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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 64, 2016

STEVEN GRABINER, Revelation’s Hymns: Commentary on the Cosmic Conflict (Library of New Testament Studies 511; London: Bloomsbury, 2015). Pp. xv + 254. Hardback. US$112.00.

The subtitle accurately describes the agenda of this new book on the hymns in Revelation. The author’s argument is that the hymns act as a running commentary on the cosmic conflict that is the main driver of the narrative (see 1–2 especially). Here he deliberately challenges the dominant postcolonial consensus about reading Revelation that sees it as a quasi-political text attacking the injustice and oppression of the Roman Empire from the perspective of a persecuted minority. Grabiner repeatedly urges that this common reading is too limited since the conflict situation envisaged by John is cosmic in scope and spiritual in nature, being fundamentally a struggle between God and the devil over God’s right to rule the world.

Grabiner’s argument builds on the work of some previous scholars, especially Sivge Tonstad’s Saving God’s Reputation (Library of New Testament Studies 337; London: T & T Clark, 2006). It also depends on an intertextual relationship between Revelation and some specific Old Testament passages that suggest the activity of Satan behind the imperial pretentions of Babylon (Isa 14:4–21) and Tyre (Ezek 28:11–19), the testing of Job (Job 1–2) and the struggles to build the second temple in Jerusalem (Zech 3). Grabiner sees these passages as reflected particularly in the cosmic battle of Revelation 12 which specifically mentions the devil (the dragon) and labels him as deceiver and accuser (Rev 12:9–10), a feature also evi–dent in the sea beast’s blasphemies against God and “those who dwell in heaven” (Rev 13:6). According to Grabiner’s traditional interpretation, this struggle (according to Revelation) has its origins in a primeval rebellion of Satan in which he challenged God’s authority to rule, accusing him of injustice. The struggle is thus not primarily political and earthly but takes places first in heaven, before God’s throne, and hence Grabiner emphasises the heavenly context of most of the hymns.

Grabiner spends the first four chapters of his monograph reviewing other discussions of the hymns, commenting on the literary nature of Revelation from a narrative reading perspective and outlining his overall argument on “conflict and theodicy.” In particular, he proposes the “divine council” as a key element in understanding Revelation in Chapter 4 and argues that Satan is a central character in John’s narrative; thus Revelation is read in part as a theodicy.

Chapters 5–7 then closely analyse the seven hymnic pericopes identified by Grabiner. In each analysis, Grabiner discusses the narrative features of the passage(s)— the setting, dramatis personae, plot and narrative details—before moving into a detailed review of the verses under consideration. However, in some cases this is preceded (or accompanied) by a commentary that highlights what this author most wants us to see in the hymns— the reference to the cosmic struggle. For example, the discussion of Rev 4:8–11 and 5:9–14 (in Chapter 5) notes that most commentators see the first or both of these as emphasizing God’s sovereignty over creation and the events about to transpire, but then asserts “… it needs to be remembered that it is a sovereignty contested by the attempts of Satan to undermine God’s authority” even though “there is no explicit mention of his rebellion in this passage” (70–71). This emphasis is especially related to the setting of each hymn, especially the throne which is seen as contested territory.

Grabiner’s analysis certainly brings some fresh insight into Revelation as a narrative text and it cannot be denied that cosmic conflict is part of John’s worldview even if the immediate problem is Rome. On the other hand, to my mind the author sometimes imposes the cosmic conflict motif on the text, sometimes heavy-handedly, in the interests of his overall thesis. The result of this is that the qualities of the hymns as hymns (songs of worship) is often overshadowed. The author’s Seventh-day Adventist perspective was not acknowledged as frankly as it should have been (compare Grabiner’s discussion of Satan with that of Ellen G. White in Chapter 29 of The Great Controversy [Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1971]). Nonetheless this book is a valuable contribution to scholarship on Revelation.

Review by
Jon Newton
Harvest Bible College