Notes (NET Translation)
1 Then I saw in the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne a scroll written on the front and back and sealed with seven seals.
From chapter 4 we know that the one seated on the throne is God the Father. The “right hand” denotes God’s power to save and execute judgment (Ex 15:6; Job 40:14; Isa 41:10). Scrolls were normally written on only one side so this scroll, written on the front and back, is unusual (cf. Ezek 2:9-10). It may symbolize the comprehensiveness of God’s decrees. The scroll is even more unusual in that it is sealed with seven seals (cf. Dan 8:26; 12:4, 9; Isa 29:11). Seals were used to ensure a letter’s contents were not changed. The number seven, symbolizing perfection or completion, signifies the absolute inviolability of the scroll.
2 And I saw a powerful angel proclaiming in a loud voice: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to break its seals?”
God could open the scroll himself but instead he has an angel call out for a worthy mediator.
The “book” is best understood as containing God’s plan of judgment and redemption, which has been set in motion by Christ’s death and resurrection but has yet to be completed. The question asked by the angelic spokesman concerns who in the created order has sovereign authority over this plan. That the book represents authority in executing the divine plan of judgment and redemption is clear from the parallelism of the hymns in 5:9–10 and 5:12. The former interprets Christ’s worthiness to receive the book as indicating his authority to redeem his people and establish them as kings and priests. The latter hymn interprets the Lamb’s reception of “the book,” mentioned in vv 9–10, more generally as his reception of “power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” (Beale 340)
This is not so much a moral or spiritual “worthiness” (though it includes that) but rather an inherent “sufficiency” (the term is a close equivalent to ἱκανός, hikanos, “sufficient”) that enables a being to perform an act like opening the scroll. It is authority more than virtue that is the subject. (Osborne 251)
3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look into it.
The angel’s proclamation was made throughout all of creation but no one was found who could open the scroll. The phrase “look into it” refers to the ability to read the contents of the scroll.
4 So I began weeping bitterly because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
John weeps because he knows the importance of the scroll and because no one was worthy to open it.
Expectations have been raised, promises have been made that he will learn ‘what must soon come to pass’, his Christian conviction that Jesus’ death and resurrection has ushered in the end-times has received apparent divine confirmation. Now that he has come so close to seeing those things, however, the scroll remains resolutely closed in the hand of the enthroned one. Readers can sense the pathos here as the seer weeps uncontrollably. (Boxall 96-97)
5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Stop weeping! Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered; thus he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
The “Lion of the tribe of Judah” alludes to Gen 49:9-10 (cf. 4 Ezra 11:37; 12:31-32; T. Judah 24:5). The “root of David” alludes to Isa 11:1, 10, which refers to the root of Jesse, David’s father (cf. Rom 15:12; 4QpIsa; 4QFlor). Christ’s conquering is what enables him to open the scroll.
Paradoxically, this decisive victory over Satan and death was accomplished on the cross. He conquered by an act of total self-sacrifice. The result is that he alone is worthy to open the scroll of destiny both to reveal and to carry out the final dissolution of all forces set in opposition to the eternal kingdom of God. (Mounce loc. 2704-2707)
6 Then I saw standing in the middle of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the middle of the elders, a Lamb that appeared to have been killed. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
The Lamb is Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1:29) who was killed on the cross (5:9) and raised from the dead. The seven horns represent perfect power and the seven eyes represent perfect wisdom. Jesus is both the sacrificial lamb and the conquering ram (denoted by the horns). The Holy Spirit is of both the Father and the Son.
7 Then he came and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne, 8 and when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders threw themselves to the ground before the Lamb. Each of them had a harp and golden bowls full of incense (which are the prayers of the saints).
The “golden bowls full of incense” allude to Ps 141:2. That these bowls are the “prayers of the saints” gives the readers confidence that their prayers are reaching heaven despite any suffering they are undergoing (cf. 6:9-11).
9 They were singing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. 10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
They were singing a “new song” (cf. Ps 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1) because Christ’s redeeming death has begun a new creation. The saints will reign on the earth in the New Jerusalem (22:1-5; cf. Ex 19:6).
11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels in a circle around the throne, as well as the living creatures and the elders. Their number was ten thousand times ten thousand – thousands times thousands – 12 all of whom were singing in a loud voice: “Worthy is the lamb who was killed to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and praise!”
The number of angels is so large that it cannot be expressed in the ancient Greek language (a myriad [about ten thousand] was the highest number known in the Greco-Roman world). The point of verse 11 is not to give a precise number of angels but to note that the number of angels was innumerable (cf. Dan 7:10). In chapter 4 God was also said to be worthy of power, honor, and glory.
To these are added wealth and wisdom and strength . . . and praise. Thus, typical of the Christology of both the Gospel of John and the Revelation, the more expansive praise and adoration is offered to the Son; and that is not because the Son is more significant, but because our existence both now and forever is predicated on his death and resurrection. That is, the more extensive language of praise is fittingly reserved for the Lamb, who, even though he was the co-creator of all things, nonetheless in his incarnation endured the abuse and rejection of those he had created to bear the divine image on earth. In doing it this way, John is quite in keeping with the christocentric emphasis of the entire New Testament. By means of the Lamb, God both has been made known and has offered himself in a sacrificial way for the eternal redemption of those created in the divine image. (Fee 87)
13 Then I heard every creature – in heaven, on earth, under the earth, in the sea, and all that is in them – singing: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be praise, honor, glory, and ruling power forever and ever!”
Every living creature now joins the heavenly choir. The place “under the earth” is the underworld and the “sea” is often symbolic of evil. Here we have even the unrighteous and evil praising God. This is clearly not the case in the present but will be the case at some point in the future. Note that the doxology is to both God and Christ.
14 And the four living creatures were saying “Amen,” and the elders threw themselves to the ground and worshiped.
Chapter 5 has revealed a central truth that governs the entire book of Revelation. By his sacrificial death the Lamb has taken control of the course of history and guaranteed its future. He alone was worthy to break the seals and open the scroll of destiny. The hosts of heaven break out in jubilant song honoring the redemptive work of the Lion who is the Lamb. His triumphant sacrifice has transformed men and women from every part of the universe into priests in the service of God. Countless angels circle his throne and declare his power and praise. This vision of the grandeur of the triumphant Lamb prepares John to share with his readers the more solemn aspects of the judgments that lie in the future. A vivid portrayal of the one who has won the crucial battle against sin supplies the confidence that in the troubled times to come there remains a hope that is steadfast and sure. (Mounce loc. 2812-2818)
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.