Scripture, we are often told, should be allowed to interpret scripture. More often than not, this statement is immediately followed by a chain of out-of-context quotations used to arrive at a preconceived point of Biblical exegesis.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the field of Biblical eschatology. Thousands of years of dubious hermeneutics has resulted in numberless doomsday scenarios, all having in common just one simple theme - all have failed to come true.
There are, however, quite legitimate occasions when an older text can illuminate a difficult section. This is the basis of the scholarly field of source criticism, which seeks to understand a text by reference to its sources. Source criticism notes, of course, that care must be taken to ensure that the two passages being linked do indeed have a source relationship.
There is one particular piece of text that has long puzzled armchair exegetes of all stripes. The marvelous book of Revelation, so filled with wonder and mystery, contains a number of very curious scenes. One of these occurs at the beginning of the book, when John is first taken up to Heaven to see God.
There, he sees a whole range of wonderful things - God seated in splendor upon his throne, surrounded by strange beasts singing His praises. The entire scene is filled with mysterious symbols, their meaning to be revealed only when we slip the surly bonds of earth, and touch the face of God, so to speak. One of the more mysterious symbols is the Crystal Sea, upon which God's throne is placed (Rev 4:6), and upon which the victorious saints stand (Rev 15:2).
No small amount of ink has been spilled on the meaning behind this enigmatic symbol, which generally only serves to confuse the issue. However, this need not be the case. By referring back to the sources that John used to construct his Apocalypse, we will learn that there is a very prosaic answer to this deep mystery.
It is generally agreed, even by conservative scholars, that John's Theophany has much in common with that of Ezekiel, recorded in the first chapter of the prophet's book. And, indeed, when we compare the two passages, there are striking similarities.
John begins by describing God's throne, and its glorious occupant:
Rev 4:1-3 After This I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, "Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this." At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald.
Ezekiel's vision, on the other hand, takes some time to get to the appearance of God, but when he does, he uses very similar terminology to describe the Lord:
Ezek 1:26-28 ...there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form. And upward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were gleaming bronze, like the appearance of fire enclosed round about; and downward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness round about him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.
Note that both Ezekiel and John describe the rainbow around the throne, and precious and semi-precious stones figure prominently in both visions. John also goes on to describe voices, thunder and lightning issuing from the throne:
Rev 4:5 From the throne issue flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God...
Ezekiel, too, describes these phenomena:
Ezek 1:13 In the midst of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
Ezek 1:25 And there came a voice from above the firmament over their heads...
Even the strange beasts that gather around the throne are described in similar terms:
Rev 4:6-8 ...And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!"
Ezek 1:5-10 And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings...As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front; the four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back.
Is it possible that Ezekiel's vision might hold the key to the meaning of John's crystal sea? As it happens, a very similar symbol figures prominently in Ezekiel's Theophany:
Ezek 1:22-26 Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of a firmament, shining like crystal, spread out above their heads. And under the firmament their wings were stretched out straight...And there came a voice from above the firmament over their heads...And above the firmament over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire...
The creatures appearing to be carrying some sort of platform, made, like John's Sea, of a crystal substance. Upon this platform, God's throne is seated. Is there any way we can determine the meaning of this symbol? As it happens, Ezekiel has used a very rare word to describe this crystal platform. This is the Hebrew word 'raqiya', and it is used in very few passages in the Old Testament. One of these happens to be the first chapter of Genesis.
Gen 1:6-15 And God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven...And God said, "Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth."
The word 'raqiya' here apparently stands for the sky, which, according to the author of Genesis, separates the waters above the heavens from the waters below, and also contains the Sun, Moon and Stars. Conservative scholars usually push the notion that the "firmament" is the atmosphere of the planet, and the waters above the firmament are the clouds. However, the language of Genesis 1 does not support such an interpretation. Note that the waters are said to be "above" the firmament (Gen 1:7), while the heavenly lights are said to be "in" the firmament (Gen 1:14). This would then make the clouds higher than the Sun, Moon and stars - obviously not a correct interpretation.
The fact of the matter is that the ancient Hebrews, in concert with every known pre-scientific culture, believed that the sky was a solid platform. The celestial lights were placed in this platform. Some of these ancient cultures also believed that the firmament separated the waters of chaos from the earth below. This would be the meaning of the "waters above the firmament" (Gen 1:7). These waters above the sky are referred to in at least one other place in the Old Testament:
Psalms 148:4 (KJV) Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
Other Old Testament passages speak of the solid sky:
Job 22:14 Thick clouds enwrap him, so that he does not see, and he walks on the vault of heaven.
Job 37:18 Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?
Above the sky was also God's abode, according to the ancient Hebrews. It was here that he set his throne, and held his court.
Psalms 102:19 that he looked down from his holy height, from heaven the Lord looked at the earth...
Psalms 103:19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Isaiah 66:1 Thus Says the Lord: "Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool...
Amos 9:5-6 The Lord, God of hosts...who builds his upper chambers in the heavens, and founds his vault upon the earth...
This, then, finally lays bare the meaning of Ezekiel's vision: the firmament represents the sky, upon which stands God's throne. In like manner, John sees a sea of crystal, the solid sky, spread out beneath the Divine throne (Rev 4:6). He sees the righteous saints of God standing upon the sky, praising God (Rev 15:2). This interpretation fits well with several points of John's vision. Notice that it begins with a door opened in Heaven (Rev 4:1) and a voice instructing the author to "come up here". John then finds himself in Heaven, with the sky below him. Notice, also, that John several times refers to the three-tiered universe of the ancients: heaven, the earth and the world below the earth (Rev 5:3).
There is one more Theophany recorded in the Old Testament that confirms this interpretation. Exodus chapter 24 records that Moses and the elders of Israel were allowed to meet God upon the Holy Mountain. Notice how he is represented:
Exodus 24:10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.
What can we learn from this study? First, that scripture can indeed be used to interpret scripture - although those who cling to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God might not be happy with the results. We also learned that neither Ezekiel's vision nor John's were given by God. Both contain elements of the pre-scientific world, which have long been proven wrong. There is thus very little point in trying to apply John's symbols to our present age, and thus divine the course of the future. John's vision has no bearing on reality at all.