Revelation 4-5. A throne is seen in heaven, the centre of all power in the universe. The question is: who is to exercise that power on earth?
We pass from Christ’s review of the churches to ‘what must take place after these things’ (1:19), the subject of the rest of the revelation. Nonetheless, ‘after these things I looked’ refers, as also later in the revelation, to what he saw next, not necessarily to the chronology of the events themselves. The set phrase ‘I looked, and behold’ echoes Daniel’s phraseology (Dan 2:31, 7:2). Transported to heaven, John sees a person on a throne, the throne just mentioned in the message to Laodicea. He is privileged. Only prophets (including David), and the Church’s first martyr, Stephen, were granted sight of heaven’s throne.
Although we know who the one seated on it must be, John does not describe a person. His only observation is that he has an appearance like diamond and carnelian. The word translated ‘diamond’ is iaspis, otherwise translated ‘jasper’. While the kind of stone denoted is uncertain, ‘diamond’ fits better in 21:11. Diamond and carnelian, a brownish-red stone, were the last and first of the twelve stones that encrusted Aaron’s breastplate of judgement, one for each of the twelve sons of Israel (Ex 28:17-20). They bring to mind the radiant purity of God and, latterly, his shed blood.
A rainbow was a sign of the promise that the waters of the deep would never again destroy the earth (Gen 9:11-17), but this rainbow (iris, which can also mean ‘halo’) is dominated by the single colour green. At first this seems nonsense. In fact it is an an attempt to describe another atmospheric phenomenon, the aurora borealis, which is typically emerald as a result of electrons exciting molecules of oxygen, but also streaked with other colours. The significance of the aurora around the throne will become apparent later.
Also around him, on subsidiary thrones, are twenty-four elders, at this point left unidentified. The vitreous sea (Ex 24:10), celestial counterpart of the bronze sea in Solomon’s Temple, signifies the primeval deep whose eruption destroyed the antediluvian world. ‘Yahweh is seated like the mabbul, David declares: like the waters of the cataclysm over the earth (Ps 29:10). It is a perpetual reminder of former wrath. The lightning, sounds and thunder (distinct from the sounds) hint at future wrath. The lamps correspond to those on the seven-branched lampstand in the Temple (and Tabernacle, Ex 37:23) and have a searching function (Prov 20:27, Zeph 1:12). Although they burn before the throne, they are aspects of the king himself. Like the lightning and the thunder, they suggest that the surroundings are dark (I Ki 8:12).
More and more the description evokes Ezekiel’s commissioning at the beginning of his prophecy. As a storm approaches, he sees a large cloud surrounded by brightness, and a blazing fire, and appearing from the midst of the fire something like glowing metal. Also he makes out four living beings; not ‘creatures’, for the single word, zωon, means simply ‘living one’ or ‘animal’ (so Heb 13:11 and II Pet 2:12). They seem like burning coals, like constantly moving torches, with wings stretched out one towards the other. And over their heads is something crystal-like, analogous to heaven’s firmament. Above that, a throne. As the vision gets closer, he sees that the apparition of glowing metal sits above the throne and, from the waist up, its form resembles a man, surrounded by fire. The brightness all around him is like a true rainbow. Ezekiel has seen the glory of the maker of heaven and earth. The living beings in John’s vision proclaim his holiness, as they did in Isaiah’s vision of God the King enthroned. The revelation establishes John as the successor of Ezekiel and Isaiah.
The beings represent life on earth: wild and domesticated quadrupeds, man (the only tailless terrestrial biped) and flying animals. But the beings all have six wings, like the fiery beings Isaiah saw, and they are full of eyes, before, behind and within, sharing in the divinity of him who sees everything and never sleeps. They are both around and in the centre of the throne, as if the throne were translucent. They manifest something of the otherness of God, even though, like the lamps, distinct from him. Something of the Creator appears in earth’s creatures – the mighty lion (Hos 11:10, Amos 3:8), the lowly and patient ox (Matt 11:29, but here a young bovine, often prescribed for sacrifice), the man (Gen 1:26), the soaring eagle (Ex 19:4) – for they originate from God’s imagination, not Earth’s self-evolution. Man is not the only creature of importance or embodiment of nobility. Jesus was pleased to liken himself even to a domestic hen (Matt 23:37), an animal we farm abusively, under artificial light and without the space to express natural behaviour, so alienated are we from the author of life. When Ezekiel later sees the glory abandoning the Temple, he realises that the animals under the throne are the cherubim, the only supernatural beings described as having wings. Two cherubim overshadowed the mercy seat on the ark (Ex 25:17-22), and two spanned the inner sanctuary of the Temple where the ark was later housed (I Ki 6:23, 8:6). Hidden in darkness behind a cherubim-embroidered veil, they were the one likeness of a heavenly being that Yahweh sanctioned. God spoke to Moses from between the cherubim (Ex 25:22). In the old world they guarded the way to the tree of life.
When God first made himself known to Moses, he told him not to come near. He revealed his name as Yahweh, ‘I am who I am’, existing in and beyond time; ‘who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy’ (Ex 3:14f, Isa 57:15). At the time of Israel’s deliverance, he proclaimed the name Yahweh to signify that he was God, compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in truth and goodness (Ex 34:6). The cherubim therefore might have declared much more about his character. But they speak only of his holiness, affirming in heaven what we pray on earth: “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” Defined by the supreme fact of his existence, he is coming to manifest himself in person. The tenses shift from past to present.
The world’s scientists and philosophers say, “There is no God,” but it is the heart that them in such folly. Eternal nothingness is easy to conceive of; existence is a mystery. We might conceive of one thing existing simply because it always has, but how can we conceive of two identical things having always existed? The universe consists of countless trillions of atoms, and atoms consist of quarks and leptons, of which, in each case, there are six types. How can six different but mutually compatible types of quark have come into existence or have always existed – let alone trillions of identical quarks of each type? How can six different but mutually compatible types of lepton always have existed? With their ability to bind into protons and neutrons and combine with electrons (a type of lepton), quarks make atoms possible, and make diverse elements possible. The hypothesised existence of ‘dark matter’, capable of interacting with atoms, only adds to the mystery – should one wish to believe in the existence of a physical thing that has never been detected. God was one from the beginning; his creation was multipartite from the beginning. Even if we are blind to the witness of God in the order and beauty of the world, in the wonders of the human body, in the mystery of our own consciousness and free will, in the history of Israel, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, atheism is a doctrine without clothes. Those who choose death will be granted death. But not before they kneel before his throne.
The elders are a completely new presence.
The tenses become future, then present, then past. On behalf of all creation the cherubim will express thankfulness to God for the gift of life. The truth that God exists goes hand in hand with the truth that the world came into existence by his will. He is eternal; all things owe their existence to him; he created them; over them he is lord; and one day he – God himself – will come to the earth to receive the glory, honour, and power due to him as Creator. These attributes of kingship belong to him because everything belongs to him (I Chr 29:11f, Dan 2:37f); the nations will give back what is his. As throughout the Bible, ‘worship’, proskuneω, means to bow down, to kiss the ground in a physical act of homage (3:9), and hence to acknowledge with the lips, in spirit and truth, that he is worthy to be king. This is the worship he both seeks and requires (John 4:23f).
The throne which we have seen is in heaven, not on earth. While it is true that “he does according to his will among the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand” (Dan 4:35), his kingdom has not yet come. When the Flood-Cataclysm destroyed his dwelling-place, God withdrew to heaven. For a long time men remembered why wrath had come on the earth and saw no need for a human ruler.
Migrating eastward, they began to colonise Eden-like Mesopotamia, the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. As settlements during the 4th millennium grew, one city, Uruk in southern Mesopotamia (the Erech of Gen 10:10), dwarfed and overshadowed the others. In order to feed its increasingly specialised workforce, it began exacting tribute from the surrounding villages. In time all Shinar came under Uruk’s control. With the aid of proto-cuneiform markings on clay tablets, administrators regulated the labour of every household, whether it was agriculture, weaving or craft production, in the city or in the fields. In return the citizen got a daily ration, doled out in a bevelled-rim bowl. Fortified outposts were established upstream to guard trade routes and claim some sort of ownership over northern Mesopotamia. Syria, Elam and Egypt were also colonised. Seeing the need for a more centrally located capital to control the empire, they founded another city, which they called Babel. At its heart they erected a brick-built mountain to induce God to come down and dwell amongst them, while Uruk’s lord (en in Sumerian) would rule in his name as king and chief priest. The presence of the deity was presumably signified by an image. But God was not pleased. Coming down, he ‘confounded’ their language and forced them to disperse.
However, they did not forget their ability to manipulate the spirit world through idols, sacrifices and incantations, and as they dispersed, they took their knowledge with them. The earth divided into multiple centres of power ruled by multiple gods. But God intervened no further. He waited until the whole world had shut him out, then made himself known to one man in polytheistic Shinar and told him to leave the country. He renamed him Abraham, meaning ‘father of a multitude’, even though the man was childless. Only when his wife was long past child-bearing did God give her a son. Time passed. Their descendants settled in the midst of the world’s other great power, Egypt, and multiplied, to the point where the pharaoh began to kill the male infants and make the parents toil as slaves. Eventually God brought them out from there too, and gave them a land of their own. He pledged himself to Israel exclusively, their king and national god, in the same sense that his sons ruled other nations.
Apparently the house was God’s Temple or palace (hekal), built on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. When it was finished, in 961 BC, his glory entered the building as the people watched. Next to the Temple was the palace of the king, and within that his throne (I Ki 7:7). The first king after David was Solomon.
The king was meant to be the people’s representative before God, and God’s representative before the people. But that is not how things turned out. Beginning with Solomon, king and people alike lusted after gods who cared nothing for their souls. Throughout the land they worshipped idols, performed fertility rites with cult prostitutes, summoned up the dead, practised human sacrifice. They would not listen when God pleaded with them to repent. After more than three hundred years his patience ran out. In 586 BC, he quit the Temple and allowed the Babylonians to destroy the city. Of those who survived, all but the poorest were deported. The kingdom was abrogated. Although some returned and rebuilt the Temple, he did not return to it, and the nation continued to be subject to foreign kings. In AD 70 that second Temple too was demolished.
God had no wish to be ruler of Israel merely on the ground that he was the all-powerful Creator and everything belonged to him. He wished the relationship to be one of marriage. He courted the people for their affection, sought to demonstrate that he was worthy of their love, and hoped that they would respond. But although he lived among them, he was too distant. They wanted an image that made him visible, that brought him close. But as he repeatedly said, one cannot know God through an idol.
Although the Lord God is worthy, some other person must come forward to open the scroll: otherwise, whatever is written in it will not come to pass. But no one anywhere is qualified, not even in heaven or among the dead. Except one. He is not named, but the title suggests that he fulfils Jacob’s ancient and enigmatic prophecy that lion-like Judah would command the obedience of the peoples (Gen 49:10). Isaiah foresaw a time when a man of perfect righteousness would rule the earth, filled with the Spirit of God, and this man would be both a shoot from the stem of Jesse and a scion from his roots (Isa 11:1), ‘the root of Jesse’ itself (11:10). Jesse was David’s father, of the tribe of Judah. Jesus, born of Mary, was descended from him, and by his own testimony was in existence before Abraham (John 8:58).
Jesus is associated with the verb ‘conquer’ three times in Revelation (3:21, 5:5, 17:14). In total the word occurs eight times before this chapter and eight times after it. This is a central statement: his having conquered – in every respect – entitles him to open the scroll (or ‘book’, biblion).
Ezekiel too was presented with a scroll inscribed on both sides. Such documents are well known from archaeology: the inner contents were reproduced or summarised on the outside and then sealed to prevent alteration (Welch 1998). What the contents were in John’s vision is debated. Arguably they are the details narrated in chapter 6 as the seals are broken. There is no further reference to the scroll.
We expect to see a lion if not a human being, but instead, in the centre of the throne and of the whole gathering, we see a lamb, previously unnoticed. Horns were symbols of power in the ancient world, and the lamb has seven horns, one more than the maximum in nature. In some respects he is like the cherubim: he stands in the same place, he is portrayed as an animal, and he has many eyes. These eyes are the seven spirits of God, an attribute of the Almighty (1:4, 4.5). Zechariah saw a golden lampstand with seven lamps, symbolising “the eyes of Yahweh, which range through the whole earth”. Like God himself, the lamb searches even the unconscious parts of our being (Rev 2:23), and contrary to trinitarian expectations, it is only in this aspect that the Spirit is presented in John’s vision of the throne. The eyes are not a separate person; they are part of the lamb (as in Rev 3:1).
The atonement was prefigured in Abel’s offering of the firstborn from his flock already at the beginning of history (Gen 4:4). It was prefigured when Abraham prepared to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering, until God provided the substitute of a lamb (Gen 22:8, 13f). It was prefigured again at the Exodus. Before redeeming his people, God commanded every household to sacrifice a young sheep or goat without blemish and smear its blood on their doorposts. Egypt was ripe for judgement. But for the blood, the children of Israel also would have perished, for they too were idol-worshippers (Ezek 20:7f).
‘Saints’ is the plural of hagios, ‘holy [one]’. Whoever believes in the Lamb is imputed holiness as an unearned gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 26:18, I Cor 6:11), without which we cannot enter the presence of God (Isa 6:3-7). This is the sense in Revelation; the saints are not an elite group in heaven, and one does not become a saint by being ‘canonised’. But holiness is also something for which the Spirit urges us to strive (Heb 12:14). God has called into being a holy nation such as Israel was called to be. That those purchased are also a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Ex 15:16, 19:6) is therefore no idle metaphor. God will be their inheritance as he was for the Levites, whom he set apart to serve as priests in cities throughout Israel (Num 18:20). Whoever explains the truth about God to those who are estranged from him serves as priest (Rom 15:16). In the resurrection they will rule over cities amidst the tribes of all the earth. They will be priest-kings after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 7:11-17, Gen 14:18), mediating between the peoples and the Lord God in Jerusalem.
‘Us for God’ becomes ‘them for our God’: he possesses us, then we possess him. ‘Us’ refers to the twenty-four elders, becoming ‘them’ as the elders identify with the unseen multitude that has been purchased for God from every division of humanity. ‘Every tribe, language, people, and nation’, the first of seven variations of the phrase, refers to the progressive ethnogeographic division of mankind after the Cataclysm and the linguistic division that began at Babel. As the motif repeatedly reminds us, the events of Genesis 10-12 are the deep-time context of this final prophecy.
God had promised that ‘all the tribes of the earth’ would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring. He would make Abraham into nations; kings would issue from him (Gen 17:6). Isaac was the type and Christ the antitype. In due time God’s firstborn son would become the substitute for Israel, God’s firstborn son (Ex 4:22). He would redeem souls from every tribe, language, people and nation and make them one in himself, the true Israel (Isa 49:3, Matt 2:15).
Israel’s escape from Egypt in 1447 BC is narrated in Exodus 12-14 and summarised in the table below. It shows that the week in which Jesus offered up his life followed precisely the chronology of the Exodus. In accordance with the first created day, days began and ended in the evening. On the 10th day of the month Nisan (Abib), Jesus rode into Jerusalem and presented himself as the paschal lamb. Moses stipulated that the lamb should be killed ‘between the two evenings’ of sunset and nightfall on the 14th day (Ex 12:6). That the beginning of the day was meant is clear from the instruction to eat the flesh that night and not let any of it remain till the morning. However, the temple authorities interpreted the phrase to mean the end of the day. So it happened that, crucified on the afternoon of the 14th day, he became the paschal lamb for the whole nation at the very time that the Jews slaughtered their paschal lambs (John 19:14). God himself made atonement (Ezek 16:63).
|Nisan||Day||The Exodus||Passion Week|
|10||Sun||A lamb is taken and kept until Nisan 14||Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey.|
|13||Wed||At the end of the day (= beginning of Nisan 14, Jewish reckoning) the lamb is slaughtered and eaten.||Jesus celebrates the Passover; he is arrested the same night.|
|14||Thu||Egypt’s firstborn die. The Israelites leave Egypt. That night they camp at Succoth.||Jesus is crucified. The Jews celebrate the Passover at the end of Nisan 14.|
|15||Fri||The Israelites travel on, camping at Etham.||Special sabbath (Ex 12:16, John 19:31).|
|16||Sat||The Israelites reach Migdol, where they camp but do not rest.||Weekly sabbath (Luke 23:56).|
|17||Sun||During the night they cross the Red Sea. Egypt’s pursuing army is drowned.||Jesus rises from the dead before dawn.|
Although he was Jerusalem’s king (Zech 9:9), he entered the city on a donkey, not as a military conqueror on a warhorse. He defeated man’s greatest enemy by surrendering his life (Heb 2:14), knowing that he could trust his father to give it back. Thereby he propitiated God’s wrath toward sin for anyone who believed in him, and he earned the right to rule the earth and judge the souls of all mankind. Having descended to Hades (Eph 4:9, I Pet 3:19), he ascended to the position of ultimate authority, the right hand of God in heaven, there to abide until the day of his return. For the first time he sat on the throne.
We have been bought for a price, redeemed from a slave-owner who has had to let us go. The word ‘purchase’ is agorazω, the regular term for buying in the market place (agora). Our new master has left his seal on us until the day he comes back to complete the purchase (Luke 21:28, Eph 1:13f, 4:30). Once slaves to sin, we now serve righteousness (Rom 6).
‘Elder’ is a term of leadership but not hierarchy, first used of Israel’s leaders. Hierarchy was discouraged in the early Church. Papias, a disciple of John, even called the apostles elders, as did the apostles themselves (I Pet 5:1, II John 1). Their number might suggest the twelve sons of Israel and twelve apostles, but the former were never described as elders, while the latter included John himself, who is here an onlooker, not therefore one of the twenty-four. Their identity is conveyed in their own words: ‘you purchased us for God from every people and nation.’ They represent the redeemed, keeping their place before the throne in anticipation of the resurrection (Eph 2:6). The saints whose prayers fill their golden bowls are not seen because that day has not yet occurred. Even the apostles will not be raised until that day (Phil 3:11). Their golden crowns (wreaths, not diadems) symbolise the prize given to those who have fought the good fight (II Tim 4:7f, Rev 2:10). Their thrones symbolise that they will one day ‘reign on earth’. Their number, also symbolic, indicates that they represent the redeemed under the old covenant as well as the new.
We recall the ‘thousands of thousands’ that David saw on the mountain of God (Ps 68:17) and the ‘thousand thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand’ that Daniel saw around the throne (Dan 7:10). Suddenly angels are heard if not seen. Like John, Daniel saw other thrones, then ‘one like a son of Adam’, who presented himself before the Almighty and was given ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’. That kingdom is not far off.
The Lamb is worthy because of his perfect faith, his perfect love, his unblemished holiness. When the elders proclaim that the one on the throne is worthy to receive glory, honour and power, because he created all things, the implication is that God alone is worthy. But in this too the Lamb qualifies. For ‘all things came to be through him, and not one thing that is came into being without him’ (John 1:3). When God spoke, it was the Son who executed the commands. He was the appointed heir, the image of God who at the end of the ages would bring God near (Gen 1:26, Col 1:15).
All creation has been groaning, awaiting release from the bondage of decay, and now every creature – winged animals, terrestrial animals, burrowing animals, marine – joins in the cry. His worshippers joyously assent to the glory, majesty, dominion and authority which rightfully are his. As yet, he reigns in heaven, not on earth. It is important that there be a people on earth, drawn from every tribe and nation, who assent to his reign, for the world hates him and does not want him to rule over them. Who we worship – Satan in human form, or God in human form – will be a critical question.