Saturday, October 29, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Songs of the Church (Excursus 1)

With the exception of the Psalter, there is no text quite so littered with songs as Revelation. Yet, unlike with Psalms, questions of worship rarely arise when reading through Revelation. They are buried unceremoniously under a spate of eschatological quandries. With the exception of the occasional hymn writer, most readers skim quickly over the at least fifteen distinct songs in Revelation. That sad fact is unfortunate when one considers the rich fruit even a cursory study of them can bear.

One of the most immediately striking facts about the worship is Revelation is precisely who is engaged in praise of God. The congregation of praise ranges from the limited company surrounding the throne of God (4:8,11; 5:9-10; 7:12) to a comprehensive picture of the whole creation (5:13). Certainly this should teach us that none of God's creation is exempt from the obligation to worship, but lest we think that the phrase "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea" is just a euphemism for all humanity, John throws a few curveballs our way. For example, at one point (16:7) the altar of God joins in the praise, singing "Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!" Not to be outdone, later (19:4) the throne of God will offer its own worship: "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great." Without trying to be too flippant, it is clear that John truly believes that if God's people won't praise Him then at least His furniture will.

More critical, though perhaps less amusing, than who is doing the praising in Revelation is who the object of that praise is. John makes a particular point of contrasting throughout the book those who worship God and those who worship the beast (14:9) or those who worship demons (9:20) or the dragon (13:4). Much of the contents of the hymns deal directly with God's worthiness to receive praise. From the outset (4:11), the elders declare "Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power," and, of Christ, the multitude in heaven says (5:12) "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" At the triumph over the beast (15:3-4), the victors ask in praise "O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name?" Finally, as the narrative winds down (19:1-3), "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God." In contrast, those who worshiped the beast are recipients of God's wrath (14:9-11). The good news for those who are constantly tempted to offer devotion to false gods--whether it be the genius of Ceasar or the perennial temptress of wealth--is that John shows himself not entirely immune to the temptation of false worship. On two occasions (19:10; 22:8) John tries to offer worship to an angel. In each instance, the angel rebukes John and offers him the simple command "Worship God." The latter of these instances occurs at the very end of the text, indicating that John's message is central to the whole book: whatever other idols vie for our allegiance, the duty of the whole creation can be distilled into "Worship God."

Finally, the content of the songs in Revelation have a great deal to teach us, in part because they say so little. While Psalms is notorious for its, at times, expansive, florid poetry, the psalms of Revelation are often no more than a couplet of Hebrew verse. For the most part, the conspiciously short hymns all have the same basic theme: glory to God. This is, undoubtedly, in part because the overarching purpose of Revelation is to demonstrate the superiority of God to all other powers which may be oppressing the churches. Still, it cannot be denied that John clearly demonstrates that the unqualified--not to mention unassuming--worship of God is appropriate in every situation. Before God has done anything (4:8), they sing, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!" When God is blessing (7:12), they sing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." When God is punishing (16:5-6), they sing, "Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments." And when the end of the book comes (19:6-8) and God has fulfilled all His people's expectations, the same theme resounds, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory." At all times, in all places, in all situations, the core message, simply and repeatedly expressed is fitting: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!" (5:13)


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

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