The metaphor of heavenly books is common in both the biblical and apocalyptic materials. This is a stock image drawn from a court room scene. In Dan 7:10, for example, thrones are set in place and the Ancient of Days takes his place at the head of the court. Once the court was seated, “the books were opened.” Based on the content of these books, the blasphemous “little horn” is thrown into blazing fire. So what is the content of an “apocalyptic book”?
Sometimes these books record the names of the redeemed; or conversely, the names of the wicked are “blotted out” of the books. This is probably based on Exodus 32:32–33. In this non-apocalyptic text, the Lord says “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.” The Psalmist asks God to blot out the names of his oppressors from “the book of the living” (Ps 69:28). Originally this meant a name carved in stone that would be obliterated if the named-person offended the king. Perhaps this was based on a citizenship roll or something of the sort, but the idea a text exists containing the names of those who are part of the kingdom. Isaiah 4:3 some people have been destined to survive in Jerusalem, “everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem.” In 2 Baruch 24:1, the opened books contain both the righteous deeds of the righteous and the wicked deeds of the wicked. These books are opened after a period of oppression, “When horror seizes the inhabitants of earth, and they fall into many tribulations and further, they fall into great torments” (2 Baruch 25:3) after which the messiah comes.
In other apocalyptic contexts books contain hidden secrets sealed up to be revealed at the appropriate time. In Daniel 12:9-10 there are secrets sealed up in a book “until the end of time.” In Rev 10:4 John was prepared to write down what the seven thunders said, but he is told to “seal it up” and not writer it down. The seven thunders are therefore some hidden secret not to be revealed at that time. There are examples of this phenomenon in other apocalyptic books as well. In 1 Enoch, the seer has a great deal more revealed to him that he is permitted to write at that time,.
1 Enoch 81:1-2 Then he said unto me, “Enoch, look at the tablet(s) of heaven; read what is written upon them and understand (each element on them) one by one. So I looked at the tablet(s) of heaven, read all the writing (on them), and came to understand everything. I read that book and all the deeds of humanity and all the children of the flesh upon the earth for all the generations of the world.
In an expansion on the biblical story. Jubilees 32.20–22, at Bethel Jacob is given seven tablets determining everything that would happen to his sons in the future.
Jubilees 32.20–22 And Jacob watched until he went up into heaven. And he saw in a vision of the night, and behold an angel was descending from heaven, and there were seven tablets in his hands. And he gave (them) to Jacob, and he read them, and he knew everything which was written in them, which would happen to him and to his sons during all the ages.”
But more commonly the books contain the sins of the person under judgment. In Jude 4 the judgment against the false teachers was written down (προγράφω) long before they secretly crept into the churches. In the Animal Apocalypse, the names of the good and bad shepherds are carefully recorded in books for future judgment (1 Enoch 89:62; 90:14-22). In 1 Enoch 104:7 sins are investigated and “written down every day.” In Jubilees 5:13-14 sins are carefully written down and judgments are “are ordained, written, and engraved.” Describing the judgment awaiting the sins of Lot’s daughters, the writer of Jubilees says:
Jubilees 16:9 “And behold it is commanded and it is engraved concerning all of his seed in the heavenly tablets so that he will remove them and uproot them and execute their judgment just like the judgment of Sodom and so that he will not leave seed of man for him on the earth in the day of judgment.”
Bringing this back to the throne room in Revelation 5, the scroll functions similarly the last category in that the opening of the scroll subjects the world to judgment. The final judgment is the coming of the Messiah to set up thrones and render justice (Rev 20:1-6). By taking the Hebrew Bible as the immediate background and tracing the development of a metaphor in the Second Temple Period apocalypses, we are more likely to understand the metaphor as John intended.