1 Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 2 and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.4 And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8 When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 They sing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints
from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.”
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom
and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
Revelation envisions a world centered upon the worship of God and the Lamb. In contrast to the way in which people will worship idols of stone, wood, and metal or those who will worship at the altars of commerce, military might, fame, popularity or political power the people of God were always to ‘fear, love and trust God above all things’ in Martin Luther’s memorable explanation of the first commandment. The Lord’s prayer asks for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven becomes the template for what life on earth is to become. There is a consistent theme throughout the Bible of the desire of God to dwell among the earth and the people of God represented narratively through stories like God walking with Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, God’s creation of the tabernacle to dwell among the people of Israel in Exodus and decisively for Christians in the narratives of the incarnation in the gospels. Revelation will move us to a world where God comes down to dwell among humanity but here in heaven we see a glimpse of what the properly ordered world will look like. Heaven shows us a world centered on God the Father and on Jesus. To use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s description from his lectures on the creation narratives, “The life that comes from God is at the center; that is to say, God, who gives life, is at the center.” (DBWE 3: 83)
The previous chapter brought us into the throne room of God where we saw the creatures and the elders worshipping the Lord who is seated on the throne. We begin chapter five with the introduction of a scroll with seven seals which is written inside and one the back. There is a message that is coming from God that is unable to be read because it is sealed and the revelation of its contents can only occur once all the seals are removed. The disclosure of the contents of the scroll and receiving this message from the Lord is a weighty matter and no one or nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth meets the call for worthiness put forward by the mighty angel. God’s proclamation, judgment and justice seems to have been delayed because of the unworthiness of those throughout creation to receive the message. This situation causes John to weep at the delay of God’s action. In contrast to the merchants and the wealthy in Revelation 18 who will weep at the unfolding of judgment within the scroll, John weeps that justice appears to have been sealed away until another time. But John is among those blessed mourners mentioned in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:4 for in Christ his mourning will be comforted.
One of the elders informs John that ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.’ This conquest enables this one to be worthy to open the seals on the scroll, but this is a scene of many reversals and redefinitions. The one mentioned is Jesus and his conquest is in his crucifixion. Instead of a military leader who conquers through military might, as one might expect of one whose title is the Lion of Judah, by his suffering he redeems for God a multitude from every tribe and every nation. Revelation frequently evokes images and figures from Israel’s scriptures much like the gospel of John does. To use Richard B. Hays’ language about John the apostle applies here to John the author of Revelation as well, “John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination.” (Hays, 2016, p. 284) The Lion of Judah goes back to Jacob’s final blessing of his sons Genesis 49: 9-10:
Judah is a lion’s whelp;
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion,
like a lioness—who dares rouse him up?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and the obedience of the peoples is his.
1 Kings relates how lion imagery adorned the throne room of Solomon:
The throne had six steps. The top of the throne was rounded in the back, and on each side of the seat were arm rests and two lions standing beside the arm rests, while twelve lions were standing, one on each end of a step on the six steps. Nothing like it was ever made in any kingdom. (1 Kings 10: 19-20)
The root of David recalls the imagery used in the prophets to talk about a coming one who will once again reign in the place of the lost Davidic monarchy. Isaiah 11: 1 specifically links the imagery of branch and root:
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of its roots.
Other prophets like Jeremiah (23: 5; 33:15) and Zechariah (3:8; 6:12) will refer to the hope of the coming Davidic king referring to the branch imagery. Both of these terms had strong messianic resonance in the hope of the Jewish people around the time of Jesus and many New Testament books would link Jesus’ identity to his association with the line of David.
The Lion of the tribe of Judas is worthy to open the scroll but in a reversal of expectations what John sees is not a man or a king or even a lion but a lamb. The lion is the lamb, the one who has conquered is the one who stands as if it has been slaughtered. This reversal is a key image for the remainder of Revelation. John’s gospel places a similar image in the mouth of John the Baptist when he proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1: 29) The distinctive description of the lamb having seven horns and seven eyes continue to develop the paradox of the scene. The lamb appears like one that has been slaughtered but horns are considered representations of power. The seven eyes are linked to the seven spirits of God which are mentioned in chapter four linking the torches and spirits around God’s throne with the eyes on the Lamb. The description of the Lamb having seven horns sets up a comparison with the dragon and the beast that will arise from the sea (Revelation 12: 3; 13: 1) in addition to the death blow on the beast that arose out of the sea. Both the dragon and the beasts will demand honors that are only appropriate for God and the Lamb.
The Lamb approaches the throne and takes the scroll and the worship of the Lamb begins to radiate outward from the throne of God. The twenty-four elders bring the golden bowls of incense which we learn are the prayers of the saints. As Psalm 141 can state:
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:2)
And in light of the action of the Lamb they lift up a new song. As I read these words I am reminded of Psalm 96 which begins:
O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
The LORD has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. (Psalm 96: 1-2)
The new song the elders lift up to the Lamb is full of images from the scriptures. The connecting the slaughter of the Lamb and ransoming a people for God probably has its origination in the Passover lamb Exodus 12). Paul can use the image of Christ’s blood becoming a sacrifice of atonement (Romans 3: 25) and Mark’s gospel can briefly point in this direction when it mentions the Son of Man coming to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10: 45). The ransomed include saints of every tribe, language and people and confers on this group the vocation of Israel as a kingdom of priests (see Exodus 19:6 and the discussion in chapter 1).
The praise of the elders ends and the focus of the vision expands to include an uncountable host of angels lifting up their voices in praise as well. The angelic host lifts up a seven fold praise as they sing together in a full voice. God the creator was given a three fold praise, “Glory, honor and power” but now the Lamb receives this seven fold praise in language similar to David’s praise of God in 1 Chronicles:
Your, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we five thanks to you and praise your glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29: 11-13)
This scene of worship and praise ends with all of creation lifting up its voice in praise of both the one on the throne and the Lamb. The worship of the Creator and the Lamb are joined together in a final three-fold blessing of “honor and glory and might.” On behalf of the creation the four living creatures utter, “Amen!” and the elders continued their worship.
We will be returned to these scenes of heavenly worship throughout the book of Revelation. In the midst of the turmoil the saints will be reminded that God and the Lamb are firmly in control and worthy of worship and praise. Even though their praise may seem weak in the midst of the cacophony of the triumphant shouts directed to idols and the emperor, the faithful can know that their voices are joined to the elders, the myriads of angels and all of creation acknowledging the sovereignty of God. Though the individual communities may feel insignificant they are a part of the multitude from every tribe, language and people. They are reminded that all creation centers upon the Creator and the Lamb as they join in the universal worship.