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).

Verse 5

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).

Verse 6

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.

Verse 9

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"?


  1. Thanks for this post.

    "These feasts and fountains suggest a delightful paradox: dependence on God is really the freedom of unrestrained growth."

    I love this.

    "In this sense, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand -- or, in my reading, to hand."

    Can you say a little more about this?

    "Not surprisingly, the vision now moves from the prospect of inheritance back to "the bride, the Lamb’s wife." "

    Why don't you find this surprising? If I didn't hang on to my hat, I could get imagery whiplash in this chapter!

    Some random thoughts:

    --V5 seems to be borrowing from Isaiah 65:17. To me, this complicates the discussion of "writing" and "making new" in interesting ways. Also, after Isaiah has the line about making things new, there is this line: "and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind." I can't find that sentiment in Revelation; although perhaps I've missed it. I wonder if this is significant.

    --Another thought on v6's "It is done." The verb is plural, giving us "They are done." To what might the "they" refer? The words in v5? Or something else?

    --V7: there is a strong parallel between "I will be his God and he stall be my son" and v3's "God himself shall be with them," except that v7 is more personalized. (That is, an individual relationship instead of a corporate one.) I wonder if this communal to personal movement is reflected in other ways in this text.

  2. Julie, how are you getting a plural "they are done" out of gegonen in v. 6? That looks singular to me.

    The Alpha and Omega thing always makes me think of the Hebrew word for "truth, faithfulness, firmness," which is 'emeth. That word begins with the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, followed by a letter in the middle of the alphabet, mem, and concluded by the last letter of the alphabet, taw. So visually that word represents the beginning, the end, and all tha is in between, or knowledge of things as they were, as the are and as they are to come.

    The "I will be his God, and he shall be my son" suggests a theosis concept to me.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Julie and Kevin.

    Responding to Julie’s comments: the “to hand” I’m thinking of is a play on our English way of framing doing in relation to time and space. “At hand” tends to suggest that one is about to grasp something that is near; “in hand” suggests that one already has it in grasp, and “to hand” (though sometimes used as s synonym for “at hand”) refers to the moment of coming-into, with implications of labor and servitude. So what I’m toying with here is the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven is both “at hand” (can be grasped soon) and “to hand” (is emerging as our labors serve God).

    Now you’ve got me thinking, though, about other related possibilities regarding the theological implications of the English translation, especially the KJV. The 17th century poet George Herbert has a great poem in which he plays on the meaning of “hand” as used in a card game (what one has been dealt, and the chances one is willing to take in relation to desire – or in our case, “thirst”) and “hand” as in the nearness of God’s kingdom. Given the significance of writing in this passage, another English use of “hand” can be meaningful: one’s hand referring to the peculiar identifying characteristics of one’s own writing, especially writing as attestation (as in signing a will or other legal device for inheritance). Hands also represent capacity, agency, will. I’m still thinking in 16th and 17th century terms, in which “hand” can also mean a way, or tendency, or direction (as in “a mending hand”). If I push the inheritance metaphor, a use of “hand” still current when the KJV was being polished (but now archaic) is economic and refers to the outcome of bartering, the final cost (“best hand” vs. “better hand” vs. “dear hand”).

    This might all suggest something like this: to say that God’s kingdom is “at hand” and “to hand” is to say that

    (1) certain kinds of labor and servitude instantiate the “coming-into” (reality? material expression? full comprehension?) of God’s kingdom. In this sense, the Kingdom is not fully future nor is it fully present;

    (2) this “coming-into” requires attestation, but attestation in distinctively identifiable terms – what identifies the Kingdom are the distinctive or peculiar characteristics of the signatories. God’s peculiar signature ratifies the final cost (the “dear hand” of Jesus’s ministry and sacrifice) of the inheritance for his children, yet the distinctive attestation of those very children is also required – in terms of their distinctive capacities – before the inheritance to be received;

    (3) these distinctive capacities must in turn create a way, direction, or tendency that allows agency, desire, and will to clasp others the way God wants them to be grasped/embraced (another archaic use of “hand” = arm). This would probably be a good place to wrestle with Levinas and Ricoeur (which I won’t do just now, but it occurs to me that the “at hand” modifier for the Kingdom of Heaven might be usefully amplified by some of Ricoeur’s ideas on recognition).

    Also, Julie, I do think you caught me taking for granted the “obvious” movement from inheritance imagery back to the bride imagery. To me, this seemed a natural shift given that the Bride in some sense will give birth to the children who inherit. Or more generally, she makes inheritance possible. Certainly there are interesting symbolic possibilities involved with understanding “writing” as regenerative, and perhaps even as another avatar of the Bride (a nice parallel to the function of “Word” at the beginning of Revelation).

    In this regard, though, I’d like you to say more about how Isaiah 65:17 as complicates Revelation’s use of “writing” and “making new” in what you see as especially interesting ways.

    Kevin, I like your comment on the word ‘emeth. I’d like to think about this in terms of the limitations of language. I’ll post more later in response.

  4. Kevin, NA26 and the two online texts I use have gegonan, not gegonen. Is there a textual variant there?

  5. Aha! There is indeed a textual variant in v. 6. I'm at work, but just from poking around on the internet there appear to be three variants:

    1. gegonan reflects the Alexandrian text (Tischendorf; Westcott-Hort).

    2. gegona reflects the Byzantine majority text.

    3. gegonen reflects the Textus Receptus (both Stephens 1550 and Scrivener 1894).

    I was at work and looking at the Blue Letter Bible, which reflects the TR underlying the KJV. The singular is also reflected in the Vulgate's factum est.

    Assuming that we follow the Alexandrian reading, then you're right, instead of "it is done" it would be plural and something like "they have come to pass."

    I wonder whether the "they" could be the "faithful words" just spoken of?

  6. Brandie says:

    "These feasts and fountains suggest a delightful paradox: dependence on God is really the freedom of unrestrained growth."

    I agree with Julie that this is a fantastic formulation.

    Further, I'm very interested in how you've identified thirst/desire and its appropriate and inappropriate means of gratification as being one of the central problematics that the heavenly city is meant to address. The question of novelty/newness is, I think, at the heart of desire and whatever salvific transformations such desires may undergo.

    Also, for whatever its worth, I personally prefer the plural "they have come to pass" to the singular "it is done" because the former seems to leave more room for something additional to come next. Rather sounding like "it (everything!) is done," it sounds like "these things here are taken care of."

    Again, though, I'll try to offer some comments of my own on these verses in an additional post.

  7. Brandie writes: "In this regard, though, I’d like you to say more about how Isaiah 65:17 as complicates Revelation’s use of “writing” and “making new” in what you see as especially interesting ways."

    I find irony in that "all things" have been made new, but we are going to express that fact via language that is very old (from Isaiah, who recorded the promise that all things would be made new) and write it down, which means that it will also age, and yet it represents newness. So all things might have been made new, but old things (Isaiah's writings) still have use and value.

  8. 21:9 - "Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, 'Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.'"

    Why is a "plague" angel introducing John to the wife of the Lamb? Aren't there any non-plague angels available for this more genteel task of making introductions? Does the angel have the seven bowls of plagues in hand while the introductions are being made? What a curious image.


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