While there can be no doubt that competing religions of the Ancient Near East were sometimes crassly ridiculed and trashed in Israelite Scripture and worship (Ps. 31:6; 96:5; 97:7; 115:4; 135:15; cf. Isa. 44:18-20), the Psalter of Israel was sung largely by Israelites, for fellow Israelites. Like Revelation, many statements of Hebrew Scripture celebrate God’s destruction of his enemies, often for the sake of Israel. There is no escaping this fact that there is explicit liturgical trash talk in the Old Testament and in the book of Revelation. To the point, the liturgical term “Hallelujah” occurs only four times in the entire New Testament, and all of these are in Rev. 19:1-6. There we see that 3 of the 4 occurrences of Hallelujah in the New Testament are explicitly celebrating the judgment of the “great whore,” the smoke of whose ruin “goes up from her for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:3). Perhaps John was spiritually astute enough to see this inseparable connection between God’s brutal judgment of a pagan empire and a celebratory “Praise the Lord” because of his meditations upon texts of Scripture such as Psalm 104:35, “But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the LORD, my soul. Praise the LORD.” The prophet John would surely have known the song celebrating the destruction of the pagan population and institutions in Canaan celebrated in Psa. 105:44-45, “He gave them the lands of the nations, and they fell heir to what others had toiled for—that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws. Praise the LORD.”
Part of the “Praise the Lord” of Psa. 135 is that Yahweh,
struck down the firstborn of Egypt, both human beings and animals; he sent signs and wonders into your midst, O Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants. He struck down many nations and killed mighty kings—Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, and all the kingdoms of Canaan—and gave their land as a heritage, a heritage to his people Israel (135:8-12).
A similar point is poignantly made in Psa. 149, but not always recognized by modern readers. Those who are interested in moving Churches of Christ from a capella to instrumental worship often quote phrases like “praise his name with dancing, with tamborne and lyre” (Ps. 149:3). (And, of course, all those throughout the centuries who have embraced congregational a capella singing, like myself, also know these verses and what they describe about temple worship in Judaism). More to my topic, it would be truly sad to read this Psalm only for contemporary discussions of Christian worship styles. I am certain that John would be especially perturbed by later Christians who failed to even notice the association that Psalm 149 makes between “Hallelujah” and the judgment of God.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples . . . to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the LORD! (149:6-7, 9)
Certainly, without doubt, there are profound differences between the way God advanced his kingdom through ancient Israel and how he does it now through the followers of the Lamb. It is more than disturbing that contemporary Premillennial Dispensationalists teach that these verses of Ps. 149 depict murderous Christian militias during the “millennial age.” I personally reject all such forms of “christian” Crusades and Cru-sadism, regardless of the dispensation in which the follower of the Lamb ministers. My primary intent is to point out the similarity of piety and spirituality of John and the Psalmist, both of whom rejoice in the downfall of an oppressive pagan system and culture.
I personally doubt that John expected or even cared whether many Graeco-Roman pagans heard his trenchant ridicule and criticism of Rome, her values, and her imperial aspirations. I do think, however, that some certainly did hear, and that is why John ended up on Patmos. Irrespective of what pagan outsiders may or may not have known of early Christian views in John’s time and place, it is important for us, in the 21st century, to realize that John’s depiction of the new creation is built upon the intentional and comprehensive destruction of the aspirations and values of the old creation. John, like Jesus himself, taught that God’s kingdom could not fully come into a home, into a city, or into an empire without the removal of other competitors. This is why the first commandment of the Torah brooks no competitors, no other gods and no other kingdoms (Exod. 20:3).
Almost through . . . .
Themes from the New Creation
In these preliminary comments on the text of Revelation 21-22, I am compelled by conscience and consistency to point out that the term “New Creation” does not occur even a single time in the book of Revelation. Since the motif of “New Creation” is the theme of Harding School of Theology for the 2013-2014 academic year, I was asked to speak on the theme of the “New Creation” in Revelation 21-22. Lacking this specific phrase “New Creation,” I intend to discuss my assignment from the perspective of what John says about the terms “new heaven” and “new earth.” Even though it is traditional to associate the idea of the new heaven and earth with all of Revelation chapters 21-22, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the prophetic materials about the new heaven and earth go only from Rev. 21:1-22:5, and definitely not to the end of chapter 22. Most commentaries and study Bibles agree that Rev. 22:6-21 is an epilogue and not a part of the “New Creation” prophecies from John.
First, a word or two about “the first heaven and the first earth,” as John calls it (Rev. 21:1b). In John’s use of the simple term “for” [γὰρ] in Rev. 21:1b, he is making clear that the new heaven and earth can only arrive after the first ones have departed. There is a dualistic incompatibility that excludes the possibility of the new heaven and earth existing alongside of or as a part of the first heaven and earth. This explains the series of rapid-fire events by which the major opponents of God and oppressors of his elect have been rendered impotent through God’s violent punishments. The great city Babylon is removed by means of divine violence (Rev. 18:21); the armies of Babylon are destroyed by the fiery-eyed Jesus (Rev. 19:12), and their bodies are left as carrion for the “Great Supper of God” (Rev. 19:11-19). Sequentially the two beasts described in Revelation 13 are finally captured and thrown alive into the flaming, sulfurous lake (Rev. 19:20). Finally, the devil is thrown into the flaming, sulfurous lake (Rev. 20:10). Next, the first heaven and earth run away and never show up again (Rev. 20:11); death and hades, great enemies of God, are cast into the flaming, sulfurous lake (Rev. 20:14). Lastly, those who will not follow the Lamb everywhere he leads are cast into the flaming, sulfurous lake (Rev. 20:15).
All of these powers, both real and personified, must be excluded from the new heaven and earth because of the kind of conditions they fostered during the first heaven and earth. In Rev. 21:4 John states explicitly that the former conditions [τὰ πρῶτα ἀπῆλθαν] that characterized the first heaven and the first earth must depart, without exception. There should be little wonder that Rev. 21:4 begins, “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” The drab, the infertile, and the pain filled accomplishments of the first heaven and earth are on full display for all to see, with their deceptive camouflage torn away.
Those tears, more than all the great oceans could hold, They’ll be in Hell!
Death, with more victims than all the graveyards can receive, It’ll be in Hell!
That Grieving and Crying and Pain, far more than every mother’s gentle kiss can assuage, It’ll be in Hell!
All of these damned things are debris in the wake of Satan, and they belong on the résumé of those who followed him and are excluded from the new heaven and new earth. Josh Garrels’s song “Zion & Babylon” resonates with facets of John’s spiritual attitude toward the contemporary rulers and denizens of Babylon, including those residing within churches.
My kingdom’s built with the blood of slaves
Orphans, widows, and homeless graves
I sold their souls just to build my private mansion
Some people say that my time is coming
Kingdom come is the justice running
Down, down, down on me . . . .
Because I love my Babylon
I am a slave, I was never free
I betrayed you for blood money
Oh I bought the world, all is vanity
These are the accomplishments of those who operated “the old heaven and the old earth” that the prophet and his congregants knew all too painfully well.