Sunday School Notes: Revelation 5:8-10

8 And when he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp and a golden bowl filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sing a new song, saying, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and you purchased for God by your blood [people] from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, 10 and you made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall rule on the earth.”

We didn’t quite finish with verse 8 last time, so we briefly recapped chapter 5 so far, then started from there. Jesus, the Lamb, takes the scroll, an act that causes those standing around the throne–the four creatures and the twenty-four elders–to bow down before him. The Lamb hasn’t even opened the scroll yet, but the mere taking of it demonstrates to all those standing there that he is, indeed worthy. When no-one else in heaven or earth was worthy to take the scroll and open the seals, an act that could only be done by one able to initiate the judgments and promises contained therein, the Lamb, slain and apparently conquered, appears. While his appearance is as one defeated, his death was, in fact, an act of conquering. In his death the Lamb sealed his victory over sin and death, and, like the Passover Lamb, his shed blood brings life to his people.

The English may be a little ambiguous as to who’s holding the harps and the bowls (the creatures and the elders, or just the elders?), but the Greek is pretty clear: just the elders. (For the Greek Geeks: ta tessara zôa, “the four living creatures”, is neuter; hai eikosi tessares presbuteroi, “the twenty-four elders”, is masculine; echontes hekastos, “having each one”, is masculine. Therefore, “having each one” most likely refers to the elders. It is possible that the masculine is used to represent both, but I think this verb/noun agreement, along with the established distinction between the creatures and the elders which I’ll discuss in a moment, points to the elders alone holding the harps and bowls.) Back in chapter 4, the creatures and the elders are both before the throne declaring the praises of the one sitting on the throne. The creatures proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy,” but the elders go one step further, prostrating themselves and casting their crowns before the throne. As I noted when we talked about this passage, we see here a distinction between the way creation acknowledges who the Lord is and gives Him praise, and the way the elders, God’s people, worship and adore their Lord and Savior. The parallel with Philippians 2:10-11, where the ancient Christian hymn says that one day, “every knee will bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” is, I think clear. On that day, even God’s enemies will recognize His authority and His worthiness to receive praise. That doesn’t mean they’re saved. In fact, I suggest that part of their torment will be the knowledge of this truth.

Once again I think we see here a distinction between the creatures and the elders, creation and God’s people. Creation bows down before the Lamb, but God’s people go further–they offer up incense, the prayers of the saints, and take up their harps to sing his praises. For creation, the act of prostration is giving the Lamb what he is due. For the people of God, it’s an act of heartfelt worship and gratitude, of sincere love. And I think this is reflected in the song they sing.

Before we got to the song, we talked about the harps and the bowls. The elders’ song was not unaccompanied, and in the use of the harp (Greek, kithara) we see another reflection of Temple worship–and possibly church worship too (although it’s more proper to say that Temple and church worship is, or ought to be, a reflection of heavenly worship). The use of stringed instruments in biblical worship has a long history within Judaism, and we see references to such instruments littered throughout the Old Testament (Psalm 150, for example). The kind of instrument referred to here is also intriguing. In Greek tradition, the kithara was an elaborate form of lyre with equal-length strings (as opposed to what we know as a harp), that were played by plucking with a pick. The body of the kithara was usually made from a tortoise shell or a wooden box with an ox hide stretched over the hole. If the design seems a little familiar, consider the history of the word. The Greek kithara became the cithara in Latin, then the qitara in Arabic, which became the Spanish guitarra, then the French guitare, and finally the English word guitar.

Golden bowls also have a long history in Temple worship going back to the Tabernacle where they were filled and used for grain offerings. Leviticus 2:1-3 is especially helpful here because it talks about the grain offering being combined with frankincense and a handful of this used as a food offering “with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” The rest was for Aaron and his sons. Incense was, therefore, symbolic of an offering that pleases the Lord. Hence the Psalmist would ask that his prayers “be counted as incense before You” (Psalm 141:2).

So the harps and golden bowls of incense continue the theme of worship in terms that would be familiar to John, since it reflects Temple worship, and possibly church worship, too. These bowls containing incense “are the prayers of the saints”–that is, the bowls of incense represent the prayers of God’s people. Our prayers are a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Notice that the bowls of prayers are being offered by the twenty-four elders. That is, the representatives of God’s people are offering the prayers of God’s people to the Lamb. There are those, particularly Roman Catholic apologists, that will use this verse to argue in favor of offering prayers to dead saints. Clearly these prayers are not being offered to the saints, but by the saints. And it is appropriate that these prayers be offered to the Lamb, since praying is an act of worship, and no saint is worthy of worship.

Some commentators suggest that the prayers offered here are specifically the prayers of the suffering, those martyred, that cry out “how long?” in Revelation 6:9-11. But I don’t think that’s a necessary interpretation. Prayer was also a significant part of Temple worship and we know it has been a part of church worship since the beginning (Acts 2:42, for example). So offering prayers is consistent with the theme of worship, and it would be (and is) an encouragement to the suffering church to know that their prayers are presented before the Lord as a pleasing aroma, finding His favor.

Question: How can the elders play the kithara while holding the bowls? Answer: it’s a vision! We shouldn’t get hung up on the practicalities and lose sight of the symbolism.

Verse 9 says that the elders sing a “new song.” What’s the significance of this? Why a new song? What’s wrong with the old songs? The Psalms are littered with references to singing a “new song” and we looked at some of them: Psalm 33:1-3, 40:1-3, 96:1-2, 98:1, 144:9-10, and 149:1-2. We noticed common themes in these psalms: praise, thanksgiving, and victory. In other words, they speak of who God is and what He has accomplished for His people in terms of overcoming their enemies. It seems only appropriate, then, that such a “new song” would be sung to the Lamb. He, too, is worthy of praise for who he is, and also for what he has done, since his death has accomplished life and victory for his people. We noted that while the Old Testament “new song” was addressed to God, the “new song” in Revelation is addressed to the Lamb, Jesus. Clearly, the elders see no distinction.

We’ve already discussed the fact that the one who opens the scroll and its seals is not merely able to do it, but must be worthy to do it. And the elders’ song proclaims the fact that the Lamb is worthy. Why is the Lamb worthy? It’s interesting that they even address this question, as if it needs to be asked. Of course the Lamb is worthy, because he is the Lamb, Jesus, God incarnate, our judge and redeemer. The fact the elders feel the need to spell out why the Lamb is worthy to take the scroll means that this is important information to remember. As we anticipate the rest of Revelation, we need to keep in mind who the Lamb is, and what he has done.

The elders sing that the Lamb was slain, or slaughtered (Greek: esphagês), reminding us again of the Passover Lamb, slain for the redemption of Israel. And that slaying purchased a people. Some see these as two separate things (i.e., the Lamb was slain, and also he purchased a people), but that’s not necessary. Indeed, the purchasing, or redeeming of a people came about as a result of his being slain, just as Israel was redeemed by the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb. The language of “purchasing” or “redemption” is appropriate, since Christ paid a sin-debt that we owed God. As rebel sinners, the penalty for our sin is death. But Christ’s death settles that debt by satisfying His wrath against us. God can now treat us as debt-free thanks to the blood of the Lamb shed on our behalf.

We also noted that Christ’s death was not for all people, but for a particular people. As theologian G. K. Beale puts it, Christ’s death was “not for all people without exception, but for all people without distinction.” Christ didn’t die for every individual in the world, but he died for people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This speaks against the synagogue of Satan mentioned a couple of times in chapters 2 and 3, those who look down on Christians because they have abandoned their Jewish roots. As Paul reiterates time and again in Romans, the Jew-Gentile distinction has vanished in Christ. God’s people is not a particular tribe, race, or nation, but they are drawn from all tribes and nations throughout the world.

Furthermore, Christ has made these people “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall rule on the earth.” We are reminded here of Christ’s words to the Laodicean church, where he promised them that those who overcome would sit with him on his throne. It also reflects Daniel 7:21-22, and 7:27 ff. Another interesting parallel is in Exodus 19:5-6, words spoken to Moses just after he led Israel out of Egypt. The promise made to the Israelites finds its fulfillment in the church according to the elders in Revelation 5. 1 Peter 2:4-5 also uses similar language, talking of God’s people as a “holy priesthood.”

Next time: The angel chorus!

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Flash Fiction Friday

It’s Friday, blog readers, and time for another piece of flash fiction! Today’s words from the Random Word Generator are:

  • Duct tape
  • Bus stop
  • Bra
  • Pigeon
  • Salt

I could protest that “duct tape” and “bus stop” are both two words each, and re-run the generator. But I’m going to overlook that and roll with the challenge. And to make it even more interesting, I’m giving myself only 100 words:

Rosie checked her watch. She’d been at the bus stop for ten minutes. She pulled her shirt over her bra strap, fussed with her hair, shifted her weight, watched pigeons fight over a piece of duct tape.

Something’s happened. He didn’t get on the bus. The bus was in an accident.

She tasted salt on her lip. Her heart was pounding, then it leapt as a bus rounded the corner and pulled up to the stop. She watched people disembark.

“Mom!”

“Tyler!”

Tyler squeezed her legs. Rosie wrapped her arms around his head.

“How was your first day at school?”

Have a great weekend!

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Book Review: THE SHERLOCKIAN by Graham Moore

Those who were watching the 87th Academy Awards (The Oscars) on Sunday–or if you’re just culturally aware, like I’m usually not–you’ll know that the Best Adapted Screenplay award went to Graham Moore for “The Imitation Game.” Moore loosely adapted Andrew Hodges’ book ALAN TURING: THE ENIGMA about the life of Alan Turing, the British computer scientist, mathematician, cryptanalyst, and all-around genius who was famous for using his computer and cryptanalytical skills for breaking Nazi codes during World War II.

Five years ago, Graham Moore wrote a novel called THE SHERLOCKIAN that I thoroughly enjoyed. So, in honor of Graham’s win, here is my review of his novel. I originally posted this on Goodreads.

As every Sherlock Holmes fan knows, Conan Doyle intended to kill his detective at the end of “The Final Problem.” He and Moriarty tumble over the Reichenbach Falls, never to be seen again. Then Doyle would be free to enjoy the fruit of his literary success, and devote his time to what he considered to be more worthy subjects. Inexplicably, a few years later, Holmes returned. What made Conan Doyle return to a character that he admitted was becoming the death of him?

This question has plagued Sherlockians–Sherlock Holmes geeks–for over a century. And it’s this question that lies at the heart of this novel.

THE SHERLOCKIAN is, in fact, two stories. One involves Sherlock Holmes enthusiast Harold White. At his first meeting of The Baker Street Irregulars, he encounters Alex Cale, who claims to have found perhaps the most important Sherlockian artifact: the lost diary of Conan Doyle, covering the period of Holmes’ hiatus–the diary that would explain everything. When Cale is found murdered in his hotel room, with no trace of the diary, Harold takes it upon himself to employ his knowledge of Holmes’s techniques, along with his own sharp wits and tenacity, to solve the mystery and find the diary.

Intertwined with this story, we have the tale of Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle and his good friend, Bram Stoker. Doyle was known to help the police on some of their investigations, but when he narrowly escapes a letter bomb sent to his residence, he takes it personally. Doyle and Stoker begin a Holmes-and-Watson-style investigation into the incident, made more compelling by a series of murders that seem to be related.

Who killed Alex Cale, and who attempted to kill Doyle, along with a couple of seemingly innocent young women? And how are these cases related…?

I have very little to fault with this novel. The writing is top-notch; good pacing, easy to follow–even for non-Sherlockians, but with plenty of nods to the Holmes canon for the enthusiast. Harold White is a very likeable character; clearly a Holmes fanatic, but not so much that you can’t relate to him. The supporting characters are also well-defined and skillfully drawn.

If you’re a Holmes fan, this story is definitely a must. Yes, it takes some liberties with the facts (and Moore separates the fact from the fiction in an Author’s Note at the end), but this by no means detracts from the story. The only complaint I have is that Moore’s American vocabulary shows through from time to time (e.g., Doyle would never have used “gotten”), but such incidents are rare, so I wouldn’t hold this against him or the novel.

I give this a well-deserved five stars. There’s some profanity, but aside from that, I would rate the novel PG-13. As I said, it’s a Holmes fan’s delight, but I would also recommend it to anyone who loves a good murder mystery. You don’t need to be a Holmes fan to appreciate both the writing and the plot.

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Sunday School Notes: Revelation 5:7-8

7 And he came and took [the scroll] from the right [hand] of the one sitting upon the throne. 8 And when he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp and a golden bowl filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

We started off with a recap to keep everything in context. In particular we remembered the way the Lamb is presented to us, as the one having been slain. At the beginning of chapter 5, John lamented the fact that no-one anywhere was worthy to take the scroll and open the seals, because that meant that the judgments and promises contained within the scroll would not come about. An elder comforted him saying that there is one who is worthy, and his worthiness is based on the fact that he was slain. Then John sees the Lamb of God, not as some triumphant superhero, but as one who was slain, and still bearing the marks. Bearing in mind the situation of the churches to whom Revelation was initially addressed, where believers were being persecuted and mocked, the idea of the conquering through suffering is very important. That the Lamb presents himself not as the mighty, muscular, bruise-free champion, but as a sacrificed animal, seemingly defeated, bearing the scars given to him by those that scourged him. And we are reminded in the songs that are sung that these scars are what make the Lamb victorious. It was by means of being bruised that he was able to purchase redemption and be the conquering Lord. To be sure we don’t miss the point of who the Lamb truly is, John points out that he has seven horns and seven eyes which represent power, authority, and omniscience.

The fact that John sees the conquering Lamb at this point is very important to the rest of Revelation. Chapters 2 and 3 gave us a picture of the state of the church, and we heard promises from Christ himself to those who overcome, presumably as Christ overcame (i.e., by enduring all that the world could throw at him). In chapters 4 and 5, we see the true state of affairs in the heavenly realms, and the fact that the church isn’t beaten. Indeed, the church falls prostrate at the feet of her Lord and Savior, who goes before all God’s people as the example of victory through suffering. Indeed, it is through his suffering that all God’s people are able to endure the world, knowing that this is not the end, and the victory has already been won, not by our strength, but the power of the one that was slain.

In verse 7, the Lamb takes the scroll from the hand of the one sitting on the throne. This (and the rest of the chapter) echoes strongly the scene we see in Daniel 7, particularly verses 13 and 14, where the Son of Man approaches the Ancient of Days and receives power and authority from him. Remember: John isn’t sitting with a copy of Daniel in front of him drawing all these allusions and comparisons. The same God who gave Daniel his visions also gave John his. The reason for the similarity lies in the fact that John’s visions are an update on Daniel’s visions. What Daniel was able to see only vaguely, John now sees more clearly due to the fact that the Lord has provided more revelation to His people through the coming of the Son. Daniel saw “one like a son of man”; John sees the Lamb that was slain. The person that was unknown to Daniel is known to John and to us. And we need greater clarity than Daniel had because the end is closer for us than it was for him. How close? I don’t think Revelation says. But the message is clear: be ready.

The Lamb simply takes the scroll–he doesn’t even open it–and there’s an immediate reaction from the creatures and the elders. It’s almost like a huge sigh of relief in the form of worship. At last! There is someone worthy. All is not lost! The fact that the Lamb takes the scroll shows that he is worthy not only to take the scroll, but also to break the seals. As we said before, just like with a Roman will, only the person who will execute the contents of the scroll has authority to open it. That means, this Lamb is able to execute the judgments contained within the scroll, and also bring about the fullness of redemption for God’s people.

We noted in chapter 4 the difference in response between the four creatures and the twenty-four elders. The four creatures proclaim “Holy holy holy” and the twenty-four elders fall down, worship, and cast their crowns before the throne. Here we have the four creatures and the twenty-four elders falling down before the Lamb, but the elders have harps, bowls of incense, and they sing a new song. This further draws the distinction between creation’s recognition of Christ’s victory, sovereignty, and power, and God’s people’s love and adoration for their King and Savior. As we’ll note toward the end of chapter five, all of creation will one day bow the knee to the Lamb, and this includes the enemies of God. They too will acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, even though they are destined for the Lake of Fire (see Philippians 2:10-11).

There was a question about whether this is taking place at a particular point in time–specifically, the three days while Jesus was in the tomb. This thought might have been prompted by the fact that the Lamb is presented as having been slain, and not in a risen, glorified state. If this is happening in that interim period, that would also explain why there’s such an emphasis on Christ’s death, and not his resurrection. I think it’s reckless at best to try to say when any of these events are happening in redemptive history. Indeed, in this heavenly throne room scene, there’s a sense in which we see past, present, and future conflated into one point. We see the persecuted church cry out for justice and redemption. We see the Lamb, slain, who is the conqueror worthy to bring about that justice and redemption. And then we see all creation declare the Lamb to be the all-powerful Lord. So I don’t think this is supposed to be any one particular moment in time. John is being given a full-orbed perspective of who Christ is prior to seeing (albeit in symbolic form) the judgment and mercy of God played out. Further, John uses perfect tense forms to describe the Lamb–having stood, having been slain–not aorist forms. This is not a Lamb who was slain at a point in time and now stands. Rather, he has been slain, and he continues to show himself in that state. He stood, and he continues to stand. In other words, this is the Lamb’s perpetual state: he is and always will be the Lamb who was slain. Again, the theological significance of this is the fact that his slaying was not an accident. It wasn’t an unfortunate event that we need to overlook. Rather, it’s his having-been-slain that makes him worthy to open the scroll. The slain Lamb is the symbol of victory.

So, what are the harps? What about the bowls and the incense? And why are the elders singing a new song? What’s wrong with the old songs? We ran out of time to discuss these things this week. Next time, we’ll continue our study of verse 8 and carry on from there.

 

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Music Monday: Bolero

Tomita-BoleroThe boléro is a type of Spanish dance, but this is Music Monday, not Dance Monday, so I have a specific boléro in mind, perhaps the most famous of them all: Maurice Ravel’s 1928 composition, which he originally wrote as accompaniment for a ballet. He considered the piece experimental, something that would repeat on different orchestral levels, but nothing more than that. Audiences would be paying attention to the dancers, not the music, right, so who cares? A lot of people, it seems. The piece was hugely popular, and it remains his most recognized work.

Ravel’s Boléro was originally over 17 minutes long, and given that it is, for the most part, a repetition of the same couple of musical themes over and over on different instruments, some devotees of classical music have little patience for it. One such devotee was my music appreciation teacher in school. To him, Ravel’s Boléro was dull, boring, and repetitive, and not something he would listen to for pleasure. Then one day, I introduced him to Isao Tomita.

Japanese composer/musician Isao Tomita has had a long and varied career, but his particular niche seems to be arranging classical music for modern electronic instruments. My Dad first came across Tomita one night in the early to mid seventies while watching a documentary on television. They played a piece of electronic music in the background, and he was so taken with it, he wrote the television studio that produced the documentary asking what it was. They told him it was from an album by Tomita called “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” a collection of synthesizer interpretations of Debussy’s piano music. Dad hunted down the album, and became a fan, collecting every album Tomita made for the next ten years. The idea of using anything but acoustic instruments for classical music is, of course, abject heresy to the purist. While my Dad appreciated the classics, he was by no means a purist, and I’m glad to say he passed that legacy down to his children.

As my music appreciation teacher discovered that day, Tomita’s interpretations are incredibly imaginative. Not only does his work display skill as a musician, but he treats the recording as a performance, paying close attention to where sounds are within the audio picture, making use of Quadrophonic (early surround sound) mixing, and bouncing tunes between the left and right speakers for effect. I still marvel at the sounds he was able to get from his equipment without the benefit of sampling and advanced digital technology. After playing him Tomita’s Boléro, my teacher said it was the best and most interesting version he’d ever heard.

Tomita’s rendition of Ravel’s Boléro is over 9 minutes long (shorter than the original), but it’s one of those pieces that keeps your attention and makes those 9 minutes pass quickly. I recommend you listen to it through speakers (preferably 5.1 surround, but stereo will do), somewhere where you’ll have peace and quiet for 10 minutes to just sit and enjoy it.

About six and a half minutes in, the bass suddenly becomes a lot more prominent. When this record first came out (it was released as a 12″ single in 1979, and then subsequently on Tomita’s collection of Ravel pieces called “Daphnis and Cloe”), my Dad was working in a consumer electronics store. He would use Tomita’s Boléro to demo speakers, particularly at this point in the track. He would light a match and hold it in front of the speaker; you could see the flame dance to the thumping bass (he claimed that bass could put the match out).

My favorite moment of the whole piece comes about seven and a half minutes in, near the end, where it briefly modulates from C-major to E-major. Tomita makes much of this moment, building everything up to a crescendo, creating one of those heart-soaring moments that makes you sigh.

Ravel’s Boléro had a bit of a revival in 1984 when British ice dancers Torvill and Dean used it in their legendary gold medal winning performance in the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, though their plans to use the piece nearly ran afoul of the contest rules. It seems according to the rules, the performance had to be four minutes long, give or take ten seconds. As I mentioned before, Ravel’s original piece is over 17 minutes long. Torvill and Dean found someone to do a shorter arrangement for them, but they couldn’t condense it down to less than 4 minutes and 28 seconds–18 seconds longer than the permitted time. The pair studied the Olympic rules and discovered that the routine was timed from the moment their skates made contact with the ice. So, in order to be able to use their four-and-a-half minute Boléro, they devised their performance such that they didn’t actually start skating until about 18 seconds into the piece. The judges clearly didn’t object; they scored twelve perfect 6.0s and six 5.9s, including a unanimous 6.0 for artistic interpretation.

For your listening pleasure, here’s Tomita’s version of Ravel’s Boléro:

And here’s Torvill and Dean’s gold-winning performance at the 1984 Winter Olympics:

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Flash Fiction Friday

This week, the Random Word Generator gives me:

  • Orchestra
  • Cuff
  • Poverty
  • Sword
  • Joke

I’m using 130 words for this one. Here’s this week’s flash fiction:

“Jokes and counter-jokes—their verbal swordplay. Peter thought nothing of it. It was their way, how they talked to one another. Of course Joe didn’t mind. He always laughed—gave as good as he got.”

“So, could you tell me what happened?”

“We had just finished watching the State Orchestra. Came out the doors. Joe made some joke about Peter’s attire. Peter laughed at Joe’s cufflinks. And then…”

The detective tapped his pencil. “What then?”

“Well, I guess that was one joke too far.”

“Joe lost it?”

“No. You see, I gave Joe those cufflinks. We were poor. And a gift out of poverty is, well, special.”

“Wait. You’re telling me..?”

“Yes.” Emily took the bloody knife from her purse and laid it on the interrogation table. “I’d had enough.”

Have a wonderful warm weekend!

UPDATE: I have also posted a flash story for this week’s Flash! Friday. You can find that HERE.

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Book Review: THE WRATH & THE DAWN by Renee Ahdieh

THE WRATH & THE DAWN is a re-imagining of the story of Scheherazade by debut novelist Renée Ahdieh. The eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan has become a monster in the eyes of his people ever since he started taking a new bride every night only to have her executed the following morning. When her best friend Shiva falls victim to the murderous Caliph, Shahrzad offers herself to him as his next bride, intending to avenge her friend. She beguiles the Caliph with her stories, leaving him hanging each night in order to delay her demise and buy her time to plot his. But things don’t go quite as planned. She is horrified to discover she’s becoming attached to her best friend’s killer. But the Caliph tries to stop Shahrzad from getting too close, and for good reason. There’s more to the Caliph and the goings on in the palace than she could have ever thought possible…

Last year, Literary Agent Extraordinaire Barbara Poelle ran some impromptu giveaways on Twitter. “The first five to retweet get a copy of X.” I happened to be around when she did three of these, so I ended up winning books and making her concerned that I was stalking her, or had some kind of @BPoelle Book Giveaway Detection Device. For the record, I don’t, just right place, right time. One of these giveaways was for an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of her client Renée Ahdieh’s debut novel, THE WRATH & THE DAWN. The book arrived and took its place in my TBR pile–not too far down since it’s an ARC so I wanted to read it before it came out in the event I liked it and wanted to get people pre-ordering it.

That was a good plan. I loved this book. Think Marissa Meyer’s CINDER and Tahereh Mafi’s SHATTER ME, and you get a sense of the engaging storytelling combined with beautifully written prose that is THE WRATH & THE DAWN. And like both of those other books, I was drawn into the story, and looking forward to each opportunity I had to read another chapter… and another… and another. Renée paints each scene with attention to all the senses–color, taste, smell, texture. She describes the food, the clothes, and the environment in a way that adds layers to the narrative, not in the form of relentless lists or endless travelogs. The characters are well-crafted: the cold Caliph with a dark secret, Shahrzad’s no-nonsense handmaid, Despina, her childhood friend and love interest Tariq, and her would-be rescuers who also want to put an end to the Caliph’s reign of terror, but are oblivious to Shahrzad’s changing heart.

I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading, particularly if you like Marissa Meyer and/or Tahereh Mafi. It gets a whole-hearted five stars from me. The only drawback to the book is you have to wait until May before you can read it. If it makes you feel better, you can pre-order it from Amazon HERE or from Barnes & Noble HERE. The only profanity I recall was in the context of name-calling (questioning the legitimacy of someone’s birth, or calling someone a female dog). So I give it a PG-15.

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Sunday School Notes: Revelation 5:1-6

1 And I saw in the right [hand] of the one sitting upon the throne a scroll having been written on inside and on the back, having been sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?” 3 And no-one was able in heaven, nor on the earth, nor under the earth, to open the scroll nor even to look into it. 4 And I began weeping greatly, for no-one worthy was found to open the scroll, not even to look upon it. 5 And one of the elders says to me, “Do not cry. Behold, he has conquered–the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David–to open the scroll and its seven seals. 6 And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing as having been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God having been sent out into all the earth.

Chapter four introduced us to the heavenly throne room and its occupants: the one on the throne, the four creatures, and the twenty-four elders. The one on the throne is clearly the Lord (similar to the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7), the four creatures represent the created order, and the twenty-four elders are the people of God from both sides of the cross, Old and New Testament (twelve tribes of Israel and twelve Apostles). The creatures and the elders extol the one on the throne, declaring His glory, His power, His authority, and the elders bow to him, casting their crowns in a show of humility and submission.

John now notices that the one sitting on the throne is holding a scroll in his right hand. The word translated “scroll” is the Greek biblion, which could refer to either a scroll or a codex, the earliest form of the book. The fact I chose to translate the word “scroll” indicates which I think it is, but we surveyed some of the arguments for each:

Arguments for “codex”:

  • The earliest New Testament fragments we have are written on both sides, probably from codices (the plural of “codex”) since scrolls were generally only written on one side. These fragments date from around the beginning of the second century (the 100s), indicating that the codex was in use at that time. If Revelation is from the mid-90s, that would fit with a time when the codex was in use within the church.
  • Archaeological evidence suggests the codex was popular among Christians, especially toward the end of the first century. Some scholars believe Christians may have invented the codex as a cheap way of keeping their Scriptures. Since you usually only write on one side of a scroll, it would take more scrolls to copy the Scriptures than it would the codex, where you can write on both sides of the papyrus. Also, the codex form allows you to bind, say, all Paul’s epistles together in one volume for easy transportation, as opposed to carrying a bunch of scrolls around.
  • We know codices were used in Christian worship, and this scene seems to be mirroring a worship service.
  • John speaks of “opening” the biblion, not “unrolling” it.

Arguments for “scroll”:

  • If Revelation was written in the mid-late 60s, Christians were more likely to be using scrolls than codices. Indeed, even with the later dating, scrolls were more popular within the society as a whole, and hence more readily available.
  • There was a form of scroll, the opisthograph, that was written on both sides and in wide use at the time.
  • Ezekiel 2:9-10, a passage possibly being alluded to here, mentions a hand outstretched containing a kephalis bibliou, a “scroll of a book.” This was “unrolled” and was written on the outside and within. The contents of the scroll are “lamentations, mourning, and woes”–which, as we shall see, characterize much of what is in the Revelation scroll.

The scholarly consensus leans toward the scroll, maybe an opisthograph, with a summary of the contents on the outside, perhaps on each of the seals. As each seal is broken, the fullness of that summary is revealed. Those summaries may be nothing more than the Old Testament prophecies and promises which are about to be realized. It’s also possible that the seal is not just for keeping the contents hidden. By breaking the seal, the one breaking it executing the contents. Scholar G. K. Beale notes the similarity between the scroll of Revelation 5, and the ancient Roman will:

  1. The contents of the will were sometimes summarized on the back of the scroll.
  2. The will was witness and sealed by seven witnesses.
  3. Only upon the death of the testator could the seals be broken and the contents acted upon.
  4. Only the executor of the will was trusted to execute the contents.

Even though this is a vision of heavenly things, these parallels can’t be ignored because they are being related to John in terms he would understand.

More important that the scroll/codex debate, though, is the nature of the scroll’s contents. As we will see, when each seal is broken, something happens–usually some form of judgment. We will also see the redemption of God’s people fully manifest, and both these themes are important to Revelation. It is important to bear in mind, therefore, that the judgment upon sinful men and the redemption of God’s people are things that have been sealed, waiting for one who is worthy to come and break the seals (note the books in Daniel 7:10 and 12:4–especially the fact that in 12:4, the “book” is sealed until the end times).

One might wonder how the mechanics of a scroll with seven seals that are opened progressively might work. Indeed, this has been used as an argument for the codex (a book with seven sealed sections is easier to envision). However, we need to remember that this is a vision. What the scroll and the seals symbolize is far more important than any practical considerations.

John then tells us that a “mighty angel” (note the “mighty angels” in Daniel 4:23) cries out, “Who is worthy to break the seals?” The angel doesn’t ask, “Who is able…?” but “Who is worthy…?” This is important. Ability is not the issue. As with the Roman will, the one who breaks the seals is the one who will execute the contents of the scroll. Since the scroll contains divine judgments, he will execute those judgments, therefore he shouldn’t be someone who is also condemned by those same judgments. And since the scroll also contains the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption for His people, this person would have to be worthy to execute that plan of redemption. Who on heaven, in earth, and under the earth is able to do this?

You can almost hear the crickets chirp after the angel asks. There is no-one there who is worthy. The phrase “in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” is supposed to communicate the idea that there is no-one anywhere in all the created order who is worthy to execute the contents of the scroll. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and with man the whole of creation fell. The fact no-one is worthy is a profound statement about the state of mankind. No-one is worthy to bring about the redemption of God’s people. No-one is worthy to execute judgment against the rebellious, the wicked, the godless. And if no-one is worthy to do this, then God’s plan of redemption for His people will not come about. And furthermore, the wicked will prevail. All the promises offered to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 will fail. No wonder John wept!

But all is not lost. In verse 5, one of the elders tells John to stop crying, because there is someone who has conquered so that he can open the scroll and the seven seals (the infinitive verb in the Greek, “to open,” is an infinitive of purpose, like in the old nursery rhyme, “She swallowed the spider to catch the fly…”). Why didn’t this elder step forward earlier, before John got so upset? Again, this is a vision, and hopefully we have seen the significance of the fact that no-one in heaven or on earth is worthy to break the seals, and the devastating consequences of those seals remaining closed.

This one the elder speaks of has “conquered” or “overcome”–the same verb used in the letters where “the one who overcomes” is promised an eternal reward. In the letters, the verb is present tense; here the verb is aorist, or past simple action. The church is in the process of overcoming; the Lamb has overcome. When did this happen? At the cross, as is indicated by the Lamb’s appearance. Before we get to that, there are two titles used of the Lamb that are significant Messianic titles. The first, “the Lion from the tribe of Judah” points back to Genesis 49:8-12, where Jacob is on his deathbed and is pronouncing blessings on each of his twelve sons. The promise to Judah contains important Messianic themes (the scepter will always be with him, the people will be obedient to him, and so on). But Jacob also describes Judah as a lion’s cub who crouches like a lion, and who dares to rouse him? This is the picture of strength, security, fearlessness, and authority. Then we have “the Root of David,” which is another Messianic title going back to Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 11:1-10, which speaks of the Root of Jesse, and Isaiah 53:2 which describes Suffering Servant as a root out of dry ground. We see here the two sides of the Messiah: the sovereign king and the blameless sacrifice. Only a Messiah who encapsulates both is worthy to open the seals.

Then this one who is worthy appears “in the midst of the throne and the living creatures, and in the midst of the elders.” Again, this is a vision so we shouldn’t get too hung up on the specifics of where exactly the Lamb is standing. John might simply mean to say the Lamb has entered the throne room; he certainly means for us to understand that the Lamb has now taken center stage. He is the focus of attention.

Why is Jesus here presented as a lamb–even a lamb “having been slaughtered [or slain]”? Aside from the fact that the lamb was a much-used sacrificial animal in Temple worship, the most significant sacrificial lamb in Jewish history was probably the Passover Lamb. It was the blood of the lamb smeared on the door posts that kept the angel of death away from the Israelites in Egypt. Similarly, it is the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, that redeems his people from eternal death. John the Baptist referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29 and 36).

The verbs used of the Lamb are important. First, he is standing. The Greek is a perfect participle, indicating that he has been standing and continues to stand. The second verb is another perfect participle (this time a passive verb), “having been slaughtered.” The point is that the Lamb’s standing as one slain is not a future event. It’s something that has happened: the Lamb has been slain, and he lives and stands before them, though still bearing the marks of his sacrifice. The Lamb’s worthiness to open the seals is not based upon some future act he needs to accomplished, but upon an act he has already done. It’s not that the Lamb is overcoming, or will overcome, but he has overcome, and the effects of that continue on. He is alive, and he is ready to open the scroll.

Given the Messianic introduction the elder gives to the Lamb, John might have expected this “conqueror” to appear as a mighty hero, like Superman bursting through the doors to save the day. What a contrast that is to the figure that appears before John: a slain lamb. But the point is that it is the fact this Lamb is slain that makes him the conquering savior. But while a sacrificed lamb appears to symbolize weakness and defeat, we are reminded of this Lamb’s true nature by the fact he has “seven horns” and “seven eyes” that are “the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the world.” The horn is a popular Old Testament symbol for power (see, for example, Deuteronomy 33:17; Psalm 89:17; Daniel 7:7). In Revelation, John uses the number “7” to signify completeness, or fullness. So while this lamb is slain and apparently weak, he is in fact all-powerful. The seven eyes speak of the Lamb’s omniscience and sovereignty–he sees all there is to see, and therefore knows all there is to know. There are echoes of Zechariah 3 and 4 in this passage.

We’ll pick up at verse 7 next time.

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Music Monday: Mack the Knife

“Mack the Knife” is one of those songs everyone knows because it’s been around for so long, and anyone who’s anyone has sung a version of it–or so it seems. I always thought it was a love song, perhaps a jaded love song (hence “Mack the Knife“). After all, if Sinatra and others sung it, surely it must have some kind of romantic theme?

I found out a few years ago when I actually read the words and then looked the song up that it’s actually about a serial killer. A fictional serial killer, but a serial killer nevertheless. There’s nothing about love in this song at all, unless it’s old MacHeath’s blood lust. How on earth did a song about a murderer become an American standard? Part of the answer to this is, I think, in some of the clever wording used in the most popular translations. But before I get to that, a bit of history on the song.

Back in the late 1600s, a playwright named John Gay wrote a comic opera called “The Beggar’s Opera” that took a satirical look at government and the upper class by drawing on elements of the criminal world. His main character was a gentleman thief named Macheath who was always polite to his victims and never harmed anyone. A kind of anti-hero type. The opera was very successful and ran for many years.

About 200 years later, just after the First World War, “The Beggar’s Opera” had a revival in London. A guy named Bertolt Brecht got hold of a German translation and in 1927, along with Kurt Weill, reworked the 17th century opera for the early 20th century, both in terms of the characters and the music. They called their version “The Three Penny Opera” (Die Dreigroschenoper), and in it Macheath became “Mackie Messer” (Messer is German for “knife”), a gangster who kills and steals as his “business.” The song “Mack the Knife” was a last minute addition to the show. The tenor who played Mackie thought his character needed a better introduction to the audience, so Brecht and Weill wrote “Mack the Knife” for Police Chief Brown to sing before Mackie comes onstage.

“The Three Penny Opera” was a resounding success, toured extensively, and was translated into multiple languages. The first English translation was in 1933, and there have been at least eight English versions since. Probably the best-known was by Marc Blitzstein, who not only translated the opera, but also cleaned up some of the less savory elements of the original (for example, he removed two verses in “Mack the Knife” about arson and rape). It’s this version of the song that’s been covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Michael Bublé, and, of course, Bobby Darin. It seems Dick Clark had advised Darin against releasing the song since, in his view, the rock-and-roll youngsters wouldn’t appreciate a song from an opera. Darin ignored his advice and released the song. It went to number one on the US Billboard charts for nine weeks in 1959, sold over 2 million copies, and won the Record of the Year Grammy Award in 1960. Frank Sinatra declared Darin’s version of the song to be the definitive version.

With that, let’s take a look at the song. I have to say, I like the way the writer avoids violent words like “blood” or “kill” by using imagery and word-play. For example, the first verse:

Oh the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear, and it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe, and he keeps it out of sight.

In other words, the shark is a violent killer and it shows it weapon in full view, and while MacHeath’s as vicious as a shark, he’s more dangerous because he keeps his weapon hidden.

Then verse two:

When that shark bites with his teeth, babe, scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though, wears old MacHeath, babe, so there’s never a trace of red

The violent shark leaves a mess of blood when it kills, but MacHeath wears fancy gloves to hide the evidence of his crime. Notice how the writer uses blood colors (scarlet and red) as euphemisms for blood. From the context you know what he’s talking about without him ever having to say the word.

One more, verse three:

Now on the sidewalk, sunny morning, lies a body just oozing life,
And someone’s sneaking around the corner, could that someone be Mack the Knife?

Notice again the clever word substitution: instead of “oozing blood” it’s “oozing life,” which I think is quite evocative. It also gives a neat rhyme for “Mack the Knife.”

Now to the music. I’m using Bobby Darin’s version as the standard English version (if it was good enough for Sinatra, who am I to object?). For years, I knew this song as “the one with all the key changes,” and that is probably one of its most distinctive musical marks. There are five key changes, all chromatic, starting in Bb and ending in Eb. There are seven verses, and the tune and chord progressions are the same for each verse (aside from the key changes). Here’s a lead sheet with the words and guitar chords (click to enlarge):

MackTheKnife

The “sixth” chords (Bb6, B6, C6, etc.) could be played as straight chords (Bb, B, C, etc.). I included the 6th because it’s in the tune, and it’s possible the guitar on the recording is playing a 6th. How do you play a sixth on the guitar? Like this:

MackTheKnife_GuitarBb6

That’s a Bb6. To play a B6, shift this up a fret. A C6? Shift up another fret, and so on. The lines across the strings indicate a barre, so it’s essentially two barres: the longest made with the index finger, the shortest with whatever finger’s most comfortable. I use my pinkie, but I know people who use their ring finger.

Then there are the diminished chords (e.g., Bbº, Bº, Cº, etc.). There are two ways to play those on the guitar. You can use four fingers like this:

MackTheKnife_GuitarBbdim1

Or you can use two fingers and a barre, like this:

MackTheKnife_GuitarBbdim2

That’s a Bbº. Again, for Bº, shift up a fret. Cº, shift up another fret, and so on. I’ve included bass notes, but don’t worry about these on guitar. Indeed, on the recording, after verse two the bass goes walkabout, so for both piano and guitar, do whatever sounds good to you!

Now that last chord. After listening to it carefully a number of times, the best I can come up with is an Eb ninth with the sixth added (which I’ve written Eb9/6). I can definitely hear the dominant seventh note (Db), and the 6th is wailing through on the trumpets (a C). I’m pretty sure the 9th is in there too (an F). How to play this on guitar? This is the best I can come up with:

MackTheKnife_GuitarEb69

And on piano, something like this:

MackTheKnife_PianoEb69

Finally, the videos. Here’s Bobby Darin “performing” (i.e., lip-syncing) to the song on Dick Clark’s “Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show” in 1959:

And here’s a clip from The Muppet Show, where Dr. Teeth is trying to convince Sam the Eagle that the words to “Mack the Knife” are really not as bad as they sound:

Any questions, comments, or suggestions for future songs to feature? Comment below or email me!

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Flash Fiction Friday

Time to turn on the Random Word Generator again! And this week we have…

  • Headline
  • Bible
  • Nun
  • War
  • Pudding

Oookay. And let’s go with a 100-word limit. Here’s what I come up with:

The photographs were detailed enough. Andrew’s face was easily recognizable. As was his half naked body, along with the blonde in the nun’s outfit. He could see the headlines.

“Does your wife know?” said Robert slipping a spoon into his mouth.

“No.” Andrew hadn’t touched his food. “What do you want?”

“Let’s not make war over this. Drop out of the race, Senator.”

Andrew sighed.

“The Bible says your sins will find you out.” Robert’s smug grin suddenly turned sour. He gripped his stomach.

“They certainly will, Robert,” said Andrew, tearing the photographs. “I hear the pudding’s to die for.”

Have a great weekend!

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