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Why Foreign Missions? 21 Naming God During Tribulation (the Revelation of John)

Why Foreign Missions? 21 Naming God During Tribulation (the Revelation of John)

Introduction:

What is in a name?  Muslims speak of ninety-nine names for God. In Revelation 15 and 16 we are not only interested in knowing what to call God; we are interested in knowing how to name God in tribulation, in the situation of the first readers of this book.  I remember a woman from Rwanda speaking of the genocide in the 1990's in her country: 'Sometimes things are so bad that one forgets God,' she said.  The book of the Revelation of John is a call not to forget God in times of tribulation, persecution, injustice, and unrighteousness.  This apocalypse at the end of our Bibles helps us to name God in the midst of terrible suffering and trials.  It does this through revealing God's covenant faithfulness and coming judgement through the Lamb--both Davidic King and slain sacrifice--on the throne of God (Rev. 5.5-6).

A Challenge: God as ‘Hidden’ and ‘Incomprehensible’ in the Face of Suffering?

David Tracy, a Roman Catholic theologian, has made it his project to name God.  How shall we name God?  Following Hans Urs von Balthasar, Tracy thinks theology took a bad turn when Thomas Aquinas pointed to Exodus 3 to answer this question.  God's revelation to Moses that He was the 'I am who I am' began a trajectory of naming God in terms of 'Being'.  Alternatively, Western scholars like von Balthasar and Tracy have dusted off a 6th century Middle Platonist theologian of significance in Eastern Orthodoxy, Dionysius the Areopagite, who understood God's names in a hierarchy of possible names, with 'Being' occupying the lowest level.  At the very top of God's names, said Dionysius, God is named 'Good'.  For the Catholic theologian von Balthasar, topping the list of names for God is 'Beauty.'

Now, all this rather changes things for theology.  If God is 'Being', then theology focuses on epistemology, on knowing God.  But if God is 'Good', then theology has to attend more to ethics, or if 'Beauty,' theology must attend more to doxology.  How shall we name God?  Missiologists also struggle with this question: 'Should we name God using the names for deities already used in a non-Christian religion and culture?'  What difference does this make for theology?

Tracy takes some further steps in his project of naming God.  He understands these to involve 'Postmodern' theologising.  If Modernity has to do with building solid structures on absolute foundations, Postmodernity points out the fragments left unused in such edifices of theology.  'Look at what is left unused, look at the fragments,' they say. Not only so, but Postmodern viewers begin to pick at the fractures in the foundations of Modernity's structures; they begin to fragment them and watch them crumble. If you want an example, think of how Liberation Theology fragmented Catholic theology by shifting the focus from the Magisterium to the Marginalised of society.  God was not in the robes, icons and cathedrals of the Church but in the poor and powerless.  Look at the fragments: not God as 'Being' but God as 'Justice' and 'Liberation.'

Tracy, for his part, sees the incarnation, cross, and Second Coming of Jesus as fragmenting the totalising theology of Christendom.  And he carries this through in exploring two fragmenting names for God: God the 'Hidden One' and God the 'Incomprehensible One'.  Both God's hiddenness and God's incomprehensibility fragment the theology of Modernity, with its totalising systems and claims to certainty.  For Tracy, Martin Luther offers a beginning for a theology of God's hiddenness.  There are two senses of God as the 'Hidden One' in Luther: God's revealing Himself in contraries, and God revealing Himself as sheer power. Tracy says,

… most of the time and with great consistency, Luther spells out this position on God's hiddenness through his articulation of his theology of the cross. The heart of Luther's insight into God is, of course, that God's revelation is through hiddenness—that is, that God discloses God's self to sinful humans—sub contrariis—life through death, wisdom through folly, strength through weakness. A hidden God is not merely humble but humiliated—deus incarnatus, deus absconditus. The hidden God is deus crucifixus—the crucified God (Moltmann). That is the God also implicit in much liberation and political theology and implicit, in my opinion, in the recovery of an apocalyptic sense of history itself is found in Luther.[1]

The second sense of God's hiddenness in Luther goes deeper.  Tracy says,

At the very least, this literally awful, ambivalent sense of God's hiddenness can be so overwhelming that God is sometimes experienced as purely frightening, not tender, sometimes even as an impersonal reality—"it"—of sheer power and energy signified by such metaphors, such fragmentary metaphors as abyss, chasm, chaos, horror.[2]

Without understanding God as 'Hidden', the argument goes, we cannot understand God and suffering in the world.  If we understand God in a totalising theology as 'All knowing' and 'All powerful,' then what can we say of God when faced with injustice, plague, famine or suicide bombers?  If we are too rash in making claims about knowing God, His character, His Being, then how can we explain His hiddenness in such tragedy?  The lament psalms speak of God's hiddenness; the wisdom literature of God's incomprehensibility.  But for Tracy, the hiddenness of God is best captured in apocalyptic literature.  Here, faced with injustice, suffering, and even martyrdom, the Church turns from its totalising theological rhetoric to the genre of apocalyptic.  Tracy finds this apocalyptic perspective in the Gospel of Mark, in Paul's first epistle to the Thessalonians, and especially in the book of Revelation, itself an apocalyptic work.  A marginalised and oppressed community in the Roman Empire responds to its power with an apocalypse in which the Beast's number of 666 equals 'Nero Caesar', in which Babylon is a code name for Rome, in which Emperor worship and Empire wealth are pictured in terms of beasts and a drunken whore.  And, also in the Apocalypse, the blood of martyred saints cries out from underneath the altar of sacrifice, "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?" (Rev. 6.10).

Revelation 15 and 16: Naming God in the Time of Suffering: Lord God Almighty

Ah, but is the book of Revelation really about God's Hiddenness in the way in which Tracy understands this?  Even in this verse (Rev. 6.10), God is named as 'Sovereign Lord, holy and true.'  And the souls under the altar do not resolve their injustice through God's Hiddenness but through His Justice: 'how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?'  This could be discussed in terms of Luther's first sense of God's hiddenness, in contraries, but not in the second sense of God as Abyss, Power, Chaos.  So, let us look more carefully at Revelation's naming of God.

The focus here will be Rev. 15 and 16.  As Richard Bauckham notes, Rev. 15 is the culmination of two separate sections in the book.[3]  Chapters 4-11 find their culmination in chapter 15, as do chapters 12-14.  The resolution of both sections is in the opening of the heavenly Temple.  Rev. 11 ends with a revealing of the ark of the covenant in this Temple.  One could easily move directly from the end of ch. 11 to ch. 15; yet, by multiplying visions and recapitulating themes, John is able to emphasise both delay and inexorable progress towards the end.  The delay of ch. 15 allows for the recapitulation of the heavenly battle with the dragon and the earthly battle with the beast in chs. 12-13.  Ch. 14 pictures the victory of the Lamb upon the earth.  Then ch. 15 returns to heaven to show the conclusion of the drama: the opening of the tent of witness.  In ch. 13, a beast rises out of the sea, a symbol of chaos, but in ch. 15 the heavenly sea is a sea still as glass--there is no chaos.  In ch. 13 are revealed the two beasts, one from the sea and the other from the land.  In ch. 14 is revealed the Lamb on Mt. Zion.  In ch. 13 there are those who bear the number of the beast, 666.  In ch. 14 there are the 144,000 who bear the number of the lamb and his Father.  These contrasts culminate in ch. 15, with the revelation of the temple of witness.

But what name of God is revealed to these two groups, those following the beast and those following the Lamb?  With the opening of God's Temple comes the revelation of God's glory; He is named.  There is no one name for God, but the revelation of God is a revelation of His glory, to which people respond.  His glory fills the Temple so that no one can enter it (15.8).  In chs. 15-16 there are two contrasting responses to the revelation of God's glory, two very different namings of God.

Positive Responses
Negative Responses
Rev. 15.3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: "Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!  4 Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed."
16.9 but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.

16.5And I heard the angel of the waters say, "You are just, O Holy One, who are and were, for you have judged these things; 6 because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!" 7 And I heard the altar respond, "Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!"
16. 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.

Revelation 16:14 These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.
16.21they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.

The positive naming of God in chapters 15-16 involves the name Pantokrator--Almighty.  This name is found elsewhere in Revelation.  It is connected with God's control over all things more than an abstract notion of omnipotence.[4]

Revelation 1:8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Revelation 4:8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come."
Revelation 11:17 singing, "We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign.
Revelation 15:3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: "Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!
Revelation 16:7 And I heard the altar respond, "Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!"
Revelation 16:14 These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.
Revelation 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Revelation 19:15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.
Revelation 21:22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

This name, 'Almighty', is 'El Shaddai' in the Old Testament.  It is the name by which God makes known His justice.  Yet God's name connected to His revelation of His covenant with Israel is 'YHWH.'  God the Almighty, therefore, is also the God of the covenant.

Exodus 6:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land." 2 God also spoke to Moses and said to him: "I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name 'The LORD' I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. 5 I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the Israelites, 'I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'"

Both 'YHWH' and 'El-Shaddai' are revelations of God's glory.  Both are associated with God's covenant with Israel.  The name 'YHWH,' however, is also the covenantal name of deliverance, redemption, salvation, and presence.  It is not spoken,[5] for it is holy and is the name that names God's very glory.  To His enemies, God's glory means judgement.  He is the Lord God Almighty.  In Rev. 15-16, God's enemies see His glory poured out in bowls of wrath upon their wickedness.  They name Him, but with curses.  But to His covenant people, God's glory means presence, dwelling with His people, redeeming them, protecting them, fulfilling His covenant promises to them.

In Rev. 21:22, John says that he saw 'no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.'  The twofold glory of God is His Almighty Justice and His Lamb.  Slowly, inexorably, Revelation moves along to the full revelation of God.  He is named.  As He is named, His hiddenness is removed.  The Apocalypse is not about God's hiddenness but His being revealed in all His glory in the world.  Yet this glory is terrible to behold for the unrighteous who have not given God the glory.  It is terrible for Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, or Rome to behold the revelation of 'El Shaddai', the Lord God Almighty.

On the other hand, the revelation of God's glory for His covenant people is a revelation of a special name only for His people. Rev. 14.3 speaks of the new song that the 144,000 who follow the Lamb sing:

and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth.

Rev. 15 calls this song the song of Moses (Dt. 32).  It is also called the song of the Lamb.  They are the same song, because they are both a song of God's covenant mercies and redemption and His judgement.  Only the redeemed can sing it, those who follow God's anointed one. For God's covenant people, God is Almighty to save.  For them, God's glory means His holiness; there is no one like Him in righteousness and justice.  For them, God's glory means that He is true, faithful to His covenant.  His glory, the depth of His being, is named, yet not as 'Being.' The name 'YHWH'[6] in the book of Revelation is presented with the title 'Alpha and Omega' or 'the one who is, who was, and who is to come.'  As Richard Bauckham says, the titles equivalent to YHWH indicate 'not God's eternity in himself apart from the world, but his eternity in relation to the world.’[7] This is seen, he argues, in the alteration of the 'who was, who is, and who is to come' title (1.4; 1.8; 4.8) to 'who is and who was' (11.17; 16.5) in eschatological contexts.  As we will see, this is especially true because in Revelation the full revelation of God's glory is made through the Lamb.

God’s Glory Revealed

Rev. 15 speaks of God's glory in the Temple, which is the full revelation of God.  The basic meaning of the Hebrew word for 'glory' is 'weightiness', and this offers a more complete way to understand naming God than to settle for God’s hiddenness and incomprehensibility in the face of suffering.  'Hidden' and 'incomprehensible' are only two possible aspects of 'weightiness.'  There are also 'holy' and 'love'.  In our passage, when the glory of God fills the heavenly Temple, no one can enter.  He is 'wholly other,' 'hidden,' and 'incomprehensible,' but He is so only in a certain, limited sense.  He is so in His holiness, not as a God of chaos or unpredictability, as Tracy would have it.  In fact, God's hiddenness is a revelation of His character as Holiness.  And His incomprehensible character is not unpredictable but fully predictable in the revelation of Righteousness and Justice.  This holy glory issues forth in ultimate and inevitable judgement on all that is unholy.

We see this in the echo in Rev. 15 of several OT passages where the glory of the Lord fills the Temple. 2 Chr. 7.1-2 says that when the glory of the LORD filled the temple, the priests could not enter the house of the LORD.  The people then worship and give thanks to the LORD by naming God: 'For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever' (v. 3).  In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees the glory of God in the Temple.  The seraphs called to one another 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory'.  But this means for Isaiah that he becomes aware of his own sinfulness before God and that of the people.  In Ezek. 43 and 44, when the glory of the LORD fills the temple, God declares that Israel will no longer defile His holy name.  The glory of the LORD filling the temple means that God's closer presence demands goodness, holiness, and righteousness, and where this is not the case, there will be judgement.  In Rev. 15.8, the glory of the LORD fills the Temple so that none can enter the Temple, and out of this glory and presence come seven angels with seven bowls of judgement to pour out on the unholy and unrighteous world.  The apocalyptic depth of God is not the incomprehensible Abyss of Valentinian Gnosticism or the hiddenness and incomprehensibility of David Tracy; the glory of God revealed in tribulation and suffering is the weight of His goodness, holiness, and righteousness made known.  The suffering believers may feel God is hidden and incomprehensible, but the whole purpose of the Revelation of John is to reveal God in a deeper way for these persecuted people.  God is good, holy, and righteous, and therefore He will render judgement on the wicked.

The Revelation of the Lamb

In Revelation, the apocalyptic naming of God, the making known of His glory, is focused on the revealing of the Lamb, of Christ.  In Revelation there is one throne for both God and for the Lamb.  This is a profound statement.  The Lamb is the revelation of God.  Several times a voice from the throne speaks (16.17; 19.5; 21.3).  Two people need two thrones, but the Lamb and God have one throne.  The Lamb has already conquered through dying on the cross.  The glory, the holiness, the Almighty power of God are known through the Lamb who was slain and who reigns from the throne of God.  He has conquered by His sacrifice.  He is already reigning upon the throne of God.  He will come again to Judge the earth.  While still future, the Lamb's coming to bring justice to the earth is no longer part of God's hiddenness, for John has taken us through the open door to heaven to see that this is true.  The Apocalypse, far from being about God's hiddenness, is indeed a revelation of God.  It is the revelation of His glory through the Lamb.

This is why Revelation continuously moves toward worship and why this worship is directed to the LORD and the Lamb.  It is not God's incomprehensibility that takes one beyond reason, beyond a cataphatic (positive) naming of God to an apophatic (negative) naming and then to an excess of meaning beyond language.  Rather, worship is the proper response when God is rightly named.  It is worship, not God's incomprehensibility or hiddenness, that struggles with rational categories and can, with the Spirit's gifting, lift worshipers into new dimensions of praise.  This is not awe at the edge of a great Abyss, as the Gnostics would have it, but awe at the edge of knowing God.

Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 32 (Song of Moses) and Revelation 15

What is it to name God in contexts of suffering, persecution, injustice, unrighteousness?  This was the question of Moses and the Israelite slaves in Egypt just as it was the question for the first Christians who received the Revelation of John in the 90's A.D.  The purpose of Revelation is to help Christians name God in such contexts.  I will conclude with a closer comparison of Moses' naming of God in  Exodus 34, the song of Moses (Dt. 32), and what we find in Revelation.

God's revelation of Himself as YHWH to Moses in Ex. 34.6-7 is as follows:

6 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."

The literary techniques of delay and recapitulation in Revelation express God's mercy, grace, and slowness to anger.  God's abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin in Exodus have to do with God's covenant relationship with Israel.  This too is expressed in Revelation with repeated words about the protection of those sealed with the name of the Lamb.  Yet this is not the God of Universalists, for Exodus and Revelation agree that the revelation of God involves judgement--by no means clearing the guilty, as Exodus has it, or pouring out bowls of judgement on all unrighteousness on the earth, as Rev. 16 has it.  In all this, the revelation of God in Exodus and Revelation are agreed.

Where we advance in Revelation beyond Exodus is in focusing this naming of God on the Lamb, on Jesus Christ.  This new dimension allows Christians in contexts of suffering, persecution, injustice, and unrighteousness to name the same God of Moses with greater understanding and depth.  The Lamb reveals the hidden glory of God.  This revelation is twofold, a positive revelation of God's covenant mercy and a negative revelation of God's judgement.

The revelation of God's grace, slowness to anger, covenant love and faithfulness are revealed in Rev. 5 when the Lamb is revealed:

9 They sing a new song: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; 10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth."

This is why the Lamb is worshipped:

5.12 "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"

The song of Moses reveals the same God of mercy and covenant love.  Compassion could be thought to flow from God as El-Shaddai, the Lord God Almighty.  This is logical, although not accurate for either Moses or Revelation.  This is a matter of understanding God in terms of personal power: the one with all power has the freedom to behead or to show compassion and may do either.  This view of God is one where God functions like some medieval sovereign or Arabic prince, or an African dictator wielding personal power in judgement or mercy.  But for Moses, God's compassion is associated with His covenant faithfulness: it is not out of His power to do as He pleases but out of His binding Himself in covenant relationship with His people that God pours out his compassion.

In Revelation, God's glory is also seen in covenant love, but this is seen more completely because of the revelation of the Lamb, who was slaughtered to redeem a people from all peoples.  Here compassion intensifies; covenant is not exclusive but inclusive, and compassion becomes sacrifice.  The Lamb challenges us to understand compassion this way.  A theology for development ministry, e.g., needs to see compassion flow from covenant relationship with a people rather than from the power of resources that can be showered on a needy people.  But a Christian ministry of compassion follows the Lamb further: compassion invites all, and it becomes sacrificial.

Revelation also reveals God's judgements through the Lamb.  Rev. 15.3-4 gives the words to the song of Moses and of the Lamb that is sung at the beginning of final judgements with the full coming of God's glory.  This is not a song apart from the Lamb, as though mercy and justice are separated.  The revealing of divine judgements is also the work of the Lamb who was slain for covenant faithfulness and love.

3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: "Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!  4 Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed."

Here too we see a consistent testimony between the God of Moses and the God of the Lamb as to the identity of God.  The song of Moses in Deut. 32 ends with these words:

43 Praise, O heavens, his people, worship him, all you gods! For he will avenge the blood of his children, and take vengeance on his adversaries; he will repay those who hate him, and cleanse the land for his people.

In Moses' song, judgement does not merely stem from God's Law but also from God's mercy, lovingkindness, and faithfulness in His covenant with Israel.  Judaism was not a legalistic religion but one of covenant faithfulness (or unfaithfulness, as the case may be).  Judgement in our societies often follows directly from Law: the breaking of Law results in punishment.  But Moses' song reveals more about divine judgement: God’s judgement proceeds from God's goodness and compassion.  Judgement is more than deserved when people not only break God's Law but also spurn His covenant faithfulness.

Yet here again we see a difference between the song of Moses and the Lamb.  For Moses, this kind of justice could only apply to Israel, who rejects God's covenant faithfulness.  It leaves open the question of those outside this relationship.  But the song of the Lamb is hope for all nations, for the mercy that Israel knew in God's covenant with them has been extended to all nations through the blood of the Lamb.  The Lamb has, it is repeatedly made clear in Revelation, redeemed some from every tongue, tribe, people and nation.

Conclusion

It is Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb, who reveals God's compassion and judgements in Revelation.  This naming of God was made known to Moses, but its depth, the full glory of God, is revealed through the Lamb in Revelation.  Far from showing God as hidden or even incomprehensible, the logic of God's character is revealed through the Lamb of Revelation.  Our challenge as a missional Church is to name the God of Moses not just for the covenant people but for the nations and to do so where there is suffering, injustice, unrighteousness, and persecution.  We can only do so by naming God with reference to the Lamb.  In this way, the Song of Moses becomes the Song of the Lamb on our lips, a full revelation of God's glory in both a covenant invitation to all nations and in the warning of righteous judgements coming to all nations.




[1] David Tracy, 'Form and Fragment Form & Fragment: The Recovery of the Hidden and Incomprehensible God.’ This is the 1999 Palmer Lecture at the Center of Theological Inquiry.  Online: http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/tracy.htm, p. 8.
[2] David Tracy, ‘Form and Fragment,’ p. 9.
[3] See Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993), ch. 9.

[4] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New Testament Theology; Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), p. 30.

[5] Jews would read ‘Adonai,’ ‘Lord,’ when encountering this name in Scripture.
[6] ‘YHWH,’ God’s name, is related to the Hebrew verb hayah, ‘He is.’
[7] Richard Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, p. 29.