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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Revelation 4

 

 

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Introduction

IV.

In this chapter we pass from the sufferings and temptations of the churches below to the unsullied glory above. The vision of the Almighty here described is thought to be interposed here to remind us that all decrees respecting the future “rest with God, and come from Him through Jesus Christ.” This is no doubt true; but there is another reason. From the world below, and the struggling churches, we are brought to sec the Eternal who is ruling over all. A vision like this must dwarf our sense of life’s sorrows and temptations, and is a fit preparation for the scenes of conflict, failure, and persecution, which are about to be unfolded. Whatever painful sights the seer is called upon to behold, this vision of Him who rules “over all from the beginning” will remain in the background as the constant witness that in all the changes and chances of this mortal life, in all the vicissitudes of the Church’s history, God is her refuge; therefore she will not be moved though the earth be removed. It is the vision of eternal strength so often vouchsafed to the sad. As to Ezekiel “among the captives by the river of Chebar” (Ezekiel 1:1), and to Isaiah mourning over the gloom which was settling on Judah (Isaiah 6:1); so now to the exile in Patmos, and through him to all who, in their life-conflict; need “everlasting consolation and good hope.” “You see how distress and solitude and sorrow favour communications between a man and his God.”


Verse 1

(1) After this (better, these things) I looked (literally, I saw; not “I looked,” as though the prophet turned his gaze then towards it), and, behold a door was opened (or, set open) in heaven.—He did not look and see a door opening; he saw, and lo! the door stood open. There are differences as well as similarities between this vision and others where glimpses into heaven were given to prophets and saints. In Ezekiel’s vision, and in the scene of Matthew 3:16 (comp, also Acts 7:56; Acts 10:11) the heavens divide; in this a door stands open. The way into the presence of God lies open (Hebrews 10:19-20); all who have faith may enter; in the minds of such the thoughts of the heavenly will mingle with the sorrows of the earthly, and the calm of security will be theirs (Psalms 46:5). But the scenes of earth’s troubles will always be dispiriting to those who cannot reach the heavenly view-point.

And the first voice (or, behold, the first voice) which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; (even one) which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee (the) things which must be hereafter.—The first voice here spoken of is the voice which the Apostle had heard in the opening vision (Revelation 1:10); he heard, and recognised that trumpet-like voice again. It is strange that any should have maintained that this is not the voice of Christ. It is admitted that it must be the same as the voice of Revelation 1:10; but it is said that the voice of Christ is heard afterwards (Revelation 1:15), not as a trumpet, but as the voice of many waters. The answer is simple; the voice of Christ has many tones; and the voice like a trumpet said, “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” (See Revelation 1:10-13.)


Verse 2

(2) And immediately I was in the spirit.— Comp. Revelation 1:10. The mind and soul were absorbed in the vision of things celestial. (See. 2 Corinthians 12:1-4.)

“Words may not tell of that transhuman change;

If I were only what Thou didst create,

Then newly, Love ! by whom the heaven is ruled,

Thou know’st, who by Thy light didst bear me up.” —

Paradiso, i. 68-73.

And, behold, a throne was set (i.e., not that the seer saw the throne being set, but when he saw it was already set) in heaven, and one sat on the throne.—Comp. Micaiah’s speech (1 Kings 22:19). The enthroned One is not named. Have we here a touch of the Jewish reluctance to name Jehovah? or is it that the descriptive phrase, “He that sat on the throne” is Used here, and kept before us in the whole book to remind us that the great world drama moves forward ever under the eyes of the ruling One. (Comp, Revelation 5:1; Revelation 5:7; Revelation 6:15; Revelation 20:11; Revelation 21:5.)


Verse 3

(3) And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone.—In determining the significance of these emblems we must be guided partly by the analogy of Bible imagery elsewhere, and partly by our knowledge of precious stones. The sardian, or sardine, is admitted to be a stone of fiery red colour; the emerald, to which the bow round the throne is compared, is almost certainly a bright green; the hue of the jasper is the difficulty. The jasper—the last stone in the high-priest’s breastplate, and first of the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem (Exodus 28:20, and Revelation 21:19)—is described by the best authorities as a dark, opaque green. Such a colour is quite in harmony with the colours of the other stones in the breastplate, and particularly with the foundation stones, which seem to be arranged in shades of colour (see Notes on Revelation 21:19 et seq.); but the dark opaque green would be an ill combination with the red sardius and the green emerald in the vision of the present chapter. Is there no further light? We have a jasper stone spoken of in Revelation 21:11; Revelation 21:18, with the descriptive phrase, “clear as crystal!” Does not this point to a stone somewhat different in appearance from that spoken of simply as jasper? Such a clear crystal stone would be the most natural companion to the sardine, and the combination of the sparkling brightness and fiery red suits the union of brightness and flame which appears elsewhere in the Bible (comp, Revelation 1:14; Revelation 11:1; Ezekiel 1:4; Ezekiel 8:2; Daniel 7:9), and is best understood of the holiness and righteousness of God. The latter half of this verse shows us these surrounded by the emerald-coloured bow, the evident symbol of the divine mercy. The allusion to the bow in the cloud (Genesis 9:12-16) is obvious; the bow completely encircled the throne, as mercy encompassing judgment. It was a covenant token, bearing witness to God’s faithfulness in dark times, God’s care for the ark of His Church, and His mercy shining forth after storm.


Verse 4

(4)And round about the throne were four and twenty seats (or, thrones), and upon the seats (or, thrones) I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.—Perhaps the wish to give its due pre-eminence to the thought of Him who sat on the throne caused our translators to describe the elders as sitting on seats; but the same word throne is used of both, and those who are now seated on thrones are called (Revelation 5:10) kings and priests. In the similar vision in Ezekiel no human beings are seen; their appearance here is significant. They are the representatives of Christ’s Church and people, of those whom Christ calls His friends, and who are admitted to know what their Lord doeth (John 15:15). Various reasons have been suggested why they should be described as twenty-four in number; they are the twelve tribes doubled, to signify the union of the Gentile with the Jewish Church; they are the two sets of twelve, to represent the two Testaments; they are the twelve Patriarchs cojoined with the twelve Apostles. It will be seen that these were all different forms of the same thought, that the twenty-four elders represent the complete Church of God in the past and in the future, in the Jewish and Gentile worlds; and as such the true spiritual successors, as priests to God, of those twenty-four courses (1 Chronicles 24:1-19) arranged by David, and which some have thought gave rise to the use of the number twenty-four in this passage. It is the great united Church. The same thought is touched upon in the double song of Moses and the Lamb (Revelation 15:3), and in the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:12; Revelation 21:14).


Verse 5

(5) And out of the throne proceeded (rather, proceed; there is a change in the tense used) lightnings and thunderings and voices.—These are viewed by some as the indications of approaching judgments. Perhaps it is better to view them as the tokens of God’s power of judgment than as hints of immediately approaching judgments. The scene at Sinai (Exodus 19:16) was no doubt in the prophet’s mind. There the clouds and lightnings were not so much tokens of coming judgment as the symbols of that righteous power which can show itself in judgment. “Clouds and darkness are round about Him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne” (Psalms 97:2). They are the constant tokens of that power of God

“Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,

But in the darkness and the cloud

As over Sinai's peaks of old.”

And there were seven lamps (or, torches) of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.—See Revelation 3:1. The Spirit of God in His manifold powers is thus described under emblems of fire. Not merely as a fire of judgment. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11-12). The flaming presence purges the spirit from sin. The Holy Spirit consumes evil. It is an unquenchable fire against all evils, whether in men’s hearts or in men’s lives, or in the world. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 3:13, and Hebrews 12:29.) May there not be allusion to the covenant with Abraham, which was ratified by fire? Lamps, or torches, of fire (lampades puros, LXX., same as in this passage) went between the divided pieces of the heifer and the she-goat. If this be correct, the vision of this chapter reminds us that God is ever mindful of His covenant. The rainbow, the token of the covenant with Noah; the flaming torches, tokens of the covenant with Abraham; and the thunderings and lightnings, the tokens of the covenant at Sinai, are ever with Him. (Comp, also Ezekiel 1:4.)


Verse 6

(6) And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal.—There is a sea before the throne of God. The woman apparelled in purple splendour sits upon many waters (Revelation 17:1). The waters are explained (Revelation 17:15) to be “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” Her throne rests on the fickle and stormy sea of world- opinion, fashion, and passion. The waters represent the unguided, unreasoning, and unprincipled thoughts of men. By analogy, the calm glass-like sea, which is never in storm, but only interfused with flame (Revelation 15:2), represents the counsels of God, those purposes of righteousness and love, often fathomless, but never obscure; always the same, though sometimes glowing with holy anger (Revelation 15:1). (Comp. the Psalmist’s words, “Thy judgments are like the great deep,” Psalms 36:6, Prayer Book version. See also Psalms 77:19, and Romans 11:33-36.) The position of the crystal sea is analogous to that of the molten sea in front of Solomon’s Temple (2 Chronicles 4:9-10).

And in the midst of the throne—i.e., between the seer and the throne. The Apostle saw the crystal sea, and beyond it the living creatures encircling the throne—four living creatures (or, living beings) full of (or, teeming with) eyes before and behind.


Verse 7

(7) And the first beast (better, in each case, living being) was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf (comp. Ezekiel 1:7; Ezekiel 1:10), and the third beast had a face as a man (or, its countenance as of a man), and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.—These are living beings, not “beasts,” as in the Authorised version. The rendering “beasts” introduces confusion of thought, and violates the laws of Apocalyptic, indeed of Bible imagery. The evil powers are described under the emblem of wild beasts; for thus brute force, and unrestrained passion, and self-will, &c., are symbolised. (See Revelation 11:7; Revelation 13:1-2; Revelation 16:2; Revelation 17:3; Revelation 17:7; Revelation 19:19-20; Revelation 20:10.) But these “living beings” do not represent the evil element in the world. They are representative of animated nature. They are four in number—as there are four beings which hold a primacy in the world: among created beings, man; among birds, the eagle; among cattle, the ox; among untamed animals, the lion. The characteristics of these four chiefs of creation unite to make a perfect picture of the spirit of true service, which should be brave as the lion, patient as the ox, aspiring as the eagle, intelligent as man. It may here be noted that the number “four” in the Apocalypse is almost always associated with the earth. (See Revelation 7:1.) We need only call to mind the four quarters, four elements, four seasons, to see its fitness. (Comp. Revelation 21:13; Revelation 21:16.) The living creatures are “full of eyes.” This strong expression is used again in the next verse. Twice used, its meaning must be significant. The same idea is found in the later prophets of the Old Testament. The wheels of Ezekiel and their tires (Ezekiel 1:18; Ezekiel 10:12) were full of eyes. The stone of Zechariah had seven (the perfect number) eyes (Zechariah 3:9). The thought is emphasised again in Revelation 5:6, where the Lamb is said to have seven eyes. Multiplicity of eyes may symbolise vitality and vigilance. Some have thought, inappropriately enough, that it signifies the unceasing praise of God’s works. A better interpretation is given by Dr. Currey. “The power of nature is no blind force, it is employed in the service of God’s providence, and all over it the stamp of reason is impressed.” (See Speaker’s Commentary on Ezekiel 1:18). May we not add that the force of nature is always observant of God’s will? Its myriad eyes are fixed on Him, as the eyes of a servant on his master (Psalms 123:2); doing His commandment, hearkening unto the voice of His word (Psalms 103:20-21); the eyes too of all creation wait on God, who gives them meat in due season (Psalms 104:27, Prayer Book version)—

“His state

Is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.”


Verse 8

(8) And the four beasts (or, living beings) had each of them (literally, one by one of them) six wings about him; and they were full of (or, teeming with) eyes.—The last verse spoke of the living beings teeming with eyes; this tells us that neither the dropping nor the raising of their wings hindered their view.

And they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almightly, which was, and is, and is to come.—The resemblance to Isaiah’s vision (Revelation 6:1-4) may remind us that the voice of God’s creation has in every age proclaimed His eternal holiness. The word “holy” is repeated eight times in the Sinaitic version. The “six wings” are taken to express reverence, for with twain (Isaiah 6:2) he covered his face; humility, for with twain he covered his feet; and obedience, for with twain he did fly. Some have understood these living beings to betoken rather the creative power of God than the actual creation. There is much to be said for this; but the analogy of the passage suits better the view here adopted. The twenty-four elders represent, not the regenerating power of God, but the regenerate Church. The new creation in Christ Jesus join in praise with all created things. The doxology in Revelation 4:11 favours the interpretation, “Thou hast created all things.”


Verse 9-10

(9, 10) And when those beasts . . .—Better, And whensoever the living beings shall give (the future is used) glory and honour and thanks to Him who sitteth upon the throne, to Him who liveth to the ages of ages, the four-and-twenty elders shall (as is their wont) fall down before Him who sitteth on the throne, and worship Him that liveth unto the ages of ages, and shall (as is their wont) cast their crowns before the throne, saying ... It is not to Him who sat upon the throne, but to Him who sitteth there, as he liveth to the ages of ages, that this homage is paid. The future tense (shall give glory, &c.) implies the eternal repetition of the act. The connection between the praise given by creation, and the consequent homage of the twenty-four elders, expresses a truth. The Church of Christ does not always hear the voice of praise from created things. Often the creation groaneth” and travaileth; but her chorus of praise rises when she perceives that “every thing that hath breath praiseth the Lord.” The converse of this thought — the earth bringeth forth her fruit when the people praise God—is hinted in Psalms 67:5-6, “the earth ceases her travail when the sons of God are made manifest (Romans 8:19-21).

Crowns.—The crowns are not royal crowns, but the crowns of conquerors. These are laid down before the throne by those who overcame, not in their own might, but through the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 12:11; comp. Revelation 7:14).


Verse 11

(11) The doxology is three-fold. (See Note on Revelation 1:6.) It should run—

“Worthy art Thou, O Lord, and our God,

To receive the glory, and the honour, and the power,

Because Thou didst create all things,

And through (or, owing to—i.e., because of) Thy will they were (not ‘ are’) and were created.”

The existence of all things was owing to the will of God, as also was the creation of all things, which was the realisation or manifestation of that will.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Revelation 4:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/revelation-4.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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