In the Office of Readings during these Easter weeks, we are reading from the Book of Revelation. In it is this passage reminding us that there are some things that are not for us to know:
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down” (Rev 10:1-4).
A similar passage occurs in the Book of Daniel. Having had certain things revealed to him, Daniel is told,
But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end (Dan 12:4).
To the apostles, who pined for knowledge of the last things, Jesus said,
It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power (Acts 1:7).
In all of these texts we are reminded that there are some things—even many things (seven is a number indicating fullness)—that are not for us to know. This is a warning against sinful curiosity and a solemn reminder that not all of God’s purposes or plans are revealed to us.
A few reasons come to mind for this silence and for the command to seal up the revelation of the seven thunders:
It is an instruction against arrogance and sinful curiosity. Especially today, people seem to think that they have right to know just about everything. The press speaks of the people’s “right to know.” While this may be true about the affairs of government, it is not true about people’s private lives, and it is surely not true about all the mysteries of God. There are just some things that we have no right to know, that are none of our business. Much of our prying is a mere pretext for gossip and for the opportunity to see others’ failures and faults. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that more than half of what we talk about all day long is none of our business.
It is a rebuke of our misuse of knowledge. Sadly, especially in the “information age,” we speak of knowledge as power. We seek to know in order to control, rather than to repent and conform to the truth. We think that we should be able to do anything that we know how to do. Even more reason, then, that God should withhold from us the knowledge of many things; we’ve confused knowledge with wisdom and have used our knowledge as an excuse to abuse power, to kill with might, and to pervert the glory of human life with “reproductive technology.” Knowledge abused in this way is not wisdom; it is foolishness and is a path to grave evils.
It is to spare us from the effects of knowing things that we cannot handle. The very fact that the Revelation text above describes this knowledge as “seven thunders” indicates that these hidden utterances are of fearful weightiness. Seven is a number that refers to the fullness of something, so these are loud and devastating thunders. In His mercy to use, God does not reveal all the fearsome terrors that will come upon this sinful world, which cannot endure the glorious and fiery presence of His justice. Too much for this world are the arrows of His quiver, which are never exhausted. Aside from the terrors already foretold in Scripture, the seven thunders may well conceal others that are unutterable and too horrifying for the world to endure. Ours is a world that is incapable of enduring His holiness or of standing when He shall appear.
What, then, is to be our stance in light of the many things too great for us to know, which God mercifully conceals from us? We should have the humility of a child who knows what he does not know but is content that his father knows.
O Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, even so is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord both now and forever (Psalm 131).
Yes, like humble children we should seek to learn, realizing that there are many things that are beyond us, that are too great for us. We should seek to learn, but with a humility that is reverence for the truth, a humility that realizes that we are but little children, not lords and masters.
Scripture says, Beyond these created wonders many things lie hid. Only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).
Thank you, Lord, for what you have taught us and revealed to us. Thank you, too, for what you have mercifully kept hidden because it is too much for us to know. Thank you, Lord. Help us to learn; keep us humble, like little children.
Fr. Bede Price, OSB in a newly installed confessional at the Oratory of Ss. Gregory and Augustine.