Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

Revelation 5

Verse 1

1. ἐπὶ τὴν δεξιάν. Perhaps the simplest explanation of the case is that in a decaying language an illiterate writer who knew that ἐπὶ was used with three cases took the accusative, where his phrase did not suggest the correct case as in ὁ καθήμενος ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ: possibly we are to understand that, as the book had not been seen before, the construction marks a new feature in the Vision, as if the book were so to speak an addition to the Hand. It lies in any case upon the open palm.

βιβλίον, 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.

γεγραμμένον ἔσωθεν καὶ ὄπισθεν. 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.” Ancient commentators who knew this still found many mysteries in the distinction between what was written without and what was written within. 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.

κατεσφραγισμένον. See Isaiah 29:11, Daniel 12:4. The seals are along the edge of one end of the roll.

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 (Revelation 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; though apparently the angel, Daniel 10:21, has read in Heaven what he declares to the seer on earth. 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, Revelation 20:12, of the opening of a very important Book, the Book of Life; and that Book belongs to the Lamb that was slain, Revelation 13:8, Revelation 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).

Verses 1-8


Verse 3

3. οὐδείς. “No one”—the term includes others as well as men.

ὑποκάτω τῆς γῆς, i.e. in the world of the dead. In view of Revelation 5:13, we can hardly make it mean “in the sea,” on the analogy of Exodus 20:4 fin. See on Revelation 5:13.

οὔτε βλέπειν αὐτό. 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.

Verse 4

4. καὶ [ἐγὼ]. The pronoun if genuine 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 Revelation 4:1.

Verse 5

5. εἷς ἐκ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων. Cf. Revelation 7:13, Revelation 15:7, Revelation 17:1, Revelation 21:9.

ὁ λέων ὁ ἐκ τῆς φυλῆς Ἰούδα. Genesis 49:9.

ἡ ῥίζα Δαυείδ. Revelation 22:16; Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 11:10, where however we have the Root of Jesse. Some distinguish the two phrases, as if Christ were said to grow from the obscure Jesse in reference to the time of His humiliation, from the kingly David in reference to His exaltation. But this shews a misconception of the original figure, which is taken from a tree that seemed to be dying, like the house of David in the days of Ahaz (Isaiah 7:13): then a new and stately stem shoots up from the root.

ἀνοῖξαι. Christ’s victory (won upon earth, which is an argument that the whole of the context is Christian) has this consequence that He can “open.” The well supported variant ὁ ἀνοίγων is grammatically easier and less effective—both presumptions in favour of the text.

Verse 6

6. καὶ εἶδον. There is high ancient authority for substituting καὶ ἰδοὺ, and some for adding it.

ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ θρόνου. See on Revelation 4:6. In this passage, the sense might be merely “in the centre of the (semicircular?) space surrounded by …,” but Revelation 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.

ἀρνίον. 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.

ἑστηκὼς ὡς ἐσφαγμένον. If ἑστηκὼς be right we should surely read ἰδοὺ above, a masculine nominative participle agreeing with a neuter accusative would be almost incredibly harsh. The 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” (Revelation 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.

κέρατα ἑπτὰ κ.τ.λ. The Spirit is made 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.

τὰ ἑπτὰ πνεύματα. Revelation 1:4, Revelation 4:5.

ἀπεσταλμένοι. Taken, of course, from Zechariah 4:10 already referred to. The seven lamps of Revelation 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.

Verse 7

7. καὶ ἦλθεν καὶ εἴληφεν. The absence of an object for εἴληφεν is very strange: and the difficulties of this book are due rather as a rule to redundancies than to ellipses: the perfect after the aorist is very strange also; cf. however Ev. Petri ἐχάρησαν δὲ οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι καὶ δεδώκασι τῷ Ἰωσὴφ τὸ σῶμα αὐτοῦ. Winer’s reference p. 340 to the custom of scholiasts, who explain an aorist verb in the text by a verb in the perfect, is irrelevant; the aorist is far commoner than the perfect in the language of the New Testament, whatever it may be in the language of scholiasts, and probably scholiasts use the perfect in explaining the matter of a book for the same reason as ancient and modern commentators use the present in discussing a writer who lived long ago: we say, “he says, he means, he sees, &c.” Cf. note on πῶς εἴληφας καὶ ἤκουσας (Revelation 3:3).

Verse 8

8. ἔχοντες ἕκαστος κιθάραν. The singular is certainly right, though nearly all Latin Versions, and fathers, and most late Greek MSS., alter it to suit φιάλας. If we attempt to carry the image into detail it is obvious that it was as impossible for the elders literally to play their harps and hold their bowls as it would be to speak while holding a two-edged sword in the mouth; up to a certain point 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 Revelation 8:3 sq.

φιάλας χρυσᾶς. The “vials” are broad open bowls; more like saucers than any vessel in modern use: it is a curious question how the word came to mean a bottle: apparently the φιάλη was intermediate between the κρατήρ and the drinking cup: it served the purpose of a bottle, and so the bottle, when it replaced it, took its name: the oldest French instance of fiole in the sense of bottle is in Joinville’s Life of St Louis, who kept a large bottle of wine and another of water on his table so that his knights might mix for themselves; but the change is probably older, as Henry 3. provided an onyx phiola for his shrine of Edward the Confessor, which probably resembled the perfume jars of the same material called ἀλάβαστρα, as having no handles, used in French cathedrals to hold the holy oil.

αἵ αἰσιν αἱ προσευχαί. If αἵ be right, and if we are to press the grammar, it is the “vials” with their contents, not merely the “odours,” which are identified with the “prayers.” See Revelation 8:3 and note there. Cf. Psalms 141 (140 LXX.):2 κατευθυνθήτω ἡ προσευχή μου ὡς θυμίαμα ἐνώπιόν σου.

Verse 9

9. ᾄδουσιν. This 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 Revelation 4:9-10.

ἠγόρασας. Prim, emisti, Vg[222] redemisti. The distinction between the two (for instance Ephesians 5:16, Colossians 4:5, redimentes is a quite correct translation of ἐξαγοραζόμενοι) exists far less in Latin than in modern English, where the word has come to mean that the effect of the purchase is to restore those bought either to their rightful owner or to liberty (neither of these can be intended in A. V[223] “redeeming the time”). Here 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 (in 1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23; 2 Peter 2:1 both Vg[224] and A. V[225] have the simple verb). The elders probably represent the whole multitude of the redeemed, but they are not here said to belong to that number, and the living creatures certainly do not. The insertion of ἡμᾶς after ἠγόρασας though very well attested is condemned by the following αὐτούς after ἐποίησας.

τῷ θεῷ. 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. Since St Anselm’s time most competent theologians have refrained from pressing the metaphor of a ransom which is frequent in Scripture.

ἐκ πάσης φυλῆς καὶ γλώσσης καὶ λαοῦ καὶ ἔθνους. Cf. Daniel 3:4 and parallels. The three terms there are made into four here, perhaps because neither of the Greek versions translates consistently, but each sometimes uses λαὸς and sometimes ἔθνος. All surviving MSS. and versions of our Book always give both, though the order is sometimes such as to suggest the question whether one or other is not an afterthought. The passage is generally and rightly explained as fully parallel to Revelation 7:9-10, and so the first of many indications in this Book of the catholicity of the Church, and of course a conclusive refutation of the theories (see on Revelation 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 so strong as this or Revelation 7:9. But if this passage stood alone, it might be explained as a parallel to Isaiah 66:20 of the redemption of the literal Israel out of all nations to be a royal priesthood.

Verses 9-14


Verse 10

10. βασιλείαν καὶ ἱερεῖς. See on Revelation 1:6 for the origin of the phrase.

βασιλεύ[σ]ουσιν. Authorities are nearly evenly divided between the present and future, and from the nature of the case authorities have here to be counted not weighed. Perhaps the present is to be preferred, as the more difficult in sense; the future could be easily understood of the millennial reign (Revelation 20:4), whatever that means. If we accept the present, it can hardly be used for a future; every one must feel that Revelation 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 ult., cf. title).

Verse 11

11. καὶ εἶδον. Here we might almost translate “in my vision,” though it is no doubt implied that he saw the Angels whose voice he heard.

κύκλῳ. 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.

μυριάδες μυριάδων. 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.

Verse 12

12. λέγοντες. The nominative would have been the correct construction if the number of the angels could have been expressed by a masculine adjective, and is still more natural than the genitive.

ἄξιονλαβεῖν. See on Revelation 4:11. Here (referring to Hebrews 1:2) we might paraphrase: “The Son is worthy to enter on His Heritage.” The Kingdom of the Son of David increases without end, Isaiah 9:7.

τὴν δύναμιν κ.τ.λ. Perhaps the single article may be intended to mark that all the seven members of the gift are inseparable.

Verse 13

13. πᾶν κτίσμα. Cf. Philippians 2:10-11.

ὑποκάτω τῆς γῆς. See on Revelation 5:3. It seems harsh to understand the words of an unwilling cooperation of the devils in glorifying God and His Son, besides that Judges 1:6 seems hardly to prove that all fallen spirits are yet confined “under the earth”: Matthew 8:29 compared with Luke 8:31, not to mention the “Wars in Heaven” Revelation 12:7; Revelation 12:9, suggests the contrary. It is more possible to suppose the dead, even the holy dead, to be described as “under the earth,” Psalms 22:29. 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, Revelation 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.

ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης. This, like ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, includes both human and animal life: the former is the explanation of λέγοντας in the masculine just below.

ἡ εὐλογία κ.τ.λ. The article is repeated with each noun intentionally. Whatever power and riches …, whatever blessing and honour … the world contains, all belong of right to Him. Watts’ “Blessings more than we can give” is a perfectly legitimate development of the sense.

Verse 14

14. καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἔπεσαν καὶ προσεκύνησαν. The brevity of the phrase, imitating their silent adoration, is really grander than the complete sentence of the Received Text.

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