me. Yes, I do think it’s an explanation that could work—after all, in Revelation 5:8, the seven spirits are likened to being a part of Jesus and they are sent into all the world, which sounds a lot like Pentecost. But I do think there’s another way that we could look at this, and for some scholars, it is certainly the right way (see David Aune’s three volume commentary on Revelation).

In Jewish writings, angels were sometimes referred to as spirits since they are spiritual beings. And since in Jewish writings there were often seven archangels mentioned to exist, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for the seven spirits around God’s throne to be these seven powerful angelic spirits. After all, we’re about to see a bunch of other elders and creatures in the divine council of the throne room. Why wouldn’t we expect to also see the most powerful angels that God has delegated authority to? Why wouldn’t they play a key part in John’s vision?

This idea is removed from us because we don’t find it in our Bibles. Michael and Gabriel are the only archangels mentioned in the Scriptures, so the idea of the seven spirits being the seven angels doesn’t really strike us as the cultural way to think about the seven spirits. But as we look at the literature of the John’s time, it seems well within his right to think this way while writing Revelation.

In the end, the main reason I think it’d be weird for John to call the Holy Spirit “seven spirits” is because of the same confusion I felt as a child. Throughout the New Testament you see the Trinity being developed and established. John’s writings especially establish very boisterously the fact that Jesus is God. Why make his theology even more difficult for others to believe by turning God’s Spirit into seven? Even if it is just an allusion to Isaiah, it seems like the kind of allusion one might want to avoid for the sake of not accidentally creating some kind of new heresy.

That may sound like a crazy conclusion to jump to, but these are ancient people who see spirits and gods and demons and spiritual powers and authorities everywhere. Why throw in a complicated allusion that not everyone is going to understand perfectly that further complicates the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

While I think both conclusions are valid, at this point I take the archangel route. I think it was a mentality already ingrained in the spiritual thinking of the time and would have made the most natural sense to Revelation’s readers.

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