February 27: Revelation 22:18b-19

Revelation 22:18b-19

The declaration of the truthfulness of the book’s message, as testified formally by the exalted Jesus himself (v. 18a, cf. the previous note), is followed by a curse in vv. 18b-19. Such a “curse” is part of the ancient concept of the binding agreement, which utilized various religious and magical formulae as a way of guaranteeing adherence to the agreement. Quite frequently, deities were called upon as witnesses to the binding agreement, who would, it was thought, punish those who violated the terms of the agreement. Punishment (or “curse”) forms were built into the structure of the agreement, and the description of what would happen if the terms were violated was equally binding.

The exalted Jesus, functioning as God’s witness (1:1, etc), has the power and authority to effect the divine punishment for violating the agreement—which here must be understood in terms of verses 7ff, the expectation that all true and faithful believers will guard the message of the book. Anyone who violates this implicit agreement will face the punishment declared by Jesus in vv. 18b-19:

“If any(one) would set (anything else) upon these (thing)s, God shall set upon him the (thing)s (that will) strike, (those) having been written in this paper-roll [i.e. scroll]; and if any(one) would take (anything) away from the accounts of the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of this foretelling [i.e. prophecy], God shall take away his portion from the tree of life and out of the holy city, (all) the (thing)s having been written in this paper-roll [i.e. scroll].”

This curse-formula follows the ancient lex talionis principle, whereby the punishment matches the nature of the transgression. The violation is two-fold, each part mirroring the other:

    • Violation: Put (anything else) upon [i.e. add to] what is in the book
      Punishment: God will put upon him (same verb, e)piti/qhmi) what is described in the book (i.e. the Judgment on the wicked)
    • Violation: Take (anything) away from what is in the book
      Punishment: God will take away from him (same verb, a)faire/w) what is in the book (i.e. the reward of eternal life for the righteous)

Some commentators would question whether this strictly refers to altering the book itself—its content and text—or if, instead, the primary reference is to faithful observance, etc, of the prophetic message. Certainly, there are examples, both in Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, of warnings given against tampering with a written work, especially one considered to be a sacred text—cf. Epistle of Aristeas 311; Josephus Against Apion 1.42; 1 Enoch 104:10-13; Artemidorus Onirocritica 2.70; Koester, p. 845). However, in this instance, a closer parallel is perhaps to be found in the traditional understanding of adherence to the Torah (the terms of the Covenant between YHWH and Israel), such as expressed in Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32, etc:

“You shall not add (anything) upon the word that I (have) charged you (to keep), and you shall not shave off (anything) from it (either), (but you are) to guard (the thing)s charged (to you) of [i.e. by] YHWH your God, which (indeed) I have charged (you).” (Deut 4:2)

In the Greek LXX, the verb corresponding to “add upon” (Heb. [s^y` + preposition lu^]) is prosti/qhmi (“set/place toward [i.e. next to]”), which is close to the e)piti/qhmi (“set/place upon”) here in v. 18. The Hebrew “shave off from” (ur^G` + preposition /m!) is translated by the verb a)faire/w (“take [away] from”), just as here in v. 19.

Thus, once again, the book of Revelation draws upon Old Testament tradition, regarding Israel as the people of God (according to the old Covenant), applying it to believers in Christ (in the new Covenant). Just as one who willfully disobeyed or disregarded the Torah could not belong to the true people of God, based on the terms of the old Covenant, so one who similarly disobeyed the inspired message of Revelation’s prophecies could not be part of God’s people (believers) in the new Covenant. Since the message of the visions centered on the need to remain faithful to Jesus during the end-time period of distress, with a clear distinction between those who belong to the Lamb and those who belong to the forces of evil (Dragon and Sea-creature), a true believer would not (and could not) violate this message.

It is also likely that the curse was meant to warn people from tampering with the book itself; if so, I would tend to agree with Koester (p. 858) that this emphasis is secondary. The message, not the text, is primary; and yet, so vital is this message, in the context of the imminent/impending time of distress, that it is to be preserved and transmitted with the utmost care.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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