Over the last few months I have found myself less and less comfortable with the song by Chris Tomlin that has the chorus:
Our God is greater, our God is stronger
God you are higher than any other
Our God is Healer, awesome in power
Our God, Our God…
At first I thought that the main reason was that it sounded a little the ‘My dad’s bigger than your dad’ playground taunt directed at other religions. I wonder how it would feel to sing this in, say, a Muslim majority area, or with converts from another religion in your congregation?
But on reflection I realised that there was a deeper reason. It occurred to me that it is very rare for Scripture to use comparatives (greater, stronger and so on) to describe God, even in contexts of different and competing faith perspectives. Most often Scripture uses absolutes of God, claiming not that the God of Israel can do things better than the gods of the other nations, but that he can do things that simply no other god can do. I suspect this is the idea behind stories like the battle between David and Goliath—it is not that David’s god is stronger than Goliath’s, but that there is simply no comparison to be made. Another classic example is the mocking of idols as nothing in Is 44:
Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”
This polemical poetry follows, of course, from several chapters in this second part of Isaiah which waxes lyrical about the incomparability of Yahweh, Israel’s god who will show his power and his love by bringing them back from exile—and in fact this sense of the absolute, rather than comparative, greatness of God is explored in the verses of Tomlin’s song. ‘Who is like God?’ the prophet cries—in Hebrew ‘Mi-cha-el?’
Michael and his angels are the subject of this Sunday’s reading from Revelation 12, a text that it is not easy to preach from. In order to do so, there are some important things to note:
1. The chapter is clearly structured in four parts:
- a strange story about a pregnant woman, a dragon, and the ‘male son’ to whom the woman gives birth in vv 1 to 6
- a quite different style of story involving Michael and his angels in vv 7 to 9
- a Christian hymn of praise, celebrating the victory that has been won, in vv 10 to 12
- in v 13, a return to the original story, clearly signalled by the repetition of the woman, her birth to the male son, and her flight to the desert (using Exodus language which also occurs in Is 40) for the same period. (3.5 years = 42 months = 1260 days if you have perfect months of 30 days each.)
2. The characters clearly come from the Old Testament. The woman stands for the people of God, experiencing oppression or suffering expressed as birthpangs, waiting to be ‘delivered’, in both sense of the term, by Yahweh (see Isaiah 26.17, Isaiah 66.7, Micah 4.10, Micah 5.3). The dragon is explained as the serpent and Satan (Gen 3.13, Ezek 29.3, Job 1.6, Zech 3.1). The male son is the expected messiah, the anointed one who will be the agent of God’s rescue and delivery (Ps 2.9, Dan 10.13).
3. But what about the plot of the main story framing this whole chapter? If I retold the gospel story starting ‘There were three bears who lived in a wood…’ or ‘A girl went out in a red cloak with a hood…’ then you would recognise the story immediately. If you lived in the Roman province of Asia in the first century, you would immediately recognise Rev 12, because it would remind you of this:
Python, son of Terra, was a huge dragon. He was accustomed to giving oracles on Mount Parnassus before the time of Apollo. He was informed by an oracle that he would be destroyed by the offspring of Leto. At that time Zeus was living with Leto. When [Zeus’ wife] Hera learned of this, she decreed that Leto should give birth at a place where the sun does not reach. When Python perceived that Leto was pregnant by Zeus, he began to pursue (her) in order to kill her. But, by order of Zeus, the North Wind (Aquilo) lifted Leto up and carried her to Poseidon; Poseidon protected her, but in order not to rescind Hera’s decree, he carried her to the island Ortygia and covered the island with waves. When Python did not find Leto, he returned to Parnassus. But Poseidon returned the island Ortygia to the upper region, and it was later called the island of Delos. There, holding on to an olive tree, Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, to whom Haphaestus gave arrows as a gift. Four days after they were born, Apollo avenged his mother. He went to Parnassus and killed Python with arrows.
This was told as a myth in support of imperial power: the emperor was the hero Apollo and he vanquishes Python, symbolising the forces of chaos and disorder, bringing in Pax Romana. The book of Revelation inverts this: the Apollo figure is now this male child who is to rule the nations, and the chaos monster now represents God’s primeval enemy, of whom Roman rule (in the form of the beast from the sea) is henchman. Here we have a written example of a political cartoon, used to tell us the truth about whether Caesar is Lord or Jesus is Lord.
But the most puzzling thing about the passage is the role of Michael in delivering the victory of the messiah. Once you know the Python/Leto story, it is clear from the first part of Rev 12 that it is the ‘male son’ who is the champion. But when it comes to delivering the knock-out blow (as it were) in v 9, then this messiah figure is nowhere to be seen. And yet, when we reach the hymn celebrating the victory, in vv 10 and 11, it is clear not only that the victory belongs to the messiah, but that it has been won at the cost of his own blood. Why is there such discontinuity at the crucial moment? It is a puzzle that baffles most commentators.
Part of the answer lies in the fact that John, writing Revelation, is drawing on different traditions and stories in these different sections—the Python/Leto myth at beginning and end, and Jewish tradition about Michael in the middle. But he could have easily adapted them to address this issue. No, I think it is quite deliberate. John wants to avoid the idea that the male son is ‘greater’ than the serpent, as if it were possible to compare the two. Like Isaiah, he wants us to say ‘Mi-cha-el? Who is like God? There is no-one with whom he compares.’ Jesus’ victory is so comprehensive, so far-reaching, so surprising and radical, so gracious and life-giving, that there can be no comparison with his adversary, the accuser of the brethren.
Perhaps we should stick with Chris Tomlin’s verses from his song only—unless someone can suggest an alternative chorus?
(You can read more about the interpretation of Revelation, including chapter 12, in my Grove booklet.)