While Revelation 4 focused on the worth of the Creator who sits on the throne, Revelation 5 turns our attention to the dramatic investiture of the one who is worthy to break the seals and unroll the scroll. Revelation 4 portrays the reality of the heavenly throne room where the sovereign God, sitting on the throne, receives worship as the great benefactor of the cosmos–the one by whom all creation exists and to whom belong all creation’s gratitude. Revelation 5 portrays the story of redemption as the one who is worthy to open the book is worshipped because that one has redeemed creation from the powers of evil that enslave it. In essence we move from creation to redemption, from the sovereign enthroned one who invests another with redemptive authority, honor and power.
The heavenly liturgy (the service of worship) is interrupted for John when he notices that there is a scroll (book) in the the right hand of the one who sits on the throne. It is an extremely important document as it is sealed seven times, positioned in the right hand of God, and written on the front and back. Further, only one who is worthy may break the seals and open the book, and there is no one worthy present in the heavenly throne room (angelic hosts), or on the earth (living creation), or even under the earth (e.g., Hades). The document has such cosmic significance and importance that no one in heaven and earth (all creation) is able to open the seals. No one has the right or worth to do so.
What is this book? Some think it might be the “Book of Life” in which the names of the redeemed are written. But there is nothing in the context to indicate that identification. Rather, the allusion is to Ezekiel 2:9-10 where Ezekiel is told to speak the words of the book that contain “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” As one reads further into this second vision (Revelation 4-16), it is evident that the breaking of the seals involves lamentation, mourning, and woe for the inhabitants of the earth. The book is a prophetic word against the powers that have oppressed the people of God and thus contains God’s destiny for them. The book symbolizes God’s intent to redeem the church from the powers even as God judges those powers. The book contains the answer to the question that the oppressed ask: will God ever act to overturn this oppression? The answer is “Yes,” and it is contained in the book.
But, as John observes, no one is worthy to open the book. A mighty angel asks heaven and earth for anyone to come forward to open the book, but no one comes. As a result John begins to wail in lament. This is no mere wimper, but is the lament of the oppressed; it is the weeping of a people who seemingly see no end to their suffering. John weeps for the church; he weeps for his own flock in Asia. The church laments as the powers continue to oppress.
Lament, however, comes to end in the victory of the one who has overcome (conquered). “Weep no more,” one of the twenty-four elders around the throne tells John. Instead, the elder continues, “look at this!” The elder announces the victory of the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.” The Lion has conquered.
The elder’s description evokes deeply rooted Messianic images from the Hebrew Scriptures as well as from the literature of Second Temple Judaism. These images are triumphalistic and militant. The “root of David” is found in Isaiah 11:1-10 (cf. Sirach 47:2) which envisions a Davidic conqueror that subjugates Edom, Moab and Ammon. The lion image comes from Genesis 49:8-10 (cf. 4 Ezra 12:31-32) where the nations serve the royal predator. The elder paints a verbal picture of a conquering king who defeats the powers (nations).
But when John turns to see this lion he only sees a small lamb. The Greek term for “lamb” is diminuitive in form, that is, it refers to a small lamb. Expecting to see the powerful king of the beasts, John turns to only see the weakest and most vulnerable of animals, a small lamb. That vulnerability is borne out by the reality that the animal is a slaughtered lamb.
This slaughtered Lamb, however, assumes a position of power, authority and honor. Though once slaughtered (thus killed), the living Lamb now stands next to the throne (at the “center,” in fact) and is encircled by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. He has seven horns (representing strength and power) as well as seven eyes (he sees everything). Indeed, the seven eyes are the seven spirits of God, that is, the Lamb is invested with the Holy Spirit and thus is empowered to act throughout the earth. The imagery derives from Zechariah 4:2, 6, 10.
It is the once slaughtered but now living Lamb that is worthy to take the book from the hand of God and reveal its contents; indeed, to execute its contents as the throne’s agent within the world. The slaughtered Lamb is a sacrifical victim, but it was voluntarily assumed rather than a victimization of the Lamb. The Lion of Judah became a slaughtered Lamb for the sake of redemption. Jesus defeated the powers through faithful witness rather than by violent revolution; the Lion became a Lamb.
The heavenly dignitaries recognize the significance of this moment. Someone, but not just anyone, is now worthy to open the book. When the book is taken from the hand of the one who sits on the throne, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall prostrate before the Lamb. They worship the Lamb and recognize his worthiness.
If we had any doubt whom the twenty-four elders represented, what they hold in their hands removes it. Enthroned around the throne, they hold harps (kithara) and bowls of incense. They perpetually worshipped the one who sits on the throne, and their worship includes musical praise (symbolized by the instruments) and prayer. The kitharas and bowls of incense remind us of temple worship in Israel as they were part of the liturgical cultus (cf. Psalms 33:2-3; 141:2; 147:7; 150:3-5), and this worship continues in the heavenlies. The twenty-f0ur elders are gathered in the Holy of Holies to worship God. They embody Israel’s temple worship in which the twenty-four (both Israel and the church) participate.
These heavenly dignitaries break out into a “new song,” a song of redemption, that declares the worthiness of the Lamb. The Lamb is worthy because
(1) “you were slain,”
(2) “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,” and
(3) “you made them a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth.”
This three-fold rationale echoes the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. The slain Passover lamb ransomed Isreal from Egyptian bondage in order to make them a kingdom of priests. God had ransomed Isreal from slavery (Deuteronomy 7:8; 13:5) in order to anoint them a royal, priestly nation (Exodus 19:5-6) which would bless the other nations. In other words, God intended Israel to become a shining light in the world–the new image of God in the world–so that all people might come to know God. God defeated the Egyptian powers in order to release Israel into the world to bless the world.
The “new song” praises the lamb for a new exodus, an “eschatological exodus” (as Bauckham calls it, Theology of Revelation). In the Apocalypse, the powers (while it was Egyptian for Israel, it is Roman for the church in Asia) oppress, persecute, and enslave the people of God. By the Lamb’s faithful witness through death–he was faithful unto death–he has earned the worth to purchase a people for God. This people will not only come from Israel, but from every nation under heaven. This people will reign on the earth just as God created humanity to reign as divine images from the beginning of creation. They will become a kingdom of priests who will minister in the eschatological temple of God which is God’s good creation. This people will fulfill not only God’s intent for Israel but God’s intent for humanity itself. They will share God’s dominion over the earth, care for creation, and bless the creation as God’s vice-regents (Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8).
In response to this “new song” of redemption, the whole angelic chorus breaks out in praise, ascribing all the honor, wealth and power within creation to the Lamb (rather than to Caesar!). In concentric circles of praise, the four living creatures, then the twenty-four elders, and then the myriads of angels give honor to the lamb. The praise moves from the center of the throne room to its outer edges as all of heaven praises the Lamb.
But the praise does not end there. The praise extends to all creation–“every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea and all that is in them.” The whole creation is filled with the eternal praise of God and the Lamb. While the Apocalypse always remains thoroughly theocentric (“the one who sits on the throne”), the liturgical scenes do not hesitate to include the Lamb who is worshipped alongside the one who sits on the throne. The Lamb, at the “center of the throne,” deserves worship and is ascribed divine “worth.”
This heavenly liturgical scene, reflective of Israel’s temple, invites the readers of the Apocalypse to enter the throne room to praise and pray. We praise God and the Lamb while we also pray for the eschatological coming of God’s kingdom.
We join the angels and all creation around the throne. We confess the sovereignty of God. We confess the worthiness of the Lamb. We praise both and ascribe (bless) to them praise, honor, glory, and power. And we continue to pray for the fullness of the kingdom of God when the whole earth will reflect the glory and presence of God and the Lamb. We pray for the end to oppression, injustice, slavery, and persecution. We sing and we pray, and this we do every time we gather as the people of God and participate in the eschatological assembly envisioned in Revelation 4 and 5.