Some thoughts on the sea of glass
Perhaps because so much of the imagery in the book of Revelation is strange, the significance of John’s description of the region before the throne of God as a ‘sea of glass’ has often been missed.
Revelation 4:6 KJV
And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.
The NIV has, “what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.”
On Patmos, an island in the Aegean, John must have sometimes observed the sea when it was calm, and still, and its waters clear, so one could see the bottom of the sea from a boat, or when looking down from a high place on the shore. Such a scene may have suggested the idea of a sea composed of glass.
The same sea of glass is referred to in chapter 15.
And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.
In John’s time, the use of glass was known already for thousands of years, but it became much more common during John’s lifetime, due to the invention of glass blowing. John may have witnessed glassblowing some time in his life; he described the sea of glass as “glass mixed with fire.” A very hot mass of glass glows red hot, with the heat.
According to some scholars, in ancient times glass was valued as jewelry, like gold. The NASB translation of Job 28:17 refers to glass, where the KJV and NIV translations use the word “crystal.”
Job 28:12-17 NSAB
But where can wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Man does not know its value,
Nor is it found in the land of the living.
The deep says, ‘It is not in me’;
And the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
Pure gold cannot be given in exchange for it,
Nor can silver be weighed as its price.
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
In precious onyx, or sapphire.
Gold or glass cannot equal it,
Nor can it be exchanged for articles of fine gold.
During the first century AD the production of glassware increased throughout the empire, so by the time John wrote the Apocalypse, many items made of glass that were once considered precious had became commonplace. In those days, glass items were not clear and transparent, as most glass is today. Paul spoke of viewing “through a glass, darkly,” as a metaphor, representing an imperfect, or incomplete view.
The word that Paul used for glass actually refers to a mirror. Glass has the property of reflecting, and so can be used as a mirror. It reflects as well as being transparent. The glass Paul referred to was probably a translucent, and unclear sort of glass. Clear glass was first developed about the end of the first century, in Egypt.
Paul’s idea of glass obscuring our view of things, may be the foundation for John’s use of the idea of a “sea of glass.”
Paul said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” [1 Corinthians 13:12]
Paul contrasted the view through a glass, with a “face to face” perspective. Moses was famous for being a prophet who “the LORD knew face to face.” In this, he was unique. “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” [Deuteronomy 34:10]
John described those who gain the victory over the beast, standing upon the sea of glass, that is before the throne of God, where they no longer have to view things “through a glass.” Their perspective is like that of Moses; they are “face to face” with Christ, and the throne. But the sea of glass on which they stand still functions as a mirror.
In prophecy, the word of God is couched in symbol and metaphor. From the viewpoint of the earth, man’s perceptions must be as one peering through the “glass mixed with fire” of the sea of glass, but those who obtain victory over the beast stand upon the sea of glass, so they see what before was only imperfectly understood. Unless properly interpreted, prophecy gives only a murky view of things. The saints who gained victory over the beast and his image, standing above the sea of glass represents their possessing a clear, and un-obscured understanding, that comes from a right interpretation.