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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Sea of Glass

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In the literature of the Apostolic Age the conception of the Sea of Glass occurs only in Revelation 4:6; Revelation 15:2. In the former passage, the Sea of Glass like crystal (θάλασσα ὑαλίνη ὁμοία κρυστάλλῳ) forms a part of the surroundings of the throne in heaven. In the latter passage the position of the Sea is not mentioned, but is no doubt understood to be the same, and the Sea itself is further described as ‘mingled with fire’ (μεμιγμένην πυρί). The martyrs are seen standing upon it, singing the song of Moses and of the Lamb.

It is easier to trace back into the OT the origin of the symbolism of the Apocalypse, and to collect parallels from the religious literature of other nations, than to interpret the precise meaning of this particular symbol in the mind of the author of the Apocalypse. We shall in this article endeavour to collect the various parallels and possible sources of this conception, afterwards attempting to classify them, in order to show the various streams of thought that have combined to yield this climax of apocalyptic symbolism. Finally, an attempt will be made to interpret its meaning in the Apocalypse.

1. Sources of the symbol.-It may be remarked that all the parallels collected below are not of necessity to be regarded as sources of this particular conception, but they all offer possible links of connexion with it.

(a) We have, first, the conception, at once mythological and cosmological, of the upper sea, the waters in the heavens, separated by the firmament (στερέωμα) from the waters below (Genesis 1:6-7). This is directly connected with the Babylonian chaos-myth of the conquest of the chaos-dragon Tiâmat by Marduk. Moreover, in the Babylonian cosmogony the heavenly universe is divided into three parts corresponding to those of the earthly universe, the third and lowest division being the heavenly ocean (cf. A. Jeremias, The OT in the Light of the Ancient East, Eng. translation , 2 vols., London, 1911, i. 6 ff.). See 2 En. xxvii. 1-3.

(b) In the theophany in Exodus 24:10 a pavement of sapphire is described as being under the feet of God.

(c) In the apocalyptic vision of Ezekiel, upon which the symbolism of Revelation 4 is most directly based, a firmament like the colour of the terrible crystal is stretched over the heads of the four living creatures, and upon it is placed the throne like sapphire stone (Ezekiel 1:22; Ezekiel 1:26).

(d) In the vision of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:9-10 a fiery stream issues from the throne.

(e) In 1 En. xiv. 10-17, is the similar vision of the house and of the throne of God, the floor of the first house is of crystal and that of the second house is of fire, also from underneath the throne come streams of flaming fire (cf. also lxxi. 6).

(f) In Test. Lev. ii. 7 a hanging sea divides the first heaven from the second in the later recension; in the earliest farm of the document the hanging sea is in the first heaven.

(g) Finally, an interesting passage from the Bundahiš may be quoted (SBE [Note: BE Sacred Books of the East.] v. 125 f.): ‘Afterwards, the fire and halo melt the metal of Shatvaîrô, in the hills and mountains, and it remains on this earth like a river. Then all men will pass into that melted metal and become pure’ (cf. Sib. Orac. iii. 84 f., ii. 285 f.). The list might be enlarged, but these passages are representative both of the distribution of the conception and of the different forms which it assumed.

2. Classification of motives underlying the symbol.-(a) We find the cosmological significance of the heavenly sea. The celestial universe is the counterpart of the earthly. The Zodiac, the abode of the gods, rises above and upon the heavenly sea. Later the sea itself and the solid firmament conceived of as supporting it seem to unite in the symbol, and we have the throne resting upon a crystalline sapphire foundation or pavement. There may also enter into the symbol some element of the myth of the conquest of Tiâmat. The sea stretched out calm and glassy before the throne may in part symbolize the victory of the divinity over the element of chaos.

(b) There is the eschatological element. In the period view of history based on astronomical observations and characteristic of Babylonian religion, the world was to be destroyed by a fire-flood at the close of the age which was ushered in by the water-flood. This idea is present also in the Avesta and in most early religions. Hence the sea of glass mingled with fire may contain a trace of this conception. From the throne proceeded not only the heavenly river of water of life, clear as crystal, but also the fire-stream of judgment. The martyrs also standing upon the fiery sea suggest the symbolism of purification and triumph (cf. the idea in the passage quoted above from the Bundahiš, where the righteous walking through the fire-flood are unharmed by it).

(c) It is possible to find links with the Jewish ritual system. Before the approach to the holy place stood the brazen sea, whose form and decoration suggest remoter links with Babylonian cosmology. In the priestly system, whatever the past significance of the laver, it certainly stood for the necessity of purification for entry into the presence of God.

(d) There may enter into the form of the imagery details taken from the local surroundings of the vision. It has been suggested that much of the form of early eschatological schemes is due to the local characteristics (cf. Gressmann, Der Ursprung der israelitisch-jüdischen Eschatologie, p. 31 ff.). H. B. Swete (The Apocalypse of St. John 2, London, 1907, p. 70) suggests that the aegean Sea, fired by the rays of the setting sun, has yielded the form of the splendid imagery of this vision. While this may be so, yet all the elements of the vision and their ensemble are an inheritance from the past.

3. Interpretation.-The central motive in the Seer’s vision is certainly the relation between heaven and earth. The apparently confused and disorderly sequence of events on earth is really being ordered and determined by what takes place in heaven. Hence the Seer’s first vision, as he gazes through the open door, is the throne, the centre and source of all the subsequent action of the book. The history of the world for him is dominated by that throne. The description of scenery surrounding the throne gathers up all the symbolism of the past, the cosmological, eschatological, and ritual elements, coloured, it may be, by the local scenery of Patmos. Before the throne the Sea, the emblem of chaos and destruction, lies calm and motionless, petrified and clear, the symbol of the throne’s victory over the opposing forces of darkness and disorder. As the approach to the throne it symbolizes the holiness required of those who draw near. As the final tribulation draws to a close, that sea mingled with fire symbolizes the source of the throne’s judgment on the earth below. The martyrs, having passed through those judgments, stand triumphant on it and sing the song of the new Exodus. Finally it becomes the source of the healing and purifying streams for the redeemed earth.

Literature.-H. Gressmann, Der Ursprung der israelitisch-jüdischen Eschatologie, Göttingen, 1905; R. H. Charles, Eschatology, Hebrew, Jewish, and Christian, London, 1899, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the OT, Oxford, 1913; H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John 2, London, 1907; C Clemen, Primitive Christianity and its Non-Jewish Sources, Edinburgh, 1912.

S. H. Hooke.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sea of Glass'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/sea-of-glass.html. 1906-1918.

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Monday, June 1st, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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