Like the sound of rushing waters.
by Dave Skipper
Earlier in this series I studied Psalm 29 from the Bible, which describes the power and glory of God through the vivid metaphor of his “voice of thunder.” In this article I will look at a another description of God’s voice, this time from the Bible’s book of Revelation. In this case, the voice is explicitly identified as emanating from the God-man Jesus Christ, the Ultimate Noisician. But first I need to give a bit of wider context on Revelation.
Spaceships, dragons, and nuclear war! Not!
Revelation is the final book of the Bible, and was written in the first century by the Apostle John, close disciple of Jesus. This book has received many varied and novel interpretations. The fantastic creatures, events, and descriptions certainly make for intriguing reading. Dismissed by some as the ravings of a madman, devoured by others as a manual of modern-day political upheaval, what is Revelation really all about?
The first clue is in the full title of the book: The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Above all else, this book is a revelation from Jesus Christ and a revelation of Jesus Christ. Any treatment of Revelation that bypasses or de-emphasises Jesus is surely on the wrong track.
The second clue is in the opening verse of the book:
“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,”
The initial practical purpose of the book was to reveal the backdrop and meaning of certain contemporary and soon-to-happen events for the initial Christian readership, i.e. in the 1st century. The significance of this period has to do with the tremendous upheaval that the early Christians experienced as the nascent church suffered intense persecution, the Jewish temple was destroyed, Jews were scattered throughout Europe, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire. How were God’s people to make sense of this turmoil? Was God sovereign over these events? Why was the transition from Judaism to Christianity significant and painful? What was the future hope and assurance of the church’s long-term survival and growth? Where was the trajectory of history ultimately headed? Revelation addresses all this and more, but not in a textbook paint-by-numbers manner.
The third clue – and this is vital – is found in understanding that the book of Revelation is positively saturated and overflowing in Old Testament imagery and symbolism. In that way it is undoubtedly the most Biblical of all the books in the Bible. It presumes and requires a deep familiarity with the rest of the Bible. Strip that away, and it does indeed see bizarre and even crazy, open to all kinds of weird and wonderful literalist interpretations. I have no time for that. When the Bible interprets itself, and the consistency of themes and metaphors throughout Scripture are brought to bear on Revelation, then it becomes not only much clearer but also more profoundly beautiful and of greater practical benefit.
I believe that Revelation is true, as I believe that the whole Bible is true, but that does not mean that I take it all as literally true. Context and literary style must also be taken into account. Revelation was specifically written and structured as a vision, or series of visions, not as a reality series TV documentary. Note that Revelation closes what is called the canon of Scripture. Christians believe that the Bible, though written by men in their own styles and contexts, was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God to be truly His Word, without error. And Jesus is the final and complete Word of God – the Living Word – beyond Whom there is no need for further scriptural revelation:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
from the Bible – Hebrews 1:1-3
And so it is fitting that the Revelation from and of Jesus Christ completes the text of the Bible, of scripture. Jesus is the culmination and fulfillment and purpose of the whole of the rest of scripture, and so it makes sense that the book of Revelation overflows with references to and elements of so many prominent Biblical themes and teachings.
Here then is my one-sentence synopsis of my approach to interpreting Revelation as a whole: The book of Revelation as a whole is essentially an exposition of a heavenly worship service and divine council, soaked in Old Testament Imagery, revealing and mirroring key political and religious events of the first century pertaining primarily to the destruction of the Jewish temple, alongside insight into the underlying spiritual warfare that the church and its message was and is engaged in, combined with and extending into a vision of God’s long-term plans for the culmination of history as time enters into eternity.
The purpose of Revelation is therefore not to prophesy modern contemporary history nor to dabble in esoteric mystery, but to provide comfort and hope to God’s people by revealing the providence, power, and promises of God in Jesus Christ, who holds and directs history toward his own righteous and unstoppable purposes. Above all, Revelation is designed to encourage a posture of surrender and worship to Jesus.
Vision of Jesus
Here then is the start of John’s vision, and though it is succinct and understated I find this passage to be breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and quite simply stunning:
“I turned round to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”
I mentioned above how Revelation reverberates with images, symbols, prophecies, and events from the Old Testament part of the Bible, written centuries earlier. In the next article I will take a step back to connect those dots and make those links, which will be very helpful in getting more out of this passage. First, though, I will home in on the key phrase (key for a blog about noise that is!), “his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.”
“Like the sound of rushing waters“
Interestingly, the Greek word used in this verse for “sound” and “voice” (φωνή/phōnē) is thought to be related to the word for shine or clarify (φαίνω/phainō), possibly indicating the revelatory nature of the spoken voice. The word for “waters” (ὕδωρ/hydōr) is used in Greek for both literal and figurative waters. Its various definitions are:
- of water in rivers, in fountains, in pools;
- of the water of the deluge;
- of water in any of the earth’s repositories;
- of water as the primary element, out of and through which the world that was before the deluge, arose and was compacted;
- of the waves of the sea;
- figuratively used of many peoples.
And then the qualifier “rushing” is literally many or great, so when applied to waters it can be many waters or rushing waters. (Note that the forthcoming series Scripture Sonics will survey the definitions, uses, and associations of various Greek and Hebrew terms used in the Bible for sounds and noise-related descriptions.)
On this blog I usually quote the Bible from the New International Version (UK). Here are some examples of how the NIVUK’s “his voice was like the sound of rushing waters” is rendered by other English Bible translations:
“…his voice as the sound of many waters.” (King James Version)
“…His voice was [powerful] like the sound of many waters.” (Amplified Bible)
“…his voice like the sound of cascading waters.” (Christian Standard Bible)
“…his voice was like the roar of many waters.” (English Standard Version)
“…his voice sounded like a roaring waterfall.” (Good News Translation)
“…his voice thundered like the waves against the shore.” (Living Bible)
“…his voice thundered like mighty ocean waves.” (New Living Translation)
You can get a feel here for how some translations take the approach of transliterating the original text into the nearest sensible equivalent in English (e.g. King James Version), while others seek to capture the overall sense of the text, sometimes with additional or alternative words that open up the text more clearly in English.
Now we must keep in mind that this was a vision of Jesus. The actual physical voice of Jesus when he lived and breathed in first-century Palestine surely had nothing remarkable to distinguish it. As was prophesied about him in Isaiah 53:2, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Whether his actual voice after he was raised from the dead and ascended to heaven now does sound like rushing waters is not the point – for example surely he doesn’t have an actual sword sticking out from his mouth (“…coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword.” Revelation 1:16, quoted above)! But that doesn’t make the description untrue. Deeper things about who Jesus truly is are being revealed to John and to us in this vision so that we can understood more fully who he is and what he is like. Remember that Revelation is a highly symbolic book.
[side note: please refer to my articles Symbolism and Noise and The Ultimate Noisician for a more detailed rationale of why I take seriously and deeply the use of noise and noisy sounds in the Bible, and for my attempted explanation of how to navigate between truth, literalism, allegory, symbolism, and metaphor when interpreting and understanding the Bible.]
Listen to the noise
At this point, before I look at the Old Testament parallels and New Testament events that are referenced in this vision of Jesus’ appearance and voice, I want to pause and think about the sound itself and the physical attributes and effects of rushing waters. What do the sounds and actions of rushing waters – of cascading waterfalls, ocean waves, and floodwaters – evoke? Here are some of my thoughts, maybe you can add some more?
- Timbral quality. Collecting a smattering of action words suffices to conjure up in the mind’s ear the vast array of noises produced by rushing waters: fizzing, burbling, crashing, roaring, gushing, spattering, smashing, soaking, striking, dripping, bucketing, thrashing, spraying… Turbulent noise of many colours! Vivid, vibrant, and intense!
- Layers. Layer upon layer of sound, as fractalesque intermingling frequencies generate a multidimensional density of noise textures, sparkling droplets of treble coating rumbling swathes of pressurised undercurrents, all interspersed and interwoven with lush streams of mid-range atonalities. Vivid, vibrant, and intense!
- Movement. The movement of the water’s sound is both static and dynamic: the details ever-shifting, ever-evolving, now here and now there, teleporting split-second by split-second; yet the overall effect is marked by constancy as the resultant conglomeration over any macro-period maintains spectral consistency, never stagnating, with localised ebbs and flows in both spatialisation and timebound frames of reference. Relentless momentum, with no beginning or end, flowing out of eternity past and into eternity future, any human frame of reference revealed to be miniscule, partial, and transitory. Vivid, vibrant, and intense!
- Physical power. The power of water in motion, cannot be tamed, cannot be escaped. The sound cannot be diminished save by distance or the muffling of barriers or of fingers in ears, the sounds cannot be cut off bar stopping the source itself. Inescapable and mighty in force and effect, ceaselessly eroding, wearing down and wearing away, breaking in and breaking through, smashing to smithereens, dismantling at will. Power to move debris, trees, animals, ships, whether by the desire of the carried or by the overcoming of the will. Power to bring life and healing, power to bring death and injury. Vivid, vibrant, and intense!
- Rushing waters for life. Refreshing water for a parched land, parched soil, a parched throat. Not a trickle but a deluge, gushing extravagantly above and beyond the need, overflowing, overwhelming, unrestrained vitality, thoroughly sating, floods of consciousness, thirst-quenching, gut-wrenching. Aridity and dirt and stain completely and thoroughly washed far away beyond the point of no return. Whiter than snow, clearer than glass, pristine and unadulterated in all-encompassing purity. Tears streaming, delights teeming, refracted lights beaming, awesomeness seeming to constantly rise. Vivid, vibrant, and intense!
- Rushing waters for death. Torrents of terror, unstoppable floodwaters rising. Riverbanks bursting, dams bursting, nerves bursting. Fear encroaching, death approaching. The deafening roar, the impending doom, the certain destruction. Life swept away, unprepared or stubbornly staying put or caught unawares. Soaked to the skin, enveloped by the inevitability of unceasing carnage. Words indiscernible, life unseen, confusion in the noise. Ears that can’t hear, deafened by the overstimulation, all semblance of communication drowned out and drowned away. Vivid, vibrant, and intense!
- Emotional power. Rushing waters command full attention, the richness of the sounds evocative. The power of water in memory: a fearful experience, the threat of drowning, a happy nostalgia, a trip remembered. Terror or calm, nervousness or relaxation, the sound of rushing waters formative of certain markers: drenched in the downpour, a waterfall visit, canoeing down the rapids, an ocean cruise. Vivid, vibrant, and intense!
How do you respond to Jesus’ voice of rushing waters? With awe, fear, wonder, joy, indifference, confusion, delight? This is how John reacted to this vision:
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
The greatest initial impression that John felt is referenced here as visual rather than aural. The noise of the voice wasn’t pivotal to the exclusion of the rest of the vision; rather, the sound played its role within the whole, contributing to the total effect. And surely far more important than the sound of his voice are the words that he said. But my point is that these two aspects – the timbre and the content – dovetail and reinforce each other. After all, words themselves are also symbols aren’t they? Words are representations of ideas, truths, thoughts, reality. The words of Jesus in the book of Revelation that follow this vision add to this simple description of the noise texture of his voice. His words add the precision of content, the direction of blessings and warnings, the basis for belief and for action on our part.
This singular voice. The focussed origin of this particular cascade, funnelled through Jesus’ mouth and spreading to all within earshot. The conjunction of clamorous noise with the piercing clarity of words, complementing and not competing as they communicate his glory, majesty, authority, creativity, justice, gentleness, and his power both life-giving and death-wielding. Truth and holiness and glory tumble forth from his lips, a perfect equilibrium of constancy and dynamism, life and death, intricate detail and big-picture sense, profound complexity and beautiful simplicity. Complete communication of his sure and complete intention. The noise of his voice enhances his words in the ears of his hearers, but only adds to the jumbled confusion in the ears that are deaf to his truth. And coming from Jesus, the First and the Last, all of his words are completely true and truth-revealing and reality-defining. He is the very Living Word of God himself! Vivid, vibrant, and intense!
Noise that shares the timbral characteristics of rushing waters has the capacity to demonstrate and reveal the dimensions of Jesus Christ in his fully-revealed glory!
So next time you hear the sounds of mighty rushing waters, whether from a waterfall, a torrential downpour, the ocean waves, or in a piece of harsh noise music – let it remind you of a heavenly vision of Jesus Christ, and remember that he has passed through death to life, and that his Living Water yields life through death to anyone who falls at his feet. Find security and peace in his might deluge!
Next time, connections and parallels to some other Biblical visions and themes that shed more light on this description of Jesus, including some other angles on the sound of his noise…
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!