Digging Deeper Into Heavenly Worship: Singing Songs In The Throne Room of God (Revelation 4-5)

What does worship sound like in heaven? Do they sing hymns or choruses?  Do they use an organ or guitar?  Is it a praise team or a choir?  The Apostle John was blessed to attend a worship service in heaven.  His experience is recorded in Revelation 4-5.  John paints a vivid picture with his words that is quite regal.  Included in his description are five songs.  Each song is distinct.  John uses narrative sections to set the stage for each of these five lyrical expressions of praise.  In doing so he employs various literary devices that add another layer of depth to what is already a theologically rich piece of Scripture.

After reporting his invitation into God’s very presence and his vision of a door standing open in heaven, John writes: “Immediately, I was in the Spirit” (4:2).  His statement uses an aorist tense-form verb, “I was,” ἐγενόμην, which is the normal tense for recording narrative in first-century Greek.  John then proceeds to describe what he sees in the throne room of heaven.  We expect him to do so with a series of sentences which use aorist tense-form verbs.  Instead he gives his report with a barrage of short verb-less phrases: “And look! A throne there in heaven,” “and on the throne One sitting,” “and the One sitting like the appearance of a jasper stone,” “and a rainbow around the throne like the appearance of an emerald,” “and around the throne twenty-four thrones,” and so forth.  Most of these descriptions are prepositional phrases, which would be incomplete sentences in English, so our English Bibles supply words, usually past tense verbs (the NAS shows the additions by placing them in italics).

John’s rapid short phrases create the sense of a breathless observer so overtaken with the sights and sounds of heaven’s throne room that he is blurting out his report without any consideration for literary niceties.  When the text is translated faithfully, the reader is swept away with him, eyes darting back and forth at the magnificent sights in God’s throne room, trying to take it all in.

John’s pattern of prepositional phrases dominates the text until the first song, which is recorded in the last part of v. 8.  Two exceptions are the lightning and thunder proceeding from the throne and the eyes filling the wings of the four living beings.  In each of these cases John uses present tense-form verbs, which bring these particular details forward in the reader’s attention.  The present tense-form verbs give more ‘motion’ to the lightning and thunder, adding a sense of dramatic movement and sound, breaking up the static feel created by the series of prepositional phrases. Extra attention to the eyes on the four living beings makes us consider what an incredible view is available around God’s throne; there is so much to see![1]

John’s series of verb-less phrases is broken by the formal introduction to the first song in Revelation 4-5.  The negated finite verb (present tense-form), “they have,” ἔχουσιν, refers to the lack of rest that the four living beings have from their constant praise. That the four living beings never rest from praise is a matter we expect to be in the foreground of John’s narrative/vision, and it is marked as such by the present-tense form verb. The lyrics to their song of worship are presented as direct discourse:

Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty,
The One who was, the One who is, the One who is coming.[2]

Notice that Song 1, like much of the text before it, is constructed from verb-less phrases. Many English versions add “is” between “holy” and “the Lord” in order to avoid an incomplete sentence (some without putting the word in italics, thus concealing from the English reader the fact that an editorial addition has been made).  Song 1 is lofty but basic.  God is holy and eternal.  The four living beings do not sing about God’s works as Creator or Redeemer, nor do they list any other attributes, although v. 9 implies that their worship may include more than John records in v. 8.  In fact, we are told in v. 9 that the four living beings’ worship in v. 8 qualifies as giving “glory, honor and thanksgiving.”  Thanksgiving may imply some action on the part of God, unless they are thanking God simply for his holy and eternal being.

Many other wonderful points could be made about vv. 1-8, but for our purposes we notice that the descriptions which set the stage for Song 1 are mostly verb-less clauses, prepositional phrases, and the song itself is without any finite verb (“The One who was,” ὁ ἦν, is expressed by an article and a finite verb, the imperfect tense-form of εἰμί [aspectually vague], but the entire statement is a fixed form which functions like an indeclinable proper noun.  See 1:4 ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος which is in the nominative case even though it occurs after the preposition ἀπό, which takes the genitive.).  So the narrative which sets up Song 1 and the song itself have a definite ‘flavor’ which is created by John’s grammatical choices, i.e., verb-less phrases.

Song 2 is recorded in 4:11.  John’s set-up for the second song is recorded in vv. 9-10.  We immediately see a difference in John’s language in this section.  Instead of verb-less prepositional phrases (as in vv. 2-8) John uses sentences with finite verbs, a text that reads more normally for English speakers.  But the surprise comes when we learn that John employs future tense-form verbs.  If we translate John’s text with future tense English verbs we get the following verbal structure: “And when they will give . . . they will fall . . . they will worship . . . and they will cast” (vv. 9-10). These actions are translated by present-tense verbs in most English versions, the first action usually rendered as “whenever,” reflecting the presence of the temporal indicator “when,” ὅταν. But John’s use of Koine Greek future tense-form verbs expresses expectation, in this case expected actions contingent upon the preceding act of worship (the four living beings giving glory, honor and thanks to God).

Since English versions typically add past-tense finite verbs to John’s verb-less phrases in vv. 2-8 and employ present-tense finite verbs for John’s future-tense form verbs in vv. 9-10, the stark difference between the two sections is somewhat ‘flattened out’ for the English reader.  Nevertheless, the future tense-form verbs in vv. 9-10 present the action before Song 2 in a more contingent mood than the background picture of vv. 2-8.  The verbal structure creates a sense of anticipation, especially with regard to the worship of the 24 elders.  (NAS has future-tense verbs in v. 10, but not v. 9)

Song 1, preceded by a section of verb-less phrases, consisted of verb-less phrases (see the translation above).  Song 2, preceded by a section with finite verbs (future tense-form) includes finite verbs:

You are worthy our Lord and God
to receive the glory and the honor and the power
because you created all things
and by your will they exist and they were created.

The song itself does not use future tense-form verbs, but a present tense form (“you are,”), an aorist (“you created”), an imperfect (“they exist” or “they were existing”), and finally another aorist (“were created”). “You are” and “you exist” are both forms of the aspectually vague “to be,” εἰμί (the first verb is completed by an aorist infinitive: “you are worthy to take,” λαβεῖν).

John’s grammatical choices create a sense of development in his unfolding description of the worship session in heaven’s throne room. The lexical content of chapter 4 also reveals a progression in the worship.  The song of the four living beings (Song 1) praises God’s personal existence.  The worship of the 24 elders (Song 2) moves on to praising God for his work as creator.  The progression continues in chapter 5 with the revelation and worship of the Redeemer (see below).  In addition, the number of worshipers continues to increase until the end of chapter 5, starting in heaven and spreading to all creation.  These progressions would be noticeable from the content of John’s descriptions only (in any good English translation), but they are highlighted and supported by the verbal constructions employed by John to represent them.

Song 3 is recorded in 5:9-10.  The set-up for this song, 5:1-8, finally shifts to a more typical narrative style for Koine Greek: a section built on a series of aorist tense-form verbs with imperfect- and present-tense form verbs used to bring certain matters to the forefront.  The first two verbs are “I saw,” εἶδον, in vv. 1 and 2.  John saw a sealed book in the right hand of the One seated on the throne and he saw an angel asking if anyone was worthy to open the book.  We might expect him to say that he heard the angel since his spoken question is critical to the development of the narrative, but his emphasis in this section is on the sights of the throne room.

At this point in the narrative John begins to bring a vital issue to the forefront.  We read that nobody was able to open the book and look into it, using an imperfect tense-form, ἐδύνατο, “(he) was not able,” thus drawing attention to this critical inability (v. 3).  John’s response to this disappointing state of affairs is also marked, this time in 2 ways.  First, he brings this part of the narrative forward into our view by using the adverbial modifier πολύ, “much,” that is, John was “wept much” (AV).  Second, John uses an imperfect tense-form verb “was crying,” ἔκλαιον (vs. “cried”), which brings his weeping forward into the view of the reader against the background of aorist tense-form verbs.

The next verb is a present tense-form: λέγει, “he says,” which keeps this section front and center in the mind of the reader.  One of the twenty-four elders encourages the weeping John.  The elder’s statement is important: “Don’t cry.  Look! The Lion from the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed to open the book and its seven seals.”  After the encouragement from the elder, John returns to his use of aorist tense-form verbs in order to continue the narrative.  The next verse (5:6) is governed by εἶδον, “I saw.”  What John saw was the promised Lion from the Tribe of Judah, an obvious description of the Risen Lord Jesus (a lamb standing as one slain, etc.).  Next comes another aorist tense-form verb: ἦλθεν, “he came,” that is, the Lamb came.

Now John highlights the Lamb’s action with a perfect tense-form verb, εἴληφεν, “he took,” or “he takes.”  This choice of tense has the effect of bringing the Lamb’s action to the very front of the narrative.[3]  So the action of the Lamb when he takes the book from the hand of the One sitting on the throne receives the highest level of attention and emphasis from the verb tense-forms chosen by John.  This is a critical moment.  We get the sense that all heaven holds its breath in anticipation of this moment.  Every eye is on the Lamb.

The Lamb’s taking of the book from God now receives additional emphasis by becoming the inspiration for the third of the five songs in Revelation 4-5.  But before we get to the actual lyrics of the song, John has a few more details to share, governed again by aorist tense-form verbs.  The first verb, ἔλαβεν, “he took,” (that is, the Lamb took the book), modified by a temporal pointer ὅτε, “when,” advances the narrative.  John tells us that when the Lamb took the book the four living beings and the elders “fell down” (another aorist: ἔπεσαν) before the Lamb.  In addition, we learn that the elders each have a stringed instrument and a bowl of incense.  The incense, we are told, is the prayers of the saints (using a present tense-form verb, but of the aspectually vague εἰσιν, “they are”).

Now John has set the stage for Song 3, but first he needs a formal introduction for the speech (or, in this case, singing).  The introduction is usually rendered, “And they sang a new song” in English (they being the four living beings and the 24 elders).  But the verb for “sing” is brought to the foreground because it is a present tense-form, ᾄδουσιν, “they sing.”  English past tense is a smoother reading for English readers.  But the Greek text highlights the song by using this present tense-form verb to introduce the lyrics.  Now Song 3:

You are worthy to take the book and to open its seals
for you were slain and you purchased for God by your blood
from every tribe and tongue and people and nation
and you made them to our God a kingdom and priests
and they will reign on the earth.

Of the 5 songs in Revelation 4-5, Song 3 is the climax. Several factors verify this conclusion.  The simplest indication is the fact that this song has the longest set of lyrics.  In addition, this song falls in the middle of an odd number of songs, 3 of 5, making it the apogee in a chiastic-like arrangement.  The subject matter of the songs implies a climax at Song 3.  Song 1 focuses on God’s being.  Song 2 focuses on God’s act of creation.  Song 3 praises the Lamb for his work of redemption, surpassing the first creation by the new creation.  Songs 4 and 5 are simpler by comparison (more on them below).

John’s creative use of Koine Greek verb tenses also elevates Song 3 to the place of prominence.  As the analysis above reveals, John precedes each of the first 3 songs with a distinct atmosphere or mood.  First, he rapidly describes in short bursts a variety of sights in the throne room (verb-less phrases).  He then switches to a mood of expectation (Greek future tense).  Before Song 3 he presents a dramatic narrative that brings all eyes to bear on the Lamb.  These sections which serve to introduce songs 1-3 are more elaborate and colorful than the ones he uses to introduce songs 4-5, which also throws the attention on Song 3.

The text immediately preceding Song 4 is driven by two aorist tense-form verbs, “I looked,” εἶδον, and “I heard,” ἤκουσα.  This section is much shorter than the narrative section preceding Song 3.  What John sees and hears is a group of angels without number.  With only the idiomatic participle (λέγοντες) to mark the beginning of the song (also used as part of the formal introductions to all 4 other songs), the lyrics are recorded:

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
to receive the power and riches and wisdom and strength
   and honor and glory and blessing

We immediately notice that Song 4 is much simpler than Song 3. The lyrics still affirm that the Lamb is worthy and identify the Lamb as the one who was slain.  Beyond this, however, no details are provided about his important work of redemption as in Song 3.  The worship is more formulaic.  The Lamb is ascribed seven attributes, which is a number of perfection or completion in John’s Revelation.  The worship is more impersonal.  Worshipers have shifted to a third-person perspective.  In Song 3 the Lamb is addressed directly, now indirectly.  None of this implies that the song is ‘inferior,’ simply of a different type.

Song 5, the final song in Revelation 4-5, is preceded by a short narrative-style section much like Song 4.  Instead of two aorist tense-form verbs, as with Song 4, the setup to Song 5 is governed by a single aorist tense-form verb, “I heard,” ἤκουσα.  As with Song 4, Song 5 has no formulaic introduction to the actual lyrics of the song (except for the participle which is used before all 5 songs, with the one minor difference in Song 5: it appears in the accusative case, λέγοντας, instead of the nominative).  The lyrics for Song 5 are:

to the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb
the blessing and the honor and the glory and the dominion
into the ages of the ages.

As with Song 4, the final song of Revelation 4-5 is shorter than Song 3. Song 5 includes no finite verb (also true of Song 1).  The song begins by identifying the recipients of worship: the One sitting on the throne (God the Father) and the Lamb (Jesus Christ the Son), both in the dative case.  The attributes ascribed to them are listed without a verb, four items each in the nominative case (in this song they are each articular and they are separated by the common conjunction “and,” καί).  Finally, the song ends with an adverbial phrase, although the verb must be supplied (in English translations “be,” that is: To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb be the blessing and the honor,” etc.).  All in all, Song 5 is a more generic worship when compared to Song 3, thus maintaining the emphasis on Song 3.

While it is true that the lyrics of Songs 4 and 5 ‘step down’ from prominence in order to leave the spotlight on Song 3, John’s development of the heavenly scene is complex and carries on after Song 3.  The lyrical content of the 5 songs climaxes in Song 3, but other factors in Revelation 4-5 continue building to the very end of chapter 5.  For instance, the group of worshipers expands with each new song.  Song 1 was performed by the four living beings.  Song 2 is presented by the 24 elders.  Song 3 is sung by a combination of the four living beings and the 24 elders.  Countless angels are added to the “loud voice,” φωνῇ μεγάλῃ, of Song 4.  And finally, in Song 5, every created being in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea joins in the praise.  Heaven’s worship has spilled over into creation!

This dramatic expansion of worshipers in Song 5 actually points to the climactic positon of Song 3. Before Song 3, all the worshipers were members of heaven’s court.  In Song 3 we learn that the Lamb’s blood purchased men for God from all peoples.  After Song 3, we see that worship of the Lamb and of God expands to include every created being.  Song 3 is the proverbial stone that hit the cosmic pool and sent theological ripples out to the very edges.  Song 5 represents a universal response of honor to the Lamb.  Everyone will worship him and worship him as God, which brings us to another development.  Song 5 is climactic in another sense.  Songs 1-2 address attributes of God the Father.  Songs 3-4 switch to the Lamb, God the Son.  Now, in the final song, both Father and Son are worshiped simultaneously.  This is a reflection of John’s high Christology.  Jesus is God and will be worshiped as God by everyone.

The fact that everyone is worshiping Jesus in Song 5 is a significant development in Revelation 4-5.  In John’s vision, he foresees a day when even the unredeemed will acknowledge Jesus’ true identity.  This striking development reflects the truth expressed in Paul’s praise poem to the Philippians, “At the Name of Jesus every knee will bow in the heavens and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father”[4] (Philippians 2:10-11, see also Isaiah 45:23).  This combined worship of the redeemed and the unredeemed may influence the content of Song 5.  So far, attributes ascribed to God include holiness, glory, honor and power in Songs 1 and 2 (and see 4:9 “glory and honor and thanksgiving” mentioned apart from direct speech).  Song 3 has no list of attributes.  Song 4 includes power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and blessing.  Now, in Song 5 the eternally saved and the eternally lost agree to ascribe to the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb the blessing, the honor, the glory and the dominion.

Some English translations render the last attribute in Song 5 “power,” thus concealing from the English reader the fact that a new term has appeared: to kratos, τὸ κράτος.  This is the third Koine Greek term in the 5 songs of Revelation 4-5 that can be legitimately translated by the English word “power.”  Song 2 affirms that the One sitting on the throne is worthy to receive ten dynamin, τὴν δύναμιν. This term is often rendered “power” in the New Testament.  Song 4 affirms that the Lamb is worthy to receive both ten dynamin, τὴν δύναμιν and ten ischyn, τὴν ἰσχὺν.  The second term is also usually rendered by English words like “power,” “might,” or “strength.”  So the new term in Song 5, to kratos, τὸ κράτος, can also be translated into English by using words like “power” and “might.”  But by translating this new term “power,” the English reader is left unaware that a different word has appeared in the last song (see NIV).

Why are the worshipers introducing another term for “power”? Does this new term have a semantic domain that distinguishes it from the 2 words already used for “power” / “strength”?  A quick look at a trusted lexical aid for New Testament Greek, BDAG[5], provides a ready answer.  In addition to “strength” and “mighty deed,” to kratos, τὸ κράτος, includes a strand of meaning that is not present for the other two words: “rule” and “sovereignty.”  So this word carries with it the idea of not just raw power, but power exercised in reigning or ruling over a constituency, power and authority applied to governing a kingdom.  The NAS translation reflects the meaning of this word in this specific context well by rendering it “dominion.”

More than an exercise of simple ability, the One sitting on the throne and the Lamb exercise a legitimate dominion. The foundation for this authority has been noted in the prior songs.  God exercises his dominion by virtue of his holiness (Song 1) and by virtue of the fact that he is the creator of all things (Song 2).  The Lamb exercises dominion granted to him because he is the Redeemer.  This new emphasis on God’s official authority over all created beings is especially appropriate because the worshipers in Song 5 include those who resist bowing the knee to Christ until they are compelled to do so at his unveiling.  And for the first time in the songs of Revelation 4-5, a marker of eternality is used to culminate the praise: literally “into the ages of the ages,” but typically translated “for ever and ever” in English.  The dominion of God the Father and God the Son is both universal and eternal.  No creature escapes their rule, ever.  Even the unredeemed will affirm this great theological reality.

The heavenly worship session concludes after Song 5. This cosmic concert certainly deserves a grand finale.  The first voices in the concert now become the last.  The four living beings voiced Song 1 and now they have the honor of adding the “Amen!”  With that, John tells us that the elders fall down and worship (both actions expressed with aorist tense-forms).

John may not answer our questions about the instrumentation or musical style of the worship in heaven, but he certainly gives us much to consider about the rich tapestry of theological development in the lyrical expressions of praise and in the voices of the various choirs. The song of redemption is front and center in the heavenly throne room (at least in Revelation 4-5).  But it is not alone.  It is surrounded by lyrical expressions of God’s personal characteristics, his occupation as maker of all things, and his office as eternal ruler of all life.  The spotlight is not on musical style, but on lyrical artistry and theological revelation, displaying remarkable creative strokes of literary skill.  No matter what musical style we prefer on earth, the lyrics are in harmony with the choirs of God’s court when the Lamb’s labor of redemption figures prominently in the message.  To him be the blessing and the honor and the glory and the dominion forever and ever, for he is worthy!

 

[1] One other finite verb occurs in this section: “they are,” εἰσιν, referring to the seven-fold Spirit (lit. “seven spirits”) before the throne, but it is a form of “to be,” εἰμί, which is aspectually vague. See Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood, in vol. 1 of Studies in Biblical Greek, ed. D. A. Carson (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2010).

[2] Unless otherwise noted, English translations are produced by the author using UBS3.

[3] I am following Stanley Porter’s aspectual understanding of Greek verb tense-forms (Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament), where aorist is background, present and imperfect are foreground, and perfect and pluperfect are front-ground.

[4] The verbs in Philippians 2:10-11 are subjunctive tense-forms (κάμψῃ and ἐξομολογήσηται), which express potential, or projections.  In this context, the potential includes no doubt about the outcome, so English future-tense verbs accurately express the theological idea.

[5] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., rev. and ed. Frederick W. Danker [BDAG] (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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