Is the Book of 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. (The classic study of this is David Aune ‘The influence of Roman imperial court ceremonial on the Apocalypse of John’, BR 18 (1983) included in Apocalypticism, Prophecy, and Magic in Early Christianity Baker, 2008.) 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. In fact, looking at this again, I think I have mistakenly included some introductions to auditory material in the vision section, so I think the split is really more like 52%/46%. If any reader would like to take this text, edit it appropriately and send it back, I would be very happy!)

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.

Thus I observe (in my IVP commentary, p 138):

The language of worship here does a remarkable thing in identifying the lamb as equal with the one on the throne in deserving of worship and adulation – in a text which implicitly refutes the claims of the human figures to be deserving of such obeisance. Because of this, it is reasonable to claim that it offers us the highest possible Christological understanding in the whole New Testament: what we can say of God in worship, we can say of Jesus.  The two figures of the one seated on the throne and the lamb are thus characterised as God the creator and God the redeemer. These figures are never quite merged, and remain distinct within the narrative of Revelation and, unlike the association of the Word with the work of creation in John’s gospel, their roles also remain distinct. But in the final hymn of praise, the worship is given to the two as if they were one.

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, most notably:

“You are just in these judgments, you who are and who were, the Holy One, because you have so judged; for they have shed the blood of your people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” And I heard the altar respond: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments” (Rev 16.5–7)

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (Rev 19.1–2)

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? the particle λέγων is notable as one of Revelation’s grammatical irregularities since it has no antecedent) 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). You can find my detailed exposition of this as a sermon in this post and video.


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.


For an introduction to Revelation, see my Grove booklet How to Read the Book of RevelationFor detailed comment on all these texts, see my IVP Commentary. For group study material, see my new study booklet published by IVP and LICC.

Text of revelation split into visual and auditory: Revelation vision and audition. This article published previously in a shorter form in 2018.

(The picture at the top is Titian, ‘St Johns the Evangelist on Patmos’, 1553–5.)


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2 thoughts on “Is the Book of Revelation a vision—or an audition?”

  1. Ian,

    I like the way you bring out the Aural aspects found in Revelation. Yet you did not mention Revelation 1:3 with the three senses are merged, ” Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”

    The word for “hear” is “ἀναγινώσκω, read out loud.” Another derivative, “ἀνάγνωσις, εως.” also refers to the act of reading something written, normally done aloud and thus involving verbalization—‘to read, reading.’”
    1. ἀναγινώσκω: οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε τί ἐποίησεν Δαυίδ, ‘have you never read what David did’ Mk 2:25.
    2. ἀνάγνωσις: τὸ αὐτὸ κάλυμμα ἐπὶ τῇ ἀναγνώσει τῆς παλαιᾶς διαθήκης μένει ‘the same veil remains unlifted when they read from the Old Testament’ 2 Cor 3:14.
    In a culture that was primarily oral, the aural was highly valued when accompanied by the “reading” of a written document. Modern readers miss a lot when they are performing “passive” reading, i.e. the movement of the eyes while the brain may or may not be engaged. In the scenario of Revelation 1:3 in which an emphasis is placed on “reading out loud, and hearing,” there is an engagement of the “oral, aural, sight, and brain.” It forces one to slow down (quick to hear and slow to speak of James 1:19 comes to mind) and pay attention to the words, punctuation, and actually listen to what the text says.
    Finally, what is great about 1:3 is that there is a blessing for the person who READS aloud, HEARS and KEEPS what is written in the book. By extension to the entirety of Scripture.

    Reply
  2. Hi Ian,
    Just back from digging a pond and thinking on what you have written here.
    Is the seeing always followed by hearing? E.g. John hears about the Lion but sees a Lamb. What he sees expounds what he heard. It may be that every vision in Rev. is an answer to a question set as an audition. Just a thought. I must go and see…

    Reply

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