In Luke 2:10 the angelic herald of the birth of Jesus Christ said: 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy …' In 1Peter 1:8 we read that those who believe in Jesus Christ 'are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy ...' In Romans 5:11 we read that, on the basis of justification by faith, believers 'rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.'

This joy is expressed by the countless multitude standing in the presence of God and the Lamb in Revelation 7:9,10. It is symbolised by the palm branches in their hands.

In Israel palm branches were employed historically in joyful celebration.

[1] They were held by the joyous crowd that welcomed Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion [John 12:13]. They hailed him as the one who brought God’s salvation. They hailed him as the King of Israel, as the blessed one who came in the name of the Lord. In this they quoted from both Psalm 118 and Zechariah 9.

[2] In Psalm 118:27 we read of a festal procession, with boughs in hand [NIV], moving up to the horns of the altar, rejoicing in the protection and salvation provided by God. [This Psalm is one of the processional Psalms sung by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem for the three holy feast periods.]

[3] One of those holy annual gatherings in Jerusalem was the Feast of Tabernacles, the most joyous of all feasts. During this Feast the people were instructed to take palm fronds etc, and ‘rejoice before the LORD for seven days’ [Leviticus 23:40]. This particularly joyful feast is still celebrated today. It is so joyful that ‘The Rabbis say, “He who has not seen Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles does not know what rejoicing means”’ [The Gospel in the Feasts of Israel, Victor Buksbazen]. When we ask ‘Why this measure of joy?’ and ‘Is there some connection here with the palm branches in the hands of the redeemed in Revelation 7?’ we find some instructive answers:

The Feast of Tabernacles followed five days after the Day of Atonement, during which atonement for sin was provided. This rejoicing follows deliverance from sin.

The original institution of the Feast of Tabernacles was at Sinai, immediately following God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Again: this joyous feast follows deliverance from slavery.

At that time, God (symbolically) dwelt among his people in the Tabernacle [= ‘tent’], which was surrounded by the tents of the Israelites. His presence among them was symbolised by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This assured them of his presence and protection. Living in tents, without the protection of a fortified city, they were dependent solely upon God and his presence with them.

As it developed over history, a range of additional traditions characterised this Feast: it became not only commemorative of the redemption from Egypt but also a prophetic prayer for the coming of the Messiah and his salvation. Two of these traditions, in particular, were deliberately referenced by Jesus Christ and applied to himself: the pouring out of a jug of water, as a symbolic prophetic prayer for the spiritual blessings, and the brilliant illumination of the temple during the Feast. In this context Jesus taught that he is the source of living water [see John 7:37-39], and he is the light of the world [John 8:12]. Those who believe in him are blessed with endless spiritual life and light.

In addition to this use of actual palm branches, we find in both Solomon’s temple and the symbolic temple of Ezekiel 40 numerous palm tree decorations scattered throughout the structure on the doors and the walls. Interestingly, these palms, elsewhere symbols of human joy in the presence of the Lord, were interspersed in an alternating pattern between cherubim, symbols of human prohibition from God’s presence.  Two things that were mutually exclusive are placed together.

Here in Revelation 7 the palm branches in the hands of the redeemed and the cherubim surrounding the throne are seen together in their eternal reality: humans stand in the presence of God in joyful celebration; by the blood of the Lamb their death and darkness has been replaced with life and light in reunion with God. Sin no more separates. Sin no longer bans them from his presence. Disqualification has been replaced with acceptance. Fear in the presence of God has been replaced with joy. With joy and with confidence they stand before him, with the whole universe, including the cherubim, the four living creatures, surrounding them and celebrating because of their salvation by the Lamb.

This is the present and eternal joy of the redeemed.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015