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” —
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 —
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.