We who live in the contemporary world are often tempted to think that the pervasive mood of heavy irony that characterizes our time is something new to us, but such thoughts tend to demonstrate a lack of awareness of human history . For example, as I was listening to the audiobook of Henry Sidebottom’s novel The Caspian Gates on my drive to work this morning, I noted that the second part of the novel is titled “The Kindly Sea,” and refers to the Black Sea. For those who are not aware of the rolling storms or rampant historical piracy of the region, the irony of this may escape mention, similar to the way that the Pacific Ocean is called Pacific, notwithstanding its tsunamigenic tendencies and the frequency of typhoons and hurricanes that can be found on its wide blue expanses. Pacific indeed!
Although I have been tempted from time to time to take lengthy travel by container ship as a way of seeing the world at a slow pace, assuming that I was well-stocked with books and a satellite connection to the internet, I must confess that so far in life I have been a landlubber. I was as a teenager seriously tempted to sign up with our nation’s Merchant Marine, frequently read and review books on naval history , and have long had a deep and melancholy connection with the waterways that have always been around me in life, but thus far in life I have managed to keep my feet on solid ground despite this pull towards the deep and dangerous expanse of water that makes up more than two thirds of the surface of this blue planet. Yet as an honest man, I must admit the lure of the sea, even if I fight against its pull.
A few days ago, a longtime friend of mine from Southern California called to ask me about various matters as I sat on my bed on the erev Shabbat. Included among the matters of discussion was a somewhat lengthy exegesis of Revelation 21:1, specifically its final clause: “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also, there was no more sea.” The discussion quickly moved to the whole biblical context of the sea. When the Bible makes a comment that seems rather meaningful, even in passing, but whose meaning is obscure, it is worthwhile to get a grasp of the whole biblical context of exactly what is being mentioned, so that one can engage in thoughtful biblical exegesis rather than mere unscriptural speculative bloviating, as is the habit of some people. Let us therefore, within the confines of this particular entry, at least give some indication of why it is that the Bible speaks about there being no more sea.
Let us first turn to the local context of Revelation as a whole. Shortly before this mention of there being no more sea, Revelation 20:13-14: speaks as follows: “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” We should note that here the sea is associated with Death and the grave, and all of them are burned up. Earlier in Revelation, the sea is shown to be the origin of the notorious beast with seven heads and ten horns that represents the evil political systems established by Satan to dominate humanity previously discussed in Daniel 7:1-8 , when it is written in Revelation 13:1-2: “Then I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name. Now the best which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority.” It should be briefly noted as well that the beasts of Daniel 7 came up out of the Mediterranean Sea, the close neighbor to the kindly sea spoken of above.
At least a couple of the psalms reference the sea in ways that relate to its larger eschatological concerns. Psalm 104:24-26 reads: “O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions—This great and wide sea, in which are innumerable teeming things, living things both small and great. There the ships sail about; there is that Leviathan which you have made to play there.” This, of course, is a reference to that great beast spoken of by God in Job 41. Shortly after this there is another similar reference to the sea and to its tempests and dangers in Psalm 107:23-31: “Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters, they see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For he commands and raises the stormy wind, which lifts up the waves of the sea. They mount up to the heavens, they go down again to the depths; their soul melts because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end. Then they cry out to the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distresses. He calms the storm, so that its waves are still. Then they are glad because they are quiet; so He guides them to their desired haven. Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!” The sea is similarly related as a place of trouble and despair in Heman’s depressive ode , in Psalm 88:6-7: “You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all your waves.” Later on, in verses 15-18, he closes his lament as follows: “I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught. Your fierce wrath has gone over me; Your terrors have cut me off. They came around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether. Loved one and friend You have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness.” More positively, David in Psalm 139:7-10 connects the sea and death as follows: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in the grave, behold, you are there. If I take the winds of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.”
The sea, and its connection with death and the grave, is also notable in the book of Jonah and its deeper importance. The deeper implications of this can be seen when we look at what is written in Jonah 1:10-2:3: “Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “Why have you done this? For the men knew that he had fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?”—for the sea was growing more tempestuous. And he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to return to to land, but they could not, for the sea continued to grow more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried out to the Lord and said, “We pray, O Lord, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.” So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows. Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. And he said: “I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, and He answered me. Out of belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me. All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.””
This description of being under the sea as being in the grave, such a deeply symbolic sign that it was Jesus’ only sign to his wicked generation, when He informed them that just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so He too would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, the grave (see Matthew 12:38-40). And so He was in the grave three days and three nights , before serving as the wave sheaf offering on the first day of the week after being raised from the dead the night before (see, for example, John 20:17, Leviticus 23:9-14). Nor does this exhaust the connection between the sea and the grave, as the same sort of tempest that threatened the ship Jonah had been on likewise threatened the life of Paul and his fellows on their journey to Rome. The sea was viewed by the land-lubbing people of Israel as being a place of danger, of torment, and of death and burial. Little wonder that when Jesus Christ comes to deliver mankind from death and from torment, that the sea would likewise vanish as well. Yet drawing these conclusions requires a broad knowledge of the Bible and how the sea is discussed in context. Otherwise all one has is one’s own suppositions, and those do not count for much.
How are we to deal with the irony of the kindly sea, the place where gentlemen go on yachts, where people fish and travel to and fro in trade, in container ships, or in travel in massive ocean liners, but which are also a place of great danger and of burial undersea? A sea that looks kindly can be like a woman’s countenance, calm and pacific, and then stormy and tempestuous. The seeming calm of the rhythm of the waves does not entirely wipe away the previous experience of its horrors, and yet we are drawn anyway, despite knowing its dangers and threats. How does our knowledge of danger affect the sort of pulls we have to go somewhere, and the knowledge that our destination is temporary and passing, and not a lasting home, but a place of transit, a highway on which pirates lurk and storms and crashing waves can arise suddenly, almost without warning. For what are our lives but a journey on the sea, in search of a haven we have yet known, a journey we do not know that our fragile ships can endure until our travel here is done?
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