Anyone who has bought a house or a piece of property is familiar with a title deed. Properly executed, a deed establishes legal ownership. In fact, the modern term “Title Company” commonly refers to commercial businesses that make it their specialty to research, secure and officially record ownership titles. What is true in the modern world was equally true in the ancient world. Property laws in ancient law codes, like the Code of Hammurapi, describe accounts of sales, receipts and deeds—even to the point of authenticating the document through a notary. Even an ancient buyer had to be sure of the seller’s title!
In the Bible, we encounter such a title deed in the career of Jeremiah, when God instructed the prophet to purchase a piece of property from his cousin Hanamel ben Shallum (Jer. 32:6-16). Here, the deed of sale was signed, sealed and witnessed. It is of special interest to note that the title deed is described as being sealed, but that alongside it there also was an unsealed document. The unsealed document served as an abstract—a description of the property and terms accessible to anyone who wanted to read it. The sealed title, on the other hand, had to be preserved from any changes, which is why it was sealed in order to remain sacrosanct. Both documents were deposited by Jeremiah in a clay jar for safe keeping, much as hundreds of years later the people at Qumran deposited their precious scrolls in clay jars.
Sometimes, the “sealed” and “unsealed” documents were combined into a single document. To understand this, one must appreciate the fact that typically scrolls were inscribed on only a single side. (Imagine, for instance, trying to read a scroll on both sides as it is being unrolled.) After a scroll was sealed, however, one could write the abstract that originally was on a separate document on the outside of the sealed scroll (which would be the backside). As such, the contents of the sealed scroll remained intact, but the abstract, which now appeared on the outside of the sealed scroll, did not require a second document. This type of text gains the technical name of a “double-deed”, and such a text, written on both sides, is called an opisthrograph. Good examples are known from ancient Mesopotamia. You also can find one briefly referenced in Ezekiel, when in his commission the prophet was shown a scroll written on both sides. Two excellent ancient examples of such double-deeds can be found in the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York and the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, Jerusalem. The latter was discovered at Elephantine, a Jewish community in the 5th century BC in Egypt. Both deeds are secured with a cord, and over the knots in the cord is a clay bulla, a lump of clay which has been impressed with a seal to secure the document. Printed in Hebrew characters on the outside of the sealed document is the Hebrew word for “Deed”.
This brings us to just such a double-deed in the New Testament. In the Apocalypse of John, the elder John is shown a scroll “written on both sides and sealed with seven seals.” Almost certainly, this scroll represents an ancient title deed. Indeed, archaeologists have discovered a very similar deed—one tied with seven cords, no less, each cord sealed with its own bulla—at Wadi Daliyeh near Jericho. (This one also is preserved in Jerusalem by the Israel Department of Antiquities.) John seems to know the meaning of the sealed scroll, but he is distressed that no one is able to open the seals. Whatever this vision means, the seven-sealed scroll seems to represent a title deed to something, and the only one able to open the scrolls—the only one who is entitled to do so—is the Lamb. This factor, in turn, likely reflects on the Lamb’s qualifications to be a redeemer or buyer, for such a title under Israelite redemption laws could only be “bought back” by someone who was in the family. I would suggest that the seven-sealed scroll represents the title deed of the world. God intends to reclaim the world as the final act in his redemptive purpose, and this includes not only the final redemption of his own people but also the judgment and overthrow of evil.
The redemptive ability of Jesus Christ to open the scroll, as in ancient times, rested on his qualifications. He was both willing and able, and he was a close relative who was descended from Judah and David. Most important, he was the Redeemer of the people of God. The seven seals clearly signify events to occur on the earth (6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 8:1). If the seven-sealed scroll is such a double-deed, it suggests that God intends to reclaim a world which has been infiltrated by evil, and the final stage of this reclamation will come in the climactic events described in the Revelation. The Lamb who was slain, who already has procured salvation for all humans through the cross and resurrection, is worthy to open the seals, heralding the consummation. In the end, the foremost plea in the Lord's Prayer will be answered. His kingdom will come--his will shall be done (Mt. 6:10; Rv. 11:15)!
If this interpretation that the seven-sealed scroll represents the title deed to the world is allowed to stand, then the opening of the seven seals represents precursors to the end. The idea that judgments would be poured out upon the world before the end is strongly rooted in the Hebrew prophets. Some of the passages in Revelation describing the opening of the seals directly allude to such Old Testament texts, such as, people hiding in the caves of the earth for fear (Is. 2:19//Rv. 6:15), the darkening of the sun and the moon turning to blood (Is. 13:10; 24:23; Eze. 32:7; Jl. 2:10, 30-31; 3:15//Rv. 6:12), the rolling up of the sky like a scroll and the falling of the stars like figs (Is. 34:4//Rv. 6:13-14), and the giving of the nations over to slaughter (Is. 13:15-18; 34:2-3; Eze. 32:3-6; Jl. 2:1-9//Rv. 6:4). The Book of Daniel, while not listing such stereotypical woes, generalizes that prior to the end there would occur "a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of the nations until then" (Da. 12:1), and Jesus reiterated this statement (Mt. 24:21//Mk. 13:19). Such trauma, sometimes referred to as the "woes of messiah," was a characteristic of Jewish apocalyptic in the intertestamental period and later. Lists of disasters and cosmic disruptions describe the darkening of the sun, the turning of the moon to blood, the shaking of the mountains (Testament of Moses, 10), plagues of pestilence, famine, earthquakes, war, and hail (Apocalypse of Abraham, 30; 2 Baruch, 70).
Admittedly, this interpretation takes the Book of Revelation in a futuristic sense (and for whoever wants to know, I follow historic premillennialism as an interpretive model). Those who adopt a preterist or historicist model for interpreting the book will doubtless find other explanations for the opening of the seven seals. Nonetheless, however, one interprets the final meaning of the Apocalypse of John, the imagery of a title deed embodied in the seven-sealed scroll should remain a constituent part of the interpretive process.