Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Revelation 22:4-7

Verse 4: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

I’m reminded by this passage of my favorite Psalm (the translation is Robert Alters):

One thing do I ask of the Lord,
it is this that I seek –
that I dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the Lord’s sweetness
and to gaze on his palace. . . .

Hear, O Lord, my voice when I call,
and grant me grace and answer me.
Of you, my heart said: “Seek My face.”
Your face, Lord, I do seek.
Do not hide your face far from me
(Ps. 27:4, 7-8)

In general, however, I’m not sure where to begin with respect to the question of the “face.”

Here we have a face that is “seen” and no longer hidden by a veil of any kind. Yet (as in Emmanuel Levinas’ profound phenomenological analyses of the face-to-face encounter) there are few moments when we are more struck by the transcendent inaccessibility of the other person than when we are brought face to face with them.

In the other person’s absence it is not so difficult to pretend that we “know” them, have taken their measure, and have a handle on who they are. But, brought face to face with the other, this pretension evaporates.

Why? Because when we come face to face with the other, it is no longer the case that we are simply seeing them. Rather, face to face, we see them and we see ourselves being seen. Face to face, we find ourselves gripped by their inaccessible gaze. We discover that there is another perspective from which the world unfolds and that, in fact, we are not (as we pretend) the center of the universe.

There is a kind of nakedness in this revelation as we bear our own bareness in the eyes of the other. Exposed to what we see required of us (and from us) in the other’s face - exposed to our responsibility to them and for them - we are simultaneously exposed to what we cannot see in this face that exceeds us.

The revelatory intimacy of this face to face encounter hinges on just such an exposure: I both see and see myself being seen by something that I cannot see.

Of the immense number of things, then, that could be said about having “his name on our foreheads,” I’ll suggest only this: it is the essence of such a face to face encounter that it inscribes the other’s name in us.

Having seen their face, having seen ourselves being seen, we continue to bear both the other’s name and a responsibility for what that name/face revealed to us about them and ourselves. And here, insofar as God’s name is a metonym for every other face - “inasmuch as you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me” - bearing God’s name on our foreheads means that we bear the name of all the other others who need assistance from us.

A final note: it is especially interesting that we bear this name in a place where it will be visible to everyone else we see . . . but, simultaneously, in a place where it is not visible to us. Our only access to this name (this name that we bear inscribed in our own flesh!) is through the eyes of others.

Verse 5: “And night will no longer be, and they have no need of the light of a lamp or the light of the sun because the Lord God will give forth light on them, and they will reign into the ages of the ages.”

This recapitulation of the promise already given in 21:23 nicely rounds out the end of the vision proper.

Verse 6-7: “And he said to me, ‘These words are faithful and true, and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place. Behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is the one keeping the words of the prophecy of this book.’”

These verses mark the end of the vision and the transition to the book’s “concluding sayings.” They call our attention back to the role of the messenger/angel, the status of the recipients as “servants,” and emphasize the imminence of all of the dread/beautiful events that were foretold.

“The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets” is an interesting locution. God is here identified as “the one who is on the side of the prophets.” Also, insofar as the “spirits” (pneumaton) are cognate with breath, we might hear an echo of God’s being on the side of the “breath” of the prophets (i.e., on the side of the words that they breathed out on God’s own behalf).

Interesting, also, that blessedness is here directly tied to a text/book. Righteous living in general is not addressed. Rather, blessedness is tied to “keeping” the words of the prophecy of the book. I’d like to address this further (in connection with the rest of what we’ve hinted about the importance of words, writing, texts, etc.), but I’m simply out of time. So, for the moment, I’ll simply lay down another (hopeful!) promissory marker with respect to this question.


  1. Adam, thank you for this post.

    In thinking about verse 4 (and maybe your reference to a psalm took me in this direction), I feel that there is some parallelism in the verse that might be worth exploring. I am wondering what exactly the relationship is between "seeing his face" and "having his name on their foreheads." Does the first cause the second? Does the second cause the first? Are they equivalencies in some sense? (And, if so, how?) Something else?

    Another thought on v4: I've read that the 'name on the forehead' is alluding to the practice of branding (or tatooing) the name of an owner onto the forehead of a slave. If that is the meaning here, then I suppose the suggestion is that we cannot see God until we confess that He is our master. As you point out, when that name is on our forehead, all the world can see it. In other words, when we accept God as our master, it is obvious to all others. (Except ourselves? I don't know.)

    V5 is privileged as the "final word" of the vision. There is probably a lot that could be said about this, but I'll just note that I like the idea that God's light is what allows them to reign forever, and that this is the climax of the vision.

  2. Of foreheads, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery says:

    “The two dozen references to foreheads in the Bible fall into three main clusters. The most numerous are references to the forehead as a place where one wears an identifying mark, either literal or figurative. At the institution of the Passover, Moses told the people that the perpetual remembrance of God's deliverance of them would be as a reminder and emblem 'on your forehead (Ex 13:9 16 NRSV). In his farewell discourse, Moses commanded that his words should be fixed 'as an emblem on your forehead' (Deut 6:8; 11:18 NRSV). The engraved gold signet bearing the motto 'holy to the Lord' was worn by Aaron on his forehead as God's designated high priest (Ex 28:36-38). In apocalyptic visions, people's foreheads receive marks of identity, either good (sometimes for purposes of protection) or bad . . . Jeremiah 3:3 uses the image of 'the forehead of the whore' to picture someone who refuses to be ashamed.

    “Second, the hardness of the forehead made it a symbol of stubbornness and rebelliousness (Is 48:4; Ezek 3:7). The positive side of the image is that it can also picture the courage and persistence of a good person in standing up to evil (Ezek 3:8-9).

    “Third, the condition of a person's forehead was crucial to a priest's determination of whether or not a person had leprosy . . .

    “The most famous forehead in the Bible is Goliath's.”

    Some good stuff here.

  3. Adam, thanks for a particularly moving reading of Revelation -- easily one of the most useful applications of Levinas I've seen in a while (after reading your post, I'm tempted to say that for modern readers, Revelation needs Levinas).

    I've been thinking about what sort of blessed people won't need the light of a lamp or the sun. One possibility is that in addition to light being given "forth on them," perhaps it is given forth _through_ them -- where such people stand, dark things (or, the things for which darkness stands as a metonymy)simply cannot exist. Hunger, pain, sickness, hatred, violence, injustice, etc., are made impossible by the capabilities of such servants.

    We could stretch this to include the previously discussed possibilities inherent in "higher" perspectives. Perhaps darkness cannot exist in the sense that such people have become the embodiment of discernment/wisdom/etc., and this "light" makes other forms of light seem dim or superfluous.

    I like Julie's suggestion regarding parallelism. D&C 88:45-50 suggests that discerning God in all of creation marks our ability to comprehend not only our own proper place in the scheme of things, but something of the divine nature as well. Given that both Revelations and the D&C are at pains to give us some sense of divine perspectives on power (it is light, is is like the tree of life and the waters of life, it cannot be exercised without love and humility, and it is intimately bound up in the quality of our relations with/to others), I am more and more interested in borrowing the term "capability" or "capacity" from various recent thinkers. More on this later . . .

  4. Brandie,

    Given my fumbling with the verses, I appreciate your kind words.

    Also, I'll be interested to hear what you have in mind with the terms "capability" or "capacity." Which thinkers are you thinking about here?

  5. Your insights (and those of Levinas) on seeing/being seen are very stimulating. You said: "In the other person’s absence it is not so difficult to pretend that we “know” them, have taken their measure, and have a handle on who they are. But, brought face to face with the other, this pretension evaporates.

    Why? Because when we come face to face with the other, it is no longer the case that we are simply seeing them. Rather, face to face, we see them and we see ourselves being seen. Face to face, we find ourselves gripped by their inaccessible gaze. We discover that there is another perspective from which the world unfolds and that, in fact, we are not (as we pretend) the center of the universe."

    It occurs to me that this "de-centering" effect of being seen by another is exactly what makes the unity Christ desired in John 17 so challenging and so rewarding. A constant state of true unity with God and with his disciples is something that requires immense faith as we learn to truly open ourselves to the view of God and others and give way our prized sense that we are the center of the universe, in order to enjoy the greater blessings of true charity. The marriage setting, the family setting, the church/ward setting, and the setting of deep friendships all teach that we must lose ourselves in order to be found.

    Your insights on the de-centering effect of being seen also helped me better understand why Moses would declare, after seeing God, "Now for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed" (Moses 1:10). What could more strongly convince us that we are not the center of the universe than to be confronted by the image of God, who is the center of the universe?

    In a similar way, it may be that only because they have knowledge that Christ's image is engraven in their countenances will the redeemed be able to rejoice in God's presence for all eternity. Without His image engraven there and His name written upon their foreheads, the constant presence of God (seeing them as they truly are) would be too unsettling and even terrifying. It would be easier for such to retreat back into the comfortable darkness of alone-ness than to be where God and the Saints are dwelling in the unceasing, revealing light of unity, seeing each other and being seen.

  6. Shon says:

    "What could more strongly convince us that we are not the center of the universe than to be confronted by the image of God, who is the center of the universe?"

    Consider this an additional speculation rather than a critique or correction, but I wonder if it might not be just as true of God (as it is of us) that in order to be found, he must be lost.

    If so, then God himself would be God only by virtue of having perfected the work of de-centering himself such that, in order to be God, he would never be at the center of the universe.

    Or, to borrow from you reference to Moses 1:10, might it be that God is God precisely because he is himself perfectly aware of his own nothingness? If kenotic self-abandonment is the essence of love and salvation, then should we posit God's perfection as an exception to "nothingness"? I'm reluctant to say so. We may very well want to posit him as the perfection of this salvific "nothingness."

    Just thinking out loud.

  7. Thanks, all, for such great comments.

    Adam, with respect to "capability" and "capacities," I'm thinking of Ricoeur's reading of Agamben (especially in The Course of Recognition, but also hypothesizing from Oneself as Another), Richard Kearney's readings of Ricoeur, W. Scheuerman (various articles pertaining to law), and D. Dyzenhaus (on capicity in relation to legitimacy).

    Some further thoughts: if imagining oneself as being the center of the universe is childish even for God, we might still wish to preserve "being centered" as something else entirely, as something still desireable. Or, at least, being willing to put oneself in the center of things (as in multiple relationships requiring a certain kind of sophistication -- making oneself a kind of hub, tying otherwise conflicting perspectives together to make rolling forward possible). Where Levinas goes for triangulation, I might go for encircling, and a certain brand of appropriate centering.

  8. Brandie,

    I'm familiar with Ricoeur and even more so with Agamben (especially his beautiful little book on Walter Benjamin and St Paul), but I'm not familiar with any of Ricoeur's work on Agamben. Kearney, of course, I also know but I'm completely unfamliar with Scheuerman and Dyzenhaus. All of it, though, piques my interest in what you'll have to say.

    As for "being centered": the image would be of God as a kind of network hub that forms alliances, ties disparate and far flung pieces together, and makes "translation" between all kinds of otherwise incompatible "operating systems" possible? If so, I kind of like it. Especially insofar as, functioning as a kind of network hub or widely available mediator, God would still "vanish" in his role of making connections (i.e., none of the connections he makes are actually about him). Though as Mormons (lacking a doctrine of creation ex nihilo) I think we could allow for all kinds of relationships between things in the universe to be routed through mediations that don't require God to be one of the participants

    The encircling image, though, makes me think (perhaps unavoidably) of the famous Round Table which distributes relationships "equally" around an "empty" center.

    Just more thinking out loud.

  9. Adam,

    I love the Round Table image -- I may have to steal that. I especially like the theological implications: we God's children, but we are also meant to become God's friends and companions-at-arms. Here, "arms" would mean doing/creating/rescuing righteousness, in holiness, with a joyful purpose. I'll have to think about this a bit more.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.