rainbow over heavenly throne, the living creatures

Notes on Revelation 5 6-14

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, April 29 is Revelation 5:6-14. This continues John’s vision of heaven and “what must take place after this” (Rev. 4:1) that began with the description of the heavenly worship that we read last week in chapter 4. If this were a stage play, we would still be looking at the same scene, the heavenly throne room.

And if this were a movie, maybe the cinematography would be doing something like panning and giving us a big close-up of something in the right hand of the one seated on the throne, and then we would see it’s a scroll and then …

the heavenly throne room by William Blake
Still the heavenly throne room, here as envisioned by William Blake

Background and Context: Actually, the immediate continuation of the scene is in verses 1-5, which we need for context. John sees a scroll in the right hand of the one seated on the throne, the Lord God the Almighty, who presumably still looks like jasper and carnelian, from chapter 4. [Btw, I’m going to keep calling “the author of Revelation” “John.” It’s shorter and easier, and we know whoever it is as “John.” Hopefully this is compatible with knowing that most scholars don’t think whoever it is was the same “John” who wrote everything else by “John,” but might have been someone associated with the Johannine community. Just to get that out of the way.] It’s mysterious: writing within (how he sees this we don’t know – maybe he assumes), and on the back – according to the study Bibles, this is unusual, but the writing on the back might be like a summary, which would be customary for wills or legal documents. It has seven seals – perfect number, very serious , not something anyone could open by accident.

My study Bibles also know that this scroll contains God’s plan of salvation, or God’s plan for the creation. I’m not sure how, and they don’t say. Maybe it is because of what happens after the seals are opened, and they have read ahead. Or maybe, because this object looks like a will or legal document, we could have guessed this right from the beginning. (We could also compare Ephesians 3:9 & Colossians 1:26, that refer to “God’s plan hidden for ages” – Christ’s work on earth, death & resurrection was the beginning of the announcement and fulfillment of that plan.)

An angel announces (which sounds like a question to us) a call for someone worthy – able, and with the authority – to open the scroll. No one in all of creation comes forward. John starts to cry (why?) and one of the 24 elders, suddenly getting chummy, tells him not to cry, because the Lion of Judah and Root of David (messianic titles; Genesis 49:9-10, Isaiah 11:1, 10; all the first century Christians, and we, know this is Jesus) has conquered and is worthy. Verse 5 feels a little bit like someone leaning over in a movie theatre and saying “don’t worry, they get out of this …” maybe because they’ve already seen this picture …

God enthroned with scroll from medieval illumination
The one seated on the throne, with visible scroll, from the Bamberg Apocalypse

This opening transition is a little chiasmus: it starts off with the closed, sealed up scroll, obviously important, obviously mysterious; then uses the word “open” four times; ending up with the scroll and its seven seals, still closed, but about to be opened (like the whole message of the “apocalypse,” the un-covering). In other words, the form of the narration emphasizes the CLOSED-but-just-about-to-be-OPENED nature of this mysterious text. Because after what happens in vv6-14, the introduction of the worthy one, that one will begin opening the seals, and things will begin to happen.

Closer Reading: This brings us to verse 6, and verses 6-14. If we step back a minute, we might see that John is witness to a ceremony here, in which the officially designated actor takes this important scroll, and the heavenly assembly acknowledges the event.

John sees a lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered” – we are probably supposed to have an image here of the way a slaughtered animal carcass hangs stretched out on a meat hook – but this lamb is also obviously alive. And the figure clearly has a head, because it has horns and eyes. Seven – perfect number. Horns: authority. Eyes: watchfulness, wisdom, knowledge, and John specifically tells us, the spirits of God (maybe “seven spirits” can be understood as “seven-fold,” again, perfect). And remember, from chapter 1-3, the seven spirits of God are with the seven churches. So, the churches are being watched over in this moment. The Lamb himself could remind us of Passover, or sacrifices in the Temple, or John 1:29, or all of the above.

The lamb takes the scroll. Worship begins (or, begins again).

center of the Ghent altarpiece, with haloed lamb and adoring angels
The mystic adoration of the lamb [partly] as envisioned by Jan Van Eyck
The 24 elders have new props: harps and golden bowls (v8). Still implements of worship: music, and incense, both of which might remind us of priests in the Jerusalem Temple. John tells us the bowls of incense are the prayers of the saints. (This feels nice to know, and like something to remember more often.)

All the study Bibles* say they “sing a new song” because this is “a new age,” a “new era,” that the new composition signifies a “special occasion.”

The new song ascribes the lamb’s ability and authority to open the scroll to his death, and its consequence: “ransoming” – a technical term, that refers to a slave going free after a payment of money – saints (“holy ones”) for God, from a radically inclusive list of possible socio-political groups, so, really ALL kinds of people.

They are now “a kingdom and priests” and “will reign on earth.” (v10) This would probably sound good to the first century Christians; it may sound good to us, too. The kingdom and priests should probably remind us of Exodus 19:6 “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” – this is said to the Israelites by God who “ransomed” them out of Egypt back at the original Passover, so now we have another figure related to Passover who has done the same work for everyone else. Or see Isaiah 61:6 – and notice that the opening of that chapter of Isaiah is something Jesus once said about himself (Luke 4:18-19).

In vv11-12 the chorus swells to include myriads of myriads and thousands and thousands of angels. In v13 the chorus swells again to include all the creatures in all the creaturely realms. Technically, they may not be a chorus, because they are “saying,” but they seem to be joining the song that began in v9, so the “saying” may just refer to their lyrics. The word order of verse 13 feels a little different in Greek, because the description of the vast numbers of creatures comes first and then the hearing, so “and all creatures in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them I heard saying …”

This makes me think that, if we could listen properly, we would hear all the creatures praising God now. (This is not exactly a new idea. See Psalm 19. But here the praise explicitly includes “the Lamb.”) And we would presumably join in.


So, I think of this (and notice that with these lyrics, the singers seem to include the saints from every tribe and language and people and nation, since they say the Lamb has redeemed “us” to God):

  • I routinely consult these three sources: The Access Bible, General Editors Gail R. O’Day and David Peterson, Oxford University Press, 1999; the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Editor Michael D. Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2010; the Harper Collins Study Bible, General Editor Wayne A. Meeks, HarperCollins, 1993. These all present the Biblical text in the New Revised Standard Version.

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