The Bible contains some really odd stuff, which becomes downright outlandish when a literal reading is demanded. As I’ve written before, people tend to avoid the text for a variety of reasons, and too often those attracted to it claim a special understanding they wield as to whack asunder all those who dare question. Revelation 4 is Exhibit A.
A running motif of popular Revelation exegesis is the notion that God is intending to destroy the created order. Last week we looked at the various meanings of the word ἀποκάλυψις, apocalypsis. As a literature type, apocalypses often contain a scene in which an individual is given presence–generally through a vision or being filled with the Spirit, as is the case in Revelation 4–to the heavenly council. The earliest canonical appearance of such an event is Isaiah 6, then Ezekiel 1, and then Daniel 7. Like in Revelation, there is a door to heaven that is opened, enabling each realm to see the other. Or, more specifically germane, allowing the one chosen, in this case, John of Patmos, to behold the celestial council.
We’re likely familiar with the stairway to heaven and the highway to hell, but this doorway to heaven might throw us a bit. Yet, the idea begins in paganism and stretches into our own day. The notion of portals begins not with science but with mythology and mysticism. In the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism the heavens open and there is an axis mundi created, a place in which the earthly and the heavenly conjoin. We see this in Judaism with the theophany on Mt. Sinai, with attendant thunder and lightning, in Islam with the Dome of the Rock, and in Buddhism with the Bodhi Tree. Christianity has yet one more with Golgotha, again with an accompanying earthquake and darkness. In Orthodox Judaism, women lighting the shabbos candles are believed to have the heavens opened for them as a direct pipeline to God.
If we attempt to understand this only with our rational minds, we will miss the mark, the literal meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words for sin. John looks into the heavens and he hears a voice like a trumpet; the text is attempting to engage our senses. The biblical usage of the trumpet is nuanced, but here it is utilized as a simile to describe the voice of the one speaking. This, of course, is Christ on the throne; but we should not think of the corporeal Jesus, but rather of the spiritual logos. The word of God sounds forth a warning, a blast that will bring down the walls of human evil much like those of Jericho.
Notice that when John describes what he sees upon the throne, he does not give tell of a Zeus or an Appollo. There is no anthropomorphism here. Instead, once he’s in the spirit–that is, existing with the use of his senses, not of his capacity for reason–he sees one like jasper (in biblical times, this was a translucent gem) and carnelian (of a fiery red color) that tells him of what is happening and what will happen in the future. John is being given insight into God’s plans for humanity and is to return and tell others. This, dearly beloved, is the very definition of a prophet, literally “mouthpiece for God.” Surrounding the throne is a rainbow, a sign of covenant since the time of Noah.
God is to be sensed, to be experienced; the texts that feature God’s heavenly court gave genesis to Merkaba mysticism, those who gathered around these stories as instruction manuals for how to themselves gain access to the divine. The use of numbers is deliberate: seven signifies completeness; four, the corners of the earth and the four winds (in Greek, Ἄνεμοι). Each of the creatures comprises a corner of the throne–a similar image was on the Ark of the Covenant–and in turn represent the completion of creation: a wild lion, a domesticated ox, a human being, and a bird of the air. If we go back to the image of the throne, we will recall the smooth crystal that may likely be meant to remind us of how God calmed the chaotic waters with breath (ר֫וּחַ, ruach). The Word of God, the logos, once again seeks to bring order out of pandemonium.
All of creation gives honor to God, as do the twenty-four robe-clad figures. There have been a great number of interpretations of this, but the one I greatly appreciate put forth by Ian Boxall, is that the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles are together in the holy chamber. We cannot have one without the other, it seems to say. While I would not deliver such a message to my Jewish siblings in Abraham, I do think it is an important message to Christians: we are only here because of God’s work with the Chosen People.
Here is where the text gets a bit subversive. All of these figures, accorded honors and respect in heaven and on earth, throw asunder their crowns and worship the one true God. Imagine reading this amidst the brutal rule of Rome, especially in the Year of the Four Emperors. As human leaders come and go, leaving in their wake suffering and destruction, the wise person will remain ever-fixed upon God.
I totally get when people roll their eyes over stuff like this; it can, without question, come across as trite, empty rhetoric that does little to nothing to address the real problems of people here and now. But let us recall that God’s message to us is pretty simple. We have the charge of how to love in Deuteronomy 6:4. We have Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humbleness. And we have Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors, to pray for those who persecute us, and to avoid the altar of God when we have animosity in our hearts and on our lips.
The world gives us false promises that happiness will come with the right body shape or the biggest bank account. We chase after the procurement of things, trying to fill holes that require spiritual answers, not materialism and mendacity. This enigmatic text, like the ones before and after it, let us know that true perfection cannot be found here. It cannot even be approached except through understanding that God has given us all we need in order to live authentic lives. We need not believe the culture that tells us we need a new car or a smaller waist.
Yes, there is suffering. Egreigious suffering that makes little to no sense. In my town, an incandescently brilliant philosopher died suddenly, in front of the love of his life, at the age of 47. An aneurysm cut him down in a matter of seconds. There are no comforting words or platitudes to speak, except to say that God has given us what we need in order to cope.
Surprise! It’s us.