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. ‘After these things I looked’ refers to what he saw next, not necessarily to the chronology of the events themselves. ‘I looked, and behold’ echoes Daniel’s phraseology (Dan 2:31, 7:2). If the human heart is entered through a door (3:20), so too is the heart of heaven. Transported thither, John sees a throne, the throne to which Jesus has just alluded. Only prophets (including David) and the first Christian martyr were privileged with the sight.
Although we know who it is seated there, John does not describe a person. His only observation is that he has the appearance of certain gemstones. ‘Diamond’ translates iaspis, which could mean ‘jasper’, but in 21:11 it is described as crystal-like. Diamond and carnelian, a brownish-red stone, were the last and first of the twelve stones encrusting Aaron’s breastplate, one for each of the twelve sons of Israel (Ex 28:17-20). They bring to mind the radiant purity of God and his shed blood.
A rainbow was a sign of the promise that the waters of the deep would never again destroy the earth, but this rainbow (or ‘halo’, Gk. iris) is dominated by the colour green. We should therefore be thinking of another atmospheric phenomenon, the northern and southern lights, which are typically emerald as a result of electrons exciting molecules of oxygen, but also streaked with other colours. The significance of the aurora will become apparent later.
Around the throne on subsidiary thrones are twenty-four human beings. Strangely, they are described as elders rather than kings, but are not otherwise identified. The vitreous sea (Ex 24:10), celestial counterpart of the bronze basin before the entrance of the Tabernacle and the much larger bronze sea before the entrance of the Temple, signifies the primeval waters 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 (astrape, denoting any flashing light), the sounds, and the thunder (distinct from the sounds) hint at future wrath. The lamps correspond to those on the seven-branched lampstand in the Tabernacle and have a searching function (Prov 20:27, Zeph 1:12). They burn before the throne, but are also are aspects of the king himself. Like the lightning and thunder, they indicate 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 in the fire four living beings; not creatures, for both in Hebrew and Greek the single word 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 something crystal-like, analogous to ice-enclosed firmament. Above that, a throne. As the vision gets closer, he sees that the apparition of glowing metal occupies the throne and, from the waist up, resembles a man, surrounded by fire. The brightness all around is like a true rainbow. Ezekiel has seen the likeness of the glory of the maker of heaven and earth. In John’s vision the living beings proclaim his holiness, as they do in Isaiah’s vision. 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 they 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 in the centre of the throne yet also around it, as if the throne were translucent. They manifest something of the otherness of God, are part of him yet distinct from him. Something of the Creator appears in earth’s creatures – the mighty lion (Amos 3:8), the lowly ox (Matt 11:29, but here a young bovine as was often prescribed for sacrifice), the man (Gen 1:26), the soaring eagle (Ex 19:4) – for they originate from plenitude of God’s imagination, not Earth’s self-evolution. Man is not the only 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 its 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, and two spanned the inner sanctuary of the Temple where the ark was later housed (I Ki 6:23, 8:6). God was seated (not specifically ‘enthroned’) above the cherubim (II Sam 6:2), in darkness behind a cherubim-embroidered veil. Theirs was the one likeness of a heavenly being that God sanctioned. 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). After the terrible Exodus judgement he revealed more, that he was compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in truth and goodness (Ex 34:6). The cherubim might therefore have proclaimed these aspects of 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 men in such folly. Eternal nothingness is easy to conceive of; existence is a mystery. We might conceive of one simple thing having always existed, without origin, 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 always have existed – let alone trillions of identical quarks of each type? How can six different but mutually compatible types of lepton have always existed? With their ability to bind themselves 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 devoid of substance.
The elders are a completely new presence.
The tenses become future (not the usual tense after hotan, when), 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 leads to 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 in truth, that he is worthy to be king. This is the worship he 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” (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.
Some, as they migrated, began to colonise Eden-like Mesopotamia, the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates. One settlement dwarfed and overshadowed the others: Uruk in southern Mesopotamia (the Erech of Gen 10:10). In order to feed its increasingly specialised workforce, it began exacting tribute from the surrounding villages. Eventually 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 craft production or food 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 this empire, Uruk’s lord (en in Sumerian) founded another city, called Babel. At its heart was a brick-built mountain to induce God to come down and dwell amongst them, while the en would rule in his name as king and chief priest. 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. 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, ‘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.
In the first instance the house (beth) was God’s temple or palace (Heb. hekal) – the temple being his palace – on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. When it was finished, in 961 BC, his glory entered the building as the people looked on. Next to the temple was the king’s house (beth, often translated ‘palace’), and within that the throne from which he gave judgement. ‘To build a house’ also meant to establish a family (Ruth 4:11). The Jews never entirely lost sight of this promise.
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 Israel 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. He quit the Temple, the ark of the covenant with its cherubim was removed, and in 586 BC he 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, as Isaiah prophesied, 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 deserved 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 and close, a stone block that they could invest with their own conception of divinity.
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 he fulfils Jacob’s enigmatic prophecy that someone from lion-like Judah would one day command the obedience of the peoples (Gen 49:10). Much later Isaiah foresaw a time when a man of perfect righteousness, filled with the Spirit of God, would rule the earth, and he would be not only 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, from 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).
The idea of conquering has particular resonance after the letters to the churches. In total the word occurs eight times before this chapter and eight times after it, and Christ himself is associated with the verb three times (3:21, 5:5, 17:14). This is the first of Revelation’s three central statements: his having conquered entitles him to open the scroll (or book, biblion).
In a different context Ezekiel too was presented with a scroll inscribed on both sides. Such documents are 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 and therefore signifying supreme power. In some respects he is like the cherubim: he stands in the same place, is portrayed as an animal, and has many eyes. The 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 (2:23). From his position alongside the one on the throne he comes forward and takes the scroll. The scroll is the title deed to the kingdom, given at the point that the birth pangs preceding its arrival must now come on.
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 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, since they 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) 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. Whoever explains the truth about God to those estranged from him performs a priestly role (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 the Lamb has purchased 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 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 every tribe on 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 all 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, who was the true Israel (Isa 49:3, Matt 2:15).
The chronology of Israel’s escape from Egypt in 1447 BC is summarised in Table 2. The week in which Jesus offered up his life followed precisely that chronology. 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. The lamb was to 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 was clear enough from the instruction to eat the flesh that night and not let any of it remain till 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 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 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 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 place of ultimate authority, the right hand of God in heaven, to abide there 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. ‘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 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’s, 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 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). The golden crowns (wreaths, not diadems) symbolise the prize given to those who have fought the good fight (II Tim 4:7f, Rev 2:10). The 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.
Suddenly we hear 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). Like John, Daniel saw other thrones, but empty, then ‘one like a son of man’ coming with the clouds of heaven, who was presented before the Almighty and given ‘dominion and glory and kingship’ over all peoples. That day 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 (Col 1:15).
All creation has been groaning, awaiting release from the bondage of decay, and now every creature – winged, terrestrial, burrowing, aquatic – joins in the cry. His worshippers joyously assent to the glory, majesty, dominion and authority which are rightfully 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, that assents 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.