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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Revelation 5

Verses 1-14

Three Views of Man's Destiny

1. Pessimism

Revelation 5:4

This is a mysterious passage in a mysterious book, but the fact that interpretation may easily become ridiculous should not debar us from the beauty and the power of one of the greatest and most picturesque of Scriptural poetic images. God is on His throne, but He is left undescribed, and we see only His hand holding a sealed book.

What concerns us especially is the group of three figures which represent three of the main attitudes of man to destiny. There is the weeping man, the pessimist, who sees only the sadness of the mystery, and tends towards despair and cynicism. Then there is the elder of Judah with the lion of his tribe, the optimist whose one resource is that of energy. Finally there is the true key to destiny; the lamb as it has been slain, emblem of love and sacrifice. We may consider these in three successive studies.

The pessimist comes first, represented by the weeping man of the text. This man may stand for many thousands who have stood in bitterness before the unsolved riddle of human life. The apparent waste the heartless and unreasonable waste of the wealth of human hearts and lives, force upon him the questions, What does God mean by making a world like this? and, What is He going to do with it?

These questions find no answer. No man is strong enough to break the seals and open the book. No nation is strong enough. All these pathetic 'efforts to understand things' fill the writers mind with an overwhelming sense of futility. He can make nothing of it, and he abandons the attempt with tears.

There were other elements in this grief besides baffled curiosity. We all learn sooner or later that many things in this strange world are beyond our understanding, and we come to terms with the mystery of things with as good a grace as we can. But there are special elements here, which in some degree enter into the experience of all such seekers, and which give to pessimism its keenest point.

I. First of all, the dreamer had been promised a knowledge of the future, and in this refusal there was something like a claim dishonoured. And in us all there is the feeling that in some sense we have a right to know. We are not asking for complete explanations, but surely we may expect light enough to live by. We are here not of our own choice, and we are willing to accept the situation and make the best of it. But, so tangled is the skein of life, it often happens that with 'the best intentions men make the most serious mistakes. We want some sure guidance, and above all we want some assurance that it is not all in vain, and that our destinies are not, as they sometimes seem to be, the sport of chance. We are willing to work cheerfully or to suffer patiently if we can only understand. But this looks like the demand for day labour while light is denied us, and it is no wonder though we weep.

II. Second, a discovery is here given of how much is required for such knowledge as we crave. 'No man is worthy to open the book.' The hindrance to understanding, the veil between our souls and truth is our own sin, and conscience further embitters the great unanswered question. The mystery of life often seems to press most sorely on the good, but it does not break their hearts. They find some meaning in things that consoles them and gives them rest. But the unworthy have no such consolation. It is they who weep most bitterly before the face of destiny, and rebel against the way in which the unintelligible world is made. When we are caught in the mills of God, the nether millstone on which any soul is ground is ever its own unworthiness.

III. The lessons of all this are plain. When we are confronted with the blank and bitter mystery of things it is not well to brood sullenly on the sense of a dishonoured claim. The book is unreadable, and we have no real right to understand. Neither science nor religion professes to answer all our questions. Our theories give no full explanation, our visions are but glimpses at the best, but 'led blindfold through the glimmering camp of God'. And, further, when we are tempted to despair and to rebel and to malign the world, it is well to ask ourselves, Am I worthy to open the book? What grossness, what pride, what folly enter even into our desire to understand? What use have we made of the light vouchsafed to us? For doubt is surprising only when the life is pure, and they who know most are those who are 'holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience'.

John Kelman, Ephemera Eternitatis, p. 230.

Reference. V. 4. E. A. Askew, The Service of Perfect Freedom, p. 8.

Three Views of Man's Destiny

2. The Gospel of Healthy-mindedness

Revelation 5:5

The elder's view of the Messiah is 'the Lion of the tribe of Judah,' and his boast is that Christ, in that capacity, has been able to unseal and open the book of human destiny. At least one of the older commentators has recognised in this elder the figure of the patriarch Jacob, and has referred the text back to the splendid words of Genesis 49:9 'Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, thou are gone up: he stooped down, he crouched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?'

I. It would seem that from early times the lion had been a sort of insignia of Judah, a national emblem like the Scottish and the Persian lion. Dr. Dods has said in this connexion, 'There is enough in the history of Judah himself, and in the subsequent history of the tribe, to justify the ascription to him of all lion-like qualities a kingly fearlessness, confidence, power, and success; in action a rapidity of movement, and a might that make Him irresistible, and in repose a majestic dignity of bearing'. The same writer goes on to contrast the 'rushing onset of the lion with the craft of the serpent, the predatory instinct of the wolf and the swiftness of the hind'. This, especially in times of oppression and adversity, gives a very fair idea of the conception of Messiah cherished by the elders of Israel. To their passionate patriotism He was the mirror and emblem of national strength and triumph.

History has borne out the lordly boast. Judea has been not merely a personal but a national force in the arena of the world's destinies. All nations have taken their part in the grand sum-total of history, but it is Judea that has led the way, both in the understanding and in the shaping of the destinies of the world. Disraeli has boasted that 'the most popular poet in England is the sweet singer of Israel,' and that 'the divine image of the most illustrious of the Hebrews' has been again raised amid the homage of kneeling millions in the most civilised of the kingdoms of Europe. When we think of what Jesus Christ has meant already in human history, we are constrained to confess that that gallant little nation, perched on its high ridge of rock, has indeed unsealed the book. By the earliest Christian missions, by the Crusades, and by the unceasing play of Christianity upon the West, she gave its future to savage Europe. Later, when the New World opened its gates to the Old, it was Puritan Christianity that gave its noblest qualities to the American race. Today, when for Africa and Asia the seals are being opened in so swift and dramatic succession, the issues of the future again depend wholly on the Judean it will be Christ or a godless civilisation more ominous than their past heathenism.

II. But the Lion of the tribe of Judah may also be taken as the representative type of a clearly defined ideal of character. It is the oriflamme of the Gospel of healthy-mindedness, and the doctrine of the strenuous life. This lion-like attack on destiny is indeed a magnificent imagination. It tells of direct attack that scorns diplomatic cunning, of will and main force whose self-reliance waits neither for the backing of friends nor of circumstances. It tells us of a certain band of warriors against fate who by sheer force and rush of onset have carried destiny by storm.

These are the men of sturm und drang , who master and enlist the great forces of the world. For the most part they are plain men, not assuming virtues of greater delicacy than they can understand. Always they are strong men, who are not wearied but braced by labour and endurance. They are simple men, unembarrassed by the subtle questionings which distract others. They cut through the knots which others strive in vain to disentangle, and their only refuge from discouragements and fears is the refuge of action. Men of this spirit may do superhuman things, taking the citadels of destiny by assault. Destiny goes down before Will, and the Weird itself (so runs the ancient Saxon song) will help 'an undoomed man if he be brave'. Not even the sense of sin and failure, nor the disheartening memory of the irrevocable past, is able wholly to daunt such spirits. There is in strong and courageous vitality, a strange power of healing and of purifying, which baffles the powers of darkness.

III. Jesus Christ rides at the head of that company of heroes. He is not the opponent, but the truest of all exponents of the Gospel of the healthy mind. He matched His strength against the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem, against the vast Empire of Rome, against the world, and He has won His battle all along the line. In the progress of the Christian conscience we see Him pitted against the slaveries, oppressions, injustices of two thousand years. In the progress of Christian civilisation we see Him combating the forces of sorrow, poverty, disease, and death. In the progress of religious thought we see Him conquering prejudice, hypocrisy, and errors of the mind and heart and will.

John Kelman, Ephemera Eternitatis, p. 236.

The Breaking of the Seals

Revelation 5:5-6

I. The impotency of unaided humanity to enter into the secret of God. This fact is proclaimed in this dramatic scene with marked emphasis. 'And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.' Translating the dramatic picture, it is the grave truth that the Scriptures so constantly emphasise, that lies at the very base of the Christian doctrine of salvation, that fallen man had no power in himself to regain the heights from which he had fallen. Fallen man cannot with his own hands open the roll of the eternal secret of life; he cannot even look at it.

II. The Lion-power that accomplishes the task for humanity. 'Behold the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book and to loose the seven seals thereof.' The description here given is very suggestive. On the one hand there is a strong savour of human nature in the terms employed. The Deliverer partakes of the nature of Juda, and of David, and the types of national and individual human life. This mighty love is in some sense human, and yet He is immeasurably more than man. He is the 'Lion' of the tribe of Juda, that is, He is the actual world-conqueror, of whom that tribe was only a type or shadow. The 'Root of David' expresses the same relation of this hero to earth's typical individual, that is the type of its noblest life. So the nature of this Deliverer belongs essentially to the world invisible and eternal. He towers immeasurably above all that is best in human life, both national and individual.

III. The Lamb-sacrifice in the heart of the Lion-power. The transcendently glorious nature of the Hero presented to us, and his entering into closest union with human life, are not sufficient to account for His power of leading mankind into the Divine secret, of restoring man to God. The heart of the Lion-power is Lamb-sacrifice. In more ordinary language, the incarnation of Christ apart from His atonement is not sufficient to account for the redemption of the world. The Lamb that was slain emphatically points out the death of Christ, as in a special sense the sacrificial act that bore away the sin of the world. Note the measureless power and infinitely exalted position here ascribed to the Lamb. 'A Lamb having seven horns and seven eyes.' This is, of course, a symbolic way of ascribing to Him perfection of power and universal dominion, and of asserting that out of His life all spiritual power goes forth into all the world. In full harmony with this description the Lamb is represented as sharing with Him that sitteth upon the throne the worship of the whole creation.

John Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, vol. II. p. 181.

Three Views of Man's Destiny

3. Love and Sacrifice

Revelation 5:6

The lion of the elder is a true aspect of Christ, and yet there is a more excellent way. It is the way of the saint, the divine seer and evangelist, who comes to rest upon the vision of 'the Lamb standing as it had been slain,' as the innermost secret of life and the true key of human destiny. For there is a limit to the power of will and courage, and sooner or later even the boldest attack teaches us by its imperfect success that we mortals must 'approach destiny respectfully'.

So now we have the lamb substituted for the lion. And it is ἀρνιον 'the little lamb' quoted from Isaiah 53:7 , but purposely changed to the diminutive. This is the favourite thought of that tender and farseeing spirit who took up the beautiful imagery of the twenty-third Psalm, and understood so well the meaning of the words 'thy gentleness hath made me great,' when he told how the Baptist had spoken of Jesus as the Lamb of God.

I. A great principle is embodied here. There is a Syrian mountain whose black basalt breaks the lofty table-land above the sea of Galilee. At that mountain the Crusaders lost Palestine after one of the fiercest of their battles. On the same spot, according to tradition at least, Jesus won the world by His Sermon on the Mount. It is the merest commonplace, alike of science and of human nature, that the humblest approach gains the richest results. Nature resists man's violence, but yields inevitably in the end to his loving patience. In character, self-assertion and the endeavour to make an impression have accomplished much; persecution, punishment and coercion have done much; but love has done far more than these. Love is the key to destiny. Force may succeed outwardly, and yet be but a magnificent failure. Love never fails: it does its appointed work.

II. It was this which was the lifelong task and achievement of Jesus. In Him the world has seen love at once revealing and making destiny. For what was it in Him that led men to understand themselves and to change into better manhood? What was it that made that nobler life seem no longer an impossible ideal, but their own rightful heritage? It was not His courage nor His strength, not His absoluteness nor His denunciation. It was simply His love that same love which cured the sickness of the land and burst open the tombs of its dead.

That aspect of the life of Christ gives us a great counsel to which we shall take heed if we be wise. When we have tried to force success by sheer daring and strenuousness and have failed, nothing is more natural than to become embittered. But this reminds us that we have not yet exhausted our resources. One power remains in reserve, the power of love. Those are wise who, in the dark hour of defeat, guard the springs of the heart and refuse to be embittered.

III. But in that master-picture of Isaiah's which is here presented, there is a further meaning. It is not only the lamb, but the lamb slain that we see; not only love but sacrifice. The lamb has death-wounds on its body, as it stands in the first pathos of death, slain though not yet fallen. This is indeed the kind of love that conquers destiny. There are many kinds of love placidly selfish love, good-humoured and easy-going affection, that knows nothing of sacrifice. But this is by far too great a task for such love. The book of destiny remains for ever closed to selfishness.

So we come in sight of the ancient truth, old indeed as the world though but slowly apprehended, that man must sacrifice to destiny.

Behind all such sacrifices, interpreting them and inspiring them, stands the great self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As we see Him moving on towards Calvary we tremble as we realise how the fate of the world turned on that cross. By accepting it He revealed the meaning of man's destiny, and he conquered it for man. The lamb slain prevailed to open the book. The revealing power of the cross has showed how through suffering man is made perfect, and changed the mystery of pain to the hope of glory, the bitter cry to the shout of victory, and the victims of life to the sons of God.

John Kelman, Ephemera Eternitatis, p. 242.

Revelation 5:6

Once I was troubled to know whether the Lord Jesus was Man as well as God, and God as well as Man; and truly, in those days, let men say what they would, unless I had it with evidence from Heaven, all was nothing to me, I counted not myself set down in any truth of God. Well, I was much troubled about this point, and could not tell how to be resolved; at last, that in Revelation v. came into my mind, And I beheld, and lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb. In the midst of the Throne, thought I, there is His Godhead; in the midst of the Elders, there is His Manhood; but, oh! methought this did glisten! it was a goodly touch, and gave me sweet satisfaction.

Bunyan, Grace Abounding, sec. 122.

References. V. 6. Charles Brown, God and Man, p. 115. C. J. Clark-Hunt, The Refuge of the Sacred Wounds, p. 61. Expositor (6th Series), vol. viii. p. 344; ibid. vol. xii. p. 44. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Revelation, p. 322. V. 6, 7. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxv. No. 2095. V. 8. V. S. S. Coles, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 234. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xviii. No. 1051. V. 8-10. Spurgeon, Ibid. vol. xxxix. No. 2321.

The Lamb and the Book

Revelation 5:9

The meaning of that scene is unmistakable and instantly clear. It sets forth this truth, that Jesus, the Lamb of God who was slain at Calvary, alone has the power to disclose and to interpret the mind and purpose and ways of God. It was when the Lamb had taken the book and was about to break the first seal that they sung the new song, saying, 'Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood'.

Let me illustrate this great truth that the crucified Christ unseals the book of God. God has more than one book, and yet all His books give us the one revelation. Let us see how Christ breaks the seals, and what He gives us to read on pages which otherwise had been dark to men.

I. Look, to begin with, at the sealed book of Scripture. It should be a commonplace to us that we cannot read the Old Testament except in Christ's light. Only by an effort of the imagination can we realise how closely sealed and how dark with mystery the Old Testament would have been if Christ had not died and risen again.

The truth is as clearly illustrated by the New Testament scriptures. There are some today to whom the New Testament is still a sealed book. One has only to take up such a book as Martineau's Seat of Authority in Religion to find that so clear, so penetrating, so spiritual a mind cannot read the plainest pages of the book. The depth of its moral wisdom, the divineness of its message, and the power of its appeal to the conscience bear in upon his mind and move him to impassioned praise. But the meaning and purpose of the book are hidden from him. The simplest peasant could be his teacher, and would stand amazed that learning and genius should so miss what lies so plainly revealed. Had Martineau looked up at the Cross and seen the Lamb who was slain to redeem, all would have been clear. Read the Gospels and the Epistles in the light of that death for sin, and every word and deed is translated. The cradle of Bethlehem, the carpenter's shop at Nazareth, the Jordan water at baptism, the wilderness of temptation, the garden of Gethsemane, and & the riches of grace in sermon and parable and miracle, stand out as the life-story that leads to the Cross. It is the Lamb that was slain that unfolds, interprets, and expounds the New Testament.

II. Look, in the second place, at the sealed book of nature. In the light of Christ's Cross we see that life in nature is sacrificial and redeeming. In the light of Christ's Cross we see that the pain and agony and death, which so abound, are only the inevitable condition that life may continue, the species be perpetuated, and the high and beneficent ends of nature gained. Modern science is reading the purpose and the meaning of nature in the light of the truth taught by the death of Christ.

III. Look, in the third place, at the sealed book of history.

In every century since our historians stand before the sealed book. In every generation the hearts of Christian people fail them for fear. This twentieth century has only begun. We are scarcely across its threshold, and yet east and west, the red horse of war, the black horse of famine, and the pale horse of death have gone forth. The cries of terror and of pain are ascending to God. A great part of the struggle between the nations, and the consequent waste of precious life and pain of tender hearts, is actually due to the advance of the Cross. It is the civilisation of Christendom coming into conflict with the ideals of heathendom. It is the leaven of the thoughts of the gospel fermenting in Eastern minds. Within the Church itself there is also bewilderment and pain. There are questions which find no answer, problems which reach no solution, doctrines that seem to be shaken. Who shall unfold this page of mystery? Who shall break the seal of this secret? The Lamb that was slain.

IV. Look, in the fourth place, at the sealed book of our own lives.

Stand below the Cross, and look up at the Lamb that was slain, and mark the course and issue of His passion and His death, and you will realize why the pages of your book are dark with sorrow and wet with tears. Out of life's battle comes conquest over self. Out of life's dark hours come light and strength and peace. Out of life's meek acceptance of death, there comes life for ourselves and others.

W. M. Clow, The Cross and Christian Experience, p. 139.

References. V. 9. W. H. Simcox, The Cessation of Prophecy, p. 158. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vii. p. 374; ibid. (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 44.

Revelation 5:9-10

It is a delight to a soldier or traveller to look back on his escapes when they are over; and for a saint in heaven to look back on his sins and sorrows upon earth, his fears and tears, his enemies and dangers, his wants and calamities, must make his joy more joyful. Therefore the blessed, in praising the Lamb, mention His redeeming them out of every nation and kindred and tongue; and so, out of their misery and wants and sins, and making them kings and priests unto God. But if they had nothing but content and rest on earth, what room would there have been for these rejoicings hereafter?

Richard Baxter.

References. V. 9, 10. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxi. No. 1225. Bishop Gore, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lx. p. 49. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iv. p. 426. V. 9-13. T. Jones, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 394. V. 10. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 194. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. i. No. 10. V. 11. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 256.

Revelation 5:12

In one of his letters, Dr. John Ker describes the effect produced on him by reading Carlyle's Reminiscences. 'We may be thankful,' he writes, 'that we have a better standard in the Infinite Strength that stooped to weakness, to pity and to raise it. I should be far from saying that Carlyle had not the Christian in him, but he wanted one part of it, and it is proof of an entirely original and Divine being, that the Reminiscences of the fishermen of Galilee give us One who had the most perfect purity, with the most tender pity an unbending strength that never despised weakness.

'One of the false things of the day is to exalt power (including intellect in a form of power) at the expense of the moral and spiritual. It belongs to materialism, and in a degree to pantheism, and it is the direct opposite of Christianity, which makes Christ lay power aside, in order to make the centre of the universe self-sacrifice and love; and that their power should gravitate to this centre, because it is the only safe one. "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power." When we begin to see this, we feel in our deepest nature that it is Divine that this must be true if the universe has any meaning, and the soul a worthy end. It gets obscured sometimes, but it will come out again.

Reference. VI. 1-8. Expositor (4th Series), vol. x. p. 292.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Revelation 5". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/revelation-5.html. 1910.