February 7: Revelation 21:15-17

Revelation 21:15-21

Having described the walls of the “new Jerusalem” generally, and in terms of the twin motif of their gate-ways and foundation-stones (cf. the previous note), verses 15-21 proceed to give an account of the walls of the city in more detail. This covers two aspects: (1) their overall size and shape, reflecting that of the city itself (vv. 15-17), and (2) their substance, appearance, and decoration (vv. 18-21). Both aspects are highly symbolic, and build upon the prior motif of the twelve gate-ways and foundation-stones—relating to the tribes of Israel and the apostles, symbolizing the people of God, according to the old and new Covenants, respectively.

Revelation 21:15-17

“And the (one) speaking with me held a golden reed (for) measur(ing), (so) that he might measure the city and her gate-ways and (the wall) built (around) her.” (verse 15)

The “one speaking” refers to the Messenger who announced the descent of the heavenly city in verse 9. There it was referred to as a bride, and, keeping with this feminine imagery, I have translated the feminine pronouns here literally (“city”, po/li$, being grammatically feminine). The Angel with the measuring-reed, and the measuring of the city, derives from the vision in Ezekiel 40:3ff (cp. the Qumran texts 4Q554 fr. 1 col. iii. 18-19; 5Q15 fr. 1 col. i. 2-4; Koester, p. 815). It also echoes the earlier vision in 11:1-3ff, where the seer is given the measuring-reed and commanded to measure (part of) the city. This parallel is significant, for several reasons:

    • Though it is the earthly city of Jerusalem that is in view in chapter 11, it is applied figuratively, symbolizing the relationship between believers and the world. Believers (the people of God) dwell only in the confines of the Temple sanctuary, while the outer court is given over to the nations.
    • The command to measure applies only to the Temple sanctuary, the place where the people of God (believers) reside; the very act of this Angelic measuring relates to the place where God dwells together with His people, just as here in chapter 21.
    • The measuring in chap. 11 defines the space that is to be protected in the time of the great Judgment; this protection generally symbolizes the eternal life that believers possess in the New Age. It is already represented here in the present, but only insofar as believers remain faithfully within the space of the sanctuary (figuratively speaking).

The actual measure is not mentioned in the previous vision; this important symbolic detail is new to the visionary scene in chapter 21, and follows in verses 16ff:

“And the city itself lies stretched (out into a) four-cornered (shape), and (so) her length is as (much) [even] as the width (of her). And he measured the city with the reed, upon twelve thousand stadia (in measure)—the length and width and height of her are (all) equal.” (v. 16)

As in Ezekiel’s great vision (48:16), the city has a perfect square shape, with all four sides of equal dimension. There may also be an intentional parallel (and contrast) with the city of Babylon (cf. Herodotus Histories 1.178), symbol for the wicked “great city” of earth in the visions of Revelation (see esp. chapters 17-18). The contrast of women—holy Bride (Jerusalem) and wicked Prostitute (Babylon)—established throughout makes such an allusion more likely. Rome, too, is said to have had a square shape in earlier times (Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.65.3; Plutarch Romulus 9.4; cf. Koester, pp. 815-6). The four sides of equal length generally symbolize perfection and beauty of form. However, there may be a deeper meaning intended, in light of the parallel with the measuring of the Temple sanctuary in 11:1ff (see above). This is all the more probable if we consider that the sanctuary of the ideal/future Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s vision also had a square-shaped inner shrine (41:4). As there is no Temple in the heavenly “new Jerusalem”, this sacred aspect now applies to the city as a whole.

The measure of a sta/dio$ traditionally marks the length of a stadium in the Roman world. The number of 12,000 stadia corresponds to about 1,500 of our miles. The enormity of size is traditional for depicting divine/heavenly realities. Much more significant than the scope is the number itself, since it draws directly on the base motif of twelve that here defines the people of God, which the city itself represents. The multiple of a thousand indicates both vastness and perfection, and the number of twelve thousand (12 x 1000) is central to the motif of the 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1000) in chapter 7 and 14:1-5. This synchronicity only makes clear again that this is not a vision of a city per se, but of a people—the people of God.

“And he measured the (wall) built (round) her, a hundred and forty-four ‘fore-arms’, (according to the) measure of a man—that is, (here) of a (heavenly) Messenger.” (v. 17)

Finally, the surrounding wall itself is measured, which likely means measuring its thickness. The term ph=xu$, of uncertain derivation, corresponds roughly to the length of a man’s forearm (from elbow to the tip of the fingers). 144 units of such a measure would amount to around 215 feet (or 60-70 meters). However, the wording suggests that the measure is based not on a man’s forearm, but on that of the heavenly Messenger. As a divine/heavenly being, he presumably would have been envisioned as a much larger being, as would traditionally be the case. Again, the number itself is far more important than the large size—144 being symbolic of the people of God (12 x 12, cp. verses 12-14; 7:4-8; 14:1-5). See also the 24 (12 + 12) Elders of 4:4, 10; 5:8; 11:16; 19:4.

It would be a gross mistake to attempt a concrete reconstruction of the “city” described here, as though it were an ordinary physical city. All of these details are entirely symbolic, and clearly relate to the fact that the city represents the people of God itself. The same is true of the description of the walls (gates and foundations) that follows in verses 18-21; this will be discussed in the next daily note.

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