I’ve taught Revelation, in its entirety, four times in the last six years. Ten years ago, I would have said that anyone willing to do that is nuts.
So it goes.
This week’s reading, though, is one of those that reminds me why I so love the Apocalypse. With a bit of historical engagement and an ear for Psalmic utterance, Revelation 7 presents a beautiful vision of the Kingdom of God. What sets up verses 9-17, of course, is one of Revelation’s (oft-misread) “hearing and seeing” pairs: a voice numbers those sealed with the mark of the Lamb, and the numbers and boundaries are very clear and very small: a total number of people less than half the population of Rome, and drawn only from the original twelve tribes of Jacob (without even any consideration for the sub-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh), the sort of saved-remnant that one might expect in the documents of Qumran.
But when John looks for himself in 9:9, the vision of the Kingdom overwhelms his mind: before him is no minuscule remnant but a multitude that nobody can count, the vast plenitude of the saved that YHWH promised to Abraham in Genesis and that Isaiah prophesied in the opening chapters of his book. The Kingdom, as the vision makes clear to John, exceeds the imagination of all who count numbers, not only the territorial anxieties of those who would put the goodness of God within set boundaries. In the hands of the saved are palm branches, signs both of the folly of Palm Sunday (where the disciples of Jesus welcomed the Christ as a Roman conqueror) and the promise of the Torah brought to fullness (as in Leviticus 23, in which the celebration is not a general’s coming in but a city’s going out), and their white robes indicate that the stains of the world’s wickedness no longer trouble them.
The song they sing sounds religious to the modern ear but would no doubt have been a song of a kingdom when those first-century Christians heard it: salvation, which Caesar’s armies proclaimed, belongs not to Caesar but to God and to the Lamb. The healing of the world happens not when the peoples all come to give honor and glory to a man in a city but to God in the Heavens. And the agent of that Kingdom is no agent at all but one who passively became the victim of violence, one could almost say a Christ who undergoes a passion. The strong network of reversals in this song of the slaughtered king sometimes falls on deaf ears, largely because we’ve lost the referents, but in its own moment, this song, revealed to the faithful through a read text, is the herald not merely of a new king but of a kingdom beyond the imagination of Empire.
That the LORD is a shepherd is still well-known to modern Christians; if anything, Psalm 23 has risen to a prominence that it simply did not enjoy a thousand years ago. But the ancient image of king as shepherd, the one that would have given Psalm 23 its force, sometimes gets forgotten when our main images of shepherds come from children’s Christmas pageants (Charlie Brown’s and others’). What the Apocalypse sets before the faithful is nothing less than a revolution: this is no mere regime change but a new way of thinking about kings, not simply a removal of oppression but a way of imagining the future in which oppression is no longer categorically possible.
May our prayers be for the true Kingdom to come, and may God’s will, as alien as that might be, come to pass on earth as it is in Heaven.