Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE SEALED ROLL.—The vision of the previous chapter remains. The scenery does not shift, but the attention of the seer is now directed to one feature— the book, or roll, which was on the hand of the Throned One. This roll none in heaven, earth, or under the earth could open; but the Lamb takes the roll to open it, or to unfold its purport to the waiting world and Church; the Church and world praise Him who is the Light, revealing to them all they need to know.
And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.(1) And I saw in the right hand . . .—Better, And I saw on (not “in;” the roll lay on the open palm of the hand) the right hand of Him that sitteth upon the throne a book written within and behind, fast sealed with seven seals. The book is, of course, in the form of a roll; it lies on the open hand of the Throned One; it was not His will that the book should be kept from any. It is written, not on the inside only, as was the usual way, but, like the roll of the book which Ezekiel saw (Ezekiel 2:9-10), it was written within and without. Some have thought that there are two divisions of predictions —those written within the roll, and those written on the outer side. This is merely fanciful; the passage in Ezekiel which supplies a guidance to the meaning might have shown the erroneousness of the thought. Clearly the “lamentation and mourning and woe” inscribed all over Ezekiel’s roll indicate the filling up of sorrows: here the same overflowing writing indicates the completeness of the contents; there was no room for addition to that which was written therein. But what is meant by the book? Numberless interpretations have been offered: it is the Old Testament; it is the whole Bible; it is the title-deed of man’s inheritance; it is the book containing the sentence of judgment on the foes of the faith; it is the Apocalypse; it is part of the Apocalypse; it is the book of God’s purposes and providence. There is a truth underlying most of these interpretations, but most of them narrow the force of the vision. If we say it is the book which unfolds the principles of God’s government—in a wide sense, the book of salvation (comp. Romans 16:25-26)— the interpretation of life, which Christ alone can bestow (see Revelation 5:3-6), we shall include, probably, the practical truths which underlie each of these interpretations; for all—Old Testament and New, man’s heritage and destiny, God’s purposes and providence— are dark, till He who is the Light unfolds those truths which shed a light on all. Such a book becomes one “which contains and interprets human history,” and claims the kingdoms of the earth for God. The aim of all literature has been said by a distinguished critic to be little more than the criticism of life; the book which Christ unfolds is the key to the true meaning of life. The roll is not the Apocalypse so much as the book of those truths which are exemplified in the Apocalypse, as in a vast chamber of imagery. The roll was fast sealed, so that even those who were wise and learned enough to read it had it been unrolled could not do so (See Isaiah 29:11.) There are things which are hidden from the wise and prudent, but revealed unto babes.
And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?(2) And I saw a strong (better, mighty) angel proclaiming with (or, in) a loud voice, Who is worthy . . .—We must not let the word “worthy” pass as though it were simply equivalent to “strong enough.” It seems to imply moral fitness (comp. Romans 1:4), which is the true strength in the heavenly world. It was not lack of intellectual capacity so much as the taint of moral unworthiness which hindered the reading of the book. This is in harmony with what we have noticed before. “To commune with God, there is need of no subtle thought, no foreign tongue, no newest philosophy: ‘ the pure in heart shall see Him:’ and Fox and Bunyan can more truly make Him known than ‘masters of sentences’ and ‘ angelic doctors.’” Those who are willing to do God’s will know of God’s doctrine. This thought corresponds, too, with the stress which is laid (in Revelation 5:5) on the victory of Christ. It is not simply as divine Son of God, but also as victorious Saviour and King of His people, that He opens the book: His worthiness has been established in conflict and temptation (John 14:30; Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 4:15).
And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.(3) And no man . . . .—Or, better, no one (for it is of more than mankind that the Apostle speaks) was able, in the heaven, nor on the earth, nor under the earth, nor even (still less?) to look thereon. The looking on the book is usually understood of the look cast on the book of one who would read the contents. If so, the thought is, none could open, still less read, the roll. It may, however, be that all who attempted to take the book were unable to face the glory in which it lay. When Christ revealed Himself to Saul he could not see for the glory of that light.
And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.(4) And I wept much, because no man (better, no one) was found worthy to open . . . the book (omit, “and to read”).—The Apostle is not ashamed to call attention to his tears. I, indeed, for my part (the “I” is emphatic) wept much. It was not a failure of faith; it was the outburst of an earnest heart, to which the knowledge of God and the destinies of his fellowmen were very dear. Those who have longed to see the end of oppression, fraud, and sorrow on the earth, to know something of the laws which govern the present, and of their issue in the future, will understand these tears. “The words, ‘ I wept much,’ can only be understood by those who have lived in great catastrophes of the Church, and entered with the fullest sympathy into her sufferings Without tears the Revelation was not written, neither can it without tears be understood.”
And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.(5) And one of the elders . . .—Better, And one from among the elders saith unto me, Weep not; behold, the Lion, which is of the tribe of Judah, the Boot of David, conquered (so as) to open the roll, and the seven seals thereof. The position of the word “conquered” is emphatic, and should receive greater prominence. The verse has been translated, “Behold, one conquered, (even) the Lion . . .” The right to open the roll is thus made to turn, as we noticed before, not merely on the divine Sonship of our Lord, but upon His victory: He conquered, and so opens the secret purposes of God to His Church. The thought is exactly parallel with other scriptures which give emphasis to the work of redemption. It is “for the suffering of death” that Christ is clothed “with glory and honour” (Hebrews 2:9). Similarly St. Paul traces the exaltation of Christ as the outcome of His humiliation, “wherefore (i.e., in consequence of His humiliation) God also hath highly exalted Him” (Philippians 2:9). Thus Christ, who in conquest is seen to be the power of God, in revealing the true philosophy of history is seen to be the wisdom of God.
The Lion of the tribe of Juda—The lion was the ancient symbol of the tribe of Judah. Jacob described his son as “a lion’s whelp” (Genesis 49:9); the standard of Judah in the Israelitish encampment is said to have been a lion. It was the symbol of strength, courage, and sovereignty.
The Root of David.—The Lion is also the representative of the royal house of David. “Christ cometh of the seed of David” (comp. Mark 12:35 with John 8:42); the prophets have described Him as the Branch, which would spring from the ancient stock (Isaiah 11:1; Zechariah 6:12). But there seems also a reference to the deeper thought that He who is the Branch is also the Root (comp. Isaiah 11:10); He is the one who was David’s Lord (Matthew 22:41-45), and “the true source and ground of all power” to David and David’s tribe, and of all who looked to Him, and not to themselves, for strength.
And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.(6) And I beheld, and lo . . .—Better, And I saw (omit “and lo”) in the midst of the throne and of the four living beings, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb (or, a little Lamb), standing as if having been slain. The position of the Lamb is described from the seer’s point of view: the Lamb is not on the throne, but in the middle front of it, and so apparently between the living creatures, and in the midst of the circle formed by the twenty-four elders. The passage is most striking. The Evangelist is told of the Lion which will open the seals: he looks, and lo, it is a Lamb! yes, a little Lamb—for the word is diminutive. There is deep significance in this. When we read of the Lion, we think of power and majesty, and we are right; all power in heaven and earth is Christ’s, but it is power manifested in seeming weakness. The waters of Shiloah are mightier than the Euphrates (Isaiah 8:6-8); righteousness and purity, meekness and gentleness, are greater than carnal weapons (comp. 2Corinthians 6:6-7; Ephesians 6:11, el al.); the Lamb mightier than the roaring lion which goeth about seeking whom he may devour (1Peter 5:8). But it is a Lamb as if it had been slain. The wound-marks are there, butit is not dead; it is standing, for it represents Him who though He died is alive for evermore; but the signs of suffering and death are visible, for it is not the Lamb, but the suffering Lamb, which is exalted; it is not the Christ, but the Christ crucified, which is the power of God; the Christ lifted up from the earth draws all men unto Him (John 12:32; 1Corinthians 1:23-24); the corn of wheat which dies brings forth fruit (John 12:24). As such He is the worship of the Church and the world which He has redeemed. (See Revelation 5:8-9; comp. Revelation 7:14.) The reference to earlier Scriptures (Exodus 12:46; Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29; John 1:36; 1Corinthians 5:7-8) is not to be overlooked. From the tokens of suffering the seer passes to the tokens of strength and wisdom which he saw in the Lamb. He describes it as “having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent forth (or, which are being sent forth) into all the earth.” The horn is the strength of the animal which carries it. It is so used in the blessing of Joseph: “His horns are like the horns of a wild bull” (“unicorns” in Authorised version); “with them shall he push the people together,” &c. (Deuteronomy 33:17; comp. Psalm 89:24; Psalm 148:14). The seven horns denote completeness or fulness of strength. The seven eyes, like the seven lamps (Revelation 4:5), represent the Holy Spirit in H’s manifold girts of grace; but as they are described as eyes of the Lamb, they betoken His omniscience who is in heaven and yet, by His Spirit, everywhere (Matthew 28:20); whose eye is on all events, great and small; whose eyes behold the children of men. Note, also, that the seven spirits are ascribed to the Son as well as to the Father. (Comp. John 14:26; John 15:26.) The seven spirits are said to be “sent”; the word is from the same root as the word “apostle.” There is an apostolate of the Spirit as well as an apostolate of the Church; and, if we adopt the version here which gives the present participle, this spiritual apostolate is being continually exerted; the seven spirits are in process of being sent out by Him who says to this one “Go,” and he goeth; to the twelve, “Go ye into all the world,” .and sends His Spirit to confer on His people grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.
And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.(7) And he came . . .—Better, And He came, and He has taken (omit the words “the book,” and supply) it (i.e., the roll) out of the right hand of Him that sitteth upon the throne. There is a change of tense (“came,” “has taken”), which seems to be due to the rapt attention of the seer, whose narrative trembles with his own intensity of feeling. He wept awhile ago; now he need not weep. The Lamb conquered; He came; He has taken the roll. He is the wisdom of the Church; among all pre-eminent; all things will be reconciled in Him; the purpose and meaning of all life’s mysteries and sorrows will be made plain in Him. (Comp. 1Corinthians 1:24; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:18.)
And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.(8) And when he had taken . . .—Better, And when He took the roll, the four living beings and the twenty four elders fell before the Lamb, having each a harp, and golden vials (or, censers) full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (or, the holy ones). It is not the Church alone which is interested in the revelation which will throw light on life’s mysteries and the delay of the kingdom: the whole creation groaneth, waiting for the reign of righteousness; and therefore the four living beings, who represent creation, join with the elders, who represent the Church, in the adoration of the Lamb who holds the secret of life’s meaning in His hand. The vials (which seem to be censers, as they hold the incense) and the harps, it is perhaps more natural to suppose, were in the hands of the four-and-twenty elders, and not of the living creatures. Here, then, we have the praises (represented by the harps), and the prayers (represented by the censers) of the world-wide and age-long Church of Christ. The comparison of prayer with incense is in strict accordance with Old Testament language. “Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense” (Psalm 141:2). The incense held a conspicuous place in the ritual of the Temple. The greatest care was to be taken in the composition of the incense, and the same compound was not to be used anywhere but in the sanctuary. These precautions suggest its typical character. The true odours are the heart-prayers of God’s children. “Of these three sweet ingredient perfumes,” says Archbishop Leighton, alluding to the composition of the Temple-incense, “namely, petition, confession, thanksgiving, is the incense of prayer, and by the divine fire of love it ascends unto God, the heart and all with it; and when the hearts of the saints unite in joint prayer, the pillar of sweet smoke goes up the greater and the fuller.” Every prayer which broke out in sob from an agonising heart, every sigh of the solitary and struggling Christian, every groan of those groping God- ward, mingles here with the songs of the happy and triumphant.
And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;(9, 10) And they sung a new song, saying . . .—Better, And they sing a new song, saying. The use of the present (“sing”) is another example of that intensity of interest of which the change of tense in the last verse afforded an instance. As he records his vision, he sees it anew; he describes the action as though it were even now taking place, and he still hears the notes of praise. He who knows what it is to have the strains of some rich melody haunt him for days will understand how the prophet would hear the glad chorus burst forth afresh in his ears when he recalled the vision. The new song; the chorus of the redeemed—
“Worthy art Thou to take the roll,
And to open the seals thereof;
For Thou wast slain,
And didst buy to God in Thy blood
Out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation,
And didst make them a kingdom and priests,
And they reign upon the earth.”
The English version, “hast redeemed,” and “hast made,” weakens the reference to the completed character of Christ’s redeeming work. It is the great victory in suffering and death which inspires the song, and makes them sing, “Thou art worthy;” and so they speak of that work of Christ as a work truly done: “Thou didst buy (omit “us”) out of every tribe, &c., and didst make them,” &c. The suffering Saviour has died, has broken the bond of the oppressor, has claimed, by right of purchase, mankind as His own; and the price was His blood. It is well to notice the harmony between this passage and the statements of other Apostles: “Ye are not your own;” “bought with a price.” (See 1Corinthians 6:20; 1Corinthians 7:23; 1Peter 1:18-19; 2Peter 2:1.) Observe, also, the four terms (tribe, tongue, people, nation), employed as if to give emphasis to the universality of redemption, for four is the number of extension in all directions. With this compare Romans 5:15-19; Colossians 3:11; Hebrews 2:9. We have a right to teach all to say, “He redeemed me and all mankind.” It is instructive to dwell on the climax “they reign,” in contrast with “Thou wast slain.” It is like an anticipation of the now familiar words—
“Thine the sharp thorns, and mine the golden crown;
Mine the life won, and Thine the life laid down.”
“Didst make them a kingdom and priests.” (See Revelation 1:6.) This kingdom and reign is the outcome of Christ’s work. “Every precept of Christianity is quickened by the power of the death and resurrection of Christ. It is by the presence of this power that they are Christians, and it is as Christians that they conquer the world” (Westcott). “They reign on the earth.” Such is the best reading; the tense is present It is not, I think, to be explained away as a vivid realisation of the future; it is a simple statement, which is as true as that the followers of Christ are “a kingdom and priests.” They reign with and in Christ, but they also reign on the earth. Christ gives them a kingship, even sovereignty over themselves—the first, best, and most philanthropic of all kingships. He gives them, too, a kingship on the earth among men, for they are exerting those influences, promoting those principles, and dispensing those laws of righteousness, holiness, and peace which in reality rule all the best developments of life and history. All who traverse these laws are intruders, transitory tyrants, exerting only a phantom power. They are not kings: they may govern, they do not reign. (Comp. 1Corinthians 3:21-23; Ephesians 2:6.)
And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;(11) And I beheld . . .—More literally, And I saw, and I heard a voice of many angels around the throne, and the living beings, and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands. The chorus of the redeemed is followed by a chorus of angels; for “that which is the highest act of love, towards whatever persons it was manifested, from whatever calamities it saved them, must be the highest manifestation of the divine character and will; therefore must be the cause of delight to all creatures, fallen or unfallen. If the Revelation is true, there can be no breach in the sympathies of any part of God’s voluntary and intelligent universe.” It is needless to observe that the numbers are not to be taken literally; they are simply employed to express the countless throng of that “innumerable company of angels” (Hebrews 12:22) which raised the song—
“Loud as from numbers without number, sweet
As from blest voices, uttering joy.”
—Paradise Lost, iii. 346, 347.
Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.(12) Saying with a loud voice . . .—The second chorus: the chorus of angels—
“Worthy is the Lamb,
That hath been slain,
To receive the power.
And riches, and wisdom, and might,
And honour, and glory, and blessing.”
The doxology is seven-fold. We have noticed (Revelation 1:6) the increasing strength of the doxologies in which the redeemed take part. This, though a sevenfold one, does not interrupt that advance of praise; for in this chorus the redeemed do not take part. The definite article is prefixed to the word “power” only; in the doxologies of Revelation 4:11; Revelation 7:12 it stands before each word. This has led some to view the single article as prefixed to all that follows, and to regard all the words as though they formed one word. May it not, however, be used to give emphasis to the “power”? None, above or below, was “able” (same word as “power” here) to open the book (Revelation 5:3); but the Lamb has conquered to open it, and the chorus proclaims the Lamb worthy of that power. Some have thought that the seven terms of the doxology refer to the seven seals which the Lamb is about to open. This seems strained. The notion of completeness is common to this seven-fold blessing and the seven seals; this is the only connection between them.
And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.(13) And every creature . . .—The third chorus: the chorus of the universe. The song of the redeemed, echoed by the hosts of angels, is now merged in the utterance of all. “Every creature which is in the heaven, and upon the earth, and beneath the earth, and upon the sea, and all the things that are in them, heard I saying—
“To Him that sitteth upon the throne,
And to the Lamb,
(Be) the blessing, and the honour,
And the glory, and the might,
To the ages of the ages.”
The song of praise rises from all quarters, and from all forms of creation. The whole universe, animate and inanimate, joins in this glad acclaim. To limit it to either rational or animate creation is to enfeeble the climax which this third chorus forms to the two preceding ones, and is to denude the passage of its fulness and of its poetry. The Hebrew mind delighted in representing every bird and every grass-blade as joining in God’s praise. “Mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars, beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying fowl,” as well as kings of the earth and all people, were called on to bless the name of the Lord. Christian poets have told us that “Earth with her thousand voices praises God.”
“Nature, attend! join every living soul,
Beneath the spacious temple of the sky,
In adoration join’d; and, ardent, raise
One general song! To Him, ye vocal gales,
Breathe soft, whose Spirit in your freshness breathes.
***And thou, majestic main,
A secret world of wonders in thyself,
Sound His stupendous praise, whose greater voice
Or bids you roar, or bids your roaring fall.
Soft roll your incense, herbs, and fruits, and flowers,
In mingled clouds to Him whose sun exalts,
Whose breath perfumes you, and whose pencil paints.”
—Thomson, Hymn to Seasons.
The Apostle who pictured all creation as waiting in eager expectation for the full redemption—the redemption of “the body” (Romans 8:23), looked forward to the time when “the whole universe, whether animate or inanimate, would bend the knee in homage and raise its voice in praise” (Philippians 2:10). The doxology which thus rises from the universe is appropriately four-fold: the definite article (omitted in the English version) must be supplied before each word (“The blessing,” &c.). The two preceding songs were in honour of the Lamb; in this last the praise is addressed to the Throned One and to the Lamb. This linking of the Lamb with God as the Throned One is common throughout the book. Here they are linked in praise; in Revelation 6:16 they are linked in wrath; in Revelation 7:17 they are linked in ministering consolation; in Revelation 19:6-7, they are linked in triumph. In the final vision of the book the Lord God and the Lamb are the temple (Revelation 21:22) and the light (Revelation 21:23), the refreshment (Revelation 22:1) and sovereignty (Revelation 22:3), of the celestial city.
And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.(14) And the four beasts . . .—Better, And the four living beings said, Amen (or, the Amen). And the elders (omit “four and twenty”) fell down and worshipped. The remaining words of this verse are wanting in some of the best MSS., and they spoil thegraphic force of the description. The “Amen” rises from universal nature; the Church of Christ falls down in silent adoration. Thought and feeling assert themselves above all language. There are times when silence is the most eloquent applause; there are times when it is also the most real worship. “Let thy prayers be without words, rather than thy words, without prayer” was a wise precept of an old divine. An English and an Italian poet have given expression to the same feeling of the weakness of words. “O speech !” sang Dante, when telling his final vision—
“How feeble and how faint art thou to give
Thomson takes refuge in silence from the overwhelming thoughts of the divine glory:—
Myself in Him, in light ineffable.
Come, then, expressive silence, muse His praise.”
Here the inspired seer describes the chorus of praise as dying into a silence born of awe and gratefulness and love.