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The Politics of the City and the Sea—Revelation 21:1-6 (Richard Davis)

Rolling ocean

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Revelation 21 contains the justifiably famous image of the new heaven and the new earth, St John’s eschatological vision of the final destination of humanity. With heavy emphasis on themes such as the city, the resolution of all social issues, and the removal of death, what text could cry out more than this for a political interpretation?

Yet one of the most political of biblical interpreters, Jacques Ellul, wrote “the Apocalypse is not first a political document” (Apocalypse, 217). His reason for saying this is that the maker of all new things is God alone. God gifts us a new heaven and new earth, something that cannot be won by human effort, even through politics. ‘Politics’ for Ellul centers on the state, so it is no surprise that he sees politics being relativized by the absolute freedom and initiative of God. In fact, he suggests that God opposes the politics of mankind. Ellul says that God’s new city is the opposite of the City of Babel (Genesis 11). Whereas Babel was a human attempt to reach upward to the heavens (even storm the heavens, according to some interpreters), the new city comes down from God.

Ellul recognises a political objection to his interpretation. His reading of our passage can have a “demobilizing” effect: if God does everything, all humans have to do is sit and wait for God to act (Apocalypse, 217). Ellul’s answer is that human action is relative to God’s absolute act. He writes: “We will never create the absolutely just, peaceful, and fraternal society: to believe that is a modern idolatry” (Apocalypse, 218). In other words, our political efforts are penultimate and relative to the ultimate and absolute politics of God. But our efforts at justice and peace remain important.

According to Ellul, the new city is witness to God’s valuing the political work of humanity. Humans began in the perfect garden, but we are not to return there. Ellul says God is more imaginative than that. There is no simplistic return to Eden, because, in Ellul’s opinion, God adopts the work of humanity: “The city is the great work of man … It is well described as the sum of his culture and his inventions; it is his creation” (Apocalypse, 222). Ellul is quick to point out that the city is also the instrument of humanity’s revolt against God (Apocalypse, 223). Yet God perfects our work, and in an act of love, the city, the instrument of our revolt, is reshaped into an instrument of reconciliation. This is nothing short of an act of love of God’s part—to so value our feeble penultimate political acts that they are perfected by God for God’s ultimate ends and given back to us as a gift.

What are the politics of God’s new city? Does it have a Mayor, Lord Provost, Burgomeister, or something else? There is no known political form of the city. There is mention of the throne of God, the creator of the city, but no earthly authority is mentioned. The kings are welcomed into the city (Revelation 21:24), but this symbolizes their unmerited redemption, not their continued rule. With the new creation, there is no continuity with the old city and the old human ways of ruling a city are gone. This is a reminder of the penultimate status of worldly rule.

This sentiment is expressed elsewhere in scripture, for instance, Hebrews 13:14: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Our present cities are temporary places, and city dwellers can await a renewed city. In a sense, they could read Revelation as the promise of an upgrade from the human city to the godly city. But what about those who dwell outside the city? More than half of humanity lives in the urban world, but a large proportion of humanity lives in the country. And for some the city is a parasite or predator on the countryside and smaller settlements.

Some of those people are island or coastal people, for whom this text might be read as a text of terror. This is because in verse 1 we read that “the sea was no more”. Often this part of verse one is simply passed over with a comment about the Hebrew understanding of the sea as a source of chaos and destruction, and home to the beast (Isaiah 27:1). But without a sea there can be no island people or any coastal people. What happens to them? Since I live in the Fiji Islands, I am concerned with how this text might be read in the context of climate change in the South Pacific.

Of central importance to the peoples of Oceania is the ocean. The peoples of the Pacific should not be defined by their small landmasses; they can be defined by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The sea has permitted their migration over the vast waters, making Pacific peoples the world’s best navigators. The sea is a source of food, a pathway to other places, and intrinsic to their identity. The sea is life giving—it may not be the water of life, but it is a water of life. So when those of us who live on or near the sea and depend on it read that the sea will be destroyed, we ask: Why does the sea have to disappear? Can the relationship between the city and the sea be reconciled too? Will the new city include the sea?

We can also ask about the city’s treatment of the sea? Ellul reminds us of the city’s rebellion against God. One form this takes is in the city’s relationship to the rest of the world. It is without a doubt exploitative, and this includes the abuse of the global commons into which greenhouses gases are pumped. The modern city would be impossible without fossil fuels; the major industrial cities were often built on cheap coal to power cotton and steel mills. Today’s sprawling suburbs are impossible without cheap oil to traffic commuters to work from their dormitory suburbs. Large-scale oil-based industrial farming drives small farmers off their land and into the city.

In this global context of climate change, the names of several cities present a catalogue of the failure of human politics to deal with one of its biggest challenges. Geneva, Rio, Kyoto, and Copenhagen have all hosted meetings where the world collectively tried to protect our atmosphere and our seas. Paris 2015 offers the most recent hope. So far, the results have not been encouraging.

Many climate exiles from the Pacific have already sought refuge in the cities of the Pacific Rim in Australia, New Zealand, and California. They are not necessarily seeking the city’s embrace; they are exiles, often forced to leave uninhabitable homes. Yet with climate change and the realities of sea-level rise and ever-stronger cyclones, the sea is also a source of destruction and perhaps annihilation for vulnerable island nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu. In short, the ocean is becoming an overfished rubbish dump whose force threatens whole nations. For the sea to be no more also means that it is no longer a threat. But for the people of the Pacific, if the sea is no more, they have lost their culture and identity.

It is therefore unjust that the city is saved, but that the victims of the city’s politics, the sea people of islands and shores, are not unless they adopt the foreign hostile city. The new city might be safe from the sea, but the sea has been demolished for the city’s sake. For this reason Revelation 21:1 is a text of terror for the people of the Pacific and others who take their identity from the sea.

Is there hope for the sea and its people? If Ellul is right that our worst rebellion can be redeemed by God, then political attempts at solving climate change can be too. St John in writing his Apocalypse was limited by his worldview, in which the sea was damned. Ours can be a broader vision, where island and coastal people are not forgotten or excluded. While the final form of the heavenly city remains in God’s hands, Ellul’s suggestion is that our penultimate political efforts can influence God’s final design. It is up to us to try our best for those threatened by the sea today.

Finally, there is another tiny glimmer of hope, even in Revelation 21. Verse six mentions the water of life that flows from a spring. This is not sea water, but as everyone knows all water eventually flows into the sea. Perhaps then, even the sea is not completely forgotten here after all as God’s eternal living water fills the heavens.


Dr. Richard A. Davis is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He occasionally blogs at http://radiescent.wordpress.com/ and tweets at @rad_1968.

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