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Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
P.G.R. de Villiers1
This article illustrates the relevance of a close reading of the text in the ongoing
work of New Testament as a discipline by means of Revelation 6:12-17. In an introduction the nature and role of a close reading in Biblical Studies is briefly outlined.
A second part analyses the form of the sixth seal and indicates what and how literary
techniques were used to compose the text. These are then in turn investigated to
explain the meaning and function of this seal within the communication setting in
which it originated and for which it was composed.
New Testament as a discipline is in the first instance a text-focused
subject. It is the only one of theological disciplines that has a point
beyond which it cannot move. That point is the text. This is a simple
truth with many implications. Often the text is a victim rather than
the focus of scholarly research, especially when it is investigated in an
illegitimate manner or where its integrity is not respected. Too often
the text is “used” to determine what “really happened” or what was
“taught” without serious attention to the text itself. Or, alternatively,
too often the interpretations of the text rather than the text itself, determine what happens in scholarship. It happens easily that we know
much about the text and we can cite so many interpretations of the text,
without a proper knowledge of or understanding of the text as text.
One of the formative roots of modern Biblical scholarship can be
traced to the Renaissance which was such a rejuvenating force because
of its movement ad fontes. The original sources were rediscovered and
documented. Biblical languages as an empowering tool were once
again studied (cf. De Villiers 2001). This studia humanitatis generated
much new knowledge and brought about valuable new life in the
history of the church and theology. The “dark” Middle Ages with a
1 Prof. P.G.R. de Villiers, Research Fellow, Department of New Testament,
Faculty of Theology, University of the Free State, P.O. Box 339, Bloemfontein
9300. E-mail:
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
church that valued Latin more than Greek and Hebrew and with theologians that knew more of philosophy than of the text,2 represent a
tragic example of what can go wrong when the text as the heart of
theological and Biblical studies is neglected.
A survey of the massive amounts of publications in New Testament
studies shows how many new insights are being created. Real progress
has been made in the modern phase of Biblical Studies since the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Yet, paradoxically, these many new
books illustrate exactly the tentative nature of research as it keeps on
debating issues and the ongoing need to study the texts carefully.
Though they develop new insights, they also continuously deconstruct
existing, even sacrosanct ones, about the text. Text and interpretation are involved in a process of clarification and debate, so that there
is no indication that we have arrived at a final stage of scholarship.
The point is not whether new work on the text can be done. It is more
a matter of how it will be done.
A case in point is the study of the text of Revelation that has benefited much from the study of linguistics and of rhetoric in recent
years, but that can still benefit from a close reading. This article will
illustrate this through a close reading that will focus on the compositional skills of the author of Revelation. A careful author is at work
on several levels in the text. From micro-level to meso-level through
to macro-level, as will be pointed out in more detail below, fascinating
patterns can be detected.3
2 Erasmus, who may be called a founding father of modern historical research, at
some stage became concerned about the way in which Renaissance scholars lapsed
into what he considered a neo-paganism (De Villiers 2002:39). In this sense he
confirmed the special nature and claims of the Biblical texts as focal point of
research. He sought to promote a deepening of the scholar’s commitment to Christ
as purpose of the so famous studia humanitatis. One of the most respected contemporary historians remarks that this study was to him merely “beguiling,
worthless, indeed dangerous unless infused with a thirst for Christian truth…
in non-speculative, moralistic terms” (Israel 1998:45).
3 Since one can assume that an intelligent and normal author will be consistent
in his thought, it is to be expected that what happens on micro-level, will also
take place on meso- and macro-level. In other words, it is to be expected that
the author would structure his work in the smaller units in the same manner
in which he would group larger units or the text as a whole.
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
The sixth seal in Revelation 6 is one of the prime examples of the
compositional skills of the author of Revelation. In the following essay
this seal will be investigated in order to show how new insights can
be generated when the text itself is heard and when methods that are
in line with Biblical studies as a textual discipline, are applied to it.
The sixth seal is, first of all, more generally part of the seven seals
about four horses and their riders (seals one to four). It is more specifically part of the last three seals where it fits between seals five and
seven — about a group of slain believers under the altar. The first
four refer to disasters that strike the earth and that creates the scenario described in the last three seals, where the martyrdom of the
believers and the judgment on the evil forces and their human following are depicted.
The seals have a pattern of 4+3, but this can be formulated more
specifically as 3+1+3. The two groups of three (1-3 and 5-7), in turn,
display a sandwich effect in which the first and third element frames
the middle element. In addition the fourth seal is framed by the first
and the last three seals. The fourth seal forms the heart of the series
— depicting death and Hades as the prime forces of evil. The fourth
seal identifies the forces of evil that are at work in the persecution of
the church and the destruction of God’s creation. They stand at the
beginning of the assault on this world (Revelation 6), but they are
also the last to be removed from the scene (after the dragon, the two
beasts and the whore; cf. Rev. 20:14). As such, the fourth seal plays
a seminal role in the series of seven seals.4
Even though the fourth seal is so striking, it is the sixth seal that
really catches the eye. The following reasons can be given for this
statement: It is, firstly, the longest of the seven seals. It is, secondly,
the penultimate seal — which in apocalyptic literature is quite significant. Thirdly, the sixth seal is the middle of the last three seals.
It is framed by seals 5 and 7 that are mutually related because both
4 Cf. the extensive discussion of the composition of the seven seals in De Villiers
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
refer to the saints who have been slaughtered and share prominent
motifs like the altar. The contents, fourthly, also draw attention to
this seal. There is firstly a section on the judgment of the world and
a second, supplementary section on the church. In many commentaries this second section is regarded as an intercalation because its contents are so seemingly different. Though this part forms a unit on its
own and offers a different perspective on events, it should be read as
complementing the judgment section and not separated too strongly
from it. This is clear in the light of the fact that it provides the answer
to the question of those who are being judged in Revelation 6:17 (cf.
De Villiers 2004; Prigent 2001:278). The sixth seal proper comprises
the scenario of judgment, which then leads on to the visions of the
church as supplement and also as response to the climactic question
in Revelation 6:17.5
In this article, it will be argued that the author composes the sixth
seal as a ring composition.6 This form of the sixth seal goes largely
unnoticed in commentaries on Revelation (e.g. most recently, in
Witherington 2003). Even Giblin (1991:90), otherwise a sharp analyst of the form of the text, fails to notice this compositional feature.
5 Prigent (2001:278) notes that the description of the wrath of God is so fearsome that it
provokes the questioning of those who confess Christ as their
Savior: will his avenging wrath encompass all humanity? It is to
this question that chapter 7 responds.
More attention is needed, however, for the fact that his question is asked by the
inhabitants of the earth. The question that the believers ask is rather when they
will be avenged through judgement on the inhabitants (cf. 6:10). And that question is the result of a common “perception that too long a period often intervenes between the commission of an outrage and its just recompense” (Aune
1998:424). The author and his followers are not really portrayed as uncertain
and doubting. It seems to be part of the judgment of the inhabitants that they
come to realize that they are without any hope in the presence of God the judge.
6 Lund (1992:372ff.) drew attention to what he considered to be the “chiastic”
structure of the text. Because of the difficulties involved in writing about chiasms,
his work did not receive the recognition it deserves. I am indebted to many of
his insights in my own close reading of the text. For chiasm as a figure of speech,
cf. Thomson (1995) and DiMarco (1979), but this important issue deserves a
discussion of its own.
Before attention is given to the sixth seal, some general remarks on
form must be made. It is widely accepted that Biblical texts should
be understood and interpreted in terms of their function in an oral
culture (cf., e.g., Maier 2002:101-122). If this is the case, it can be
expected that the formation of the material receives special attention. In his discussion of the oral nature of Revelation, Maier (2002:
107) wrote about the function of literary techniques like various
Repeating phrases or echoing/contrasting phrases in quick succession have an important function in solidifying what is heard in a
listener’s mind, as well as helping to promote a more vivid listening
It is in line with this solidifying nature of John’s text, that his
language can be described as “aggregative rather than analytic” (Maier
2002:106). He adds:
This occurs first through the drawing out of nouns by placing them
in identical or similar adjectival/participial phrases, or through the
association of nouns and verbs with a discrete set of adjectives and
adverbs. Or, second, aggregation occurs by placing clauses parallel
to one another, or antithetically.
Such techniques enhance the oral communication of the text.
This explains why so many other literary techniques and devices
are also found in Revelation. In an analysis of Revelation 7:4-8, Maier
(2002:98), responding to a reading of this passage by Boring, draws
attention to the “incantation-like recitation of numbers and names”
in the description of the 144 000:
The Greek is musical. The repeated similar endings (homoioteleuta) of
phyles and chiliades offer a singsong assonance. Moreover, the repeated use of the perfect-passive participle esphragismenoi (“sealed”)
at the head of the list (v. 4b), then at the outset of the sequence (v.
5), and at its conclusion (v. 8c) offers a neat demarcation of a narrative episode through chiasmus and is an instance of paronomasia … All this represents an aesthetic experience resistant to the analytical
abstraction of Boring’s translation.
The oral presentation of the text thus is not a simple matter of
offloading information. Communicating with the text is much more
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
than a rational process. The listener to the text becomes deeply involved
in the reading process: s/he grasps “also experientially through being
caught up in the readers’ singsong recitation.” The text “keeps the
listener’s interest and draws them into an emotional experience of the
vision” (Maier 2002:99). One suspects that even if one did not know
how to translate the words, the repetitious sounds would signal the
importance of what is communicated. Meaning here resides as much
in the sound-events as in the theological notion it expresses (Maier
Such remarks indicate that literary devices are not to be regarded
as mere stylistic niceties. They can have important functions that
significantly determine the communication process. This is equally
true of the ring composition in Revelation 6:12-17, as will become
clear below.
In the light of all this, the stage is set to analyze the sixth seal in
terms of literary devices that determine its composition. This will be
done first of all by a “visual” presentation of its structure. It is interesting how such a presentation on its own contributes towards a
feeling for the effect of the text. The following arrangement gives such
a representation of the manner in which the sixth seal is composed:
A 12ei\don o{te h[noixen th;n sfragi’da th;n e{kthn,
kai; seismo;~ mevga~ ejgevneto,
kai; oJ h{lio~ ejgevneto mevla~ wJ~ savkko~ trivcino~, (1)
kai; hJ selhvnh o{lh ejgevneto wJ~ ai|ma, (2)
B 13oiJ ajstevre~ tou’ oujranou’ e[pesan eij~ th;n gh’n, (3)
wJ~ sukh’ bavllei tou;~ ojluvnqou~ aujth’~ uJpo;
ajnevmou megavlou seiomevnh
14oJ oujrano;~ ajpecwrivsqh wJ~ biblivon eJlissovmenon, (4)
kai; pa’n o[ro~ (1)
C kai; nh’so~ ejk tw’n tovpwn aujtw’n
ejkinhvqhsan. (2)
15oiJ basilei’~ th’~ gh’~ (1)
D kai; oiJ megista’ne~ (2)
kai; oiJ cilivarcoi (3)
E kai; oiJ plouvsioi (4)
kai; oiJ ijscuroi; (5)
D kai; pa’~ dou’lo~ (6)
kai; ejleuvqero~ e[kruyan
eJautou;~ eij~ ta; Sphvlaia (7)
C kai; eij~ ta;~ pevtra~ tw’n ojrevwn. (1)
16levgousin toi’~ o[resin kai; tai’~
pevtrai~, (2)
Pevsete ejf j hJma’~ (1)
kai; kruvyate hJma’~ (2)
B ajpo; proswvpou tou’ kaqhmevnou ejpi; tou’ qrovnou (3)
kai; ajpo; th’~ ojrgh’~ tou’ ajrnivou, (4)
A 17o{ti h\lqen hJ hJmevra hJ megavlh th’~ ojrgh’~ aujtw’n,
kai; tiv~ duvnatai staqh’nai;;
From this analysis the chiastic-like pattern is immediately obvious.
A more detailed analysis will reveal other striking features of the text.
3.1 The frame (A – A)
It is, first of all, clear that the whole passage is framed by or forms a
ring through the opening (6:12) and closing (6:17) remarks. The frame
begins with the remark about the opening of the seal and the reference to a great earthquake (12). It ends with the remarks on the great
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
day of wrath that has come and with the question about who is able
to stand. On the face of it, the link seems to be tenuous if it depends
only on the word pair (mevga~/megavlh). Their dissimilarity seems to
be confirmed by the fact that the opening remark simply talks about
an earthquake, whilst the closing remark refers to the great day of wrath.
Inter-textual references reveal the opposite. It is well-known that
earthquakes are symbols for the coming or presence of God in judgment (Ac. 14:26; cf. Aune 1998:413).7 The great earthquake mentioned at the beginning is confirmed as indicating the arrival of the
day of the great wrath of God and the Lamb at the end of the seal.
The inhabitants of the earth are clearly terrified by the presence of
the One on the throne (ajpo; proswvpou) and the Lamb.
With this, the theme of judgment is formally wrapped around the
contents of the first part of this seal as its frame (cf. further below).
It is a seal in which the coming of the great day of the Lord is announced.
In Prigent’s commentary (2001:276-277), the interpretation of
this section appears somewhat fragmented exactly because the integration of the text through this frame goes unrecognized: he understands that the earthquake is “an entirely traditional apocalyptic
theme” (referring to Mark 13:8, 24, 25). Later on, in Revelation
6:16-17, he comments about the Day of Yahweh that is being referred to. But he does not link the two explicitly.
When one uncovers the ring composition in this seal, the strong
cohesion between the two elements that form the frame, comes to
the fore and forces one to account for the link between them. The
earthquake signifies the arrival of God in judgment. In a place where
many earthquakes take place regularly (Aune 1998:424), this one is
unique. It is not just another disturbance with serious consequences.
It is the ultimate confrontation of God with evil.
7 Most commentaries refer to Joel 2:10, but see the fuller list in Aune (1998:
413). Aune (op cit) has an interesting discussion of the perception of earthquakes
as prodigies. He notes, however, that “earthquakes are often expected to occur
in the end time as one effect of the presence of coming of God” without relating this to Rev. 6:17. The ring composition in this seal favours a primary link
with the earthquake-motif in Hebrew Scriptures.
It is telling how sound operates in this frame and solidifies cohesion: note the intense repetition of the Greek h in 6:17a, as well as
the a- an ai-sounds in the closing phrase in 6:17b. This need to be
compared with the formulaic beginning of 6:12a and the s-sound in
6:12b. In the last case the reason for the variation mevga~/megavlh has
become clear. The author uses a word that brings out the assonance.
3.2 The inhabitants of the earth (D – D)
The composition of this seal is easier to follow if one works from the
middle part (Rev. 6:15) outwards.
The list as a whole forms a unit in so far as it refers to human
beings (in contrast to the heavenly and cosmic phenomena in the
previous part) and narrates their fearful response to the dark events
that are happening around them. Prigent (2001:277) correctly notes
that they “have quite evidently been chosen in order to encompass
all of human society.” This is why they are grouped together by the
reference in the first phrase to “the earth” (oiJ basilei’~ th’~ gh’~).
The very significant phrase, th’~ gh’~, is full of meaning. It recalls the
question of the slain ones in the fifth seal: ouj krivnei~ kai; ejkdikei’~
to; ai|ma hJmw’n ejk tw’n katoikouvntwn ejpi; th’~ gh~. This prayer is
addressed to God from under the altar which is “always situated in
heaven” (Giblin 1991:86), so that it represents a heavenly perspective on earthly events. In line with this is that
throughout the body of Revelation, prayers are always voiced or depicted on the heavenly plane — within the ambit of God’s throne
— and are correlated with the subsequent course of events upon the
earth (Giblin 1991:86).
The earth thus takes on a negative meaning as site of opposition
to God. The saints are in heaven because of their having been slaughtered on earth in the first four seals. This is confirmed by the insight
of Eller that “kings of the earth” is a theological category and denotes the enemies of God par excellence (cf. Prigent 2001:277, note 1).
Revelation 16:14-16 and 17:2, 18 will confirm the importance of
kings as enemies of God, but will also stress the link between them
and the whole world. The references to the kings and the other inhabitants of the earth make up a list of the depraved opponents of God.
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
It is headed by the kings of the earth, but followed by others who
rejected God (cf. also Maier 2002:149). It is, therefore, clear that the
groups mentioned in the middle of the sixth seal find coherence in the
fact that they inhabit the earth as place of evil.
But there is a more important indication of coherence. The number (7) of the groups is striking and is mentioned often in commentaries (e.g., Prigent 2001:277; Giblin 1991:90). The place and pattern
in this group of seven are, however, not always discussed. A close reading yields the following significant insights:
First of all, the list appears in the middle of the sixth seal and as
such draws attention to itself.
Secondly a pattern of 2+3+2 is developed: “Kings and magnates”
that form a first pair and “slaves and free” as the second pair, frame
a middle group that consists of three: the generals, the rich and the
powerful. The author uses sound as a subtle compositional technique
to structure his material in this way: The triplet in the middle is
formed by the repetition of the ending -oi, reinforced by the repeated
kai; oiJ before each of the three:
kai; oiJ cilivarcoi
kai; oiJ plouvsioi
kai; oiJ ijscuroi;
The couplets on each side of this middle are both also grouped by
similar endings (-h~/-e~ and -o~), adding two groups of people to
the middle group and framing them carefully. Both belong together
semantically as well: in the first case they denote those in highest
authority, whilst the second pair antithetically links the freedmen and
slaves (for the latter, cf. also Rev. 13:18; 19:18 where they are also
firmly linked). But both pairs are also semantically linked in so far
as they represent the important of society (kings and magnates), but
also those on the lower levels (slave and freed slaves). 15oiJ basilei’~ th’~ gh’~
kai; oiJ megista’ne~
kai; pa’~ dou’lo~
kai; ejleuvqero~
These sound patterns in the two outer frames of the middle tripartite group, thus confirm the 2+3+2 pattern beyond doubt.
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
The unique pattern is further confirmed and explained by other
lists in the book in which such groups reappear. In Revelation 13:18,
for example, the activity of the second beast is described:
kai; poiei’ pavnta~, tou;~ mikrou;~
kai; tou’~ megavlou~,
kai; tou’~ plousivou~
kai; tou;~ ptwcou’~,
kai; tou;~ ejleuqevrou~
kai; tou;~ douvlou~, i{na dw’sin aujtoi’~ cavragma
These six references, to some extent similar to the list in Revelation 6:15 (cf. Aune 1998:419), are grouped in three. All three are semantically related in an antithetical manner. But what is striking
here, is that the first two groups are also linked through the m- and
p-sounds. The same principle is therefore also at work in this list,
but applied in a different manner (not as a ring composition, but as
three antithetical parallelisms).
3.2.1 The rich (E)
There is, however, a further formal ordering of this threefold unit.
The middle triplet is clearly in focus. The three groups are prominent
enemies of God, as is clear from the list in Revelation 19:17 of those
who have been conquered by the Rider on the white horse. They are
also listed in the first place there.
In the middle of this middle stand the rich. They are framed by two
phrases in which the ci/cu-sound is prominent. These two phrases (oiJ
cilivarcoi and oiJ ijscuroiv) appear as a pair in Revelation 19:17 as part
of a list of conquered enemies of the Rider on the white horse. It is striking that they are separated here in Revelation 6:15 by the reference
to the rich. The rich thus draw attention and has a prominent position.
Also insightful is the fact that in Revelation 13, quoted above,
the rich are mentioned together and contrasted with the poor. There
is no mention of the poor in the sixth seal. The omission means that
the insertion of the rich is even more conspicuous.
The rich, together with the generals and the powerful, form a mighty
group, placed in the middle of the seal. They are the faces and instru-
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
ments of the violent (military) and economical forces of evil that attack
the church. In the light of the economic critique that is so prominent
in the book it comes as no surprise that they are mentioned here in an
equally telling manner. A significant confirmation of the author’s feelings about wealth can be found in Revelation 21:24 and 268 where
it is said that the kings of the earth and the people will bring their
glory into the New Jerusalem. In this place the proper function of
wealth is indicated — it should be used to glorify God.
In general, then, this middle part shows how the author patterns
the different groups into a unit by employing literary devices like
homoioteleuta, assonance, parallelism and antithesis.
3.3 Cosmic phenomena (C – C)
Equally striking is the way in which this middle part with its groups
of people is in turn framed by cosmic phrases — mountain and island
at the beginning (6:14) and rocks of mountains and mountains on
the other side (6:15-16). The word o[ro~ is (like mevga~/megavlh in
the frame) repeated conspicuously. There are also similar sounds and
kai; pa’n o[ro~
kai; nh’so~ ejk tw’n tovpwn aujtw’n ejkinhvqhsan. and
kai; eij~ ta;~ pevtra~ tw’n ojrevwn
levgousin toi’~ o[resin kai; tai’~ pevtrai~.
The last two phrases in 15b and 16 create a true chiasm, indicating
how intensely the author is busy structuring his material on even the
lowest level.
3.4 Heavenly phenomena (B – B)
It is on this level that the pattern is most obscure. The two elements
(6:12b-14; 6:16b) on their own are nicely formed.
8 Aune (1998:1173). Actually the phrase “glory and honour” probably has a double
meaning and includes wealthy gifts as well as fame and adoration. Cf. below where
attention will be drawn to the danger of wealth as spelled out in the letter to
Laodicea and to the function of the motif of wealth in the sixth seal.
3.4.1 The first element
The following pattern in the first element catches the eye, once again
not only because the heavenly bodies are semantically linked, but
also because of the formal link, by the position of the sun, moon, stars
and heaven in the sentence initial place, but especially through the
wJ~ phrase:9
1. kai; oJ h{lio~ ejgevneto mevla~ wJ~ savkko~ trivcino~,
2. kai; hJ selhvnh o{lh ejgevneto wJ~ ai|ma,
3. oiJ ajstevre~ tou’ oujranou’ e[pesan eij~ th;n gh’n, wJ~ sukh’ bavllei tou;~ ojluvnqou~ aujth’~ uJpo; ajnevmou megavlou
4. (=1-3) oJ oujrano;~ ajpecwrivsqh wJ~ biblivon eJlissovmenon
What is remarkable here, is the longer wJ~ phrase in the third element, the stars. It only makes sense if one takes into consideration
that the first three elements, sun, moon and stars are heavenly bodies
and located in heaven. The fourth element thus encompasses the first
three. That is why the author formally distinguishes the first three
from what follows in the longer fourth phrase in which heaven is mentioned. By grouping the first three (sun, moon and stars), he succeeds
in letting the focus fall on heaven, mentioning it in the last place.
It is only when one considers the contents of this last phrase that
the reason for the emphasis becomes apparent: there is a clear ironical
twist to these events brought about by the earthquake. The heavenly
bodies are dramatically affected, but more so, heaven itself was rolled
up like a folded scroll10 during the process that the penultimate seal
of the folded scroll (Rev. 5) was being opened. The unfolding of God’s
plan brings about the folding up of the old structures like heaven
and its constitutive parts. Extraordinary cosmic and heavenly events
will take place when the end is near. This first element shares motifs
that are heavily apocalyptic in tone and that are taken over from various prophecies about the Day of the Lord.
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
9 Aune (1998:414) notes this pattern and draws attention to the aorist-form in
which the declarative statement is made.
10 Heaven, as Aune (1998:415) translated the Greek phrase, “disappeared from sight.”
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
In view of this widespread association, it is obvious that the author
of Revelation intends the readers to think that the Day of the Lord
is ushered in with the sixth trumpet (Aune 1998:414).
3.4.2 The second element
The second element (B1) is also nicely balanced in 16 through similar
sounds, word positions and phrases:
Pevsete ejf jhJma’~
kai; kruvyate hJma’~
ajpo; proswvpou tou’ kaqhmevnou ejpi; tou’ qrovnou
kai; ajpo; th’~ ojrgh’~ tou’ ajrnivou.
The two elements thus both have a fourfold pattern.
3.4.3 The relationship between the two elements
The serious problem is whether and how they (B/B1) relate to each
other: the first element (B) refers to the different heavenly bodies, whilst
the second element apparently lacks any link with it. The relationship between them is therefore not immediately clear.
Fekkes (1994:161), however, made an interesting suggestion that
illuminates their relationship in terms of their contents. According
to him, John alluded to Isaiah 34:4 in his description of the heavenly
phenomena, but he added most of the final phrase (ajpecwrivsqh …).
In doing so, an important new development takes place. John wrote
about much more than merely another cosmic sign:
Rolling up the heaven would completely remove the barrier between God’s throne and the earth, and usher in the eschatological confrontation between God, the Lamb and the sinful world.11
The disappearance of heaven meant that there was no longer any
barrier between God and humanity. This, then, would provide the link
with the second element. That element contains the expression ajpo;
proswvpou referring to the terrifying presence of God and the Lamb.
11 This reading is present in the mind of the author, as is indeed proven later on in
Revelation 20:11 where it is said that the earth and heaven retreat before the One
on the throne and all the dead appear before God’s throne. According to this verse,
and reminiscent of the expression in Revelation 6:14 where it is said that mountains and islands are moved from their places, there is no longer “place” for them.
Taken together, they indicate that this presence is the direct result of
the heavenly events and the receding of heaven described in the first
part of the sixth visible manifestation (Fekkes 1994:161) of God and
the Lamb. That is why they try to hide.12
The analysis of Fekkes, based on contents and on links with Isaianic traditions, is confirmed by the formal analysis that shows how
the heavenly events frame the cosmic events. The flow of the ring
composition brings these two elements together in a formal manner.
The overall effect of this link is to interpret the extraordinary
events as an indication of the wrath of God and the Lamb as it will
become evident in the last battle before the end. Fekkes (1994:166)
notes that the signs described in the sixth seal have to do with the
eschatological battle. This section with its holy war theme relates to
the final battle led by the Rider on the white horse in Revelation
19:1-11. After that final war, heaven and earth will be removed and
not only affected as in this sixth seal. This could also explain the
middle section of the list of inhabitants that refers to the generals
and powerful. They represent the military and violent institutions.
This is then further confirmed by the outer frame of the sixth seal
(A – A). The effect of the seal is intensified through the outer frame:
the sixth seal, with its earthquake is about the great day of wrath
before which no one can stand — especially those who were so powerful, but who were clearly not as powerful as they thought.
The sixth seal ends with a question about who can stand in the light
of the Day of Judgment. The answer is given indirectly in the seal:
heaven, the world, and its inhabitants cannot stand before this revelation of the wrath of God.
This question of the unbelieving inhabitants of the world fits the
sixth seal into its immediate context, since it recalls the question of
the saints in seal 5: {Ew~ povte, oJ despovth~ oJ a{gio~ kai; ajlhqinov~,
ouj krivnei~ kai; ejkdikei’~ to; ai|ma hJmw’n ejk tw’n katoikouvntwn ejpi; th’~
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
12 Revelation 21:1-3 will indicate how this is different for the faithful who will
experience God’s immediate presence as consolation.
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
gh’~. Both these questions appear in prominent positions. In the fifth
seal, the question is put in its middle, whilst the question in the sixth
seal appears at the end where it forms part of the frame that “rings”
the sixth seal and requires that it should be understood from that
The fact that they are placed in such prominent positions in two
seals that follow each other, will obviously force the listener to compare them. This will happen even more because both of them have
to do with the inhabitants of the earth. The saints formulate their
question to refer explicitly to them: ouj krivnei~ kai; ejkdikei’~ to; ai|ma
hJmw’n ejk tw’n katoikouvntwn ejpi; th’~ gh’~.
The question of the saints is partially answered in the sixth seal:
the great day of the Lord, the great day of his wrath will bring all the
inhabitants of the world to cry out in despair when they experience
everything as shaking. Those who have killed the saints and spilled
their blood (6:11) will hide in the caves and among rocks. They will
call out to the earth to hide them from the One on the throne and
the wrath of the Lamb (6:16). But the earth itself will be shaken by
the wrath of the One on the throne and the Lamb. They will not be
able to escape the judgment.
In seals 5 and 7 the mirror image of seal 6 is revealed. The saints,
who are now under the altar, in the presence of God for whom they
had sacrificed their lives, ask God a question to which they are given
an answer. This question can be described as a prayer. In seal 7 an angel
with a golden censer mixes their prayers with incense and offers them
to God (8:4).
This contrasts starkly with the actions of the inhabitants of the
earth. When they are confronted with the presence of God, they hide
and call on, or “pray” to the earth, to the mountains and rocks, to
keep them from the wrath of God (6:16). The listeners know that
their call to be “saved” will go unheeded, since the earth is itself
being moved on judgment day. In fact, at the end of seal 7 the angel
throws a censer with fire on the earth in a final act of judgment. A
cacophony of sound, lightning and earthquake follows (8:5), indicating the last moments when the lights shall go out and the anguished
cries of the oppressors will be heard no more.
The sixth seal reflects a remarkable structure. It was carefully composed as a ring composition. Its constitutive elements are carefully
balanced. It focuses on the day of wrath (outer frame) when God will
appear in judgment (middle frame) on the inhabitants of the earth
(centre). At its beginning the focus is on the events themselves: dramatically the earthquake is mentioned. When the seal continues to
narrate terrifying signs that happen to the heavenly bodies, the listeners are helped to realize that this is not the “normal” earthquakes
that occurred often in Asia Minor. This one culminates in the disappearance of heaven. But then the world is also affected when cosmic
events follow on the heavenly ones: the land and sea, normally the
places where people find a firm footing, are moved out of their places.
Nothing of the past certainties is secure any more.
With this the scenario is set for what follows: the effect of the
heavenly and cosmic events on the inhabitants of the earth is related.
In the heart of the seal the inhabitants of the earth, including especially those who have always been so powerful and secure, are all portrayed as terrified. But more than this happens: they themselves
practically interpret these events by what they say in a theological sense.
They hide themselves in the caves and rocks of the mountains. They
understand, but they do not repent. And then, secondly, they address
the mountains and the rocks and ask them to hide them. Although
they had experienced that the mountains, regarded as the firm and
safe places on earth, were moved out of their places, they still try to
find protection from them in what is clearly an act of desperation.
They hide themselves and they request to be hidden further. They then
indicate that they truly understand the message of the heavenly and
cosmic events when they motivate their request by referring to the
presence of the One who sits on the throne and the wrath of the Lamb.
Since the heaven disappeared, they stand before God and the Lamb
and are in full vision of the throne (Rev. 4-5). They finally also indicate that they comprehend the finality of these events when they
describe them as signs of the great day of the wrath of God and the
Lamb that has arrived. Terrified, they then ask the mountains and
the rocks who will be able to withstand.
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
The elements of the ring composition interpret each other mutually, as is to be expected in such a construction. But it is significant
that there is at the same time clear progression: what is a great earthquake (A) is interpreted at the end as the great day of the wrath of
God and the Lamb (A). The heavenly events and the disappearance
of heaven (B) allow the inhabitants of the earth to see God and the
Lamb (B). The cosmic events (C) indicate the fallacy of trusting the
earth and disobeying God (C). The inhabitants include the few powerful (D) and the normal (D), but especially those who wage war in a
military and economic (Rev. 13:16-17) sense.
This intensification within the seal also takes place in terms of its
relationship with similar descriptions later on. It announces and describes
this event sparingly, preparing and allowing for its more extensive
portrayal in later parts (e.g., Rev. 8:5, 16:17-2113 and 19:1-11).14 It
is, nevertheless, an intense presentation — providing a fitting response
to the question of the faithful who suffered so much under the inhabitants of the earth and their evil instigators. In this seal, then, a spiral development takes place — just as in the macro-text as a whole.
These comments open interesting new possibilities for understanding
the text of Revelation. As this may not be so evident, some further
remarks on the function of the sixth seal need to be made. This will
be done in terms of the names of groups in the middle part of the seal.
The list of the inhabitants does not always elicit enthusiastic reading.
Aune (1998:419) represents the normal perspective of researchers on
this long list with his laconic observation that the verse “is a complex
way of saying ‘everyone.’” Prigent (2001:277), in similar line and equally brief, also stresses the comprehensiveness: “The list comprises seven
items which have quite evidently been chosen in order to encompass
all of human society.”
13 In Revelation 16:17-21, for example, the intensification and progress in narration is clear when it is said that all of the islands fled away and the mountains
were no longer to be found.
14 This would be an indication of the spiral movement of the narrative.
But why then does the author say a simple thing in such a cumbersome manner? Why then the presentation of the information
with techniques that are so intricately linked to sound, as was portrayed above? How does sound contribute to the function of the text?
In what way would it stimulate imagination and involve listeners in
the process of communication?
One can only find an answer if one imagines the response of an
audience who heard this list being read. Such a response can be reconstructed by intra-textual references. As they listened to the sixth seal,
the listeners had images from the seven letters fresh in memory. They
had heard the description of their situation in the letters to the two
faithful churches of the poor, oppressed Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11) and
the faithful, frail Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13). They remembered, for
example, how both would be protected by God in the difficult times
and that both would receive a crown if they stay committed in their
witness. The strong that tested the little power of Philadelphia so
thoroughly, the oppressors that persecuted the Smyrnean believers,
the faithful listeners hear in the sixth seal, were now on the run, desperately crying out to the elements that they thought they controlled so
well, to protect them from God. They also remembered the warning
against the Laodiceans who celebrated their wealth without realizing
how poor they were. From the intense remarks about the arrogance
of the rich Laodiceans, they realized that wealth can be dangerous.
To them, within this context, this list with all its constitutive
elements would signify the fulfilment of the pronouncements and promises given at the beginning of the book. The list therefore created
coherence with the rest of the book, providing more information about
what was said earlier on.
The author of Revelation, as Barr (1998) indicated convincingly
in his narrative analysis, composed his work in such a way as to guide
his listeners, but also the reader, in the process of performing the book.
He even suggests that the reader of the book had to prepare well for
the performance, as is evident from Revelation 1:3, where, in the first
of seven macarisms, he referred explicitly to the reading and its salvific
consequences. Here the author combined the experience of salvation
with reading of, and listening to, the book (Rev. 1:3).
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
If the author were so careful about the presentation of his book, it
is to be assumed that he would want his book to be understood well.
The analysis of the sixth seal given above, confirms this. A ring composition is ideally suited for guiding proper understanding: in a first
line of development there is a listing of statements (ABCD) that provides basic information. Then follows an interpretation of these elements in reverse order in which they are explained further, underlined and clarified in a second line of development (DCBA).
Except for this literary function and the rational effect that such
informative links may have, the list functions on an existential level
as well. In their intense situation, characterized by feelings of persecution, they faced the real possibility of paying the highest price for
their faith. The fear for their persecutors could determine their
response and their lifestyle, paralyzing them or bringing them to
compromise. The text addresses these fears. Listening to and participating in the reading, they became aware of the deeper reality of God’s
visitation of evil that was proclaimed and promised over so many centuries to believers of all times. They were further aware of the Christian proclamation that confirmed God’s end time judgment on evil.
Now, as still more confirmation, the prophet John brought his message to strengthen their faith and to make them face evil fearlessly.
The audience was given the existential information and interpretation with sonorous, rhythmic sounds and language that promoted
the process of understanding and involvement even more. The text
was given a poetic quality, promoting the esthetic experience that
stimulated the existential involvement further.
But this is only a partial answer to the question about the reason for
this special composition. Another possible and more revealing reason
may be found in the way in which the book of Revelation is related
to liturgy. This link intensifies the appeal and effect of the book.
First of all, some general comments about this link have to be made.
The liturgical character of the book has received some attention in
modern research. Perhaps the most remarkable, but mostly unno-
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
ticed, remark about this is to be found in the famous commentary of
Charles. He concludes his introduction (1920:ix-xx) to his work with
two remarks on its nature and its contemporary relevance. Though
Revelation is an apocalyptic text about the dark conflict between
God and evil, he writes, it is in the first place a book full of hymns
(1920:xiv: “His book is emphatically a Book of Songs”). For Charles
these hymns are of fundamental importance to understand the character of the book. There are lamentations and threnodies — but not
about those who are sacrificing their lives because of their faith. The
lamentations come from the sinners in the face of the approaching
judgment. The hymns of the martyrs, on the other hand, are praise
songs, directed to God. “Blessed are the dead who from now on die
in the Lord,” says the second macarism in this book (Rev. 14:13).
Inexhaustible faith and a triumphant joy are expressed in hymns of
praise, joy and thankfulness.
These insights were given explicit attention when, in the early
fifties of the previous century, Cullmann (1953:7) began his influential book on early Christian worship and the sacraments, with the remark that except for certain parts in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians, Revelation is one of the major sources for the study of early Christian worship. He writes,
[A] further important mine of information is the Book of Revelation of St. John, for it is not without significance that the Seer mentions that he saw his visions on a “Lord’s Day” (1.10), at a time,
therefore, when the Christian community was gathered together.
Thus he sees the whole drama of the last days in the context of the
early Christian service of worship which, so to speak, has its counterpart and at the same time its fulfillment in the coming aeoon, so
that all that takes place in the gatherings of the early Christian
community, appears as an anticipation of that which in the last day
takes place from God’s side. Hence the whole book of Revelation
from the greeting of grace and peace in chapter 1.4 to the closing
prayer: Come Lord Jesus, in chapter 22.20, and the benediction in
the last verse, is full of allusions to the liturgical usages of the early community (secondary italics).
Other parts of the book confirm this. Revelation 1:3 evokes the
worship service as the most fitting context for the process of reading
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
and listening to the book.15 The presentation of the prophecy as a letter
and the conclusion (1:3; 22:21) reveal the author’s wish to have it
read in the worship service. In the same line, Revelation 1:6 and 7 concludes with the telling Amen-call. The climactic denouement of the
worship service was the Maranatha prayer (22:20) that the spiritual
presence of Christ should be replaced with that time in which every
eye will see and worship Him.
Having made these observations, Cullmann (1953:25) then adds,
In general the liturgy in the first congregations is something extraordinarily alive, and liturgical formulae show no sign of being paralyzed. All members take part in the liturgy.
With these insights, Cullmann prepared the way for a more sophisticated understanding of the function of the book. The material
in it has to be understood in terms of the self-understanding of early
Christianity within the context of liturgy and worship.
The French scholar Prigent developed these insights more fully.16
He (1964:79) argued that the allusions to the worship setting indicate that the early Christian cult had more then mere educational
qualities. Through liturgy believers actually participate in and experience the end. The gates of paradise are opened and they enter the
heavenly, eternal Jerusalem.17 Recently Prigent (2001:276) wrote that
15 Aune (1998:11) remarks that the kind of pronouncement in Revelation 1:3 were
used in early Christianity to introduce or conclude readings. He calls Rev. 1:3
and 22:7 “liturgical formulae.”
16 Prigent (1964:7) defined liturgy in a wide sense when he wrote:
Nous appellerons donc éléments liturgiques tout ce qui, de près ou
de loin, est susceptible d’être compris comme allusion à la vie culturelle de l’Eglise: images, mots, doctrines et pratiques. Naturellement on pensera d’abord à tout ce qui se rattache aux sacrements,
mais il faudra bien prendre garde de ne pas négliger un autre aspect
possible de la vie liturgique de l’Eglise primitive: le culte, qu’il soit
ordinaire ou plus solennellement consacré à telle occasion particulière (secondary italics).
17 In that same period, Caird (1966:301) concluded his commentary on Revelation with the remark that the book opens and ends with liturgy. He also refers
to the reference to John’s being in the Spirit on the Day of the Lord (Rev. 1:10)
and the Maranatha prayer at the end that assumes the Eucharist. To him, this is
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
the question of the saints in Revelation 6:10 (how long it will take
before their blood is avenged), should also be understood in a liturgical setting. He notes that the worship service is the place where people
proclaim that
they intend to worship God alone, to obey him, and to receive everything from him. This is the anticipation of the End. The faithful,
among whom must be ranked in first place the confessors and the
martyrs, make present in a significant way the victory of Christ;
they are the living token of the reality of the new world as well as
of judgment.
As such the worship service plays the role of accelerating the End.
According to Prigent, then, there is a
very close and profound relationship between worship and apocalyptic: what is revealed in the apocalypses to privileged seers, is
communicated to the faithful in liturgy: namely that the faraway
heaven and the awaited future are fully present before God as now,
and that the Lord offers to those who worship him the possibility
of discovering here and now the reality of this revelation (1998:32).
Also with these insights, material in the book appears in a new light.
Vanni (1991:348ff.) showed how important such a liturgical context can be for an understanding of the narrative flow of Revelation,
when he proved that the seemingly incoherent Revelation 1:4-8 is in
fact a carefully structured antiphonic hymn in which reader and listeners are engaged (cf. also Aune 1998:28). The form of the narrative and
the literary devices are seen in a new light when the book is framed
by liturgy. With Vanni’s work, for example, the striking double liturgical use of “amen”, noted by Cullmann, is understood even better.
But even more so, it is now clear how the author composed his work
in this small section at the beginning of the book in terms of antithetical parallelism (reader — audience).
the frame for understanding the eschatology of the book. Taking up a position
that reminds one of Prigent’s comments, he notes:
He and his fellow Christians had no difficulty in believing that the end
could come to meet them in the midst of time. For week by week their
prayer Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus, was answered as they kept their
tryst with him who was Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end.
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
In this way it is understood that the author designed his work with
its oral presentation within a liturgical setting in mind. He wanted the
audience to participate actively and experience his message in its liberating and empowering impact within their regular religious meetings.18
These liturgical studies pave the way for similar work to be done
in terms of the rest of the book. Here certain possibilities relevant to
an understanding of the liturgical function of the sixth seal can be
mentioned only briefly. The sixth seal culminates in a lamentation
by the inhabitants of the earth — reminding one of the observations
of Charles about the evil ones who reveal their fears about their fate
in hymns. One can imagine the Christian audience listening to the
recital of its contents, following the disastrous events that overcome
their powerful opponents and now, at the end, experiencing their lamentations. They are actively drawn into the events by what is being
said so eloquently about their opponents. They experience God’s future judgment that is “fully present before God as of now” (Prigent
Intra-textual references abound with which the experience of the
readers can be developed. They hear how their opponents and the
instruments of evil forces pray to the mountains and the rocks in
songs of lamentation. And to them it is a reinforcement of God’s rule
and its victory over the forces of evil. In this, they are on the side of
the slaughtered saints who pray for God’s righteous judgment (Rev.
6:10), but who pray to oJ despovth~ oJ a{gio~ kai; ajlhqinov~. That this
question can be placed in a liturgical context, has been suggested by
Prigent (cf. above).
One could also pursue such suggestions as those of Barr (cf. above)
that the author composed his work carefully to make sure that the
readers experience it in this way. Wanting them to hear this description in a worship service, he uses literary devices in order to promote
liturgical conventions and dynamics. The impact of the text is greater
when it is understood that reader and audience are located in a litur18 For other research with implications for the liturgical nature of Revelation, cf.
Newson (1985) who edited the Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice, a Qumran text, and argued
that it displays surprising similarities with Revelation (for an appraisal, cf. Prigent
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
gical context. In the holy space where they anticipate God’s eschatological victory, the text plays a major role in confirming exactly that;
not only in terms of contents, but also in the way in which it is composed, read and imaginatively appropriated. As they listen to the
reading, it becomes part of their religious experience and sinks into
the fibre of their being. As such it promotes consolation and stimulates perseverance. This would explain the use of sound in the text of
the sixth seal. It is well-known how and what sounds are effective in
contemporary worship service that involve listeners emotionally and
affect their behaviour. The role of sound thus not only serves to pattern the narrative and create cohesion between narratival elements,
but it enhances the esthetical experience and ultimately also the
liturgical involvement of the audience.
Prigent (2001:21), having offered an overview of the recent history
of the exegesis of Revelation as an introduction to his commentary,
noted the progress that can be detected in the field as a result of this
work. He then continues with most interesting remarks: Progress is
not “the heart of the matter.” More important is
an awareness, which is often muffled but is always ready to reappear, that whatever approach we may take to the text, we must
always bear in mind that it remains instrumental and therefore approximate and necessarily inadequate (secondary italics).
One needs to restate the truism that no exegesis “could ever claim to
have assimilated the text.” With these rather common sense remarks
he underlines that exegesis, and especially methods of exegesis are
attempts by later readers to decode the meaning of the text. They are
therefore subordinate to the text and clearly relative to those who try
to decode the text.
Prigent then continues with a “second, more marked reflection
that will undoubtedly appear less obvious to certain readers.” In past
times, he notes, certain “ground swells” overwhelmed the history of
biblical exegesis. They have “drowned the text and retained only their
readings of it.” He admonishes that it is important for exegesis to
remember that its task is not to preserve a method. It should rather
De Villiers The sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17
be sensitive to the fact that the text as it has been generated at a given
point in time is the object of research.
This is best illustrated by a footnote of Prigent (2001:22, n. 60)
which reflects the temporality and relativity of scholarly research. In
it he refers to recent work by three scholars (Giesen, Vanni and Bauckham) that has
set aside these debates (as explained by him) with a sweep of the
hand, or have preferred to ignore them in order to pursue without
hesitation their work as exegetes.
Although it could be argued that his characterization of some of
these scholars may be too one-sided, (Bauckham, for example, in some
ways engages intensely with and continues traditional scholarship),
there is much validity in his observation. The study of Revelation as
a carefully designed text by these scholars certainly represents a decisive step away from what was at the heart of the traditional form
critical and genetic approaches to the book which were so prevalent
only generation ago. Their scholarship is indeed an illustration that
research can sometimes deviate dramatically (even cruelly) from the
beaten track.19
The New Testament has a textual nature focusing on the text as
its object. Because it is at the same time a theological field, the focus
on the text can be motivated in a theological manner.
To ignore this (the text as historical fixation at a given point of
time) is to refuse to recognize Scripture as the only incarnation that
can testify to the Incarnation.20
19 One is amazed that, in his commentary on Revelation, Malina (2000:12) can write:
There are no clear, unambiguous, or direct references in the work to
Rome or to Roman emperors. While this is the favorite historical
reference for most modern scholars, there is really no proof for this
tenuous hypothesis aside from gratuitous insistence (for example,
see Aune 1998:2:829-31).
Whether this remark is justified or not, is another matter. The point is how
volumes and decades of research can be discarded with such a remark in favour
of a very different (astrological) approach to the text.
20 The remarks of Prigent are so important because they contradict the misunderstanding that a close reading of a text and respect for its integrity represent
anachronistic and ahistorical approaches. His discussion of the problems of tra-
Acta Theologica Supplementum 6 2004
This intensifies that responsibility of the exegete to respect the
integrity of the text.
It is in this context that the close reading presented in this article
should be understood: it offers a close reading of the text in terms of
its composition that makes a decisive difference to the understanding
of the book. The special rhetorical nature of the sixth seal with its ring
composition was then fitted in a liturgical context and the function
spelled out. When we work through Revelation as text in this way,
wrestling amongst others to comprehend historically the minute
details of its compositional nature, we discover the limitations of
earlier interpretive work and the need for new, creative solutions to its
meaning. We then recognize how the text survives generation after
generation of scholars who apply method after method to decode
meaning. As we understand this, we accept that methods are tentative, temporal, in need of constant revision or replacement. And this
in turn makes us aware of how important our discipline is. Its outcomes can be vital for the life of individuals and communities.
As we celebrate the long existence of institutions of learning in
which we work, it makes sense to reflect on our own theological research in order to enhance its integrity and reputation. Within their
context we are generating knowledge that builds on the past and that
decodes new understandings for the present for the well-being of church
and society. It is a never ending story that takes us on a fascinating
ditional historical critical readings of Revelation “until the 1970’s” (Prigent
2001:3) and the positive contribution of recent studies is valuable especially
because he stresses so articulately that this represents a historical enterprise.
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1995. Chiasmus in the Pauline Letters. Sheffield: JSOT Press. JSNTSS 111.
1971. De Openbaring van Johannes. Roermond: Romen.
1991. Liturgical dialogue as a literary form in the Book of Revelation. NTS
2003. Revelation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Keywords Trefwoorde
Revelation 6:12-17 Openbaring 6:12-17
Sixth Seal Sesde seël
Literary techniques Literêre tegnieke
Exegesis Eksegese
Setting Situering

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