Abstract:What are the purposes of the songs of the Apocalypse? What effect are they intended to produce? After a brief discussion of the question of sources, the function played by Revelation’s hymns is explored with particular attention being paid to their connection to the cosmic conflict theme, the way they model celebration in the face of tribulation, the comfort they offer believers and the warning they present to unbelievers. The article then turns to some of the key theological emphases the songs – in particular Christological and salvific themes. While Revelation’s hymns are transparently doxological, they are also richly pedagogical and pointedly pastoral. For this reason, they pose a much-needed challenge to many contemporary praise practices.
The Book of Revelation is, quite literally, hymn-laden. Fifteen hymns or hymn fragments are commonly recognised (4:8; 4:9–11; 5:9–10; 5:12; 5:13; 7:10; 7:11–12; 11:15; 11:16–18; 12:10–12; 15:2–4; 16:5–7; 19:1–4; 19:5; 19:6–8), and some scholars have identified even more.1 Although it is the term “song” (Gk. ᾠδή) that is used throughout John’s prophecy (5:9; 14:3; 15:3), the designation “hymn” is fitting, for these words of acclamation “praise God and the Christ who shares God’s throne by extolling their traits and actions.”2 While each of the hymns evinces a number of poetic features,3 there is some ambiguity regarding how many of them are depicted as being sung.4 Nevertheless, there is a good case to be made that most of them were “said by singing.”5 But whatever the precise number of songs, Craig Koester’s verdict is difficult to gainsay: “Music plays a larger role in the book of Revelation than in any other book of the New Testament, and few books in all of Scripture have spawned more hymns sung in Christian worship today.”6
But what purpose or purposes do these songs perform? What role do they play in the Apocalypse as a whole? What is their intended effect? That is, what does John desire the hymns to achieve in readers and hearers of his prophecy? It is these questions that I wish to explore briefly in this article.
1. The Sources of the Songs
Over the last half century, much attention has been given to the question of the sources or origins of the songs of Revelation. Where exactly did all of these hymns come from? What accounts for their form and content? At first glance, the answer to these questions appears to be straightforward: John is relaying what he saw and heard (1:1). However, there are good reasons to believe that, rather than providing us with “mere transcriptions,”7 John “depicts what he has seen with interpretive glosses from his learned biblical tradition.”8 Some scholars go even further, treating the songs not so much as interpretations of heavenly realities, but as reflections of earthly practices. Larry Hurtado, for example, suggests that the “scenes of heavenly worship of Christ correspond to, and give justification for, the praise given to him on earth as in the doxology in Rev. 1:5–6.”9 In a similar vein, Ralph Martin claims that John “set forth his depictions of the heavenly scene and the celestial worship by projecting on to his canvas the forms and patterns which belonged to his knowledge of the worship of the Church on earth.”10 Edgar Krentz argues that different elements of the hymns are drawn from difference sources: “Amen” and “alleluia” reflect the Jewish synagogue, “maranatha” reflects the Aramaic-speaking Christian communities, and the “worthy” passages reflect pagan worship practices.11
There is much to commend many of these suggestions, particularly those that seek to discern the influence of the Old Testament on the book’s songs.12 In fact, it is generally recognised that Revelation contains more Old Testament references and allusions than any other New Testament book.13 The hymns are no exception to this phenomenon,14 even if it is not always clear if the author was conscious of the references, or whether they are simply the result of a mind so steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures that they inevitably coloured his portrayals.15 Nevertheless, without denying such influences, Martin Hengel believes it would be a mistake to assume that the hymns have simply been taken over from the liturgy of the early churches, and much more likely that they have “deliberately been composed by the seer with an eye to his own work.”16 David Peterson puts the point even more strongly: Rather than reflecting earthly patterns in his portrayal of heaven, “John wrote to encourage his readers to reflect the pattern of the heavenly assembly in their life on earth.”17
Of course, the resolution of this question may not entail a complete either-or. Seeking to identify what might have influenced John’s portrayal of the heavenly songs does not itself entail a denial either of the originality of his compositions or of the objectivity of the revelation given to him. Otherwise put, John’s visionary experience “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (1:10),18 the liturgical sources that possibly shaped his portrayals, and his purpose in writing are all distinct questions. Even so, Peterson’s main point is surely correct: Whatever patterns of praise were already taking place on earth, John is not only conveying what the heavenly hosts are doing, but encouraging his readers to do likewise.19 Koester agrees: “The praises offered in heaven establish the focus for worship on earth.”20
2. The Function of the Songs
This brings us to probe more deeply into the function of the songs. Given the sheer number of them, this is a potentially large and complex task, as each one has its own discrete purpose as well as making its own unique contribution to the larger message of the prophecy.21 Nevertheless, some general observations can be made.
Seeking to understand the book in its historical context, a range of scholars have argued that the hymns of Revelation owe their presence and position largely to the threat posed to John’s first readers by Rome and its idolatrous emperor cult.22 Given that the proper worship of God is, arguably, the ultimate issue and aim of the book (19:10; 22:9),23 and that “an aggressive programme of Caesar-worship” was being “forced upon the population of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the first century,”24 this makes considerable sense. Along these lines, and echoing Krentz’s view regarding the Roman antecedents to the “worthy” songs, David Aune has suggested that “John’s depiction of the ceremonial in the heavenly throne room has been significantly influenced in its conceptualization by popular images of Roman imperial court ceremonial.”25 But rather than simply echoing the individual constituents of that ceremonial, John has heightened and expanded their cosmic significance.26
The result is that the sovereignty of God and the Lamb have been elevated so far above all pretensions and claims of earthly rulers that the latter, upon comparison, become only pale, even diabolical imitations of the transcendent majesty of the King of kings and Lord of lords.27
So what does all this mean for Revelation’s songs and what might it tell us about their importance? It is noteworthy that the heavenly worship scenes, and the hymns that are so central to them, “always occur at critical junctures in the book and provide commentary on the significance of the action.”28 They thus perform the function of interpreting the events that unfold in the narrative sections of the prophecy. Consequently, “all the major events of the book are accompanied by heavenly hymns.”29 The five hymns found in chapters 4–5, in particular, not only “stand at the beginning of the vision section, functioning as an impressive portal into the rest of the apocalypse, but they set the tone for the following chapters (6–21).”30 The hymns, more broadly, have also been shown to connect both to each other and to the larger narrative theme of cosmic conflict.31
But the songs do more than simply create connections, set tone and convey understanding. They also model celebration and, by so doing, teach a pattern of responding to tribulation that feeds “the patient endurance” (1:9; 2:2, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12) required of all those who will conquer. Otherwise put, by confirming ultimate reality and the certainty of divine victory, the songs inspire confidence, engender hope and impart strength. In fact, as Steven Grabiner has ably demonstrated, “the hymns are sung with the accusing voice of Satan in the background,” and thereby play a key role in both the refutation of those accusations and the vindication of God and his people.32 Therefore, if John’s aim was to assist beleaguered believers “to maintain their faith in Christ and resist every temptation to idolatry and apostasy, the hymnic material, with its focus on the sovereignty of God and the victory of the Lamb, must have provided the original recipients with every encouragement to do just that.”33
Furthermore, the very image of the Lamb, standing “as though it had been slain” (5:6), and the repeated mentions of his blood (1:5; 7:14; 12:11), speak powerfully “to the ‘walking wounded’ who suffer under Roman oppression.”34 Indeed, in chapter 17, the great harlot (an image of Rome) is depicted as being “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). In light of this, the honour and praise that is given to the once slain Lamb, precisely because of his sacrifice, links up with the encouragement given to believers to love not their lives even unto death, but instead to overcome by “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (12:11).
Along with these powerful encouragements, the songs contain both implicit and explicit warnings. For example, the songs of exclusive devotion to the holy one who sits on the throne (e.g., ch. 4) remind believers “not to assimilate comfortably into the idolatry of the surrounding culture.”35 Likewise, by hearing that all wisdom, wealth, glory and power belong to the Lamb (e.g., ch. 5), believers are tacitly warned “not to let the prosperous times lull them into a state of spiritual torpor.”36 The message is clear, and has already been sounded in the letters to the seven churches: only those who confess Jesus’s name before others will have their names confessed by Jesus before his Father and before his angels (3:5).
It is also important to note that the warnings contained in the heavenly hymns are not only given to believers (the prophecy’s primary audience), but also to unbelievers (its secondary audience). We see this, for example, in the “eternal gospel” which is proclaimed “to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (14:6). The proclamation is uncompromising: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14:7). In short, the call to worship and the threat of judgment go hand in hand.
Of particular interest is the way in which the theme of judgment is expounded in a number of the songs. Three examples will suffice. The first, from 11:18, is sung by “the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God” (11:16),37 and celebrates the advent of divine wrath on those who oppress God’s people:
The nations raged,
but your wrath came,
and time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints
and those who fear your name,
both small and great —
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth. (11:18)
The second, from 16:5–6, is sung by “the angel in charge of the waters” (16:5) – so-called because he poured out his bowl of wrath “into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood” (16:4) – and again proclaims the justice of divine retribution:
“Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was,
for you brought these judgments.
For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!” (15:5–6)
The third, from 19:1–2, is sung by “a great multitude in heaven” (19:1) and yet again celebrates the righteousness of divine vengeance:38
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for his judgments are true and just;
for he has judged the great prostitute
>who corrupted the earth with her immorality.
and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” (19:1–2)
The songs of Revelation, then, not only contain promises of salvation for God’s servants but threats of destruction for his (and his people’s) enemies. In its original, historical context, “John’s musical vision sings against the imperial cult and the injustices of life while singing for God and rhetorically persuading others to do the same.”39 In other contexts, it is no less confronting and no less comforting, for the song remains the same! The glory and majesty of God are its major themes and the truth and righteousness of his judgments are consistently affirmed. This is why the songs unashamedly celebrate the doom of all who worship the beast and its image, and rejoice in the justice of Babylon’s demise. This response is summed up in the shout of the heavenly multitude: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (19:3).
The pastoral purpose of these musical foreshadowings of the future is to fortify believers against compromise and embolden them in their worship and witness. Inasmuch as they simultaneously warn a rebellious world that Jesus Christ is nothing less than “ruler of the kings of earth” (1:5) and the one who will “repay each one for what he has done” (22:12), they may also be described as having not only an evangelistic purpose, but a political purpose. For all true praise, as Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, is both polemical and political; it “insists not only that this is the true world, but that other worlds are false. The church sings praises not only toward God but against the gods.”40 Furthermore, to the extent that their message is heard by unbelieving authorities, the hymns of Revelation “speak truth to power,” functioning not only as words of encouragement to the faithful, but as “coded musical weapons that struggle against and seek to undermine the ruling empire of its day.”41 My near namesake, Robert H. Smith, puts it well:
The Seer is possessed by a burning desire to show Christians that hymns and doxologies and obeisance are to be made only to God and the Lamb and never to the emperor or his agents. So the hymns of Revelation have not simply evolved gradually and peacefully out of temple and synagogue patterns. They are weapons in John’s warfare against Rome and its claims.42
3. The Theology of the Songs
As we have seen, “the hymns carry the ‘story line’ of the Apocalypse, and through them the work gradually moves into a crescendo and reaches a climax which becomes the proclamation of the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the enthronement of the Lamb.”43 But what more can be said about the theological content of the songs themselves? What are some of their more notable themes? As this is, again, a potentially large subject, four brief observations will have to suffice.
The first may initially appear formal, but it is actually deeply theological. It concerns what Paul Barnett has described as the “two-beat rhythm” of many of the book’s songs. In chapter 4, for example, the first beat of this rhythm is “the evangelical proclamation of the four creatures that holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.… The second beat is the worshipful response of the twenty-four elders representing the redeemed people of God.”44 Consequently, whenever the elders hear the declaration of the four creatures “they fall down and worship, not the Roman emperor, but him who sits on the throne, who lives for ever and ever.” The reason is simple: “It is not Domitian but our Lord and God … who is worthy to receive glory, honour and power.”45 Moreover, this two-beat pattern is not only a feature of the elders’ actions, but applies equally to their words. As Barnett writes,
They begin by declaring God to be worthy to receive glory, honour and power. Then, in reverse order, they state the evangelical truth that is the basis for their worship of God. It is because (Greek: hoti = for) by his will God created all things that they declare God to be worthy of glory, honour and power.46
This first observation leads naturally to a second. This relationship between the two “beats” highlights the theological order of things: revelation comes first, response comes second. Otherwise put, divine reality and activity generate creaturely praise and adoration. As we have just seen, God is praised because he is holy, because he is eternal, because he is creator (4:8, 11). Similarly, the Lamb is deemed “worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals” because he was slain, because his blood has purchased persons for God, because he has now “made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (5:9–10). Furthermore, what is true of praise specifically is true of worship generally. Consequently,
Worship is not to be thought of primarily, in either aesthetic or emotional terms, though aesthetics and the emotions may be involved. Worship is the expression of agreement by the people of God about the truth of God. Worship is based on the evangelical declaration about who God is, and what God does.47
This second observation leads naturally to a third. The songs not only teach us that we should respond to God’s being and doing, they expound his nature, character and works. So, for example, in chapter 4, the Lord God Almighty is described as thrice-holy (echoing the vision of Isaiah 6) and as the one who transcends time and history. The songs generated by this revelation thus highlight “the two most primary forms of awareness of God: the awed perception of his luminous holiness (4:8; cf. Isa. 6:3), and the consciousness of utter dependence on God for existence itself that is the nature of all created things (4:11).”48 Furthermore, this is theology with a clear pastoral purpose. As Greg Beale notes,
The titles show that the intention of this crucial vision is to give the supra-historical perspective of “the one who is, was, and is coming,” which is to enable the suffering readers to perceive his eternal purpose and so motivate them to persevere faithfully through tribulation.49
This, then, is an important vision for suffering Christians to see, particularly in light of (what Leon Morris calls) “the troubled state of the little church.” 50 The songs, likewise, are equally important for fearful believers to hear, if not to sing themselves. For they remind the church that “God has not abandoned the world, and it is indeed His world. He made all things and made them for His own purpose.” Evil may be a reality, but it is not ultimate and not in control: “the divine purpose still stands.”51
This third observation naturally extends to a fourth. For more remarkable still is the fact that the divine attributes and glorious ascriptions applied to God in chapter 4 are then extended to Jesus in chapter 5. This is underscored by the fact that just as the one who sits on the throne is “worthy” (4:11), so the one to whom he gives the scroll is also “worthy” (5:9).52 Indeed, “the parallels between 4:9–11 and 5:8–12 make it clear that Christ is being adored on absolutely equal terms with God the Creator! Christ is not an alternative object of worship but shares in the glory due to God.”53 Little wonder that the final song of chapter 5 is not only sung by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (5:13a), but ends by combining the two songs into one:
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever! (5:13b)54
The Christological title, “the Lamb,” also deserves further comment, as it is without doubt “the central feature of the christology” of the book, occurring some 29 times (six times in the songs).55 Of particular note is the two-fold fact that it is “only the Lamb who is capable of opening the book of visions (5:9), which shows a christology containing a revelatory element, and only he can open the seals of the scroll of destiny, which points to a christology full of sovereignty.”56 Jesus is, therefore, not only “the slain Lamb” but also “the eschatological Ram” – the one who is “Lord of lords and King of kings” (17:14).57 Consequently, “the wrath of the Lamb” (6:16) is no less fearful than “the wrath of God” (14:19; 15:1, 7; 16:1; 19:15).
Alongside these clear affirmations of the divinity of Jesus’s person is the grateful and joyful acknowledgement of his saving work – a work that could not have been accomplished apart from his full humanity.58 In this sense, the Apocalypse can be said to locate Jesus both on the side of Deity and on the side of the creatures. But the reason for his incarnation is equally clear: substitutionary-sacrifice. For it is not his life that atones but his death – the shedding of his blood. Thus, right from the opening chapter, he is presented as the one “who has freed us from our sins by his blood” (1:5). Believers are therefore defined as those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14; cf. 12:11). So while the Apocalypse contains only a vague reference to the historical particulars of the event of the cross (11:8), Donald Guthrie is right to remark that “its shadow is everywhere present.” 59
Given that the cross is the key to the Lamb’s victory, it is not surprising that the theme of redemption is particularly prominent in the songs (e.g., 5:9–10, 12; 7:10; 12:10–11; 19:1). Nor is it surprising that the first song sung in praise of the Lamb is described as a “new song” (5:9). As Morris writes: “The Lamb’s saving work has created a new situation and this elicits a new outburst of praise. No song meant for another situation quite fits this.”60 But there is more to it than this. The word “new” (καινός) occurs a total of nine times in the Apocalypse (2:17; 3:12[x2]; 5:9; 14:3; 21:1[x2], 2, 5). In each other instance it relates to some aspect of the world to come. This is in line with the way in which various Jewish writings applied the “new song” references in the Old Testament (cf. Pss. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isa. 42:10) to the messianic age.61 The “new song” thus celebrates the fulfilment of the new covenant and “the foundation for the eschatological renewal of creation by the Messiah who has been appointed by God.”62 Robert Mounce puts it this way: “The song of the Lamb is a new song because the covenant established through his death is a new covenant. It is not simply new in point of time, but more important, it is new and distinctive in quality.”63 This, then, is a song that will go on forever, for the redemption it proclaims is eternal! It is for this reason that “Revelation may be claimed to be the capstone of NT Christology.”64
The revelation of Jesus Christ was given to John “to show his servants what must soon take place” (1:1). Its purpose is to encourage true worship of the living God in the interadvent period – a period marked by tension, temptation, suffering, persecution and martyrdom. John does not write as a dispassionate bystander, but as one who shares with his readers “the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (1:9). His prophecy, therefore, is delivered into a context of intense conflict, a conflict he knows first-hand. The songs, which form such a significant part of the book, likewise speak into this conflict and minister to those caught up in it. This explains why they have not only been such a rich source of inspiration for Church liturgy and Christian hymnody, but a profound encouragement to believers, especially those experiencing opposition. It also highlights their importance for us in the west today, where religious freedom is daily being sacrificed in the name of erotic freedom, and where those who follow the Lamb are coming under increasing pressure to bow at the altar of the moral and sexual revolution. We need to heed the call of these songs!
This effect is entirely in line with the purpose of the prophecy. For while the book’s hymns are transparently doxological, they are also richly pedagogical and pointedly pastoral. Otherwise put, they are designed not only to glorify God but to instruct and strengthen his people. Moreover, as the hymns define and declare the character of God, they not only “shape the identities of those who worship him,” but “shape the way worshipers see their place in a world where they live with competing claims upon their loyalties, while fostering their hope in God’s kingdom.”65 Therefore, the more we listen to them and make them our own, the more they summon and assist us “to enter into healthier relations to Creator and creation, to Redeemer and all the redeemed. And in the singing, we also begin to move at least tentatively toward exiting from our multiple idolatries and abuses of the things of creation.”66
In addition to this, the songs have much to teach us about the nature, content and purpose of praise, as well as “the importance of singing God’s praise in a way that is truly honouring to him and helpful to his people.”67 As we’ve seen, the thematic range of John’s songs is rich and broad: “Praise, pain and politics are all necessary parts of his proclaiming hymnody.”68 Indeed, in light of the deadness and/or shallowness of much contemporary praise, they raise a series of questions (some quite troubling) about our own habits and practices:
- Do our hymns and songs concentrate on praising God for his character and his mighty acts in history on our behalf?
- Do they focus sufficiently on the objective truths of the gospel, or are they more concerned with our subjective response?
- Is the language we use as powerful and as simple as the language used in the material given to us by John?
- Do our hymns and acclamations help us to rejoice in God’s gracious and powerful rule, acknowledging his blessings and looking forward to the new creation?
- Do they challenge us to take a firm stand against every manifestation of Satan’s power and to bear faithful witness to the truth of the gospel?69
While this present age persists, and the Dragon continues to make war on “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17), we need the songs of the book of Revelation – to hear and sing them, be taught and fortified by them, and to echo their themes and concerns in our own musical compositions. What is more, their purpose is not for this life only. They are a foretaste of our eternal future, as Jonathan Edwards rightly saw:
So far therefore as we sing this song on earth, so much shall we have the prelibations of heaven … And this will make our public assemblies some image of heaven, and will make our sabbath days and thanksgiving days some resemblance of that eternal sabbath and thanksgiving that is solemnized by that innumerable company of angels and spirits of just men made perfect.70