Last night during our small group study on the Book of Revelation, the leader who happens to be the pastor of the congregation, said something that caught my attention. He mentioned the use of palm branches in Revelation 7.9 and the use of the palm as a symbol of Jewish nationalism during the Maccabean period. Both of these subjects – Revelation and Intertestamental literature – interest me to the point of being an obsession.
The seventh chapter of Revelation occurs as an interlude between the sixth seal and the opening of the seventh seal which contains silence and the seven trumpeters. In this interlude, after the great destruction brought on by the sixth seal, John is allowed to see the victorious people of God during the peace that God had proscribed (Pax Romana?) for the earth in preparation for the final assault. During this heavenly scene, John heard a number of the sealed of Israel, but didn’t see them. This list which was given has been argued over as it excludes two of the tribes and gives Levi an inheritance. However, while John only heard the number of Israelites which were to be sealed, he saw a great numberless multitude from the Gentile nations. I have to wonder if this places John in a more Gentile community than previously thought, seeing that he heard a number and must proceed with that on faith, but for the Gentiles, he was able to see the countless souls saved. It is verse nine, however, which catches my attention:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; (Rev 7:9 NASB)
If we were to read Revelation 7.9-10 intertextually with Psalm 118 (an important Psalm for the New Testament authors), we note a few similarities, at the very least in the adoration of YHWH. While I don’t want to fully explore the use of Psalm 118 and Revelation 7 at the moment, I will note that during tribulation/affliction (Psalm 118.5; Rev 6.12-17) the Psalmist and John were both brought into a broad space (spaciousness, NETS) and given a time of rest. While Psalm 118.10-14 seems counter to that of Revelation 7.9-10, we see in this section the union of nations which surround the divine speaker. I note in Psalm 18, the nations are imagined as bees and a blaze of fire, perhaps symbolizing a noisy number. An important connection at the end of Psalm 118.26-28 is also to be found in Revelation 7.9-10 in that we see palm branches being used as a celebratory offering to the King and in the latter’s case, the Lamb as well (but notice that the Lamb in Revelation is still not on the throne). In Revelation 7.10, they complete the Psalmist’s instructions in Psalm 118.28-29.
Returning to the palm branches however, we find a connection made between them and the Jewish nationalism in the Maccabean period (as well as the entry of Christ into Jerusalem on the even of his Passion). When the Maccabean army recaptured Jerusalem, they celebrated with branches of the palm tree:
Those who were in the citadel at Jerusalem were prevented from going in and out to buy and sell in the country. So they were very hungry, and many of them perished from famine. Then they cried to Simon to make peace with them, and he did so. But he expelled them from there and cleansed the citadel from its pollutions. On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. Simon decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing. He strengthened the fortifications of the temple hill alongside the citadel, and he and his men lived there. (1Ma 13:49-52 NRS)
And later, when they rededicated the Temple,
Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; they tore down the altars that had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year. (2Ma 10:1-8 NRS)
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. (Psa 118:26-1 NRSV)
There is a lot of intertextual thought between Revelation, the Maccabean books and John’s Apocalypse, but not enough space to explore it here. However, I believe that John is pointing to Psalm 118 here with the political overtones of Jewish nationalism. He heard the number of the Israelites but saw the multitude of Gentiles saved.
From here, however, I want to explore the shared imagery between Revelation 7 and the 17th Psalm of Solomon, although not specifically dealing with palm branches.
In Pss 17.26-29, the Messiah is seen gathering together the Holy People and judging the tribes (v26). Compare that to the tribes in Revelation 7 wherein they are given a border (compare Pss 17.28). However, in verse 29, the Messiah is said to now judge the peoples (tribes) and the nations (Gentiles). The pattern is followed in laying out the victorious in Revelation 7 with the number of the tribes heard first and the Gentiles seen later. Interesting enough, Pss 7.30-34 unites Revelation 7 and 21 where the New Jerusalem is the center of the new world (order). Note, then, Pss 17.35-36 and Revelation 19.5:
For he shall strike the earth with the word of his mouth forever;
He shall bless the people of the Lord in wisdom with joy.
And he himself shall be pure from sin so that he may rule a great people, that he may rebuke rules and remove sinners by the strength of his word (Pss 17.35-36 NETS)
From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. (Rev 19:15 NASB)
Drawing this back to Revelation 7, we see in Rev 7.15-16 the promised care of the victorious people of God being cared for by the Lamb/Messiah. However, note the specific connection between Revelation 7.17 and Pss 17.40:
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd (ποιμανεῖ ), and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:17 NRS)
He shall be strong in his works and mighty in the fear of God, shepherding (ποιμαίνων) the flock of the Lord faithfully and righteously, and he shall not let any among them become weak in their pasture. (Pss 17.40 NETS)
John follows the pattern of the Psalms of Solomon and Psalm 118. Always, the Jewish peoples are first. Second, the Nations. Reading Revelation 7 next to Psalm 118, we find several connections, namely, that both authors see themselves in that moment of spaciousness between tribulations. Further, both are calling for judgment and justice. The Solomonic Psalmist, as opposed to the Davidic Psalmist sees that the nations, the Gentiles, will be ruled by the King (Ps)/Messiah (Pss)/Lamb (Rev). Existent as well is the political symbol of Jewish nationalism as an opposition to the Roman rule and the symbol of ritual sacrifice/dedication which we see developed in the Maccabean books – the palm branches. Reading Paul, I do not believe that he saw that the Messianic believers were any less Jewish, but more so. Perhaps John is picking this up as he draws both Jews and Gentiles under the rule of the Lamb.