One Composer’s Conception of Time

“I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clad in a cloud, having a rainbow upon his head. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He placed his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the land; and, supporting himself on the sea and the land, he raised his hand heavenward and swore by the One Who lives forever and ever, saying: ‘There shall be no more time, but in the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel the mystery of God shall be consummated.’”

– Apocalypse of St. John, 10:1–2, 5–71

So begins Olivier Messiaen’s preface to his Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour las Fin du Temps). We might call it the prologue or the prelude to his preface, for this excerpt from Revelation (aka Apocalypse of Jesus Christ) provides the sole inspiration for the entire piece.

The quartet here is unusual in that it is not the typical string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello), instead consisting of piano, violin, cello, and clarinet. Messiaen finished composing this chamber music work while imprisoned during World War II. A sympathetic guard provided the needed materials for the captive composer. Quartet for the End of Time premiered in Stalag VIII-A in Görlitz, Germany (modern day Zgorzelec, Poland).

In his preface he describes how the composition’s “musical language” evokes time, timelessness, and eternity:

Certain modes, realizing melodically and harmonically a kind of tonal ubiquity, draw the listener into a sense of the eternity of space or infinity. Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities. (All this remains mere striving and stammering if one ponders upon the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!)2

By “[p]articular rhythms existing outside the measure” the composer means irregular rhythms; in some sections the number of beats per bar (measure) varies. In the first movement, for example, one instrument is assigned notes/chords to be played at specific intervals, while another is given different notes to be played at different intervals.3 Such intermixing represents “the banishment of temporalities”.4 These musical effects express time nearing its end, after which it will segue into eternity.

The composition consists of eight movements, two of which center on Christ. The first of these, the much-lauded fifth movement, is titled “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”. The composer explains:

Jesus is here considered as one with the Word [Logos]. A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello magnifies with love and reverence on the eternality of the powerful and gentle Word, “whose years will never cease.” Majestically, the melody unfolds at a sort of distance, both tender and supreme: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

As I understand the composer, he appears to recognize that the earthly Jesus (the Word become flesh) preexisted as the Word. That is, there is continuity in the ‘Person’ of “the Word” and the Person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, then, he seems to correctly recognize that Jesus is coextensive with the Word only at the point of the Incarnation. Before that point in time the Word was not with flesh, and the Word was simply “the Word”.

Thus, while the Word eternally exists, Jesus has a beginning in time—at the instant of Incarnation, at the Conception of the Virginal Birth. In other words, though the Word exists eternally, the Word began a new mode of existence at the Incarnation—as Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ—which did not alter His eternality. Stated another way, the Word has unbounded eternality; comparatively, Jesus Christ has bounded eternality—bounded at the moment of the Virginal Conception, when the Word took human nature unto Himself (see An Eternal Christological Conundrum).

The second movement exalting Jesus Christ is the final (eighth) one: “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.”

Expansive violin solo as counterpart to the cello solo of the fifth movement. Why this second eulogy? It addresses itself more specifically to the second aspect of Jesus—to Jesus the man, to the Word made flesh, resurrected immortal in order to share His life with us. It is total love. Its slow ascent towards the highest pitch is the ascension of man towards his God, of the child of God towards his Father, of the divinized creature towards paradise.

In keeping with his Roman Catholic faith, it seems likely the composer has in mind Athanasius, whose words were revised a bit to become the pithy aphorism “God became man so that man could become God”. That Messiaen understood this not as a full-on capital ‘D’ Deification seems evident in the last sentence above, especially the French créature divinisée. This retains the Creator-creature distinction, for a creature cannot truly become “Divinized”—capital ‘D’. The created cannot become just like the Creator. That would be oxymoronic. We are ‘partakers of the Divine nature’ (2Peter 1:4), not wholly Deity, God.5

Coming full circle, one last aspect of Messiaen’s preface commands our attention: his translation/interpretation of time in the prologue/prelude. A quick search of various English translations finds quite a variety in Revelation 10:6. Of this, the composer states:

“There are people who understand [the Biblical passage as] ‘there will be no more delay.’ That’s not it. [Instead it is] ‘there will be no more Time’ with a capital ‘T’; that is to say, there will be no more space, there will be no more time. One leaves the human dimension with cycles and destiny to rejoin eternity. So, I finally wrote this quartet dedicating it to this angel who declared the end of Time.”6

His is an interesting interpretation. As for the translation, Messiaen is technically correct. Let’s look at the Greek (transliterated):

Hoti chronos ouketi estai
That time no-longer will-be
That time will be no longer
That time will no longer be
That there will be time no longer
That there will be no more time

The first Greek word, hoti, can be understood as “that”, followed by a statement, in narrative form, of what someone had said. Or it can be construed as the beginning of a quotation, as Messiaen construes it, along with a few English translations. Messiaen goes a bit further, though, by prefacing this statement by the angel with “saying” (French: disant), which is not in the Greek. The composer also capitalizes “Time” (French: Temps).

Those versions that render this either as a quotation of the angel as “There will be no more delay” or the narrator’s reporting of what the angel had said as that there will be no more delay are making interpretive decisions based on the larger context. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to go into more detail, but the reader is free to make any comment on this.

The composer follows the words accompanying movement VIII—and thus concludes his preface—with the same words he had used parenthetically earlier in the preface, this time without the parentheses: All this remains mere striving and stammering if one ponders upon the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!

In sum, Messiaen offers an intriguing take on the Revelation 10 passage, which then functions as a basis for his unique conception of time musically, as realized in his chamber music piece Quatuor pour las Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time). That this piece was conceived and completed while a WWII captive makes it perhaps all the more intriguing.

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1 As translated from Olivier Messiaen’s French, with the assistance of various online helps.

2 Again, as translated from Messiaen’s French, though comparing with the English translation in the CD  liner notes of RCA Victor Gold Seal (reissue of original 1976 RCA Red Seal), MESSIAEN Quatuor pour la Fin de Temps, Tashi (Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry, Richard Stoltzman), 7835-2-RG, BMG Classics, © 1988 BMG Music. The translation in the above text above differs, e.g., in “the eternity of space or infinity” as compared to liner notes’ “the eternity of space or time” (the French is infini), and in “if one ponders upon” as compared to “if one compares it to” (French is songe à). The rest of the translations follow similar methodology.

3 See Lawrence University’s Gene Biringer’s “Analysis” tab here: I. Liturgie de cristal. Also, under the “Musical Elements” tab the author writes: [Heterophonic texture] can also describe certain polyphonic textures, like that of the first movement of Messiaen’s Quartet, in which there is no discernable relationship among some of the parts . . .  the violin and clarinet parts, which are meant to evoke birdsong, are so independent of the cello part and, especially, the homophonic piano part that they seem to occupy a wholly different sonic world . . . here four characters are speaking simultaneously, unresponsive and perhaps even oblivious to the others. Instead of a harmonious counterpoint between independent but related melodies, we hear a juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas – a true heterophony.

4 For further—and better—explanation, see Peter Gutmann’s Classical Notes site, particularly here.

5 See Roman Catholic Catechism 460.

6 As quoted from the Lawrence University site (see Biblical Source tab) as found in Rebecca Rischin, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet (New York, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), p 51.

Not Declining the Divine Name?

John writes some strange things in Revelation, aka The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. An angel fills a golden censer with fire from the heavenly altar, and throws it to the earth. And there’s an angel standing in the sun, crying with a loud voice to birds flying mid-heaven, “Come and gather together for the great supper of God.”

More mundane perhaps is the case below. It appears John does not decline the Divine Name. Now why would that be strange?

The One Who Is

Before proceeding directly, some necessary background must be provided. The applicable verbiage in Revelation 1:4, our subject verse, comes not from the Hebrew but the Greek of Exodus 3:14.1 This portion of the Greek ‘Old Testament’ was translated from the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) by Jews in the middle of the 3rd century BC.2 Exodus 3:13 is included, in order to provide necessary context:

3:13 Then Moses said to God, “Behold: I shall go to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of our fathers has sent me to you.’ They shall ask me, ‘What is His Name?’ What shall I tell them?” 14 God replied to Moses, “I AM THE ONE WHO IS [EGŌ EIMI HO ŌN].” Then He said, “So tell the sons of Israel, ‘THE ONE WHO IS [HO ŌN] has sent me to you.’”3

Moses is concerned that telling the Israelites “The God of our fathers has sent me to you” will be deficient. They may also want to know His Name. In response, God first provides what appears to be His Name:4I AM THE ONE WHO IS.” The pertinent portion is THE ONE WHO IS, for this forms part of God’s directive to Moses when He speaks again:  “So tell the sons of Israel, ‘THE ONE WHO IS [HO ŌN] has sent me to you.’”

It will prove beneficial to examine the (transliterated) Greek. We will begin with an overly literal word-for-word translation, and then proceed until we reach a more suitable rendering at the bottom. In the first part of verse 14 is God’s initial reply to Moses:

EGŌ EIMI HO ŌN
I I-am the being/existing5
I am the existing (one)
I am the-one existing
I am He-who exists/is
I am He Who Is
I am The One Who Is

EGŌ is simply the first person singular pronoun “I”. The second word, EIMI, is the first person singular finite verb “be” (“I-am”). Since person and number are encoded in all Greek finite verbs, each one has a built-in subject. In this instance, it is the first person singular “I”. Therefore, strictly speaking, the pronoun “I” (EGŌ) is not necessary and likely implies emphasis. So, the initial part of God’s response should be understood as the emphatic “I AM”.

The third word, HO, is the Greek article.6 It can be crudely translated simply “the”. In our context, the article functions to substantivize the participle following it. In other words, the Greek article + participle here form a noun, a nominative.

To further explain, a Greek participle is a non-finite verb, which means it can never be a complete sentence unto itself.7 Participles can function either as adverbs (modifying a verb) or adjectives (modifying a noun). When the article precedes it, as it does here (the article HO + participle ŌN), the participle is functioning as an adjective. And when the combination of article + participle stands alone,8 it is a substantival, taking the place of a noun. HO ŌN is in the nominative case, functioning here as the predicate nominative. ŌN is the masculine singular present participle of “be” (=“being”, “existing”, “is”), and taken together with the article yields: THE ONE WHO IS.

A Greek article also encodes grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), matching that of its associated part of speech—in this case the participle. Hence, they are both masculine. Therefore, a valid translation is HE WHO IS. For our purposes, we will use THE ONE WHO IS.9

Thus, we translate the above I AM THE ONE WHO IS. The predicate nominative of this proclamation then becomes the subject nominative in God’s instructions to Moses to tell the sons of Israel: ‘THE ONE WHO IS has sent me to you.’

With this background provided, we shall proceed to the applicable portion of Revelation 1:4:

1:4 John to the seven ekklēsiais in Asia: Grace to you, and peace from [apo] THE ONE WHO IS [HO ŌN], THE ONE WHO WAS [HO ĒN], and THE ONE WHO IS COMING [HO ERCHOMENOS]…

John the Revelator is using poor Greek grammar! In the first instance [HO ŌN], it appears John does not decline the Divine Name. To be more specific, in the prepositional phrase (PP) beginning with apo (“from”), THE ONE WHO IS should be grammatically declined to the genitive case [TOU ONTOS], not remain in the nominative case [HO ŌN]. R. H. Charles explains John’s apparent rationale:

We have here a title of God conceived in the terms of time. The Seer [John] has deliberately violated the rules of grammar in order to preserve the divine name inviolate from the change which it would necessarily have undergone if declined. Hence the divine name is here in the nominative [case].10

Mathewson provides further comment:

This PP [prepositional phrase] is one of the first clear examples of John’s numerous solecisms. Here the preposition apo is followed by the nominative case (ho) rather than the expected genitive (tou). There is broad agreement that the grammatical incongruity is intentional . . . The most likely explanation is that by grammatical incongruity the author wishes to draw attention to the titular nature of this expression and the OT text from which it comes: Exod 3:14.11

Of the three elements, the first [HO ŌN] and third [HO ERCHOMENOS] follow the same pattern. Each uses the nominative case in the form of the substantival Greek article + participle after their common preposition apo (“from”). So, both seem to follow the same logic and purpose, if grammatically odd.

The second element, however, is grammatically worse than the other two! It is not ‘merely’ a nominative where it should be in the genitive case. It is in the incongruous form of Greek article + finite verb. Recall that a finite verb encodes person and number; so, each has a built-in subject, and each can form a complete sentence. Thus, if we were to translate the second element word-for-word, it would be the nonsensical THE ONE WHO HE WAS, HE WHO HE WAS, THE HE WAS, or THE WAS. In other words, even when standing on its own—outside the apo (“from”) PP—this construction (article + finite verb) is nonsensical.

Yet this can be explained somewhat. The verb “be” in Greek (EIMI) lacks a past participle, and so the finite verb ĒN (WAS) is substituted as the closest compromise. The purpose of the article preceding it—though absolutely wrong grammatically—is to retain parallelism with the other elements in this PP to the extent possible.12

But one might contend (this writer would) that THE ONE WHO IS [HO ŌN] by itself sufficiently connotes eternality; that is, if God simply IS, then this implies He has no beginning and no end.13 Swete observes that “the [Jewish] Targums read into the words [the Hebrew of Exodus 3:14] a reference to the infinite past and future of God’s eternal ‘now’”.14 

In his Prepositions and Theology, Murray J. Harris refers to this text of Rev 1:4.15 After providing various explanations for the grammatical anomalies, he concludes, “The easiest and most common explanation is that this threefold title of Yahweh is an indeclinable noun that by its very form effectively highlights the unchangeable and eternal character of God.”16

Divine Name or Title?

The careful reader may have observed that HO ŌN is sometimes referred to as the Divine Name and other times as a title or part of a longer title, depending on the source. The larger context of Exodus 3 may provide clarity on this. Following is the same selection above but with the next two verses included:

3: 13 Then Moses said to God, “Behold: I shall go to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of our fathers has sent me to you.’ They shall ask me, ‘What is His Name?’ What shall I tell them?” 14 God replied to Moses, “I AM THE ONE WHO IS.” Then He said, “So tell the sons of Israel, ‘THE ONE WHO IS has sent me to you.’” 15 Then God spoke again to Moses, “So, say this to the sons of Israel: ‘The LORD [Hebrew: YHWH], the God of your fathers—God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is My Name forever and how I am to be remembered from generation to generation.16 Now go and gather together the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD [YHWH], the God of your fathers, appeared to me—God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob…’ ”

Observe that God specifically states His Name as “The LORD [YHWH]” in verse 15. The Greek ‘OT’ consistently translates the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) as KYRIOS. English versions usually render this the all caps LORD. The portion following His Name, “the God of your fathers”, should probably be understood such that it further describes/defines “The LORD [YHWH]”.

So what do we make of THE ONE WHO IS? Is it to be understood as yet another Name? A Title?

Prior to the transcription of the Targums, a section of the Jewish pseudepigraphic work Sibylline Oracles dated ca. 2nd century BC–20 BC17 describes God as existing eternally, by using present participles of “be” [accusative forms]:

3:15 But He, Himself eternal, has revealed Himself 16 as One Who Is/Exists [ONTA], and so even heretofore exists [prin EONTA], and yet even still hereafter.18

The way this is phrased, it seems that the first part of the sentence (“But He, Himself eternal, has revealed Himself as One Who Is/Exists”) is intended to state God’s eternality, while the rest of the phrase further describes it. He exists, meaning He has existed at all times past up to and including the present, and will continue to exist into the future. And this selection provides a clue to further define John’s likely intention.

There are contemporaneous secular works describing ‘gods’ as existing eternally. But they use Greek finite verbs instead of participles. “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus shall be” (Pausanias, Greciae descriptio, 10.12.10).19 Also, “Aion, the god of time, ‘is and was and will be’”.20

Comparatively, Aune notes, “The title [HO ŌN] was known to Jews in Asia Minor as attested by an inscription on an altar from Pergamon that reads THEOS KYRIOS HO ŌN EIS AEI.21 This could be rendered: “God, the LORD, the One who exists/is forever.”

Taken altogether, it is the opinion of this writer that the phrase I AM THE ONE WHO IS in Exodus 3:14 is God’s declaration of His eternal existence—His proclamation of His Divine attribute of eternality. Assuming so, THE ONE WHO IS, then, was used as a Divine Title, not a Divine Name. It seems possible it reflects (part of) a self-description inherent in His Divine Name YHWH, the Tetragrammaton.

Therefore, assuming the above, in apparent reverence, John the Revelator kept this Divine Title HO ŌN intact, instead of subjecting it to the usual grammatical declining. But what about the rest of John’s phrase?

Note that John’s full expression does not follow the pattern in any of the others above. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the third element, which does not reflect ‘infinite future’ but rather God’s coming (HO ERCHOMENOS) at the culmination of salvation-history—the eschaton, the end of all things from our earthly perspective.22 This fact more foundationally supports the position that HO ŌN by itself sufficiently expresses eternality.

Less clear is the time referent, temporal or eternal, for the grammatically incongruous second element (HO ĒN) in the three part phrase. It could be a corollary to “the beginning/originator of God’s creation” (HĒ ARCHĒ TĒ KTISEŌS TOU THEOU) in Revelation 3:14.23 If so, the second and third elements would reflect the entirety of salvation-history, from beginning to end.

If all this holds, John’s expression would reflect God’s intrinsic Self-existence in the Divine Title in the first element, while the second and third elements together would represent the termination points of salvation-history.

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1 The Hebrew of the first words of God in Exodus 3:14 is usually rendered I AM THAT I AM.

2 The Greek ‘OT’ is part of the larger Septuagint (LXX), which includes a body of works known as the Apocrypha, aka Deuterocanon (“second canon”) in some traditions.

3 We must also take note that in the next verse God continues the same line of thought, this time by explicitly explaining and stating His Name; however,  John the Revelator does not reference this portion directly. More on this below.

4 Or perhaps this is God’s way of proclaiming an ontological attribute, one exclusive to Him: His eternality. The LORD God simply IS. See note 13.

5 “I am THE BEING” is Brenton’s translation.

6 While English has both a definite article (the) and an indefinite article (a), Greek has only one article. 

7 This is in distinction from finite verbs (see EIMI above), which can and do sometimes form complete sentences unto themselves, since both person and number are appended morphologically. A great example is Jesus’ final word on the Cross in John 19:30: Tetelestai. It is a 3rd person singular perfect tense-form verb, in the middle voice, and in the indicative mood. It is best translated “It is finished”, or, perhaps better, “It has been finished.”

8 A Greek article + participle can also function as an attributive adjective, if it is modifying a noun, thus further describing that noun.

9 Masculine gender here is to correlate with THEOS, GOD, which is also masculine in grammatical gender. While HE WHO IS works, it is subject to possible misinterpretation in English—that God is male in a biological sense.

10 R.H. Charles, Revelation of John, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary; ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles A. Briggs; Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), para 41640. Charles adds: “It could have been preserved in classical Greek, i.e. apo tou ho ōn. But our author shows no knowledge of this construction” (para 41640; Greek transliterated, bold added for emphasis). Yet the Textus Receptus (the Greek text underlying the KJV) inserts tou here (see this site, e.g.); but, take notice of Charles’ comment that John “shows no knowledge of this construction”. The language/dialect of Classical Greek, from which tou would emanate in this instance, ended about 400 years before the Koine Greek of the NT era. As far as I can determine, the Textus Receptus sources only one manuscript for Revelation here, specifically GA 2814 (12th century), and this tou appears to be a singular reading. That is, it appears to be the only extant manuscript with this reading. Yet, quite a few manuscripts (including 𝔐 [Majority Text]) insert the genitive for “God” (theou) between apo and the nominative HO ŌN, in an attempt to smooth out the grammar.

11 David L. Mathewson, Revelation: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), p 4 (Greek transliterated).

12 Cf. Charles, Revelation, para 41641.

13 Craig R. Koester (Revelation, The Anchor Yale Bible [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014]) comments that the neuter form of article + EIMI present participle [TO ON] had been used to imply eternality: “Greco-Roman sources sometimes used the form to on for God as “the existent one” or as “being” (Seneca the Younger, Ep. 58.7, 17; Plutarch, Mor. 393B–C)” (p 215).  See notes 4 and 5.

14 Henry B. Swete, The Apocalypse of John: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes and Indices, 3rd ed. (London: MacMillan, 1917), p 5. This is in the public domain and available online here. And here the Targums understand the Hebrew of Exodus 3:14 as I SHALL BE WHO I SHALL BE [Gr. ESOMAI HOS ESOMAI].

15 Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), pp 66–67

16 Harris, Prepositions and Theology, p 67. Cf. Swete, Apocalypse: This construction “must be explained by regarding the whole phrase as an indeclinable noun” (p 5).

17 See J. J. Collins, “Sibylline Oracles” in James H. Charlesworth, Ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1983): “[Verses 1–45] could have been composed at any time in the late Hellenistic period or early Roman periods. If we assume that they originally formed a unit with any part of 46–92, we can fix their date more precisely . . . Verses 46–62 must be dated shortly after the battle of Actium” (p 360).

18 The Greek (transliterated): all’ autos avedeixev aiōnios autos eauton onta te kai prin eonta, atar pali kai metepeita. Charles renders it: “But he, himself Eternal, hath revealed himself as One who is and was before, yea and shall be hereafter.”

19 The Greek here is Zeus ēn, Zeus estin, Zeus essetai (Ζεὺς ἦν, Ζεὺς ἔστιν, Ζεὺς ἔσσεται).

20 Koester, Revelation, p 215.

21 David Aune, Revelation: Revelation 1–5, Word Biblical Commentary 52A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997) p 30, (Greek transliterated).

22 Charles, Revelation, opines that the present participle of erchomai [“is coming”] is used here instead of the future form, “with a definite reference to the contents of the Book and especially to the coming of Christ, 1:7; 2:5, 16; 3:2; 22:7, 12, etc., in whose coming God Himself comes also [ED: in 1:8, e.g.]” (para 41641).

23 Note the first words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning (ARCHĒ) was (ĒN) the Word”.

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Similarly themed posts:

An Eternal Christological Conundrum

Looking Past the Future

Jesus’ Kingly Appearance

Being Blessed

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