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Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Crystal Sea - Revelation 4:6

This is a second entry on Revelation 4. In his commentary on Revelation chapters 1-5, David Aune takes 53 pages to cover Revelation 4. I don't have that much material, but I am interested in one of the images Aune responds to, the"sea." John had been taken into a vision which took him from the Island of Patmos where he had been exiled for the faith to the throne room of Heaven. Among what he sees is this body of water at the foot of God. "And in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal" (v.6, New Revised Standard Version).

Aune attributes much of John's description of his vision in Revelation to the writings of Ezekiel. Some may hear this type of connection and accuse Aune of disregarding divine authority. O, I know Aune! He's like all those liberal scholars who don't believe in God. John didn't copy Ezekiel. John received his vision directly from God! Aune doesn't believe the Bible. To that type of critique, I'd say, you don't understand. For Aune to say that Revelation is based on the writings in Ezekiel, he is not saying John didn't have a vision. Aune isn't making a statement about whether or not he accepts the spiritual veracity of Revelation. Aune is trying to describe and understand Revelation.

Look at Ezekiel 1:22. Ezekiel was in a vision and he saw mind-blowing images, including living creatures like those we see in Revelation (Ezekiel 1:5 ff.). In verse 22, he writes, "Over the heads of the living creatures there was something like a dome, shining like crystal." Take Ezekiel's vision in conjunction with Genesis 1:7 - "So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters above the dome." To say John writing in Revelation used Ezekiel as a source is not to say that John didn't have the vision or see the throne room. Perhaps, he and Ezekiel were looking at the same thing. Ezekiel used language from Genesis 1:7. John in Revelation used Ezekiel's language because it would have been familiar to him and to his readers. 'Oh,' thinks John. I now see what I read. This is what Ezekiel was talking about.

Another point of connection is the "sea" Solomon fashioned out of bronze when he was constructing the temple. "Then he made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim and five cubits high" (1 Kings 7:23). The mythology of a sea of fresh water (both subterranean and celestial) existed in Jewish literature (see Psalm 29:10, "the Lord sits as king over the flood) as well as in Babylonian and in other Ancient Near Eastern texts. The idea of a heavenly ocean is prevalent in Ancient Near Eastern thought.

So, when Solomon put that sea as a prominent design in the temple, did he have in mind God calming (and prevailing over) the raging chaos sea (Genesis 1:2); or did he have in mind God's dome (Gen. 1:7); or did he have in mind the sea God opened to allow his people to pass through and then closed to swallow the Egyptian pursuers (Exodus 14:21-27)? When Ezekiel described his vision, did his turn to Genesis and Exodus and Solomon for his descriptive words? When John wrote what he saw in the Revelation, did he rely on Ezekiel as a model, or was he thinking of the Psalms (like Psalm 29), or of Solomon, or Moses, or the writing of Genesis 1? It's most likely all of the above.

This is but a sampling of the ways we can follow the imagery of sea in relation to waters in the atmosphere and also in terms of the geography of Heaven. The metaphor runs throughout the Old Testament. All of this is what is behind Revelation 4:6 - only the first part of verse 6. Revelation is a tour de force of allusions to the Old Testament. In a sermon Fred Craddock said there are over 500 allusions or references to the Old in Revelation. People go crazy trying to look to the future and to the present in an attempt to interpret the mysteries of Revelation. It's not a secret code! John intended it to be understood. It Reveals the truth; it does not hide it.

However, the truth is revealed by one who assumes that his readers understand his references. Do we want to understand Revelation? We need to understand the Old Testament. John used Old Testament pictures to illustrate what God was doing in the late first century in churches in Asia Minor. He wrote from a very specific context to Christians in very specific contexts. It is challenging to read what he wrote because we come from outside those contexts. He words though do speak to us because his writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Under God's direction, what he wrote took on an eternal quality that presents inerrant truth.

When then do we do with the sea image? A couple of thoughts come to mind for me. In Genesis 1:2, the sea is an untamed, dark chaos. The ominous nature of the unknowns of the depths of the sea played on the worst fears men could imagine in the days of Moses, in the days of Job, in the days of the 12 disciples, and going forward in history up to the days of Columbus. The sea was death. More specifically for Israel, the sea was what kept them in slavery in Egypt because the sea stood between them and the Promised Land.

However, the sea also stood as a testimony to the power of God. In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the sea. In Exodus 14, the mighty raging sea obeyed God immediately without protest. In the days of Jesus, men feared the sea with outright panic, but he walked on it. Storms at sea struck fear into the hearts of the heartiest seafarers, but those same storms quieted immediately at a rebuke from Jesus. Man is utterly powerless before the sea, but throughout the Bible God puts the sea in its place.

In Revelation, the sea is glass. Recreational sailors don't like calm waters because there is no wind - nothing to push their sailboats along. Ruefully they say, "the lake is like glass today." A crystal sea or a glass sea is one that is calm. In God's throne room, that which commands dread in the hearts of women and men, the sea, is submissive, lying still at the feet of God on his throne. And in Revelation 21, when God makes his home among human beings, we read, "the sea was no more" (v.1).

The sea is as awesome as God made it to be. John reminds us that as tremendously powerful as that is, God is more so. God Lords over the sea. Does God Lord over us? He allows us to choose whether we will bow submissively before him and live according to His Word and to His Will. Is that the path we take? Or do we rage and rebel and kick against God? In this light, it's kind of silly: one little human being is his own, small, contained ocean of protest. How much calmer is the heart when the man or the woman submits authority for life to God? When it comes to a person's life, or the ragings of the sea, or the bottom-line message in Revelation, the final answer is the same. God is Sovereign and Jesus is Lord.


  1. So much good stuff to consider. Thanks for the research and study you're doing, and for sharing it here!

  2. This is awesome, exactly my thoughts re. the sea. Don't miss also Exodus 24:9, perhaps the first mention of this sea of glass.