Donald Trump is on the throne! He won the election to become President of the most powerful nation on earth. To some this means that the devil incarnate has ascended and humanity is doomed. To others it's like the return of the Messiah – we have been saved from the evil Hillary and all is well with the world.
But Christians should be looking to a different seat of power: the throne of God in heaven – described in this week's Revelation portion (chapter four). The Christian church was being battered, blamed by the Roman Emperor for every ill of the Empire, riven by heresies within, and the last apostle exiled on the island of Patmos. What was Christ doing? Why was this happening? Didn't God know? Didn't God care? What about all the promises of the New Kingdom and the gates of hell not prevailing? Why not give up? Why not despair?
John is told in his vision by Christ: "Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this." Imagine if amid all the speculation, pontification and crystal ball-gazing about Brexit/ISIS/Trump, the Lord came to us and said: "You don't need to rely on the BBC, CNN or Sky News... I'll tell you what's going to happen." Is that what is occurring here? I think where a lot of people go wrong with Revelation is that they regard it like one of these YouTube videos of world history where the Lord shows us in a few minutes what is happening over hundreds of years. That is to misunderstand what is said. John is showing us eternity to come and how our history fits into that. It is His Story, not ours.
The multicolour throne surrounded by the emerald rainbow is the first image that John is shown. John is kind of interested in thrones – he mentions them 47 times in the book and in almost every chapter. Why? The meaning is very simple. The believers were greatly concerned about Caesar's throne. John is telling them there is a throne over that throne. The God who is in heaven has absolute authority over the whole universe. He does have the whole world in his hands. And that's why the rainbow is so important – because after the Flood it became the symbol of God's covenant. A covenant that will never be broken.
The 24 elders, the lightening and thunder, the lights of the Holy Spirit and the sea of glass are all meant to teach us about the glory and grandeur of God. Remember again this is a picture of what God is – not a literal description of heaven. The "what looked like a throne of glass" is fascinating. In modern times, when we picture glass we think of it as clear. In the 1st century it was normally dark and clear glass was incredibly expensive. This is therefore just another way of setting up the beauty and glory of God to which all the wealth of this world is like a small piece of glitter in a sea of diamonds.
The four living creatures comes from Ezekiel 1:5-21. Their never-ending worship represents the coming of all creation to worship God their creator.
They sing the song of Isaiah 6:3, and the repetition is important. John's readers lived in a world like ours, where evil seemed to be rampant. It appears that goodness is weak and ineffectual. But this is the real vision. God is separate, pure, holy and good – and his goodness ultimately reigns. Goodness is on the throne even though it appears at times as if evil reigns.
So let's stop there. Because that raises an enormous question. Is God sovereign over everything, including the election of Donald Trump? Some want to question that. They regard the election of Donald Trump as an obvious evil (as others would have regarded the election of Hillary Clinton) and therefore conclude that if God is sovereign over this, he could then have prevented it, and indeed could prevent all evil. So the fact that he does not do so means that either he cannot or he is not good. And thus we are back to the age-old problem of evil, which I've written about before.
But the trouble is that those who want to deny the sovereignty of God frequently misunderstand it. It does not mean that God directly intervenes in everything and directly prevents anything bad happening. If he did, it would create a world of robots incapable of evil, but also incapable of love. So does that leave us to the free will argument? God gave the American people free will, he may or may not have known what they would do, but there was nothing he could do about it. They made the choice, rightly or wrongly. If the latter, then the only thing Christians can do is either despair or seek to change it.
Hearing this kind of reasoning would drive John crazy! He is teaching precisely the opposite. God does give us free will. But our will is not on the throne. God is not sitting nervously on the throne wondering whether people are going to make the right choice. He doesn't think: "Oh no, they made the wrong choice, now on to plan B!" There is a higher throne and he is on that throne. He rules over all the thrones of this earth – whether Caesar, Trump, Merkel, May or Putin. That doesn't mean that they bear no responsibility for what they do as his servants, but it does mean that nothing is out of his will. As Augustine argued: "Our God is so great that he can even make good come out of that which is evil". He created all things. But he does not create evil because evil is not a created thing. It is the absence of good that he permits. He is the one who was, and who is and who is to come. How can time-bound, weak creatures such as ourselves dare to make the Creator dependent on his creatures? His will, will be done!
The problem with such a weak view of God, often presented with the best of intentions, (to try and solve a moral conundrum, make God seem nicer and prevent us from reverting into an inactive fatalism), is that it is just no use to the persecuted church, or the despondent believer. It is a kind of theological moralism that tells us to pull up our bootstraps, step up to the mark and do better next time. But God comes to his weak, frightened and powerless people and says: "I am on the throne. I am the good, holy and eternal one". There will come a day when all wrong is put right and all your suffering rewarded.
This doesn't mean that we don't care. It doesn't mean that we don't feel anger or despair. It doesn't mean that we don't experience bad things or that we are to be inactive. Indeed it is the very opposite. But it does mean that in the midst of the pain and the puzzlement, we worship. We remember that God's will, not man's, is the supreme and ultimate power in the universe and that his will will be done. The vision of Revelation four, indeed all the visions of Revelation, are given to us to teach that truth and impress it on our minds and hearts. Maybe the greatest need of the church in the West today is to grasp this central truth of this marvelous book. Our God reigns!
David Robertson is minister of St Peter's Free Church, Dundee and associate director of Solas CPC. Follow him on Twitter @theweeflea.