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Revelation 5

Chapter 5

v. 1: I do not know how common it was for a scroll to have writing on its front and its back, but I suspect that it was fairly common.  Material to write on (paper, vellum, or whatever) was more expensive in the ancient world, and I suspect that in order to avoid waste, both sides were often used.  I think the fact that John mentions that the scroll had writing on both sides means that the scroll was completely full, in other words, that it was perfect, with nothing else to add.[1] If the scroll had any blank space left, one might infer that there was more to be written on it.

John says that the scroll is sealed with seven seals.  I am not sure exactly what such a scroll would look like, but I am going to assume (perhaps wrongly) that the form of this scroll can be understood in terms of a normal physical object that is subject to the laws of space that we experience.  If that assumption is correct, I think I can come close to envisioning it.  I think we are supposed to understand that each time a seal is opened, a portion of the writing on the scroll is revealed.  This must mean that all seven seals are not visible from the outside of the scroll.  Some claim that, since John says the scroll has seven seals, he must have been able to see all seven from the start, and thus that they must all be on the outside of the scroll, but this is not necessarily so.  He had the vision in the past.  Perhaps when he first had the vision he did not know how many seals it had but learned their number only after the seventh was revealed.  Now, however, as he retells the vision, he can say the scroll had seven seals because he remembers that fact.  Besides, if the seals were all on the outside of the scroll, then the opening of the first six seals would only be a step in the process of getting to the writing of the scroll.  It would not in itself get to any of the scroll’s writing because the seventh seal would still keep the scroll sealed.  Yet each time a seal is opened, certain events are described and the implication seems to be that these events reveal the contents of a portion of the scroll’s writing.[2]

So, six of the seven seals are hidden within the rolls of the scroll, and each seal must be opened before the contents of the section that it seals can be read.  This makes it difficult to believe that the writing of the scroll is both continuous (i.e., that it proceeds from start to finish, front to back) and written on one single, long sheet.  If the scroll did both of these things, then some of contents of the scroll would be revealed before the seals protecting those contents were opened.  Here is how: I do not know what language this scroll was written in, and thus I do not know how the words would have been written (i.e. left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top) but it seems most natural to believe that writing would proceed from start to finish in a continuous line in whatever direction that language normally would go.  So, for instance, if the writing went from left to right, top to bottom, then some of the message (let’s say, seals 1-4) would be on one side of the scroll and some on the other side.  In such a scenario, one could open a seal, unroll the scroll, read its contents, open another seal, unroll the scroll, read its contents, and so on, until the fourth seal, but then the entire scroll would be unrolled since the fourth seal would be at the bottom of the front side.  This would mean that the contents of seals 5-7 (on the back) would be readable without opening any seals.  Below are the only plausible ways I can think of to picture this scroll.[3]

In every scenario, six of the seven seals must be hidden within the rolls of the scroll.

1) The writing of the scroll is continuous (i.e. it proceeds from start to finish, front to back) and on a single, long sheet, but the writing sealed by the seventh seal begins at the end of the front side of the scroll and proceeds to the back.  This would mean:

a) Some rather large portion of the writing in the seventh section would be revealed before the seventh seal was broken, but then, if there is writing on the back of the scroll, some portion of the writing must inevitably be revealed before any seals are broken.  Thus, opening a seal only means having access to the entire message sealed by that particular seal.

b) The message sealed by the seventh seal would be considerably longer than the message sealed by any of the other six.

2)  The writing is on a single, long sheet but has no writing on the back.[4] The Oxford commentary offers an alternate translation in a footnote: “…a scroll written on the inside and sealed [not written] on the back.”  If this is correct, then all seven messages may be on the front (inside) of the scroll.  However, no translation that I have chooses to translate the passage in this way, including the Oxford.  That makes it seem unlikely.

3)  The writing is on seven individual leaves, sealed individually and rolled inside one another.  This would appear as a single scroll.  One opens the first seal, reads that individual leaf front to back, then opens the second seal, etc.

Of these three scenarios, one and three seem most likely, and of these two, number one seems more likely still, due in large part to the fact that it makes the seventh message longer.  See notes on the seventh seal in chapter 8.

v. 3: Those under the earth may be the dead or they may be creatures that live under the earth.  Verse 13 notes that those under the earth sing with the rest of creation.  Regardless of who those under the earth are, the main point of this verse is that no creature of God’s making was capable of opening the scroll.  Only the Son of God, who is God himself and not a creature of God’s making, was capable.  Even so, it is not just the fact that he is the Son of God that makes him capable of opening the seals; it is also the fact that he was sacrificed for humanity’s sake (v.9).

v. 4: I believe the fact that John weeps indicates that he was more than simply curious about the contents of the scroll.  With his waking mind, John would have known that Christ had saved humanity, and he also would have known (from hints such as Christ gave in Matthew 24) the general course of the events leading up to our ultimate redemption at the end of time.  But in dream states we often forget things, or see things differently.  Perhaps John was in such a dream state when he had this vision.  Maybe, when he saw that nobody could open the scroll, he felt the hopelessness that humanity would have been doomed to suffer without God’s mercy.  Since the scroll pertains to the future[5] (relative to John at least) this seems like a reasonable conclusion.

v. 6: I like the paradoxical description of Christ: he is a conquering Lion in v. 5, but a seemingly slaughtered Lamb in v. 6.

All the commentaries agree (citing Biblical references like Psalm 89:17) that horns represent power.  They also agree that seven represents completeness, perfection.  How ironic that this seemingly slaughtered lamb carries (on his head?) the symbol of omnipotence.  John himself interprets the seven eyes:  they are “the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”  Being sent into all the earth could be a reference to the mission of the church to evangelize the earth.  I believe that these seven spirits are the seven spirits of 1:4.

v.9: A new song to commemorate a new event: Christ’s ability to accept and open the scroll.[6]

v. 13: All of creation rejoices, not just humanity.  Those in heaven rejoice because they love us, we rejoice because we will be freed from death and sin, and the rest of creation (animals with the breath of life, etc.) rejoices because it too will be redeemed.  Even though animals have not sinned as we have, they still suffer pain and death as we do and will benefit from our redemption just as they have suffered from our downfall.[7]


[1] See also Ezekiel 2:10.

[2] I do not think John ever specifically writes, “And the scroll said…,” but these events that he describes after each seal is opened must represent the contents of the scroll.

[3] I thought of and rejected another scenario, which I include here:  The writing of the scroll is on a single long sheet but moves from front to back with each of the seven messages.  Thus, one would open the first seal, read on the front side to the next seal, flip the scroll and read the back, then flip the scroll to the front again, open the next seal, etc. While physically plausible, this seems a little unnatural and awkward.

[4] One could envision this same scenario if the scroll had seven individual leaves written on the inside (see scenario number 3).

[5] See 1:1 and 4:1.  I do not believe they symbolize anything in John’s past, especially not the crucifixion.  It is Christ’s past crucifixion that gives him the right to open these scrolls at this point in the vision.

[6] For another new song, see Revelation 14:3.

[7] See notes on Genesis 2:7.

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4 Responses to “Revelation 5”

  1. […] that the scroll was completely full, in other words, that it was perfect, with nothing else to add.[1] If the scroll had any blank space left, one might infer that there was more to be written on […]

  2. […] that the scroll was completely full, in other words, that it was perfect, with nothing else to add.[1] If the scroll had any blank space left, one might infer that there was more to be written on […]

  3. […] would have been doomed to suffer without God’s mercy.  Since the scroll pertains to the future[5] (relative to John at least) this seems like a reasonable […]

  4. […] would have been doomed to suffer without God’s mercy.  Since the scroll pertains to the future[5] (relative to John at least) this seems like a reasonable […]

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