The book of Revelation portrays an eschatological community worshipping the one who sits on the throne. It is eschatological in the sense that Revelation portrays the present and future celebration of God’s redemptive work as it is experienced around the heavenly throne. The present worship of the church participates in the present and future worship of those gathered around the throne of God. The church is lifted up into the throne room to experience glory through a gathered assembly and we receive a foretaste of what it will be like to worship in the new Jerusalem on the new earth.
Revelation is read to an assembled people and John’s vision is received on the “Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:3, 10). A few see Revelation in the context of a Passover liturgy with the Eucharist as the climax. Others at least understand the liturgical setting of Revelation as a dramatic presentation of heavenly realities—it is heaven’s worship on earth. Indeed, some believe Revelation is key to a biblical theology of music as the church worships around the throne.
Revelation 4 introduces the throne room of God where the one who sits on the throne is surrounded by the angelic hosts as well as the representatives of God’s people (the 24 elders). They praise God for his creative work.
Revelation 5 shifts the focus. Here the Lion of Judah enters the throne room but appears as a Lamb that has been slain. However, the appearance of the blood-stained Lamb does not generate sadness among the heavenly hosts but joy and praise. They experience the slain Lamb as redemptive rather than as horror; it was a joyous event rather than a sad one. They praise the Lamb and ascribe worth, honor, and glory to him. All of heaven–and every creature on earth–breaks out in praise for the redemptive work of the Father and Son.
In Revelation 7 the great multitude that cannot be counted surrounds the throne singing “Salvation belongs to our God.” In Revelation 14 the people of God sing a “new song before the throne” (14:3). It is a song of redemption much like the song of exaltation after the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (cf. Ex. 15). The Lamb stands on Mt. Zion, slain but triumphant. In chapter fifteen, they sing the “song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb” (15:3): “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty…All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (15:3-4). The Passover imagery is unmistakable and there is a new Lamb—slain but triumphant. This is the Lamb Revelation knows and celebrates. The worship of Revelation—and its Passover hymnology—does not leave the Lamb on the cross but rather place him upon his throne as one who had “overcome” and won the victory.
“Hallelujah” only occurs in Revelation in the New Testament, and it occurs in chapter 19 as heaven celebrates the victory of God. It is similar to the refrain in chapters 5 and 7: “salvation and glory and power belong to our God” (19:1). Heaven, the angels, the elders and all nations, cry “Hallelujah…Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (19:6-7). The “Hallelujah” is a liturgical connection with Psalm 113-118 and the Passover festival. As a result, everyone is “invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9). The “supper” is the same word Paul uses to describe the Lord’s Supper. It is a kind of Messianic banquet.
Theologically, heaven remembers the slain Lamb, but it does not remember him with sadness or solemnity. Rather, heaven rejoices over the victory of the Lamb and invites the redeemed to the supper table. The Lamb has overcome evil through suffering. The Lamb is slain but alive; blood-drench, but victorious. The redemption is won and heaven rejoices. As a result, the saints are invited to the “supper of the Lamb.”
The hymnology of Revelation celebrates God’s redemption in Christ. It is the worship of heaven in which the saints on earth participate through John’s vision. The assembly of the saints upon earth is eschatological in nature—it participates in the heavenly reality. It joins the angelic chorus of praise for the Father and the Son. We sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with the heavenly hosts–the traditional Sanctus. The church comes to the supper table rejoicing in the victory of the Lamb over Satan and the world.
Perhaps…just perhaps…the hymns of the church at the table should–at least occasionally– reflect the triumphant victory of the Lamb though at the same time the church’s hymnology should also lament the brokenness of the world still experienced with the saints under the altar (Revelation 6:10). We bring our laments (Fridays) into the presence of God who transforms them into “Hallelujah’s” at the supper of the Lamb (Sundays).
Cf. Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse, Ecumenical Studies in Worship, 6 (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960).
W. Hulitt Gloer, “Worship God! Liturgical Elements in the Apocalypse,” Review and Expositor 98 (2001), 35-57; Nakhro Mazie, “The Manner of Worship According to the Book of Revelationi,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001), 165-180; Marianne Meye Thompson, “Worship in the Book of Revelation,” Ex Auditu 8 (1992), 45-54; Donald Guthrie, “Aspects of Worship in the Book of Revelation,” in Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church: Essays in Honor of Ralph P. Martin, ed. Michael J. Wilkins (Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1992), 70-83; Lucetta Mowry, “Revelation 4-5 and early Christian Liturgical Usage,” Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952), 75-84; and David Peterson, “Worship in the Revelation to John,” Reformed Theological Review 47 (1988), 67-77.
Thomas Allen Seel, A Theology of Music for Worship Derived from the Book of Revelation (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995).
John O’Rourke, “Hymns of the Apocalypse,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968), 399-409; Charles M. Mountain, “’Glory and Honor and Blessing’: The Hymns of the Apocalypse,” Hymns 47 (1996), 41-47; and David R. Carnegie, “Worthy is the Lamb: the Hymns in Revelation,” in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie, ed. Harold H. Rowdon (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982), 243-256.