Friday, May 29, 2009
Revelations 21: 5-9
5And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. 6And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. 7He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. 8But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. 9And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife.
Summary and Approach
This segment stirs additional symbols and allusions into the initial visionary experience of 1-5, eventually coming back around to the New Jerusalem-as-bride, thereby introducing the expansive, highly detailed and densely symbolic description of the bride/city developed later in the vision. With that subsequent orientation in mind, the remarks below focus primarily on themes, symbols and (selected) possible allusions developed in the narrative’s recursive and expanding gyre.
Although I focus on the LDS edition of the KJV, I am also looking at the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), and at Tyndale’s 1520 translation of the New Testament (a means of keeping this blog related to my other projects).
In addition to what Eric has already said about this line, note that the durable symbol of authority, the throne, is also used as a special modifier for the simple pronoun "he" used to refer to God. Given that it is difficult in the context of Jewish tradition to hear "throne" without thinking of David’s throne, and Solomon’s seat of judgment, the making of "all things new" is framed in the memory of an ideal of protection, commitment, wise judgment, and the exercise of justice -- actions that create communities of mutual trust (true and faithful). In contrast to Roman imperial authority, which like Babylon’s gets expressed through the literal and spiritual destruction of Jerusalem, Divine sovereignty is exercised through an act of creation that acknowledges the righteous traditions and endeavors of humanity (hence the proper echoes around the symbol of the throne) while recognizing serious limitations and the need of Divine rescue.
Moreover, the Creator’s oral exclamation/direction ("behold" or "look" or "see") gives way to the instruction to "Write," with the implication that the words are not meant primarily for historical accounting nor spiritual recollection, but as another mode for making "all things new." William Tyndale’s Pathway into the Holy Scripture asserts that revelatory words in fact perform actions: they wound, heal, liberate, command, promise, inspire.
Comment: With regard to the throne imagery, and given my bias toward theologies that orient us toward action, I am immediately put in mind of the rebuke given to Jehoiakim in Jeremiah 22. Here, Jehoiakim is seen as being misguided in his attempts to recover the glory of Solomon through elaborate building projects supported by means of uncompensated labor and restrictions on freedom (see notes in the NRSV). This is not a righteously conceived nor divinely approved city.
Rather, Jehoiakim is enjoined to emulate his father Josiah, whose throne was based on a true and faithful form of righteous sovereignty: "Are you a king / because you compete in cedar? / did not your father eat and drink / and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. / He judged the cause of the poor / and needy; / then it was well. Is not this to know me? / says the LORD" (15-16). I quote from the NRSV, here, because it is much more plainly spoken on the issue of what constitutes a true throne at the heart of a righteous city (England’s King James asserted an ideology of absolute monarchy, claiming power over subjects rather than power on behalf of citizens, and such themes certainly had to be handled carefully by the KJV scholars).
The pronouncement, "It is done," might be read as meant to invoke a double image:
(1) the conclusion of new-making, the results of which we are about to see in glorious detail, and
(2) Jesus’s death, concluding a ministry based on what one commentator describes as "the astonishing promise offered to the riffraff" (Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, 56).
The prospect of visionary doubling seems likely given that, as the verse then goes on, the Lord is declared to be "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end." And as mentioned in a previous post, the latter image forms a nice bracket to the vision of the throne and the command to write.
Thirst, the fountain and the water of life, and the freely given gift form the symbolic transition from the throne in verse 5 to the prospect of inheritance in verse 7. The fountain, or spring, deserves much more attention than I will give it here. However, especially striking is the tonal nuance it gives to what might otherwise seem a fairly stentorian proclamation of the Divine nature as all-in-all: here, "the beginning and end" is to "give the water of life freely." Again, the vision coaxes us to see true might in God’s terms. God’s might, as it turns out, is the act of giving freely that which gives life, especially an abundance of life. In fact, the bejeweled splendor and perfection of measurement we are about to see is an elaborate extension of Jesus’s clarification of Divine purpose: "I am come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."
Comment: I do think that "Alpha and Omega" is a fairly practical means of linking the kinds of action performed by inspired words, and a more general them of the New Jerusalem as the city of living abundance (as opposed to mere soul-deadening acquisition). In this regard, I am especially fond of Isaiah’s poetic dramatization of the proper plenitude that sustains, nurtures, and results in a robust growth, strength and vigorous pleasure – a feast of righteousness that begins with thirst, leads to the fountain of life, and progresses to a table set for all "the peoples": "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come yet to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labour for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness . . . and your soul shall live" (55: 1-3).
Think also of the invitation to participate in Wisdom’s banquet in Proverbs 9:5. These feasts and fountains suggest a delightful paradox: dependence on God is really the freedom of unrestrained growth.
Verses 7 & 8
Here, a dramatic juxtaposition forms a narrative hinge by which the door to a more expansive view of the New Jerusalem will swing open. The Divine throne dramatized earlier in the vision is now seen in relation to inheritance, and God insists, "He that overcometh . . .shall be my son." If there are any doubts as to what is to be overcome, the subsequent list in verse 8 gives a few specific examples, all of which contrast starkly with the theme of abundance – these latter are all forms of limiting, distorting, or outright ending life’s potential, and constitute a "second death." This death, in turn, is metaphorically constituted as a "lake which burneth with fire and brimestone," an image set off against the freely-flowing water of the fountain of life.
Comment: The juxtaposition of the fountain "of the water of life" to the "lake which burneth" implies that there are moral implications and consequences for how and why we thirst. Given that thirst sometimes refers to spiritual seeking and sometimes to those who stand in material need, and that frequently scripture suggests that they are satisfied in each other, it begins to look like the New Jerusalem is to be conceived of less as a complete ideal toward which one moves, and more as being fully present in any material case where life is made more abundant. In this sense, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand -- or, in my reading, to hand. Actually, I’m still working out what looks like an interesting tension between future-directed doing, and now-focused creating. More on this later.
Not surprisingly, the vision now moves from the prospect of inheritance back to "the bride, the Lamb’s wife." In verses 10 and 11, that bride will be revealed as the "holy Jerusalem," and again we are invited to bring two images together into one. The bride’s capacity for regeneration is framed in terms of a holy beauty, and the city’s splendor is likewise developed in terms of incandescence. In short, the graphic but relatively simple metaphors of the living fountain and the burning lake will give way to a more spectacular, more complex series of symbols. To say the least, this is the point in the vision where the theme of abundance will become mind-boggling in its splendor, requiring the imagination to stretch to accommodate the full breadth and depth of the grandeur. Yet it is also the point in the narrative where we sense a fine equipoise between abundance and thirsting, intimacy and inclusiveness.
Comment: The desire to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" (1 Chr. 16:29, Ps. 29:2, 96:9) is perhaps a good starting place for thinking about the elaborate images that follow the reintroduction of the Bride. The Bride also reminds us of what Aquinas movingly suggests: that charity presupposes rather than excludes the erotic.
1. Julie has suggested that we explore the relationship between the story of creation in Genesis and the account of created newness developed in Revelation. What, specifically, changes in our understanding of the thematic development in this passage (God’s throne, writing, Divine doing as beginning and end, living water freely given, inheritance vs. second death, the Bride), if we consider any of the symbols or metaphors of Eden in relation to those of this vision? What contradictions or paradoxes arise, and what possibilities for theological insight?
2. What are the further theological possibilities in this passage when we account for physicality, as Kevin suggests, especially in relation to themes of inheritance, living water, beauty, and holiness?
3. What capacities are implied by the "son" who inherits from God by "overcoming" or "conquoring"?