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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Revelation 5

 

 

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Verse 1

II. PRELUDE TO OPENING THE SEVEN SEALS, Revelation 5:1-14.

The Book and unaccepted challenge, Revelation 5:1-4.

1. And—In the fourth chapter we had St. John’s gorgeous description of the royal-divine Court, convened to unfold the future of the Church and world. We are now to have the production of the document under whose seals the future is closed.

The right hand—Made visible, though the divine Person is curtained in glory.

A book—Let not the English reader fashion in his mind a modern bound book, but a manuscript roll. It is disputed among commentators, whether this roll is a single sheet or seven sheets, each with its seal. The old commentators, Grotius, Vitringa, Wetstein, Storr, Ewald, and others, said seven; Stuart, Elliott, and Alford, say one. These latter hold it to be a single sheet rolled up and fastened with seven seals. The old view, as Ewald’s, is thus well given by Stuart: “Ewald objects to the idea of a scroll or roll here, and maintains that there were seven separate libelli rolled in succession around a piece of wood in the centre, the first of which was the longest and the rest successively shorter; so that the seals on the margin of the outside leaf might be seen by John.”

We here agree with the old interpreters. The obvious idea is, that as each successive seal was broken, a new leaf was unrolled, unfolding a new leaf of futurity. That futurity was thickly written over both pages of each leaf. It must have been, that of each single seal the entire matter was written on each side, so requiring a single piece for its own record. And the symbol that came forth was the concentrated embodiment of the thoughts of its written record. Why should there be seven seals on a single sheet? The seals were seven, in order to close down the seven leaves. Stuart asks, What is the significance, then, of the written within and on the back side? Just the same, we say, with seven as with one. In both cases the inside writing would, when rolled up, be concealed under the seals, and in both cases the outside writing would alone be visible, and the inside writing be inferred until seen. Stuart’s remark that the old view implies “seven rolls,” ignores the fact that a whole volume, even the entire pentateuch, is called a roll.

Within and… back side—Implies that the matter was so copious, that both pages of the leaf, inside and outside, were written.

Seven seals—Signs of both divine authentication and divine secrecy. The sheets were so rolled on to a cylinder that each later sheet left an uncovered margin upon which the seal was stamped.


Verse 2

2. Strong angel—Personal physical vigour is implied in the word strong, as in Revelation 10:1; Revelation 18:21. The present angel is strong, as being herald and challenger for God. Who is competent to break the seals that Jehovah has stamped? Who may reveal the secrets of the future, “which the Father has reserved in his own power?” Acts 1:7. Dusterdieck’s statement, that as the seven trumpets spring from the seventh seal, and the seven vials from the seventh trumpet, so the Apocalyptic revelation is at first all enclosed in the seals, is nearly true. But the sixth chapter is not in the real series, but a contrastive picture without, and over against, the seals. And as this strong angel is without the real series, so the parallel strong angel of chapter x is outside the series, both being one of the personal managers of the panorama. And as the challenging question of this verse dimly suggests Michael, so Gabriel seems suggested by Revelation 10:1; where see note.

A loud voice—Which (next verse) was so loud and strong as to peal through heaven and earth.

Who is— This may be an allusion to the name Michael, which signifies, Who is like God?

Worthy—If force could have torn up the divine seals, the strong angel who issues the challenge might, perhaps, have accepted the task. It was, however, the highest worthiness, desert, dignity, alone which could presume to open the divine seals of futurity.


Verse 3

3. No man—The word man is not in the Greek, and is a most unauthorized limitation. No one, whether man, spirit, demon, angel, or archangel, in heaven, earth, or under the earth, dared answer the all-pervading voice.

Neither to look thereon—That is, to inspect its rolled-up pages.


Verse 4

4. I—Emphatic. My response was weeping; the sole echo in the universal silence—the silence of despair to the Church, for the revelation of her future, which was to have been her guiding star, is now forever shut up for want of a solver of the seals.

Challenge accepted and the Book taken by the Lamb, 5-7.


Verse 5

5. One of the elders—The Lamb, as the next verse shows, had not yet been made visible to the seer; but one of the elders—exalted representative of the Church within the circle of the sacred twenty-four—is in the divine secret. The elder in his throned and crowned state is more knowing than the apostle still in the flesh. There is one, he declares, who in spite of all this silence, not only will prevail, but hath prevailed to open and loose book and seals.

Lion… Judah—Judah, that is the tribe, which according to the patriarchal prophecy (Genesis 49:9) was to be a “lion;” and this is the lion of the “lion,” in whom all the lion in the tribe rises into completion. And as lion is a warlike image, so hath prevailed, is military: literally, hath conquered, to break the seals. The battle of revelation is identical with the battle of redemption. The fixedness of the seals consists in the natural impossibility of knowing the far future. The same agony by which the Lamb overcame the moral impossibility of saving the lost sinner, conquers the natural impossibility of revealing the last days to the saved Church. And this serves to help us to understand the depth in John’s weeping; somehow he identified the revelation of the future of the Church with its true redemption, and auspicated that in losing one he might lose both. The mighty Lion proved able to save both, and forthwith John was strong in his strength.

Root of David—Not the root from which David sprung; but the root-sprout which germinates from David and culminates in Messiah.


Verse 6

6. Beheld, and lo—For the first time the Lamb dawns on the seer’s sight in the midst of the celestial group. He is at once Lion and Lamb. The repetition of the phrase in the midst, is a Hebraism, which obscures the sense of the English, in which it should be used but once. The Lamb stood centrally in the group of cherubim and elders, either between the sea and the lamps or outside the lamps. Hengstenberg emphasizes too strongly the fact that the Greek word for lamb is ‘ αρνιον, arnion, a diminutive, little lamb, a lambkin. But it does not appear that St. John’s grammatical diminutives ending in on, denote a diminutive object. Thus the diminutive βιβλιον, biblion, does not signify a little roll, but has a diminutive βιβλαριδιον, biblaridion, (Revelation 10:2,) which does. The diminutive θηριον, therion, signifies a great beast. And this uniform use of this sort of diminutive seems, also, to invalidate Wordsworth’s ingenious idea, that St. John uses the forms ‘ αρνιον and θηριον to mark an antithesis. This word for lamb is used by John in the Apocalypse twenty-seven times, and in his Gospel (Revelation 21:15) once, and occurs nowhere else in the New Testament.

As it had been slain—By being the slain Lamb he had become the conquering Lion. St. John recognised the slain Lamb by his wounded side and hands, just as Thomas did after the resurrection.

Seven horns—An undoubted antithesis to the seven horns of the dragon and of the beast, but without any reference here to the seven hills of Rome. As horns are, in biblical language, a symbol of power, they tell us that this slain Lamb is a mighty Being. The number marks divine perfection of power, as those of the dragon mark diabolic supremacy of power. The seven spirits of God, represented by the seven eyes, denote the all-pervasive, all-searching Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, dwelling in, and proceeding from, the Son. Their sevenfoldness are their perfect manifestation in manifold modes, and arise from their unity in him; just as the four winds are one atmosphere, one universal air.

Sent forth—The spiritual Apostle (apostle signifies sent) sent forth, not only with every true apostle, but to many a clime and many a soul no apostle ever reached. The imagery is borrowed from Zechariah 4:10.


Verse 7

7. Took the book—Stuart, after Vitringa, and more persistently, raises the question, How could the Lamb take the roll without hands? And this question, Dusterdieck rejects as “unnothig und geschmacklos,” needless and tasteless. But Ezekiel did not think it geschmacklos to tell us that his cherubim “had the hands of a man,” Ezekiel 1:8. And the query of Stuart raises the question, What was the real form of the Lamb? and that is quite as legitimate as the question, What were the forms of the cherubim? which is much discussed by these critics. Alford argues that the cherubim were in human form, because they fall down in worship; and it seems as legitimate for us to argue that the Lamb could not have held a quadruped form in sitting on his “throne.” Stuart well discusses this perfectly necessary and aesthetic question. He rather favours the idea that the Lamb, at the first view of the seer, wore the quadruped form, but with the transformability of a dream-image, gradually changed to the form of the “Son of man,” as he approached to take the roll. Or, we may suppose that with visional liberty the two forms of lamb and man transparently enfolded and enclosed one the other, (as amber may enclose a diamond,) so as both to be recognisable by the seer’s eye. Nevertheless we rather prefer Stuart’s view; and holding the form of the Lamb with seven horns to be a transient symbol to the seer’s eye, we do not think it in connexion with the word Lamb as used in the rest of John’s twenty-seven instances.


Verse 8

Successive songs of praise to the Lamb, Revelation 5:8-14.

8. When he had taken—Greek aorist, when he took, making the triumphal chant of the cherubic beasts and the elders in instantaneous consequence. The four, as nearer the throne, and as creation is antecedent to the Church, precede in the act of grateful adoration. This remarkable prostration is before the Lamb—an unquestionable divine honour.

Having—Probably referring to the elders alone; for, 1. The word would not well, grammatically, in the Greek, refer to beasts; 2. The words hast redeemed could hardly include the representatives of the creation; and 3. The part of the beasts seems to have been the final responsive Amen of Revelation 5:14.

Harps—The κιθαρα, (cithara, whence our guitar,) the Septuagint name for David’s harp, is described by Josephus as fitted with ten strings, and when played was usually struck with a plectrum or key: yet it is described in the Psalms as struck by David with the fingers. Probably both modes were used.

Golden vials—Rather, saucers. They were the censers, or broad shallow bowls, exposing as much surface as practicable from which to roll up the incense.

Odours—Incenses. For the composition of the incense, see note on Hebrews 9:14.

Which are—That is, represent.

The prayers—The censer, with its glowing ingredients, represents the human heart with its devout emotions, and the rise of the fragrant incense represents the ascent of acceptable prayers.


Verse 9

9. New song—As demanded by a new occasion. All the old melodies suited their occasion; but this event demands a fresh composition, fresh words, and fresh melody.

Hast redeemed—Rather, Greek aorist, didst redeem, namely, at the crucifixion. Us is rejected by the best authorities, and so redeemed is without an expressed objective. So, also, the us of Revelation 5:10 should, according to the best authorities, be them, thereby showing that the implied objective here should also be third person them. So, also, we in Revelation 5:10, should be they. The song does not express explicitly the thought that themselves had been redeemed and should reign. And this avoidance, perhaps, may imply that the cherubic beasts took share in the song, and thus necessitated the third person, since the earth was not redeemed, and could not reign.

By thy blood—Deeply emphatic. Not by example or teaching of the Lamb were they redeemed, but also by blood.

Kindred… nations—The earth-wide four. The limitation out of seems to imply that the redemption did not take effect with the entire race. All are not saved by it.


Verse 10

10. Hast made—Rather, didst make; coordinate with didst redeem, in Revelation 5:9. UsThem, as said in our note on Revelation 5:9.

Kings and priests— The true reading seems to be, Thou didst make them, unto God, a kingdom, instead of kings and priests. We shall reign should read, and they reign on the earth. Not that we shall reign, in the future, but they, the redeemed, do now reign on earth.

The important changes made by textual criticisms in this song, suggest its reproduction thus:—Thou art worthy to take the roll, and to open the seals thereof; for thou wast slain, and didst redeem to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation. And didst make them unto our God a kingdom and priests, and they reign on earth.

These changes are important, as showing that the kingdom and the reign of the saints on earth are truly now already begun and existing, and waiting future enlargements, confirmations, and developments.

To this song of the cherubic beasts and the elders, there now comes, by a sublime surprise, a reenforcement of an innumerable company of angels. It begins to dawn upon us that we have at this great hour a fivefold song. It begins, first, with the trisagion, Revelation 4:8, by the cherubim, which, second, is responded to by the elders. Third, the elders have just now celebrated the opening of the roll; and, fourth, peals the angelic anthem, and their peal wakens every creature in all parts of creation to a fifth and last reverberation.


Verse 11

11. I beheld… heard—In larger circle, around the circle of the elders, there now beams upon the eye an overwhelming assemblage of angels, pouring their song upon the ear of our apostle. They are now for the first time, and but transiently, visible. The number of them was, in the Greek, myriads of myriads and chiliads of chiliads, the sonorousness of which is still more sonorous in our English translation, the billowy roll of which is most magnificent. The Septuagint of Daniel 7:10 reads, “Thousand of thousands ministered unto him, and myriads of myriads stood before him,” giving by climax the greater number last. John gives the lesser number last, as if not satisfied with the greater number alone without a supplement.


Verse 12

12. The angels furnish their sevenfold ascription to the Lamb; such ascription as Scripture never makes to angels.


Verse 13

13. Every creature—”By the very terms,” Alford well says, “animated creature; for heaven, earth, and sea themselves are mentioned as the abodes of these creatures.” And the threefoldness of these abodes is clear, notwithstanding the distinctions of on and under the surface of earth and sea.

In the sea—Rather on, referring to surface marine animals, and distinction from in in the following clause. All that are in (as well as on and under) them, that is, in the earth and sea. This wide creational song ascribes to God the creational four things.


Verse 14

14. The fivefold songs are ended, and it comes back to the standing fixtures; namely, the cherubic beasts and the elders, to confirm and ratify the utterances; the former by their amen, and the latter by their profound adoration of the Eternal.

On these two chapters we may note, that the theophany and the celestial rejoicing at the possibility of opening the seals imply a stupendous value in the revelations about to be made in the coming apocalypse. No book in the Bible has so magnificent an introduction, with such an assumption of the value of its own contents. However little some Christian periods or Christian thinkers may value this apocalypse, it sets a stupendous valuation upon itself. Its opening is occasion for glorious hymns to the opener. The burden of the hymns, indeed, is the great atonement by his sacrificial death; but this revelation is here a leading part of the results of that atonement. The same, indeed, is true of the entire New Testament canon—that the revelation of gospel truth results from the atonement; but this apocalypse, as crowning close of that canon, and standing prophecy for the Christian Church. This view may seem to justify the terrible warning against all mutilation or corruption in Revelation 22:18-19, and may suggest how, in speaking for the apocalypse, it speaks for the whole canon. Note on Revelation 22:6.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Revelation 5:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/revelation-5.html. 1874-1909.

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