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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

Revelation 5

Verses 1-99

The Book with Seven Seals. Chap. 5 vv. 1 8

1. in the right hand ] Lit. on the right hand lying on the open palm.

a book ] i.e. a roll: the ordinary meaning for the equivalent words in all ancient literature, though books arranged in leaves like ours were not unknown.

written within and on the backside ] So Ezekiel 2:10 . It was a recognised but quite exceptional way of getting an unusual amount of matter into a single volume: such rolls were called opisthographi . See Juv. i. 6, where he complains of an interminable poem, “written till the margin at the top of the book is full, and on the back, and not finished yet.” If we are to ask, how St John saw that it was thus written, it may be said that he saw that there was writing on the part outside, between the seals, and took for granted that this implied that the side folded inwards was full of writing too. But perhaps this is too minute: St John saw the book now, and learnt (either now or afterwards) how it was written.

sealed ] See Isaiah 29:11 ; Daniel 12:4 .

The traditional view, so far as there is one, of this sealed book is, that it represents the Old Testament, or more generally the prophecies of Scripture, which are only made intelligible by their fulfilment in Christ. But Christ’s fulfilment of prophecy was, in St John’s time, to a great extent past: and he was told (4:1) that what he was now to see was concerned with the future. Many post-Reformation commentators, both Romanist and Protestant, have supposed the Book to be the Apocalypse itself: some supposing, by a further refinement, that the seven seals were so arranged that, when each was opened, a few lines of the Book could be unrolled, viz. those describing what was seen after its opening: while the opening of the last would enable the whole roll to be spread out. But of this there is not the smallest evidence in the Apocalypse itself: nor do we ever find the Prophets of Scripture representing, as Mahomet did, that their writings are copies of an original archetype in Heaven. Most modern commentators therefore generalise, and suppose that it is the Book of God’s counsels. Some insist on the fact that though the seals are all broken, “no portion of the roll is actually unfolded, nor is anything read out of the book:” they suppose it to stand for the complete counsel of God, which will not become intelligible till it has all been fulfilled, not therefore before the end of time. But this Book tells us what is to happen until all has been fulfilled, until time has ended: and why then do we not hear of the opening of the Book, even if it be not for us yet to know what is written therein? And to this we may answer, we are told, 20:12, of the opening of a very important Book, the Book of Life; and that Book belongs to the Lamb that was slain, 13:8, 21:27. Is not then this Book the same as that? so that the opening of it will be “the manifestation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19 ).

3. no man ] Better, no one the term includes others as well as men.

under the earth ] i.e. in the world of the dead. In view of v. 13, we can hardly make it mean “in the sea,” on the analogy of Exodus 20:4 fin.

neither to look thereon ] Which would have enabled him to read some fragments of its contents, viz. as much as was written on the outer fold of the back of the roll.

4. And I ] The pronoun is emphatic: “no one could open it: I for my part wept for the impossibility.” Why he wept will be variously explained, according to the view taken of the meaning of the Book. If it be the Book of Life, the reason is obvious: if it be the future purposes of God, the impossibility of opening it threatened to disappoint the promise of 4:1.

5. one of the elders ] It is idle to speculate which; even if it be assumed certain that the twenty-four are the Patriarchs and Apostles, they represent their federal office, not their individual character. We can hardly suppose that St John saw himself seated among them.

the Lion of the tribe of Juda ] Genesis 49:9 .

the root of David ] 22:16; Isaiah 11:1 , Isaiah 11:10 , where however we have the Root of Jesse . Some distinguish the two phrases, that Christ is said to grow from the obscure Jesse in reference to the time of His humiliation, from the kingly David in reference to His exaltation.

hath prevailed to open ] Lit. hath conquered : Christ’s victory (see 3:21 and ref.) has this consequence, that He can open. There is a well-supported reading, “the Lion hath conquered, Who openeth” … but this is grammatically easier, and less effective both presumptions in favour of the text.

to loose ] Should be omitted as a gloss: we hear of “opening the seals” all through the next chapter.

6. and lo ] Should be omitted: the construction is, “And I saw in the midst of … a Lamb standing.”

in the midst of the throne ] See on 4:6. In this passage, the sense might be merely “in the centre of the (semicircular?) space surrounded by …,” but 7:17 disproves this. If it be not rash to attempt to work out the details of the picture, I would conjecture that the four living creatures were under the four corners of the Throne, with their heads and wings projecting beyond it: and the Lamb stood in the midst of the front of it, appearing as proceeding from between the feet of Him Who sat thereon.

stood ] Expressed by a participle, and with the true reading (see above) should be so translated, “I saw … a Lamb standing.”

Lamb ] See Isaiah 53:7 ; John 1:29 , John 1:36 . Too much importance has been given to the fact that St John uses a different Greek word here from that in his Gospel, and in the LXX. of Isaiah. It is doubtful whether the LXX. is used in the O. T. references in this Book; and the form here used is a diminutive and a neuter. It is awkward to use a neuter noun of a Person, but in this Book St John boldly uses masculines in reference to the Lamb (as in his Gospel he once or twice does in reference to the Spirit): while in the Gospel he is less regardless of grammatical rules, and therefore prefers the masc. form.

as it had been slain ] The true construction calls attention to the paradox, a Lamb appearing with its throat cut, yet not lying dead or dying, but standing. It serves to typify “Him that liveth and was dead, and is alive for evermore” (1:18). The risen Christ bore, and doubtless bears, the wounds of His Passion unaltered unhealed, though apparently not bleeding, John 20:25 , John 20:27 .

seven horns and seven eyes ] The Spirit is to Him both strength and wisdom. The horn is throughout the Bible the symbol of conquering might and glory: see e.g. 1 Kings 22:11 ; Zechariah 1:18 sqq., while 1 Samuel 2:1 , &c. shew that divine glory as well as earthly may be so expressed. For the seven eyes, see Zechariah 3:9 , Zechariah 4:10 . It is hardly fanciful to observe on the combination of horns and eyes , that a bull shuts his eyes when he charges. Sagacity in discerning truth in all its aspects, and power and promptitude in resolve and execution, are excellences scarcely ever combined in the great men of the world, the one usually varies inversely as the other; but “Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24 ) unites both.

seven spirits ] 1:4, 4:5.

sent forth , &c.] Taken, of course, from Zechariah 4:10 already referred to. The seven lamps of 4:5 represent the Spirit as eternally proceeding from and belonging to the Father: these represent Him as sent by the Son and belonging to the Son.

8. having every one of them ] Perhaps refers to the elders only; though it is not more difficult to picture the living creatures holding harps than the Lamb taking the Book and breaking the seals; nor is it more unfit that Cherubim and Seraphim should present the prayers of Saints than that a single Angel should bless them, as in 8:3 sq.

golden vials ] i.e. broad open bowls; more like saucers than any vessel in modern use.

which are the prayers ] If the strict grammar of this sentence is to be pressed, it is the “vials” not the “odours” which are identified with the “prayers.” See 8:3 and note there. Cf. Psalms 141:2 .

The New Song, vv. 9 13

9. And they sung ] Should be they sing. It may be only an historic present, but perhaps, though to the Seer the song of adoration appeared to begin now, and to stop in time to let other voices be heard, he means to intimate that in fact their adoration is continued to eternity. See on 4:9, 10.

and hast redeemed ] The word rendered “redeemed” means simply “bought,” as it is rendered in 1 Corinthians 6:20 , &c.: it does not express that the effect of the purchase was to restore those bought either to their rightful owner, or to liberty, though of course both are true, but all that this text expresses, is, that Christ has bought us, and that we now belong to His Father.

us ] Should be omitted. The elders probably represent the whole multitude of the redeemed, but they are not here said to belong to their number, and the living creatures certainly do not. The true reading is, “Thou wast slain, and hast purchased to God by Thy Blood out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nations, and hast made them unto our God a kingdom and priests, and they [shall] reign upon the earth.”

to God ] Notice that the phrase is the exact reverse of some lax modern language on the Atonement, which speaks as if the Son redeemed men from the Father. To say that Christ redeemed men from God’s wrath may be justified (e.g. by Galatians 3:13 ); but even that mode of expression is not exactly Scriptural. The metaphor of a ransom, which is frequent in Scripture, must not be pressed.

out of every kindred ] The first of many indications in this Book of the catholicity of the Church: of course, a conclusive refutation of the theories (see on 2:2) which ascribe to this Book a controversial anti-Pauline purpose, and a spirit of Jewish exclusiveness. There is really hardly anything in St Paul as strong as this or 7:9.

10. unto our God kings and priests ] See on the last verse for the true reading: on 1:6 for the origin of the phrase.

we shall reign ] Authorities are nearly evenly divided between the readings “they reign” and “they shall reign.” Perhaps the present is to be preferred, as the more difficult in sense; the future could be easily understood of the millennial reign (20:4), whatever that means. If we accept the present, it can hardly be used for a future, every one must feel that 2:22, &c. are not really parallel: rather, we may say that the faithful on earth are, even in their exile, kings de jure , as David was “when he was in the wilderness of Judah” (Psalms 63:0 ult. cf. title).

11. I beheld ] See on 4:1. The sense is, of course, that he saw the Angels whose voice he heard.

round about ] We cannot tell if they formed a complete circle round the Throne, or a semicircle between it and the Seer, or a semicircle on the side away from him. But though we cannot answer these questions, it is worth while to ask them: for it is plain that St John did see a definite picture.

ten thousand times ten thousand ] Lit. myriads of myriads, the Greek (and Hebrew) language having a single word for the number 10,000: so that the effect is as if we should say “millions of millions and thousands of thousands” (in Genesis 24:60 words equivalent to these are translated “thousands of millions.”) In Daniel 7:10 the order is the reverse, “thousand thousands … and ten thousand times ten thousand,” with the obvious motive of a climax: here the effect is, “there were hundreds of millions massed together, and if you counted those in the mass, the numbers you would leave over would be millions still.” The passage in Daniel is also imitated in Enoch xiv. 24, xl. 1.

12. power , &c.] Lit. the power. Notice that the praises ascribed are either sevenfold, as here; fourfold, as in the next verse; or threefold, as in 4:11, 19:1 (true text).

13. every creature ] Cf. Philippians 2:10 .

under the earth ] See on v. 3. It seems harsh to understand the words of an unwilling cooperation of the devils in glorifying God and His Son, besides that Jude 1:6 seems hardly to prove that all fallen spirits are yet confined “under the earth:” Matthew 8:29 compared with Luke 8:31 suggests the contrary. It is more possible to suppose the dead, even the holy dead, to be described as “under the earth.” In Enoch lxii. we have a hymn, somewhat resembling those of this Book, actually sung by the souls of the lost apparently in the intervals of their suffering. The souls of the Martyrs appear from this Book to be in Heaven, 6:9 sqq.: but we cannot be sure that this is true of all the faithful, and it is not certain that a disembodied soul can be said, except figuratively, to be in any place at all: so that the place where their bodies lie is perhaps the only place where the dead can properly be said to be.

such as are in the sea ] Read simply on the sea : including those in ships, and marine animals: see Psalms 104:26 .

Blessing, and honour ] Lit. the blessing, and the honour , &c. the art. being repeated with each noun, not, as in the preceding verse, standing once for all. The repetition of the article has perhaps none but a rhetorical or euphonic purpose. Whatever “power and riches …,” whatever “blessing and honour …” the world contains, all belongs of right to Him. Watts’ “Blessings more than we can give ” is a perfectly legitimate developement of the sense.

14. And the four and twenty … for ever and ever ] We should read simply, “and the elders fell down and worshipped” in silence. The brevity of the phrase, imitating their silent adoration, is really grander than the completer sentence of the A. V.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Revelation 5". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.