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Revelation 5:1. The book beheld by the Seer is on, not ‘in’ (comp. chap. Revelation 20:1) the right hand of him that sat on the throne, and it shall be opened for the inspection of all His saints (comp. Daniel 12:10; Mark 4:11). Although God’s ‘judgments are a great deep,’ His ‘secret is with them that fear Him.’ The Greek word commonly translated ‘book’ was really a ‘roll,’ after the fashion of the sacred rolls of the Jewish synagogues. This ought to appear in the translation, as it is otherwise impossible to attach a meaning to the important statement that it was written both within and on the back. Such a translation is also the more necessary, because the description of the ‘roll’ is intended to correspond with, and is indeed taken from, that in Ezekiel 2:9-10, ‘And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and lo, a roll of a book was therein; and he spread it before me: and it was written within and without.’ That the roll was written both ‘within and on the back’ is apparently intended to do more than indicate the richness and fulness of the contents. It indicates also that the whole of these had been determined by God Himself. No other might add to them. The roll is close-sealed, a strong expression, to mark the mysterious and inscrutable nature of its contents. The same idea is also brought out by the mention of the seven seals.
It may be greatly doubted if the number seven is to be understood as denoting nothing further than the number itself. The seven churches are one Church, the seven Spirits one Spirit. Why not the seven seals one seal? The number one is elevated into the sacred number seven in order to indicate the completeness of the sealing. By this view, which analogy commends, we are saved all the questions raised by commentators as to the mode in which the seals were fastened to the roll, and as to the possibility of conceiving how each of them could secure a certain portion only of the contents. Even the successive openings of the seals need not imply more than a further unrolling of the parchment. The seals are successively broken in order to comply with the requirements of the poetic delineation.
The general nature of the contents of the roll may be gathered from the reference to that of Ezekiel (chap. Revelation 2:10), ‘lamentations, and mourning, and woe.’ The revelation itself, afterwards given to the Seer, confirms this. Judgment upon the Church’s foes is the prominent idea of what the roll contains.
The vision upon which we enter in this chapter is beheld in the same circumstances as that of chap. 4, and is closely connected with it. The special revelation of the Apocalypse does not yet begin, and the Seer is still prepared for it in the same manner as in the immediately preceding vision. At the same time, the chapter before us is to be considered as introductory not only to the seven Seals (chap. Revelation 6:1 to Revelation 8:1) but to the whole of the main portion of the book. It thus presents us with a picture of the heavenly guardianship exercised over the Church by God as a redeeming God, or rather by that risen and glorified Saviour who is her protector in every trial, and the solution of all her difficulties. In the last vision we beheld God as the Creator and Governor of all things. In this we behold Him who, when already slaughtered and risen, can say, ‘All authority hath been given unto Me in heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 28:18). The two visions, taken together, may be regarded as a commentary on the words of Jesus in His last discourse to His disciples, ‘Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in Me’ (John 14:1). By means of both the mind is calmed in the prospect of the approaching troubles of the Church. Before she enters upon them we know that hers shall be the victory.
Revelation 5:2. The angel of this verse is strong, and his voice is great, because his cry has to be heard in every region of the universe, in heaven, in earth, and in Hades (comp. chap. Revelation 10:3). that an ‘angel’ raises the cry may remind us of the interest taken by angels in the plan of redemption and in the fortunes of the Church (comp 1 Peter 1:12). At the same time, it may be nothing more than a part of that imagery of this book of which we have already spoken (see on Revelation 1:20).
Revelation 5:3. And no one in heaven, nor on the earth, nor under the earth, was able to open the roll, or to look thereon. As in Philippians 2:10, the universe is designated under the three divisions here mentioned. It is implied that no answer is given to the cry. Hence
Revelation 5:4. And I wept much. There is nothing in this weeping inconsistent with the fact that a revelation had been promised (chap. Revelation 4:1). That promise is already in course of being fulfilled; but the Seer does not know how far it is to extend. Therefore he weep because he fears that the revelation may be already about to close. Besides this, there is nothing unnatural in the supposition that the promise may not at this instant have been clearly present to his mind. He is completely rapt away by what is before his eyes. One, however, there is who is worthy to do what no other creature can.
Revelation 5:5. And one from among the elders saith unto me, Weep not, behold the Lion, which is of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, overcame, to open the roll and the seven seals thereof. The words are spoken by one of the twenty-four elders, and the propriety of this is obvious. These Elders represent the triumphant Church, which knows by happy experience the blessedness of her victory. Who so fit to magnify the glories of the Lamb? A twofold description is then given of Him of whom ‘Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write’ (John 1:45), the one part taken from the law, the other from the prophets. (1) He is ‘the lion of the tribe of Judah.’ The words are from the law (Genesis 49:9), where we have the promise of the Messiah as the culminating point of the history of the leading and famous tribe of Judah. Many passages of the Old Testament at the same time remind us that the lion is the emblem not of courage only, but of fierce and destroying power (Job 10:16; Psalms 7:2, etc.). (2) He is ‘the root of David.’ The words are now taken from the prophets (Isaiah 11:1), and they mark Jesus out (comp. also chap. Revelation 22:16) not as the root out of which David springs, but as the sucker which, springing from David as a root, grows up to be a stately tree. In Him the conquering might of David the ‘man of war,’ as well as of Judah ‘chosen to be the ruler’ (1 Chronicles 28:4), comes forth with all the freshness of a new youth. Compare for the witness thus given to our Lord, Matthew 17:3, with the parallel texts.
This Lion ‘overcame;’ for Revelation 5:9, where the ground of the Lamb’s worthiness to open the roll is again celebrated, takes us clearly to the past, and to a work then finished. The verb is therefore to be understood absolutely (as so often in the seven Epistles to the churches), and not to be connected only with the words ‘ to open,’ as if the meaning were simply that the Lamb had overcome all obstacles in the way of opening the roll. Much more is said. He ‘overcame.’ He is the Archetype and Forerunner of all them that ‘overcome.’ He conquered sin, death, the devil all the foes of God and man. He accomplished in His life, death, and resurrection, a complete and everlasting victory (comp. Revelation 3:21). Therefore, having gained such a victory, He is worthy to open the book which records its issues. No sooner has the Seer been told this than the words are fulfilled in vision.
Revelation 5:6. The words are fulfilled; yet how differently from what might have been expected! The Seer had been told of a lion, and he beholds a lamb; and Revelation 5:9 makes it evident that the lamb is thought of not merely in its gentleness and patience, but as an animal used for sacrifice. From the same verse also it would seem that it is the Paschal lamb that is present to the view of the apocalyptic writer. The particular word used in the original for ‘lamb’ is found in the New Testament, with the exception of the Apocalypse, only in John 21:15; and an argument has been often drawn, from the employment of a different word in John 1:29; John 1:36, against the identification of the apocalyptic figure with the figure of the Gospel. It is enough to reply that in John 1:29; John 1:36, the Evangelist is simply recording words of the Baptist. That he himself preferred the other term arises probably from the fact that he had often heard it, and not at John 21:15 alone, from the lips of the Master whom he loved. It is used by him twenty-nine times in this book.
The question of the position of the Lamb is both interesting and difficult. It is generally supposed to have stood between the throne, of which the four living creatures may almost be said to form a part, and the twenty-four Elders; thus representing a Mediator between God and man. Some place it in the very centre of the throne. The former idea is the more probable, and it finds a certain amount of confirmation in the word ‘came’ of Revelation 5:7. We have thus the throne with the four living creatures above (see on chap. Revelation 4:6), then the Lamb, then the twenty-four Elders. The position now assigned to the Lamb is made the more probable by the fact that it was a Lamb standing. On a throne one sits.
The ‘standing’ of the Lamb is deeply important. First of all we may observe that it is as slaughtered (not ‘slain,’ but ‘slaughtered’) for sacrifice, the word being sacrificial (Exodus 12:6), that the Lamb appears. Jesus suffering even unto death is before us. But though thus ‘slaughtered’ the Lamb ‘stands,’ stands as a living, not lies as a dead, animal. Jesus risen and glorified is presented to our view. In short, we have here the great lesson alike of the Apocalypse and of the Fourth Gospel, that we are redeemed not merely by a Saviour who died, but by one who also rose to everlasting and glorious life. Through all eternity, too, the Risen Lord bears the marks of His earthly sufferings. While His people live for ever in His life, they never cease to feel that they were redeemed in His blood. The Lamb has still further seven horns. In Scripture the horn is always the emblem of strength and force ( Deu 33:17 ; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalms 112:9; Psalms 148:14; Luke 1:69; Revelation 17:3); the number ‘seven’ denotes, as usual, completeness.
It has also seven eyes, which are explained to be the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth. They are thus substantially the same as the ‘seven torches’ of chap. Revelation 4:5, and we need say no more of them at present than that they are distinctly connected with the Son as well as with the Father. The word ‘sent’ belongs to the eyes alone, and not also to the horns.
Revelation 5:7. And he came, and he hath taken it out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne. The change of tense is worthy of observation, for it is impossible to agree with those who urge that the two tenses used are simply equivalent to each other. In the very next verse the Seer returns to the tense of the verb ‘came’ when he says ‘took,’ and not ‘hath taken’ The latter word therefore implies more than ‘took.’ St. John sees the Lamb not merely take the roll, but keep it. It is His, His by right of the victory He has won; His as Immanuel, God with us; His not as the Divine Eternal Son only, but as our Redeemer, the Head of His Church; His to unfold in all its meaning for the Church for which He died. He ‘hath taken it,’ He is worthy to open it, and it shall be opened. Therefore the song of praise and joy begins, gradually widening until it embraces all creation.
Revelation 5:8. The four living creatures are mentioned first as being nearest the throne; but all they do at this moment is to fall down before the Lamb. There is no reason to think that they have also harps and golden bowls, or that they join in the song of Revelation 5:9. Such a song is unsuitable to beings which mainly represent the material creation; and ‘the prayers of the saints’ are more naturally presented by the twenty-four priestly Elders. The language of the four living creatures is given at Revelation 5:14. In the remainder of Revelation 5:8, therefore, we have to do only with the Elders. (1) Each has a harp, the idea being taken from the Tabernacle and the Temple service. (2) The twenty-four Elders have also golden bowls full of incense; not the ordinary bowls used by the priests in the first or outer apartment of the Tabernacle, but rather that used by the high priest when he went into the Holy of Holies once a year. The Church of Christ is clothed with high-priestly functions, and has access into the immediate presence of God. The incense is the prayers of the saints, that is, of God’s suffering saints. The Elders on their thrones are the representatives of the Church triumphant. It is to be noted, on the one hand, that the latter do not pray for themselves, that for themselves they praise; and on the other, that they are not intercessors for the saints on earth, that they but offer to the Lamb the prayers of the saints, of whom they are, as it were, the hand rather than the mouthpiece. Were we, with some commentators, to understand by ‘the saints’ those in heaven, it would be difficult to draw a sufficiently clear line of distinction between them and the twenty-four Elders.
The bowls are full (comp. John 2:7; John 19:29; John 21:11). (3) Further still, the twenty-four Elders sing.
Revelation 5:9-10. And they sing a new song, saying, Worthy, art thou to take the roll, and to open the seals thereof, for thou wast slaughtered, and didst purchase to God in thy blood men out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation; and didst make them to our God a kingdom and priests, and they reign over the earth. Note again a change of tense. The Elders ‘sing,’ not ‘sang.’ The continuous worship of heaven is brought before us by the change. The song, as we have seen, is that of the twenty-four Elders alone. It is a ‘new’ song, new in its substance, because it celebrates what no imagination of man could before have conceived, and no tongue have uttered, the glory of a complete redemption. The song is not sung only because the roll is opened: its main burden is the ground upon which the Lamb had been found worthy to open it. It consists of three parts: (i) ‘Thou wast slaughtered.’ The sacrificial death of the Lamb is the prominent point; but this death is not necessarily confined to the death upon the cross. It includes the whole of the humiliation and self-sacrifice of Jesus. (2) ‘Thou didst purchase,’ etc. Applying the rule of interpretation already more than once alluded to, these words must be compared with the larger and fuller expressions of chap. Revelation 14:3-4, where we have the addition of the words, ‘from the earth’ and ‘from men.’ It is thus not of redemption from death only by the sacrifice of the Lamb that the song before us speaks, but of the fact that, through that sacrifice, believers are taken out of the earth with all its evils, and are translated into the happiness of the heavenly and triumphant Church. Those purchased are gathered out of all the earth, universality being indicated by the mention of four sources from which they come, and they are purchased ‘in’ the blood of the Lamb. Full force ought to be given to the preposition ‘in;’ for here, as always, the ‘blood’ of Christ is more than the blood shed at the moment of His death. It is the blood, the life won through death, in which He presents Himself before the throne of, God, with all His people in Him. ‘In’ His blood they stand. ‘In’ His life they live; and they appear before God not merely with their sins washed away, but planted into their Lord’s life of perfect obedience and submission to the Father’s will. They offer themselves as ‘living sacrifices’ in Him who, having died once, dieth no more; and, not in virtue only of a righteousness outwardly imputed to them, but also of an inward and real life-union to Him in whom the Father is well pleased, they are ‘accepted’ and ‘complete.’ The force of this great truth is lost if we translate either ‘by the blood’ or ‘with the blood.’ (3) ‘And didst make them,’ etc. (comp. chap. Revelation 1:6).
At the word ‘priests’ there seems to be a pause, the following clause constituting a distinct proposition. Nor ought we to translate ‘upon,’ but ‘over,’ the earth. They are not upon the earth at all, and cannot therefore be said to be there ‘exerting those influences, promoting those principles, and dispensing those laws of righteousness, holiness, and peace which in reality rule all the best developments of life and history.’ They are the Church triumphant in heaven. The ‘earth’ has been their foe, and it is not now reformed by them: it is subdued beneath them. They have the position of Jesus Himself (comp. chap. Revelation 3:21); the final promise to ‘him that overcometh’ is fulfilled to them; their victory is complete. Finally, we may notice the word ‘them’ in Revelation 5:10. We might have expected ‘us’ to be the word used by the triumphant Church as she speaks in the twenty-four Elders who represent her. But the Church views herself objectively; and in the song that she sings, turns her thoughts to Him who has redeemed her. The method of expression is not unlike that of John 17:3.
Revelation 5:11. The song of the triumphant Church has been sung, and an innumerable host of angels takes up the chorus. These angels occupy a place outside of all that we have hitherto met in connection with the throne, of the throne itself, of the four living creatures, and of the twenty-four Elders. The reason is obvious. The Son of God, in carrying out the process of redemption, took on Him the nature of man, that man might be elevated to a participation in His Divine nature, and it is this process of redemption that is here the main topic of praise. Angels do not share in it, and they accordingly are farther from the throne. The same thought is implied in Psalms 8:0; 1 Corinthians 6:0; Hebrews 2:0 Although, however, angels are not themselves partakers of the redemption spoken of, they have the deepest interest in its glorious results (comp. Luke 15:10; Ephesians 3:10; 1 Peter 1:12). The number of the angels is given in general terms, for they cannot be numbered (comp. Hebrews 12:22). It is remarkable that the smaller number seems to be given last, and various explanations have been offered, that ‘in enormous numbers distinctions vanish,’ ‘that the larger number preceding, large as it is, is not enough,’ that ‘the same idea is conveyed whether by climax or anticlimax.’ No one of these explanations is satisfactory. The Seer’s arrangements of his words are always for the purpose of strengthening his statement in the second part. We may observe that he often uses another word for thousands (chaps, Revelation 11:3, Revelation 12:6, etc.); but it is always with inferior objects, never with men. With men we seem invariably to find the word here employed (chaps. Revelation 7:4, Revelation 11:13, etc.); only once is it used with a material (if even then a material) object (chap. Revelation 21:16). It would seem, therefore, as if with this word were associated a higher idea than that of number, such as that of spiritual superiority and rule. Thus, though ‘thousands’ is a numerically smaller number than ‘myriads,’ the idea associated with it is greater.
Such being the numbers of the angels, we have now their song.
Revelation 5:12. Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to take the power, and riches and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing. It will be observed that one article is connected with ‘power’ alone, thus showing that this power stands in a conception by itself, and that the other parts of the doxology are added for the sake of enlarging the idea, so constituting one whole (comp. note on John 14:6). The thought of ‘the power’ then is no doubt prominent, either because ‘reigning’ had been spoken of immediately before, or, as has been suggested, because of Revelation 5:3. No one was ‘able,’ had power, to open the roll, but the Lamb overcame, so as to open it This power belongs essentially to the Lamb, and He takes it to Himself (comp. on chap. Revelation 4:11). The other things ascribed to Him follow as parts of the Messianic kingdom, the kingdom of redemption; and it may be noticed that all, taken together, make up the sacred number seven. The chorus is now still further enlarged.
Revelation 5:12 a. And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The verb ‘saw’ is again to be taken absolutely as in Revelation 5:1-2; Revelation 5:5; Revelation 5:8. The things seen divide themselves naturally into four groups; and we need not add to what has been already said as to the meaning of this number. (1) ‘A great earthquake,’ which must be understood in its usual sense as a shaking of the earth alone (chaps. Revelation 8:5, xi 13, 19, Revelation 16:18), and not as a general shaking including heaven as well as earth. The celestial phenomena immediately following are quite independent. The idea of the earthquake may be in part that of Matthew 24:7, but it is especially that of Matthew 24:29. The figure is frequently used in the Old Testament as a symbol of the judgments of God about to come upon a sinful world (Psalms 60:3-5; Isaiah 13:13; Haggai 2:6; Haggai 2:22-23).
Revelation 5:12 b, Revelation 5:13-14 A. And the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the whole moon became as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her unripe figs when she is shaken of a great wind, and the heaven withdrew as a book roll when it is rolled together. (2) We pass from earth to the heavens. The vision is still couched in the language of Matthew 24:29, and that again rests upon the figures with which Old Testament prophecy had made the Jews familiar (Isaiah 13:10; Isaiah 1:3; Jeremiah 4:23; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:31; Joel 3:15; Amos 8:9-10; Micah 3:6). The sun becomes ‘black as sackcloth of hair,’ the coarse sackcloth made of the black hair of camels. His light is quenched; and, instead of shining with his splendour in the sky, he appears as a great black orb. It is obvious that here, as in innumerable parts of the Apocalypse, we are to content ourselves with the main idea of the writer, and not to demand prosaic verisimilitude. The ‘whole’ moon next becomes as blood, the word ‘whole’ denoting the moon at its full size, so that the spectacle may be the more terrible. The addition is not found in the Old Testament prophecies upon which the language before us rests. It is made by the Seer under the feeling that no ancient prophet had foreseen such sights of woe as he had been commissioned to reveal. ‘The stars of the heaven’ next fall to the earth, like unripe figs when the fig tree is shaken by a great wind. Firmly as they appear to be set in heaven, they are yet as easily displaced as the unripe fig when a ‘great wind’ blows. They fall in a moment. ‘The heaven’ itself is touched last of all Like a book-roll, it is rolled together, and is no longer the glorious firmament that it has been.
Revelation 5:14 b. And every mountain and island were moved out of their places. (3) In these words the third member of the description follows. It will be observed that we have in them much more than the mention of the earthquake in Revelation 5:12. An earthquake shakes the earth, but when the shaking is over things return, no doubt with some exceptions, to their old positions. Here all things are ‘moved out of their places;’ the confusion and overthrow are complete.
Revelation 5:13. And every created thing which is in the heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and on the sea; and all things that are in them, heard I saying, The blessing and the honour and the glory and the dominion be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. In Revelation 5:3 intelligent beings were embraced under a threefold division. Here, because inanimate as well as animate creation is referred to, the division is fourfold, four being the number of the whole lower creation. It is hardly necessary to make any effort to distinguish the four groups from one another, for the main thought upon which we are to dwell is that of the completeness, the exhaustiveness, of the enumeration, none are left out. This is also shown by the summary given at the close, ‘all things that are in them.’ We may notice only that the words ‘on the sea’ do not refer to ships, but to the creatures of the sea supposed in the imagination of the Seer to have come up out of the depths, and to have taken their place upon the surface.
It may be a question whether we are to include in the number of those by whom this last chorus is sung the four living creatures and the twenty-four Elders. Thinking of them as individuals we ought not; but it seems impossible to say that the objects or beings which they represent do not join in the song. The chorus proceeds from universal nature, from all created things without exception. It is the harmony of the universe in the thought of the completion of God’s purposes, in the perfect execution of that which He originally contemplated in Jesus ‘the first-born of all creation,’ and now ‘the head of the body, the Church’ (Colossians 1:15; Colossians 1:18). Ages of preparation had passed away; one Dispensation had followed another; Prophets had ‘sought and searched diligently, searching what time or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did point unto, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow them;’ creation itself had groaned and travailed in pain together until now. How weary had been the years and centuries that had passed amidst the oppression of the poor and the sighing of the needy, amidst wrongs unrighted and innocent blood poured out like water to gratify the lust of ambition or the fierce spirit of revenge, amidst ignorance instead of knowledge, and sorrow instead of joy. At last the regeneration of the world has come: and in one burst of song all created things send up their shout of triumph and their hymn of praise.
They sing to ‘Him that sitteth upon the throne and to the Lamb.’ That is, they sing a song of richer contents than that of chap. Revelation 4:9-11. The combination of Creator and Redeemer is brought out: the unity after which all things long is reached. To this song a response is given.
Revelation 5:14. And the four living creatures said Amen, and the elders fell down and worshipped. The four living creatures give the solemn assent ‘Amen;’ and it has been well observed that they do so in order that the whole service of praise in chaps. 4 and 5, after it has reached its widest extension, may return to the point from which it started at chap. Revelation 4:8. Lastly, the elders fall down and worship in silent adoration. The heart of the Church is for the moment too full to speak: she can only worship in unutterable gratitude and praise.
Thus ends the series of visions contained in the third section of the book, carrying us in thought to the close of all, and, before we enter on the Church’s struggle, assuring us of its glorious issue.
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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Revelation 5". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13