Is Revelation a vision—or an audition?

One of the things I have noticed in studying Revelation in the last couple of years is the amount and importance of the material that John reports that he hears in comparison with what he sees. There have been several studies of the hymnic material in Revelation, and these sections are important in themselves, partly because of their theological importance, partly because of their eschatological focus, and partly because (in chapter 4 and 5) they reflect elements of the imperial cult and so offer a sense of ‘polemical displacement’ where John (as it were) rips ideas away from the imperial cult and asserts that all obeisance belongs to God alone. But I am not aware of any studies of the auditory material as a whole, of which the hymnic material is a part.

Attached below is the text of Revelation which I have divided into the vision report material and the audition report material, and immediately we see something remarkable: the vision report material comprises 55% of the text, whilst things John hears comprises 43% (the remainder is the short introduction and conclusion). (I should add that this is not an exact split, and you might want to quibble with my allocation at the margins.) So although most artwork of John on Patmos depicts him as looking up and seeing something, we might just as well depict him listening up and hearing carefully! And there several things it is worth noting about this auditory material.

First, it comes in three main forms. The most obvious (to the ordinary reader) is the hymnic material, which is prominent in chapters 4 and 5, 7, 11, 14, 16 and 19. This does important theological work in the early chapters, in particular articulating the convergence of divine identity between the One on the Throne and the lamb. But the later material has an eschatological focus, and shifts our attention to the justice of God’s judgements, with phrases about justice linking the acclamations in 14, 16 and 19. The second kind of auditory material consists of short interjections which are a mixture of statements and commands, which function to identify people and action, and move the vision report narrative on. But the third kind, which many readers do not at first notice, are the long blocks of reported speech. The first of these is the sequence of seven royal pronouncements or messages issues by the risen Jesus to be passed to the assemblies (ekklesiai) in the seven churches. Our chapter divisions obscure the continuity of speech from the vision of Jesus into the messages.

The second (shorter) block comes in chapter 11; John is instructed (by an angel? by God?) to measure the temple, and this commands runs into a description in the future tense of ‘my witnesses’. This future tense speech appears to continue until verse 10 (‘The inhabitants of the earth will gloat…’) and only decisively ends as John reverts to his usual past tense of vision report in verse 11. The auditory material then continues in the hymn that completes chapter 11 from verse 15 onwards. The third major block of spoken material runs from 17.7, with the angel’s interpretation of the prostitute on the beast and the kings and hills, through the cries of woe at the fall of Babylon in chapter 18, to the hymn of triumph ending at 19.8.

Secondly, though there are obvious differences between the vision report and audition reports in content, structure and language, there are also some striking elements of continuity. The first relates to a particular interest of mine, word frequencies. Words that come with notable frequencies, like the seven ‘blesseds’ and ten ‘inhabitants of the earth’ and ‘kings of the earth’, appear in the introductory and ending material, in vision reports and in audition reports. As in relation other aspects of discontinuity, these special words appear to stitch the text into a remarkably unified whole.

But the other thing to note here is that the audition reports are just as ‘visual’, that is, strikingly metaphorical, as the vision report material. So, whilst we have a much-depicted vision of Jesus in chapter 1, we also have the arresting metaphor ‘I stand at the door at knock’ in Rev 3.20 which also has a notably history of depiction. And the material in chapter 11 is almost a vision report (in the future tense) that John is recording—a report of a report—and so seems in some ways as ‘visual’ as John’s own visions. Whilst the strict form of the visionary and auditory material is different, the style is often very similar—and that explains why we mostly do not notice the transition.

Thirdly, the interrelation between what John hears and what he sees is held together tightly in the narrative, and is key to our reading and interpretation. In Rev 1.10, John hears a ‘great voice’ that is ‘like a trumpet speaking’, which in Ex 19.16 and 19 is the voice of God issuing his commandments. He then ‘turns to see the voice’, and encounters ‘one like a son of man’ who also has features of the Ancient of Days, both from Dan 7. What John hears and what he sees interpret one another: the authoritative voice of God is now heard in the words of Jesus—which also become ‘what the Spirit is saying to the assemblies’ (at the end of each message). A number of times John ‘looked and heard’ (as in 5.11); he hears the command to ‘Come!’ and he sees the four horsemen in chapter 6; he sees the New Jerusalem descend and he hears the significance of it in 21.1–3. Perhaps the most significant connection between hearing and seeing comes in chapter 7. John hears the ethnically Jewish, finite, faithful remnant being counted out (Rev 7.4), then turns to see that they are multi-ethnic, international, and cannot be counted (Rev 7.9).

Fourthly, this phenomenon of seeing and hearing locates John within the biblical prophetic tradition in quite a distinctive way. In the Old Testament  the most common word for ‘prophet’ is the term navi, which has a sense of being a spokesperson. But 1 Sam 9.9 records a more ancient term, ‘seer’, that is, one who sees (using the ordinary verb for sight). So there is already here an intermixing of the visual and the spoken. And the most distinctive phrase associated with the prophets is ‘The word of the Lord came to…’ all the way from Genesis 15.1 (to Abraham) to Zechariah 7.1. It is particularly prominent in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, two of the most visual prophets, and is often accompanied by visual observations. So Jeremiah sees an almond tree and a boiling pot (Jer 1.11, 13) just as Amos has seen a plumb line (Amos 7.8) and a basket of ripe fruit (Amos 8.1).

At the end of Revelation, John emphasised this combination of seeing and hearing, and in doing so makes connections with a particular NT tradition. In Rev 22.8, as part of his emphatic handing on of his testimony to his audience (with the authority of Jesus as its ultimate author), John reiterates ‘I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship…’ (though, in an ironic and salutary move, he worships the wrong person). This echoes the opening of the first letter of John:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. (1 John 1.1–3).

The Johannine signature also pops up in the account of John and Peter before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4.20: “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

So there is a strong connection between Revelation and the prophetic tradition of the OT in John’s seeing and hearing—which supports Richard Bauckham’s characterisation of Revelation as ‘the climax of prophecy’ in the title of his collection of studies. And there is a particular link with the Johannine combination of seeing and hearing—though with an important differentiation. Despite John having used the verb orao to refer to what he has seen (the word from which we derive our ‘panorama‘), at this final point he switches to the verb blepo. So, as is often the case with Revelation and the other Johannine gospel and letters, there is a closeness of theological ideas, but a difference in the actual use of words.

What does this imply for our reading and interpretation of Revelation? First, that we should attend to the transitions between the vision reports and the audition reports, and in particular attend to the relationship between them and the connections that are made. But, on a larger scale, we ought to be aware of Revelation as an aural text (so to speak). Revelation has no parallel in the extent of its influence on visual media and art, and it has also had an influence on Christian hymnody. But commonly people suppose that we will be helped by visualising the text, by recreating what John ‘saw’. In fact, given the amount of auditory material, we will be best helped by hearing not seeing the text—Revelation needs to be heard, even performed, for us to engage with it. It is a powerful argument for both reading extracts from the text well in the local church, and even for putting on a performance of the whole book. Watch this space…!

Text of revelation split into visual and auditory: Revelation vision and audition

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9 thoughts on “Is Revelation a vision—or an audition?

  1. I wouldn’t have guessed that the percentages were 55% and 43%!

    Perhaps the distinction is of secondary importance to John – the point is that certain things need to be communicated, and some of these are naturally communicated visually, others verbally. I would assume that the same situation obtains in Daniel – an assumption which could be totally wrong.

    Irenaeus has generally been taken to mean that the Apocalypse (rather than John himself) was ‘seen’ in the mid-90s. (This date would of course coincide with a likely death-date for John the Elder, and it is conceivable that the 2 dates have been conflated; but without positive evidence that is not much to go on.) In that case, Irenaeus would be regarding the book in the conventional (but maybe questionable) way: as primarily a vision.

  2. I would love to see (no, hear) Revelation ‘performed’ as the Gospels have often been ‘performed’. A challenging project, but great opportunities for powerful dramatic presentation.

    • I always think of J C Trewin’s title ‘We’ll Hear A Play’ as the classic example of a book-title that would no longer be accepted by a publisher. It would come back to him with red lines through, replaced by ‘Let’s See A Play’. But it looks like he was onto something.

      • Revelation has been especially popular in the (static) visual arts. The TimeLife Apocalypsis film was at times a jumble, esp. John’s plea for ‘a better world’ at the end, which was a non sequitur. How about the auditory (musical settings, poetry)?

        Tavener attempted to treat the broader sweep of the narrative – or Mother Thekla’s frenzied re-rendition of it – musically, which is certainly a challenge.
        Haydn understandably took off his hat to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus (19.6 + 11.15); little known is that its middle section is indebted to the Lutheran Wachet Auf (Sleepers, Wake) more often associated with Bach.

        I think most anthems (e.g. Weelkes ‘Alleluia: I heard a voice’) and choruses (too many to count) stick to the hymnic material; the remainder is often steered clear of. This is partly because the content of the narrative is too specific, even time-specific, for more general application. I could think of only a few examples of anthemising Revelation’s narrative:
        Blow ‘I beheld and lo! a great multitude’ (a strong piece) – ch.7
        Harwood ‘O how glorious is the kingdom’ (of its time, but very pleasant listening) – ch.7
        Goss ‘I heard a voice from heaven’ (peters out almost as soon as it begins) -ch. 14
        Bainton ‘And I saw a new heaven’ (a masterpiece) -ch. 21.

        Julia Ward Howe’s ‘Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory’ (cf. ch.14) is superb in exactly the same way as Francis Thompson’s ‘O Captain of the Wars’ (quoted in Dillistone ‘Christian Understanding of Atonement’: cf. 19.11-13) in fusing the gory with the glory. The full magnificent spiritual-warfare vision.

        Popular Christian settings of Rev.1:
        Adrian Snell’s longer version of the initial Son of Man vision (concluding in the chorus ‘O rejoice! the holy city comes’) is quite lovely.
        So is Robin Mark’s ‘Days of Elijah’.
        David Fellingham like newfrontiers in general is noted especially for an emphasis on Ephesians (which seems to have influenced Revelation) but also sets Revelation itself, e.g. in ‘At Your Feet We Fall’.

  3. Why does Revelation 21 begin by telling me there will be no Sea in the new heaven and new earth ? More than a little disappointing ?

  4. From our now-on-old-earth perspective, I think there will be lots of disappointments in heaven. From our new-heavens-and-new-earth perspective, we won’t worry about them. To me, ‘no sea’ speaks of safety and security, since the sea seems to have functioned as a metaphor for chaos in the biblical writings.

  5. I think the fascinating observation about the phrase ‘seen and heard’ in in 1 John and John-and-Peter’s speech in Acts can take us further still in uniting the authorship of all the Johannine writings.

    “So there is a strong connection between Revelation and the prophetic tradition of the OT in John’s seeing and hearing…And there is a particular link with the Johannine combination of seeing and hearing—though with an important differentiation. Despite John having used the verb orao to refer to what he has seen (the word from which we derive our ‘panorama‘), at this final point he switches to the verb blepo. So, as is often the case with Revelation and the other Johannine gospel and letters, there is a closeness of theological ideas, but a difference in the actual use of words.”

    But it is characteristic of the Johannine author(s) to vary the vocabulary for pure stylistic effect. For instance in John 21:15-17 we find
    “Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love(agapao) me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love(phileo) you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed(bosko) my lambs(arnion).’ Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you love(agapao) me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love(phileo) you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of(poimaino) my sheep(probaton).’ The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love(phileo) me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love(phileo) me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love(phileo) you.’ Jesus said, Feed(bosko) my sheep(probaton)’ ”
    While interpreters such as JB Phillips have tried to find meaning in the variation between agapao & phileo for to love, most would argue that the variation is stylistic only, and no-one I think has tried to argue that the similar variation between bosko & poimaino for to pasture/pastor and between arnion & probaton for lamb / sheep is anything but stylistic.

    So the existence of variation in vocabulary to express words of the same meaning is an argument FOR the unified authorship of the Johannine corpus, not an argument against it!

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