September 23: Revelation 5:1-8

Revelation 5:1-14

Revelation 5:1 begins the second half of the vision in chapters 4-5. If chap. 4 was devoted to a vision of God (the Father) on His throne, chap. 5 is a vision of Jesus at the right hand of the Father—that is, sharing the ruling place with God. The parallelism between these two halves is unquestionable, and reflects a central theme of the book, theological and christological, which was already introduced in the opening words, and the first vision, in chapter 1. The key points in parallel are:

    • The central presence of the Throne, representing the seat of ruling-power in heaven. The Lamb has a place near and/or on the Throne.
    • Both God and Lamb are surrounded by the “seven Spirits” and have authority/control over them.
    • The Living Beings and Elders likewise surround both figures and give homage/praise to them, in a similar fashion.
    • The Song of praise that is sung to each uses similar language and form, beginning with the word a&cio$, usually translated “worthy”—i.e. “Worthy are you…”
Rev 5:1-4

The chapter begins with a narrowing of focus for the vision, closing in on the image of the throne:

“And I saw upon the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, a paper-roll [i.e. scroll] having been written (on the) inside and on the back, (and) having been sealed down with seven seals.” (verse 1)

Here we have the central motif of the “right hand” of God. The adjective decio/$ literally means “giving”, referring to the right hand as the auspicious (or giving hand)—i.e. the hand or side from which blessing comes, where symbols of power and authority are focused, etc. A fundamental element in the early Christian view of Jesus, and the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), was that, following his death and resurrection, Jesus was exalted to a position at the “right hand” of God in heaven—cf. Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22. In terms of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God, this motif was largely drawn from Psalm 110:1, and its application goes back to Jesus’ own words (Mark 12:36; 14:62 pars). The viewpoint here of the right hand of the throne of God prepares the reader for the appearance of the exalted Jesus.

Another important detail in this verse is the seal or stamp (sfragi/$) on the scroll. Typically, a papyrus or parchment scroll (bi/blo$, here the diminutive bibli/on) would be tied up with a string, upon which a clay or wax (or lead) seal was applied, and then stamped down (vb. katasfragi/zw) with an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) to indicate ownership. God, as the Ruler, is the one who has stamped down his signet onto the seal, indicating his ownership. No one could tamper with (i.e. break) this seal; only the owner (God himself) has the authority to open the scroll, or someone who possessed the same authority (from God). The divine character of this seal is further emphasized by the plural (“seals”) and use of the number seven. This is the point of the solemn declaration which follows in verse 2:

“And I saw a strong Messenger proclaiming in [i.e. with] a great voice, ‘Who is a&cio$ to open up the paper-roll and to loose(n) its seals?'”

This is the same adjective (a&cio$) applied to God in 4:11, and which will similarly be applied to the Lamb in verse 9. I have temporarily left it untranslated (cf. further in the next note), but will mention here the fundamental meaning of something which is brought into balance (i.e. being of equal/appropriate weight). The significance of this is brought out vividly in verse 3:

“And no one—(not) in heaven, and not upon the earth, and not down under the earth—was able [i.e. had power] to open up the paper-roll and to look at it.”

The implication, of course, is that no one in all of creation possessed the personal authority of (or from) God in order to be able, rightly, to break the seal. The verb du/namai literally means “be (en)powered, have power”, but is often better rendered in English as “be able (i.e. to do something)”. The emphasis is not on a test of strength or power as such, but on a person’s authority (i.e. ability) to do something. This scene becomes personalized when the visionary (seer) gives his own reaction:

“And I wept (very) much (at this), that no one was found a&cio$ to open up the paper-roll and (so) not to (be able to) look at it.” (v. 4)

The importance of looking (vb. ble/pw) at the contents of the scroll is emphasized repeatedly, though it is not immediately clear why this would be so. On the one hand, it can be regarded as a literary/narrative device, building suspense—the reader is waiting and eager to find out what is written on this scroll (v. 1). At the same time, the ability to look at its contents implies someone with the authority to open the scroll and read it, which, again, anticipates the appearance of the Lamb (Jesus), building narrative suspense. The person allowed to open a sealed scroll would be: (a) the owner of it (or his/her representative), or (b) the person to whom it was rightfully sent (and intended to be read). Both aspects of meaning are present here, though it is the former which is emphasized.

Rev 5:5-8

In these verses, we find a precise response to the scenario established in vv. 1-4—no one in all of creation is able to open the scroll. There is a chiastic structure to vv. 1-8 which I outline as follows :

Indeed, the answer comes in verse 5:

“And (then) one out of the Elder (Ones)s said to me: ‘Do not weep! (for) see, the lion th(at is) out of the offshoot [i.e. tribe] of Yehudah, the root of Dawid, (he is able) to open up the paper-roll and its seven seals!'”

On these “Elder Ones” (presbu/teroi), see the previous note on 4:4. His response is characteristic of heavenly beings (Angels) when they appear to chosen ones among God’s people (i.e., “Do not be afraid!”, etc). The declaration which follows is among the most overtly Messianic in the book of Revelation, expressed very much in traditional language, specifically related to the Davidic Ruler figure-type (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Two expressions are involved:

    • “the lion out of the tribe of Judah”—The lion commonly symbolizes power, but also a leading/regal position among all the other animals (i.e. ‘king of the beasts’); lion images were frequently used in the royal iconography of the ancient Near East. Here the expression is derived primarily from Genesis 49:9-10, part of Jacob’s testament (“last words”) to his sons (Judah, vv. 8-12). These verses were given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus, as we see from the Qumran texts (4Q252 5:1-4), and other writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. The ruling staff (tb#v@) in Gen 49:10, was blended together with that of Balaam’s oracle (Num 24:17), to form a dual Messianic reference, prophesying the coming of the (end-time) Davidic Ruler.
    • “the root of David”—This expression comes from Isaiah 11:1: “A stick/twig [rf#j)] will come forth from the stem [uz~G#] of Yishai {Jesse}, a green shoot [rx#n@] will bear (fruit) from his roots [vr#v, pl.]”. The Septuagint (LXX) translates both uz~G# (“stem”) and vr#v# (“root”) as r(i/za (“root”), which is used here in Revelation. Isaiah 11:1-4ff was one of the key passages interpreted as prophesying the coming of the Davidic Messiah. With its military allusions, which could only be realized for Christians at the return of Jesus, it is generally absent from the New Testament, except for 2 Thess 2:8 and (here) in the book of Revelation. David himself was more properly referenced by the “branch” [rx#n~ / rf#j)], which, under the influence of the similar expression “sprout/branch of David” (dw]d*[l=] j^mx#) in Jer 23:15; 33:5 (cf. also Zech 3:8; 6:12), gave rise to rich set of Messianic motifs—see the Qumran texts 4Q161 7-10 iii 22; 4Q174 1-3 i 11; 4Q252 5:3-4; 4Q285 5, and other writings of the period.

In verse 6, this Messianic description (of the exalted Jesus) gives way to the image/vision of a Lamb (a)rni/on):

“And, in the middle of the ruling-seat and the four Living (Being)s, and in the middle of the Elder (One)s, I saw a Lamb having stood as (one) having been slaughtered, holding seven horns and seven eyes, which are the the [seven] Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.”

The repeated use of e)n me/sw| (“in the middle [of]”) is a bit confusing, but I believe it is meant to emphasize two things: (1) the central position of the Lamb in the heavenly scene, and (2) his close proximity to the throne of God. There are four visual attributes or characteristics of this Lamb:

    1. It is standing (i.e. alive) even though it appears to have been slain. The paradox of this image may be conveyed by the sequence of perfect verb forms—”having stood”, “having been slaughtered”. This aptly reflects the dual-aspect of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the importance of both to his exaltated position/status as Messiah and Son of God.
    2. It has been slaughtered (vb. sfa/zw). This refers to ritual slaughter, i.e. a sacrificial offering. There are several possibilities:
      (i) The Passover lamb (Exod 12:6, etc), the blood of which symbolized God’s protection/deliverance for the faithful ones among His people.
      (ii) A sacrifice for sin/guilt (Lev 14:12-13), though lambs were more commonly used in the daily offering, etc, and not regularly connected with atonement for sin/guilt.
      (iii) The sacrificial offering at the establishment of the Covenant between God and His people—according to Exod 24:5-8, this was a sacrifice of “good will”, utilizing an ox/bull for the partial burnt offering.
      Jesus’ death is associated with all three of these, at various points in the New Testament. Probably the connection with the Passover is most clearly in view, as also in 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19, and, presumably, John 1:29, 36 (cf. the details in 13:1, etc, 19:14, 29[?], 31). There may also be a allusion here to Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:32-33).
    3. It has seven horns. The horn of a powerful animal, like the lion itself (cf. above), was a common ancient symbol of the strength and authority to rule; as such, it was natural as a Messianic motif—i.e. Luke 1:69 (cf. Ps 132:17; 92:10; 148:14; Ezek 29:1; 1 Sam 2:1, etc). The number seven here indicates divine power and authority, that the Lamb shares rule with God the Father (on/at His throne).
    4. It has seven eyes. These are identified specifically with the heavenly beings or Messengers (“Spirits”) which surround God’s throne and which “are sent forth into all the earth”. This imagery seems to be drawn from Zech 4:2ff, in which the “lamps” (Angels/Spirits) are described as “the eyes of the Lord” which travel back and forth in all the earth (v. 10). Here they are the eyes of the Lamb, indicating again the close relationship between the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) and God the Father.

Verse 7 narrates simply how the Lamb approaches the throne (at God’s right hand) and takes the scroll from God (“the One sitting on the ruling seat”). This action triggers an explosion of praise from the heavenly beings around the throne (vv. 8ff), similar to that which they offered to God in 4:8-11 (on this, cf. the previous note). It is an elaborate and dramatic scene, as the Living Beings and Elders again fall down to give homage—this time to the Lamb. They hold musical instruments (the kithara, a six- or seven-stringed harp) and golden dishes containing fragrant smoke (incense), identified as the “prayers” of the holy ones. These represent different aspects of worship—music and ritual offerings, only in the latter case the offerings, in a Christian context, have been defined in terms of prayer (largely eliminating the sacrificial/ritual dimension).

The Song sung by the heavenly beings will be discussed in the next daily note.

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