Ellen White and the Timing of Revelation 5—Part 3 (EWB 11)

While Desire of Ages, pp. 833-835 ties the entire scene of Revelation 4-5 to the event of Christ’s ascension and his subsequent enthronement in the heavenly sanctuary, some Adventist thinkers believe that a statement found in 7BC 967 suggests that Ellen White understood Christ’s taking of the book to have occurred in 1844, not AD 31. Let us examine this statement with some care.

“John writes, ‘I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne.’ Angels were united in the work of Him who had broken the seals and taken the book. Four mighty angels hold back the powers of this earth till the servants of God are sealed in their foreheads. The nations of the world are eager for conflict; but they are held in check by the angels. When this restraining power is removed, there will come a time of trouble and anguish.”

The quotation in the initial sentence is clearly from Revelation 5:11. Does Ellen White’s statement set Rev 5:11 after the breaking of the seals? Since Revelation 5:11 contains an allusion to Daniel 7:9-10, it has been argued that the location of the vision is in the Most Holy Place at the time of judgment from 1844 on. In that case, when the Lamb “came and took the book” in Revelation 5:7, he was moving from the Holy Place into the Most Holy. To read Ellen White in this way is biblically problematic, since the Lamb was already standing “in the midst of the throne” (Rev 5:6) before he “comes and takes the book” (Rev 5:7). To assume a change of apartments in Rev 5:6-7 is to suggest that the “throne” is a way of speaking for the entire sanctuary, something found in neither the Bible nor the writings of Ellen White.

So what do we do with Ellen White’s statement in 7BC 967? It certainly associates Revelation 5:11 with the events of Revelation 7:1-3, which are end-time. However, her statement is a general description of the work of angels, and Ellen White repeatedly uses the language of Rev 5:11 in general descriptions of the work of angels (compare 7BC933; 7BC 967-968; GC 511-512; PP36; CH 32, among others). Therefore, if the primary function of the statement has to do with the work of angels in general, we should not overstate its significance for the exegesis of Rev 5.

More exegetically problematic still is her second sentence: “. . . the work of Him who had broken the seals and taken the book.” This reverses the order of the biblical text and seems to place the breaking of the seals in the past, even though the sixth and seventh seals deal with the Second Coming and beyond.

The statement included in the SDA Bible Commentary was taken from Letter 79, 1900, written on May 10 of that year. The letter is a rambling appeal to a William Kerr, calling for a fuller commitment to the gospel and to obedience to God’s commandments. Ellen White’s personal journal indicates that she was extremely weak and weary, not having had significant sleep for three days! Overwork and sleeplessness would account for the rambling nature of the letter. Although the letter is lengthy, there is little coherent flow of thought from one paragraph to another. It nears its conclusion with a general description of the work of angels in helping God’s people obey. There is no reference to the investigative judgment.

The statement we are examining is found nowhere else in Ellen White’s writings. Nor is it central to the point of the letter, which is quite homiletical in its thrust. Such an isolated statement in an unpublished letter should not be used to overturn the impact of careful exegesis and such major published statements as GC 414-415 and DA 833-835. The fact that she was tired in the extreme on that day may account for her confusion regarding the order in which the breaking of the seals and the taking of the book took place.

I hope this concrete example of how Ellen White sometimes interacts with Revelation without having the intention of offering an exegetical explanation of the text. To use an off-hand statement in her writings to over-ride the plain meaning of the biblical text would neither be appropriate to serious study of the Bible, nor be respectful to her own view of the relation between her writings and the Bible. Having said that, creative exegesis can have devotional value, as long as such readings do not claim biblical authority.

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