The Revelation: Chapter 21:1 (the sea was no more, Part 2)

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After 1600 words on “the sea was no more,” it’s probably appropriate to ask whether this is an important question. I mean, many commentaries deal with the question by not addressing it at all!

Well, this is how I see it —

  • Rev 21:1 is one of those key, turning-point passages. It obviously parallels Gen 1:1-2. Both deal with God creating the heavens and the earth.
  • Nearly everyone who reads Rev 21:1 finds “the sea was no more” very odd. What is it about the sea that makes it unworthy of the new heavens and new earth?
  • The commentators struggle for an answer. Very appropriately, they note that the sea is always associated with bad things in the earlier parts of the Revelation, but rarely does a commentator suggest a reason that the sea is associated with separation from God or chaos.
  • The commentators also note NT passages where the sea is a metaphor for bad things, such as Eph 4:14. But again, rarely does someone offer a reason for the sea to be a negative metaphor.
  • And a few commentators who are familiar with Jewish backgrounds point out non-canonical literature where the sea is spoken of as evil or even as disappearing in the new heavens and new earth prophesied by Isaiah. But why?

Rare is the commentator who sees the connection with Gen 1. And I’m in no position to throw stones. I’ve written on this passage several times — and missed it every single time.

But it bothered me. John wasn’t writing to a church looking for puzzles to solve. The Revelation isn’t the First Century equivalent of Sudoku! He expected to be understood. And the fact that I and most other writers couldn’t understand his point is therefore our fault, not John’s. We’re missing something that should be obvious, and when this happens, it’s almost always a worldview or framing story problem. We are erroneously assuming something that blocks our vision of the text.

Fortunately, last weekend (Feb 13, 2016) my church sponsored a seminar taught by Ray Vander Laan (“RVL,” as he refers to himself). RVL attended Yeshiva University and studied the Torah with Orthodox Jews — giving him a perspective few Gentiles have. And he just happened to cover Gen 1 — briefly. And he pointed out that Gen 1:1-2 is speaking of the sea — the abyss. (You can stream or download some of his lectures here. They will rock your spiritual world. HIGHLY recommended.)

The problem with Rev 21:1 is, I think, that we misread Gen 1:1-2. We routinely ignore the presence of the seas before the creation of light on Day 1. It doesn’t fit our efforts to read Gen 1 from a modern, Western perspective.

HALOT (the Holladay Lexicon, the premier lexicon of OT Hebrew) gives this definition of “the deep” —

9021 תְּהוֹם
תְּהוֹם: pl. תְּהֹ(וֹ)מֹ(וֹ)ת: w. art. only Is 63:13, PS 106:9: — 1. sg. primeval ocean, deep Gn 1:2; — 2. pl. Ps 77:17; deeps of sea Ex 15:5 (quasi-mythological?); — 3. subterranean water Dt 8:7. (pg 387)

Most English translations hide the reference to the sea by translating as “the deep” rather than “the depths of the sea.” Of the translations I regularly consult, only the NET Bible has the courage to translate unambiguously —

(Gen. 1:2 NET)  Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.

Now, to a 21st Century Western Christian, this is a problem, because we believe (correctly) that the universe was created by God from nothing — ex nihilo. Therefore, we read Gen 1:1-2 as speaking of nothingness. But the text is speaking of the sea. Twice! At the time the earth was void and without form, it was a chaotic, dark sea. And that doesn’t fit either with what we were taught in Sunday school.

(This doesn’t challenge creation ex nihilo, which is found in John 1:3, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:16, for example. It just means that Gen 1 was written to deal with a different question.)

These images give a very typical traditional understanding of the text —

week-of-creation

 

We routinely ignore Gen 1:1-2 and begin with the creation of light, day, and night. We just don’t think in terms of the Creation beginning with the depths of the sea.

But according to the actual text, before God speaks a word, the Creation is covered in seven days 2the sea and darkness, and it’s chaotic. Then Moses describes God bringing order and purpose to chaos.

God creates light through his very voice. And so he separates light from darkness. He brings forth dry land from the sea. He brings not just order but purpose

(Gen. 1:14-16 ESV)  14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years,  15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.  16 And God made the two great lights– the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night– and the stars.”

For example, the sun, moon, and stars are created to be “signs and for seasons, and for days and years” and “to give light upon the earth.”

And all this takes us to the understanding of Genesis 1 taught by John Walton, which is, well, illuminating.

I’ve posted this before. It’s an excellent presentation by Walton at Harding University. I’ll not try to repeat what he says here in the post. If you’ve not listened to this before, please take the time.

So I guess the point is that the fact that a passage such as Rev 21:1 is opaque to our eyes means our hermeneutics are seriously flawed somewhere. Indeed,  it turns out that if we understood Genesis 1 better, and by “better,” I mean as Walton teaches Genesis 1, then we’d understand Rev 21:1 better.

The sea and darkness in Gen 1:1-2 are primordial chaos. God’s presence separates light from darkness, land and sea. And when God is fully present — filling the heavens and the earth — there can be no chaos, and hence no darkness and sea.

Now, is this a metaphor or literal? It’s not really all that important to know. The point is the utter completeness of the redemption that God will bring when Jesus returns. There will be no chaos and hence no sin. And that assures us that we’ll live forever. Unlike Satan, who rebelled against God and was thrown in the Lake of Fire, we’ll not be at risk of losing our salvation and eternity. Our inheritance, once gained, cannot be lost.

The winds and the waves obey his will

PS — Understanding Gen 1:1-2 as God bringing order of chaos — represented by the sea and darkness — tells us that Jesus’ stilling of the storm on the Galilean sea shows him to be God.

(Matt. 8:23-27 ESV)  23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him.  24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep.  25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.”  26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

(Matt. 14:23-26 ESV) 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,  24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.  25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.  26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear

Jesus brings order and purpose out of the chaos of the darkness and the sea. Just like God. To a Jewish audience, these accounts recapitulate Gen 1:1-2.

In fact, the Jews in Jesus day believed that prophets could bring healing, but they were convinced that only God himself could heal the blind (darkness) or calm the sea.

And so that’s the really cool thing about “and the sea was no more.” Not only does investigating this obscure phrase help us understand Rev 21:1 a little better, it opens up the depths of all sorts of other passages.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to The Revelation: Chapter 21:1 (the sea was no more, Part 2)

  1. Ray Downen says:

    Jay reads into this truth more than I think is there. The NEW JERUSALEM is not like the present earth. It’s filled with PEOPLE, all the people who have loved God through the ages, and there’s no room in the cube for an ocean or even a pond or lake. This present universe has burned up. It’s gone. The cube IS the new earth. It’s not that it sits ON the earth, which would unbalance the earth if the earth still existed. It exists alone just as the earth exists in the present universe, untroubled by any other universe. It’s OUR sun. It’s our moon and stars. They are part of THIS universe, but have no part in the NEW JERUSALEM. Jesus is the NEW source of light, and it’s unceasing. “No night there.” No sleep needed. Whatever our occupation in Heaven, we’ll not need rest periods.

    Troubled historians will find answers in the NEW JERUSALEM to their every question. Patriots will be IN what they only could dream of on earth, a flawless government. No sexual problems there, for there’s no need of procreation. We’re all already there. No sinful thoughts, for we now KNOW what is good and right and have no need of learning more or stealing from someone else. No envy, for we are all God’s people or we’d not be there. All will love God and one another. Yes?

  2. Jeremy says:

    Jay, you have hit on some really really great points.

    You brought up a point about how not all Bible translations would make the connection from “the deep” to “the watery deep.” Over Christmas, a family member introduced me to a new Bible translation that bills itself as the most accurate Bible translation ever or some such term. (The first thing that comes to my mind is the used car salesman who calls himself “Honest John,” but I digress.) I searched around on your site to see if you had written about it, but couldn’t find anything.

    I got digging around and read their front matter material, and they claim that through computer analysis, they are able to match up the most accurate English word with the Greek/Hebrew, and therefore are the most accurate. And if you disagree about a word usage, you are free to email them and they will take it under consideration!

    Another friend who is a minister at a non-Church of Christ is also doing a study on Bible versions recently. I watched one of his sermons, and again, there’s a tendency to slide towards the word-for-word translations.

    I believe that if we go too far in word-for-word translations, we miss connections like deep/watery deep because the goal and emphasis is that “deep” is 100% correct, even if we all miss the reference to water. Or even Acts 6’s “daily distribution” which you have covered before. We miss the original author’s intent because we have words missing. We are missing words that the original hearers would have understood without them needing to be said at all.

    I also think we lose the emotion that the original hearers would have felt. Surely the disciples were moved emotionally by watching Jesus calm the storm, when there was an innate fear of the deep. When we debate over the usage of single words, we get further from the emotion and impact that the words had on those original hearers. It turns into an intellectual exercise.

    You also said: “Now, is this a metaphor or literal? It’s not really all that important to know. The point is the utter completeness of the redemption that God will bring when Jesus returns.” Your point is absolutely correct. I would add that it is important for us to study and discover more of these instances. My high school algebra teacher would say, “Show your work!” If we get better at working through these texts, we discover that there are more out there, and our flawed hermeneutics slowly become straightened out.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and analysis, Jay. Your blog is really a breath of fresh air.

    Jeremy

  3. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    You and other commentators are redefining the element which God said he hovered over. God called it water or waters, it was only after the dry earth was formed which separated the water into multiple locations that he named this substance as “sea” or “seas” in Genesis 1:10. Using the same example that you are using to identify that “sea” was what God was hovering over prior to the separation we could alter the scriptures in many ways to support our own concepts.

    “The problem with Rev 21:1 is, I think, that we misread Gen 1:1-2. We routinely ignore the presence of the seas before the creation of light on Day 1. It doesn’t fit our efforts to read Gen 1 from a modern, Western perspective.”

    Genesis 1:10

    (ABP+) AndG2532 God calledG2564 G3588 G2316 theG3588 dry land ,G3584 Earth;G1093 andG2532 theG3588 collectionsG4959.1 of theG3588 watersG5204 he called,G2564 Seas.G2281 AndG2532 God beheldG1492 G3588 G2316 thatG3754 it was good.G2570

    (ASV) And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

    (BBE) And God gave the dry land the name of Earth; and the waters together in their place were named Seas: and God saw that it was good.

    (Brenton) And God called the dry land Earth, and the gatherings of the waters he called Seas, and God saw that it was good.

    (CEV) God named the dry ground “Land,” and he named the water “Ocean.” God looked at what he had done and saw that it was good.

    (DRB) And God called the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

    (ERV) God named the dry land “earth,” and he named the water that was gathered together “seas.” And God saw that this was good.

    (ESV) God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

    (GNB) He named the land “Earth,” and the water which had come together he named “Sea.” And God was pleased with what he saw.

    (GW) God named the dry land earth. The water which came together he named sea. God saw that it was good.

    (ISV) God called the dry ground “land,” and he called the water that had come together “oceans.” And God saw how good it was.

    (JPS) And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called He Seas; and God saw that it was good.

    (KJV) And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

    (KJV+) And GodH430 calledH7121 the dryH3004 land Earth;H776 and the gathering togetherH4723 of the watersH4325 calledH7121 he Seas:H3220 and GodH430 sawH7200 thatH3588 it was good.H2896

    (LITV) And God called the dry land, Earth. And He called the collection of the waters, Seas. And God saw that it was good.

    (MKJV) And God called the dry land, Earth. And He called the gathering together of the waters, Seas. And God saw that it was good.

    (RV) And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

    (YLT) And God calleth to the dry land `Earth,’ and to the collection of the waters He hath called `Seas;’ and God seeth that it is good.

    Within the concept that you hold, the sea would be important, the shape of this planet would be very different without “seas”. But, many of us understand a concept that is not vital to there being any “seas”. The Revelation account speaks of New Earth but no “sea”, therefore if it existed as a planet the surface would all dry ground. God was the definer of the two different bodies, is our definition something he will accept?

    Revelation 21:1

    (ABP+) AndG2532 I sawG1492 [2heavenG3772 1a new],G2537 andG2532 [2earthG1093 1a new];G2537 for theG3588 G1063 firstG4413 heavenG3772 andG2532 theG3588 firstG4413 earthG1093 passed away;G3928 andG2532 theG3588 seaG2281 is noG3756 G1510.2.3 more.G2089

    (ASV) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away; and the sea is no more.

    (BBE) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were gone; and there was no more sea.

    (CEV) I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth had disappeared, and so had the sea.

    (DRB) I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone: and the sea is now no more.

    (ERV) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth had disappeared. Now there was no sea.

    (ESV) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

    (GNB) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished.

    (GW) I saw a new heaven and a new earth, because the first heaven and earth had disappeared, and the sea was gone.

    (ISV) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, because the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared, and the sea was gone.

    (KJV) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.

    (KJV+) AndG2532 I sawG1492 a newG2537 heavenG3772 andG2532 a newG2537 earth:G1093 forG1063 theG3588 firstG4413 heavenG3772 andG2532 theG3588 firstG4413 earthG1093 were passed away;G3928 andG2532 there wasG2076 noG3756 moreG2089 sea.G2281

    (LEB) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea did not exist any longer.

    (LITV) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and the sea no longer is.

    (MKJV) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And the sea no longer is.

    (RV) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away; and the sea is no more.

    (YLT) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth did pass away, and the sea is not any more;

    The “sea” is mentioned many times in Revelation but it always referrers to the earth as it is now , never to the New Earth. So can anyone identify how the “sea” will be returning after the earth is refined by the fire, as many believe this earth (planet) will be transformed into the new earth?

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry (Part 1),

    I don’t follow you. The fact that God had not yet named the “sea” the “sea” doesn’t mean it wasn’t yet sea. As I pointed out in the main post, the Hebrew word translated “the deep” is often used in the OT to mean “sea.”

    (Gen. 1:1 ESV) In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep [tehom]. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters [mayim].

    (Gen. 1:10 ESV) God called the dry land Earth, and the waters [mayim] that were gathered together he called Seas [yam]. And God saw that it was good.

    The waters in 1:10 are the mayim, which is what they were in 1:2. Same Hebrew word.

    And these words are near synonyms. The definition of tehom (BDB lexicon) is —

    deep, sea, abyss (almost alw. poet.)

    Holladay has —

    1. sg. primeval ocean, deep Gn 12; — 2. pl. Ps 7717; deeps of sea Ex 155 (quasi-mythological?); — 3. subterranean water Dt 87. (pg 387)

    Since the Spirit was hovering over the waters, it’s clearly not subterranean on this context. The translators could have translated “sea” and been entirely correct.

    The deep (teĕhôm) seems to be etymologically akin to (but not derived from) the word tiamat,4 the personified ocean and rival of the gods in the Sumero-Accadian creation myth. But here it is the literal ocean, whatever poetic play is made elsewhere with the taming of its fury and its monsters (Ps. 74:13, 14; 89:9, 10; 104:6, 7; Isa. 51:9, 10). See also on verse 21.

    Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC 1; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 49.

    תהום “deep,” “deep waters” occurs 36 times in the OT. Its basic meaning, “deep water,” is found in many passages. “Deep water” can threaten life in that a man may drown in it (Exod 15:8), but it can also assure the continuance of life in the dry climate of the Near East (Gen 49:25; Deut 8:7). In a small number of passages, including this one, תהום is identified with the primeval ocean that is supposed to surround and underlie the earth (e.g., Gen 7:11). But there is no hint in the biblical text that the deep was a power, independent of God, which he had to fight to control. Rather it is part of his creation that does his bidding (cf. Ps 104:6; Prov 8:27–28).

    Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (WBC 1; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 16.

    In Genesis 1, the “deep” may be equated with the waters that cover the earth (see v. 9; cf. 49:25; Deut 33:13; Prov 8:24).

    Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” in General Articles; Genesis-Leviticus (vol. 1 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 342-343.

    The NET Bible translator notes say,

    The Hebrew term תְּהוֹם (téhom, “deep”) refers to the watery deep, the salty ocean—especially the primeval ocean that surrounds and underlies the earth (see Gen 7:11).

    Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes, (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ge 1:2.

    So, yes, “the deep” is a reference to the sea, even though God had not yet named it “yam.”

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry (Part 2),

    Although Rev 21:1 says there will be no “sea,” you have to keep reading.

    (Rev. 22:1-2 ESV) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

    There’s a river flowing from God’s throne in the New Jerusalem, from the top of the mountain.

    Now, this is clearly a reference to the prophecy of Ezekiel —

    (Ezek. 47:12 ESV) 12 And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

    Ezekiel has more detail.

    (Ezek. 47:7-10 ESV) 7 As I went back, I saw on the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. 8 And he said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. 9 And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. 10 Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.

    He says so much fresh water will flow into the Dead Sea that it will become a fresh water sea and have fish! So there’s my beach.

    Now, is this a contradiction? Or does “sea” in 21:1 refer to the Mediterranean (Great Sea) but not the Dead Sea? Or is 1:2 really talking about the chaos that exists outside of God’s shalom? Your guess is as good as mine. But my view is that the point is not that God will literally shine like a light bulb or that there will be no beaches, but rather that all that stands against or outside of God’s shalom will be gone — all darkness and the abyss — symbolic of unredeemed chaos.

    But trying to draw a line between the literal and the figurative is no easy task, and no one should presume to do so with confidence.

    The figures and images are given us to help us understand, but it’s poetic rather than an architect’s blueprints because the transcendent will not fit in AutoCad.

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