Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 19: Hallelujah, and a white horse

This is the thirteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 17+18, the fall of Babylon (and Rome). Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

So here's one for the Bible trivia buffs. Which well-known worshipful word is common throughout the Old Testament, but only appears four times in the New Testament, all in one single chapter of one book? Hallelujah! It's such a familiar word (it means 'praise God' or 'praise the Lord'), but it's a really strange thing that it doesn't appear otherwise in the New Testament - except here in chapter 19 of Revelation.

Last chapter, Babylon had fallen, and the throngs appear before the throne of God to sing praises. There are four different songs of praise, all beginning with the word Hallelujah - three times from a 'great multitude', once from the twenty-four elders and four living creatures that we saw a while back. And talking of songs, as well as its Bible trivia status, this chapter is the source of the text of what this month (after the death of Leonard Cohen) we might call the second best-known song called Hallelujah:
Now we move briefly on a nice bit of symbolism, the marriage of the Lamb to his bride - the church, clothed in fine linen (which John editorialises by reminding us is the 'righteous deeds of the saints'). The angel tells John to write that "blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb" and that "these are the true words of God". There's a clear contrast with the scarlet and promiscuity of the whore of Babylon - the church is robed in white. And these are words of comfort for the church of John's day & its persecuted members, rather than the defiant and angry images we've seen earlier.

One interesting vignette from this encounter with the angel (I say vignette, though it could be the basis of a whole sermon). John is really struck by what the angel says, and falls down at his feet to worship the angel. No, he's told, don't do that - the angel is a "fellow-servant" (interesting phrase, but a pretty exact translation of the Greek 'syndoulous') of John. After a book full of worship of God, but also of the people of the earth worshipping the beast, we have a clear reminder here that only God is to be worshipped. We're also told that the "testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" - Jesus' words matters. (Trinity fans fear not - worship of Jesus as part of the Godhead is mentioned elsewhere in Revelation, and the imagery of the Lamb and the Son of Man are everywhere in the book; although this is kind of a unitarian verse, in no way is Revelation a unitarian book.)

On to the last battle, which forms the culmination of this chapter. The heavens open, and a rider on a white horse comes out. He is named as Faithful and True and the Word of God, and has the name 'King of Kings and Lord of Lords' (Handel again!) on his thigh. Oh, and he's wearing a robe dipped in blood. There are plenty of signs to link this with Jesus, but a military and warlike Jesus. There's even a link back to chapter 1: when John first encounters the Son of Man, he has a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. The same is true of this rider.
Image: Annie Vallotton

The rider (whatever his identity) has two roles: to judge and to make war. He rides off to battle, followed by the armies of heaven wearing the same fine white linen we saw at the Lamb's wedding feast (though not very practical battle clothes). They confront the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies. The beast and the false prophet with him (the first beast) are captured and thrown into a lake of fire. The armies are killed, by the rider with his sword coming out his mouth (so not by the white-robed heavenly armies), and the birds of the air are "gorged with their flesh".

This is the battle of Armageddon, the great battle at the end of the world - it's not named as such here but in chapter 16 the kings of the earth are assembled for battle at the place called Harmagedon or Armageddon, and this battle has long been considered the one that occurs here. Battles are bloody and gruesome and horrible. Only a fool or a monster seeks out war. This battle description is actually quite brief for those of us brought up on Tolkein, and even shorter than CS Lewis' battle descriptions in his refiguring of Revelation, The Last Battle (his battles aren't up to much, but his account of the stars falling and darkness coming is eerily good). Still, it's a pretty gruesome set of images, especially the bit about the birds. Yay to the end of the beast, a thoroughly bad sort, but otherwise not a lot to celebrate.

A closing thought for tonight, based on something I heard today - a podcast about the Epic of Gilgamesh. In lots of ways, it seems to me, Revelation resembles one of the poetic epics of the ancient world - Gilgamesh was the first, but the Iliad and Aeneid would be other examples; or in medieval times, the Eddas of Norse myth or the poem Beowulf. All are written in a poetic form, as much of Revelation is; all tell of grand tales of heroes and gods and demons; and all of them are stuffed full of amazing imagery, very little of which is intended to be taken literally. So: Revelation as poetry? There are worse things for it to be.

Next reading: chapter 20, the millennium, the lake of fire, and existential angst

1 comment:

  1. Something I have been pondering for a few years but particularly lately: why would God desire even demand worship?
    I won't detract from your thoughts on the text by outlining my internal dialog around the question. However I will leave the question here.