The worship of the lamb in Revelation 5

This Sunday’s gospel lectionary reading is from John 21, relating the miraculous catch of fish and Jesus’ threefold restoration of Peter. But another one of the readings is Revelation 5.11-14, a truncated part of John’s account of the worship of the lamb. Some might be preferring to preach from that, so here is the comment I made on the whole section in my commentary on Revelation (which you might want to purchase…!). Italics indicate citations from the biblical text, though often in my own translation rather than any specific English version.


8. It is at the moment that he took the scroll (rather than after it, as implied by some translations) that the chorus of praise breaks out. The four living creatures and the elders, who have previously been prostrate before the one seated on the throne, now offer exactly the same worship to the lamb. It was customary in the first century to stand for prayer, both in Graeco-Roman practice as well as for Jews and Christians (Luke 18:11; 1 Tim. 2:8), so this prostration demonstrates extreme reverence or urgent supplication. Although unclear in some translations, it is the elders (and not the living creatures) who each had a harp; the seven-stringed harp or kithara was widely used, but here the allusion is to the depiction of the Levites in 1 Chron. 24–25 (see comment on 4:4). To hold and play harps and to hold the bowls of incense while prostrated is impossible; the symbolic significance is of the elders performing priestly acts as representatives of the priestly people of God. Bowls were in common use in both Graeco-Roman and Jewish worship, usually wide and shallow in form; they were used to hold wine, flour or incense. The most valuable were made of gold. The burning of incense was not part of early Christian worship and was explicitly rejected by some in the early second century – so we are here offered a metaphor about prayer, not an insight into early Christian devotional practice. The idea of prayer as metaphorical incense draws on Ps. 141:2 ‘Let my prayer be set before you as incense’, and the prayers of the saints will come to include (but are not limited to) the cries for deliverance and justice in 6:9–11; the two are combined in 8:4–5. The term ‘saints’ (hagioi, ‘holy ones’) occurs 14 times in Revelation,[1] as does the term ‘servants’, another designation for the people of God (see comment on 1:1, 2).

9–10. The idea of singing a new song comes primarily from Ps. 96:1 and 98:1 (though it is also found in Pss. 33:3; 144:9; 149:1; Isa. 42:10) and is found again on the lips of the redeemed in Rev. 14:3. This is not particularly a song of victory, but a fresh song of celebration of God’s mighty deeds of salvation for his people, especially in the context of God as lord over the whole earth. In the light of Revelation’s extensive use of the Old Testament, it is reading too much into this phrase to suggest that the ‘newness’ relates to the new salvation in Jesus, the lamb; the God of Israel has constantly been giving of himself to his people, even as they have turned from him, and this finds its fullest expression in the self-giving of the lamb. It is not clear whether John hears a song, a chant, or a said acclamation; the word translated saying (legontes) is used in Revelation to introduce direct speech of any kind.

Although key ideas in this praise come from the Old Testament, the language of worthy, and the repetition of honorific terms are (as in Rev. 4) reminiscent of the acclamations given to the emperor. The praise now makes explicit the connection between the lamb being slain and being worthy, and combines the language of the sacrificial system (blood) with the distinct election of God’s people (Ps. 74:2 ‘Remember the people you purchased long ago…whom you redeemed’). If God’s saving action has been redefined in the sacrifice of the lamb, then the extent of God’s people has also been redefined. The four-fold phrase from every tribe and language and people and nation combines the language of the genealogy of the peoples of the world from Gen. 10:31 (‘tribes, tongues, territories and nations’) with the language of distinct election of Israel from Exod. 19:5 (‘out of all nations you will be my treasured possession’) which is echoed in the restoration promise of Ezek. 36:24. The people purchased by the blood of the lamb are to be distinct, but instead of being separated from all the other nations as one nation, they are now members of every nation on earth. This fourfold phrase is repeated seven times in Revelation, though never in exactly the same form twice:

Verse5:97:910:1111:913:714:617:15
Formtribe

language

people

nation

nation

tribes

peoples

languages

peoples

nations

languages

kings

peoples

tribes

languages

nations

tribes

people

language

nations

nation

tribe

language

people

peoples

multitudes

nations

languages

The three terms ‘language’, ‘people’ and ‘nation(s)’ are included each time, while the fourth term varies between ‘tribe’ (5 times), ‘kings’ (once) and ‘multitudes’ (once).

The song repeats the affirmation from 1:6 that Jesus, the lamb, has made the people to be a kingdom and priests, but adds the future promise that they will reign on the earth.[2] This fulfils the creation intention that humanity should exercise dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26) and points to the final victory at the End. The verb ‘to reign’ is used seven times (5:10; 11:15; 11:7; 19:6; 20:4; 20:6; 22:5) always of God, the lamb and his followers, and anticipates their shared reign in the New Jerusalem.

11–12. Again, John combines the two senses as he looked and heard the song of the angels and of all creation. He gives the number of them as myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, once again in the reverse order from what we might have expected – but the significance of this number is, paradoxically, that there are too many to count. Once more, it is striking that the lamb is given the praise that was previously given to the one on the throne; the seven terms suggest a completeness or totality of affirmation, and they include within them the three terms (glory and honour and power, in reverse this time) of acclamation given in 4:11. The significance of these terms rests not so much in their individual meaning is in their cumulative impact.

13–14. John’s cosmic geography breaks down here, as what he now hears is not simply what is happening in one place or in one part of creation, but in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, reflecting the language of the creation narratives that refer to the sky (heavens), earth and sea as the three realms of the created order. To emphasise this comprehensiveness, John’s phrase contains the redundancy of specifying all that is within themwhen he has already mentioned every creature. Having heard two stanzas of praise to the one on the throne, and two stanzas of praise to the lamb, John now hears the two praised as one, with acclamation being given to the one on the throne and to the lamb, so that they are both distinct and yet indistinguishable. The four terms of acclamation echo the three terms addressed to God in Rev. 4, adding ‘praise’, one of the other four terms addressed to the lamb. As representatives of the creation, the living creatures simply add their ‘Amen’ to what the creation itself it affirming (the third of seven ‘Amen’s declared in the book), and as representatives of the people of God, the elders fall down and worship.


Theology

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.

The placing of these scenes of heavenly worship following on from the royal proclamations to the assemblies in the seven cities has a powerful rhetorical impact. The followers of Jesus might be facing particular challenges and opportunities, located within their own cultural and physical contexts – yet the context for all their struggles is this cosmic vision of the praise of God and of the lamb. Where they might feel as though they are ‘swimming against the tide’ in terms of dissenting from the cultural norms of their society – in their non-participation in the trade guilds with their associated deities, in their moral stance, and in their reluctance to participate in the imperial cult – the juxtaposition of Rev. 4–5 offers a startling reconfiguration of their world. All of creation is caught up, not in obeisance to the emperor, but in the worship of the God and Father of Jesus, and of the lamb, and any who are not taken up with this are, in fact, in the minority. It is an extraordinary cultural and spiritual counter-claim to the majority perception of reality. And in its emotive extravagance, this vision of worship is not offered as a rational fact, but as a compelling call for all readers to join in themselves.

It is also important to note that, while there are elements that look to the future restoration and recreation of the world, this is primarily a vision of how things are now, and a reality in which readers can participate now, as an anticipation of the reality that all will one day see clearly.

[1] ‘Hagioi’ occurs in 5:8, 8:3, 8:4, 11:18, 13:7, 13:10, 14:10; 14:12, 16:6, 17:6, 18:20, 18:24, 19:8 and 20:9.

[2] Some manuscripts have this in the present tense ‘they are reigning on the earth’, but that hardly fits with what the following chapters say about the present condition or the future hope of God’s people.


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1 thought on “The worship of the lamb in Revelation 5”

  1. If the reign of believers on the earth takes place at the end, what will their be left to reign over? The Israelites asked Samuel to give them a king who would judge among the people and protect them from their enemies. Will either of these functions be necessary when the faithful finally do “rule the nations with an iron rod”?

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