Thursday, October 27, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Throne Room (Chs. 4-5)

At the close of Chapter 4, with nearly one fifth of the book now completed, John has spent strikingly little time doing anything like predicting events of the near or distant future. Chapter 4 itself, quite the opposite, is dedicated to John's first direct experience of God. He finds himself standing before the divine throne in a surreal and awe-inspiring landscape. Heralded into the throne room by a trumpet like voice, he beholds the divine person seated on a throne, ruddier than the most fiery gemstones, and crowned with a emerald rainbow. The great throne, from which issues pleas of thunder and flashes of lightening, is surrounded by dozens of lesser thrones, seven burning flames, and a sea of crystal. Just to punctuate the scene, the four most gruesome creatures ever devised in Old Testament apocalyptic--all eyes and wings and bestial visages--surround the throne.

What should immediately strike the reader, and it is hard to imagine that this was not John's intention, is that these creatures--infinitely more terrible and wonderful and awesome than John himself--devote themselves constantly to worship. "They never cease to say, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'" These creatures are the kind of divinities etched on hundreds of ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian reliefs; they are the type of figures you would expect to find Canaanite idols of scattered throughout the Levant. They represent the epitome of human imagination and our conception of the supreme otherness of the demons and deities which populated the ancient world, and yet they have no other purpose in the throne room of God but to declare His holiness for all eternity. What's more, as often as they offer their praise to God--which is ironic, since John has always told us that this is a continuous act--the two dozen regal figures on the lesser thrones prostrate themselves before the throne of God and cry out "Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power..." In other words, John bursts into the throne room of God, and no sooner does he describe the splendor of its royal figures and mythic creatures than the whole scene erupts into a celestial liturgy in which all the most magnificent inhabitants of heaven take turns bowing and praising God eternally. The reader can even infer, by turning back to the narrative in Ezekiel 1 which John is clearly invoking, that John himself responded much as he had when confronted with the presence of the Lord in chapter 1 and joined the divine company in worship.

It is perhaps enough to take from this scene that the God whom we serve and who the persecuted readers served is greater than all other powers, familiar and fantastic. Certainly this is true and would have come to John's readers as a continued reassurance that the forces which oppressed them, both civil and celestial, were immediately reduced to nothing in the presence of God. There is, however, an additional message which can be derived from experiencing this scene with John. A professor of mine as an undergraduate once told our New Testament class that the greatest lesson that no one takes away from Revelation is that it teaches us who we worship and how we should worship Him. It is telling that the worship of God begins first with who He is and moves into what He has done. Beginning with a tripartite recognition of that supreme divine quality of holiness, the four creatures announce that God is praised as the one who was and is and is to come. Merely that God exists and that He exists as He is seems enough to warrant never ending praise from the four creatures. The elders, in turn, offer an antiphon announcing that God deserves all glory, honor, and power because He "created all things and by your will they existed and were created." If it were not enough that God is God, then the fact that He deigned to create obliges all of creation to glorify Him for their existence. Quite contrary to a modern attitude which praises God most fervently when some blessing is bestowed or some calamity averted, the lesson in worship given by John is that before you ever encounter God on a personal level or entreat Him for any specific blessing He is worthy of your unreserved, unqualified, unceasing praise. The moment He spoke everything which is into existence--and before even that by virtue of who He is--He deserved everything. That He settles for less is a testimony to His mercy; that we expect Him to, a testimony to our hubris.

Much the same formula continues passing into chapter five. After having been introduced to "him who sits on the throne," the reader is then confronted with the equally dramatic image of the Lamb: seated at the right hand of the throne of God with the appearance of a seven-horned, seven-eyed slain lamb. The response of the living creatures and the elders is no less immediate and no less unqualified than it was for the Father. They instantly begin a new song dedicated to the lamb which declares his worthiness for praise in terms equal with that of the one of the throne. The message becomes clear in the closing lines of the whole throne scene which summarize all of creation's appropriate response to God: "And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, 'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!' And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" and the elders fell down and worshiped." There is no other appropriate response to the presence of our blessed, honorable, glorious, mighty God but immediate, unconditional, and unqualified worship.


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

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