Commentary on Revelation 5:11-14
Where can we hear the Lamb’s “new song” (Revelation 5:9) being sung in the world today?
Revelation makes vibrant connections between worship and justice, between liturgy and political transformation. Singing is a profound source of hope in the book of Revelation, as Kathleen Norris writes:
I am attracted to the Revelation also because it was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book of the Bible, and because it takes a stand in favor of singing. In fact, it proclaims that when all is said and done, of the considerable noises human beings are capable of, it is singing that will endure. A new song — if you can imagine — and light will be what remains. I find this a cause for hope.1
Revelation 5 introduces the Jesus as the slain and risen Lamb whose praise is joined by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” (Revelation 5:13). All heaven breaks loose in singing when the lamb is found worthy to open the scroll. Revelation is rich in such worship scenes. The hymns of Revelation are familiar from Handel’s “Messiah” (“Worthy Is the Lamb Who Was Slain”), from Charles Wesley’s hymns (“Salvation to God Who Sits on the Throne”), and from the liturgy (“This is the Feast of Victory for Our God”; “Holy, Holy, Holy”). More than fifteen hymns are sung in Revelation, all giving encouragement to Gods people on earth from the perspective of heaven. No book of the Bible has had more influence on Western music and art than Revelation.
John of Patmos envisions a liturgy where animals and all living creatures join us in cacophonous singing. This vision can serve as a corrective to our anthropocentric tendencies to neglect the truly cosmic dimension of God’s praise. The Easter Eucharistic Preface underscores this witness of all creation: “Therefore with Mary Magdalene and Peter, with all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all their creatures, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.”
In order to understand the full significance of this worship scene we must view it in context — both the literary context of ancient apocalypses and the first-century context of Roman imperial theology. Beginning in chapter 4, Revelation follows the typical genre of an ancient “apocalypse” (the first word in Revelation 1:1) in which a representative seer goes on a journey up into heaven and then returns with an urgent message to the community.
On this journey up into heaven (Revelation 4-5) John sees the divine throne and God as “the One seated upon it,” surrounded by heavenly worshipers. The clear message is about allegiance: Only God and God’s Lamb Jesus are worthy of our worship, not the Roman emperor or any imperial power. This radical message is transformative for John and for his first century communities in Asia Minor.
The hard-hitting political role of this worship scene becomes even more apparent if we consider the root meaning of the word “apocalypse”– apo, “from,” and kalyptos, “covering.” John’s Apocalypse is an exposé, a pulling back of the curtain to uncover the truth about the Roman Empire. In a role analogous to that of Toto in the climactic scene of the film “The Wizard of Oz,” Revelation pulls back the curtain to expose the fact that Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be. Rome must not be worshiped.
As preachers, we can invite worshipers to savor the liturgy and join in the hymn of all creation, even while we also observe that radical liturgy demands saying “no” to false allegiances and claims. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argues, Revelation’s frequent use of hymns, doxologies, halleluiahs, amens and descriptions of heavenly liturgies serves “not for the sake of persuading his audience to participate in the daily or weekly liturgy,” but rather “for the sake of moving the audience to political resistance . . . If the author would write today, he might say: ‘Don’t salute the flag, salute God’; or ‘Don’t pledge allegiance to the state, pledge it to God’.”2
Revelation does not strictly follow the genre of apocalypse, however, but throws in some surprises. Most surprisingly, Revelation introduces Jesus not as the expected fierce apocalyptic lion (Revelation 5:5, from Genesis 49:9), but rather as a “Lamb” (literally the diminutive word, “little lamb”). No other Jewish apocalypse portrays its hero as a Lamb. This is a depiction of Jesus in the most vulnerable way possible, as a slaughtered victim. Jesus Christ is God’s Passover lamb who has been raised, and who now is worthy of our worship.
The powerful metaphor of Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain” will become the central christological symbol of the entire book. This scripting of Jesus as a lamb is an obvious signal not to interpret the imagery of Revelation literally, but rather metaphorically. Just as Jesus was not literally a four-legged sheep or lamb, so Revelation’s other symbols and numbers should not be read literally. Revelation’s profound truth is not as a series of predictions to be figured out, but rather a deeper-than-literal truth — a journey into God’s vision of hope for our world.
1Kathleen Norris, Introduction to Revelation (New York: Grove Press, 1999), vii.
2Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 103.