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Analysis Of The Chapter
This chapter Revelation 4:1-11 properly commences the series of visions respecting future events, and introduces those remarkable symbolical descriptions which were designed to cheer the hearts of those to whom the book was first sent, in their trials, and the hearts of all believers in all ages, with the assurance of the final triumph of the gospel. See the Introduction.
In regard to the nature of these visions, or the state of mind of the writer, there have been different opinions. Some have supposed that all that is described was made only to pass before the mind, with no visible representation; others, that there were visible representations so made to him that he could copy them; others, that all that is said or seen was only the production of the author’s imagination. The latter is the view principally entertained by German writers on the book. All that would seem to be apparent on the face of the book - and that is all that we can judge by - is, that the following things occurred:
(1) The writer was in a devout frame of mind - a state of holy contemplation - when the scenes were represented to him, Revelation 1:10.
(2) The representations were supernatural; that is, they were something which was disclosed to him, in that state of mind, beyond any natural reach of his faculties.
(3) These things were so made to pass before him that they had the aspect of reality, and he could copy and describe them as real. It is not necessary to suppose that there was any representation to the bodily eye; but they had, to his mind, such a reality that he could describe them as pictures or symbols - and his office was limited to that. He does not attempt to explain them, nor does he intimate that he understood them; but his office pertains to an accurate record - a fair transcript - of what passed before his mind. For anything that appears, he may have been as ignorant of their signification as any of his readers, and may have subsequently studied them with the same kind of attention which we now give to them (compare the notes on 1 Peter 1:11-12), and may have, perhaps, remained ignorant of their signification to the day of his death. It is no more necessary to suppose that he understood all that was implied in these symbols, than it is that one who can describe a beautiful landscape understands all the laws of the plants and flowers in the landscape; or, that one who copies all the designs and devices of armorial bearings in heraldry, should understand all that is meant by the symbols that are used; or, that one who should copy the cuneiform inscriptions of Persepolis, or the hieroglyphics of Thebes, should understand the meaning of the symbols. All that is demanded or expected, in such a case, is, that the copy should be accurately made; and, when made, this copy may be as much an object of study to him who made it as to anyone else.
(4) Yet there was a sense in which these symbols were real; that is, they were a real and proper delineation of future events. They were not the mere workings of the imagination. He who saw them in vision though there may have been no representation to the eye, had before him what was a real and appropriate representation of coming events. If not, the visions are as worthless as dreams are.
The visions open Revelation 4:1-11 with a Theophany, or a representation of God. John is permitted to look into heaven, and to have a view of the throne of God, and of the worship celebrated there. A door (θύρα thura) or opening is made into heaven, so that he, as it were, looks through the concave above, and sees what is beyond. He sees the throne of God, and him who sits on the throne, and the worshippers there; he sees the lightnings play around the throne, and hears the thunder’s roar; he sees the rainbow that encompasses the throne, and hears the songs of the worshippers. In reference to this vision, at the commencement of the series of symbols which he was about to describe, and the reason why this was vouchsafed to him, the following remarks may be suggested:
(1) There is, in some respects, a striking resemblance between this and the visions of Isaiah Revelation 6:0 and Ezekiel Ezekiel 1:0. As those prophets, when about to enter on their office, were solemnly inaugurated by being permitted to have a vision of the Almighty, so John was inaugurated to the office of making known future things - the last prophet of the world - by a similar vision. We shall see, indeed, that the representation made to John was not precisely the same as what was made to Isaiah or what was made to Ezekiel; but the most striking symbols are retained, and that of John is as much adapted to impress the mind as either of the others. Each of them describes the throne, and the attending circumstances of sublimity and majesty; each of them Speaks of one on the throne, but neither of them has attempted any description of the Almighty. There is no delineation of an image, or a figure representing God, but everything respecting him is veiled in such obscurity as to fill the mind with awe.
(2) The representation is such as to produce deep solemnity on the mind of the writer and the reader. Nothing could have been better adapted to prepare the mind of John for the important communications which he was about to make than to be permitted to look, as it were, directly into heaven, and to see the throne of God. And nothing is better suited to impress the mind of the reader than the view which is furnished, in the opening vision, of the majesty and glory of God. Brought, as it were, into his very presence; permitted to look upon his burning throne; seeing the reverent and profound worship of the inhabitants of heaven, we feel our minds awed, and our souls subdued, as we hear the God of heaven speak, and as we see seal after seal opened, and hear trumpet after trumpet utter its voice.
(3) The form of the manifestation - the opening vision - is eminently suited to show us that the communications in this book proceed from heaven. Looking into heaven, and seeing the vision of the Almighty, we are prepared to feel that what follows has a higher than any human origin; that it has come direct from the throne of God. And,
(4) There was a propriety that the visions should open with a manifestation of the throne of God in heaven, or with a vision of heaven, because that, also, is the termination of the whole; it is that to which all the visions in the book tend. It begins in heaven, as seen by the exile in Patmos; it terminates in heaven, when all enemies of the church are subdued, and the redeemed reign triumphant in glory.
The substance of the introductory vision in this chapter can be stated in few words:
(a) A door is opened, and John is permitted to look into heaven, and to see what is passing there, Revelation 4:1-2.
(b) The first thing that strikes him is a throne, with one sitting on the throne, Revelation 4:2.
(c) The appearance of him who sits upon the throne is described, Revelation 4:3. He is “like a jasper and a sardine stone.” There is no attempt to portray his form; there is no description from which an image could be formed that could become an object of idolatrous worship - for who would undertake to chisel anything so indefinite as what is merely “like a jasper or a sardine stone?” And yet the description is distinct enough to fill the mind with emotions of awe and sublimity, and to leave the impression that he who sat on the throne was a pure and holy God.
(d) Round about the throne there was a bright rainbow: a symbol of peace, Revelation 4:3.
(e) Around the throne are gathered the elders of the church, having on their heads crowns of gold: symbols of the ultimate triumph of the church, Revelation 4:4.
(f) Thunder and lightning, as at Sinai, announce the presence of God, and seven burning lamps before the throne represent the Spirit of God, in his diversified operations, as going forth through the world to enlighten, sanctify, and save, Revelation 4:5.
(g) Before the throne there is a pellucid pavement, as of crystal, spread out like a sea: emblem of calmness, majesty, peace, and wide dominion, Revelation 4:6.
(h) The throne is supported by four living creatures, full of eyes: emblems of the all-seeing power of him that sits upon the throne, and of his ever-watchful providence, Revelation 4:6.
(i) To each one of these living creatures there is a unique symbolic face: respectively emblematic of the authority, the power, the wisdom of God, and of the rapidity with which the purposes of Providence are executed, Revelation 4:7. All are furnished with wings: emblematic of their readiness to do the will of God Revelation 4:8, but each one individually with a special form.
(j) All these creatures pay ceaseless homage to God, whose throne they are represented as supporting: emblematic of the fact that all the operations of the divine government do, in fact, promote his glory, and, as it were, render him praise, Revelation 4:8-9.
(k) To this the elders, the representatives of the church, respond: representing the fact that the church acquiesces in all the arrangements of Providence, and in the execution of all the divine purposes, and finds in them all ground for adoration and thanksgiving, Revelation 4:10-11.
After this - Greek, “After these things”; that is, after what he had seen, and after what he had been directed to record in the preceding chapters. How long after these things this occurred, he does not say - whether on the same day, or at some subsequent time; and conjecture would be useless. The scene, however, is changed. Instead of seeing the Saviour standing before him Revelation 1:0, the scene is transferred to heaven, and he is permitted to look in upon the throne of God, and upon the worshippers there.
I looked - Greek, “I saw” - εἶδον eidon. Our word “look” would rather indicate purpose or intentions, as if he had designedly directed his attention to heaven, to see what could be discovered there. The meaning, however, is simply that he saw a new vision, without intimating whether there was any design on his part, and without saying how his thoughts came to be directed to heaven.
A door was opened - That is, there was apparently an opening in the sky like a door, so that he could look into heaven.
In heaven - Or, rather, in the expanse above - in the visible heavens as they appear to spread out over the earth. So Ezekiel 1:1, “The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” The Hebrews spoke of the sky above as a solid expanse; or as a curtain stretched out; or as an extended arch above the earth - describing it as it appears to the eye. In that expanse, or arch, the stars are set as gems (compare the notes on Isaiah 34:4); through apertures or windows in that expanse the rain comes down, Genesis 7:11; and that is opened when a heavenly messenger comes down to the earth, Matthew 3:16. Compare Luke 3:21; Acts 7:56; Acts 10:11. Of course, all this is figurative, but it is such language as all people naturally use. The simple meaning here is, that John had a vision of what is in heaven as if there had been such an opening made through the sky, and he had been permitted to look into the world above.
And the first voice which I heard - That is, the first sound which he heard was a command to come up and see the glories of that world. He afterward heard other sounds - the sounds of praise; but the first notes that fell on his ear were a direction to come up there and receive a revelation respecting future things. This does not seem to me to mean, as Prof. Stuart, Lord, and others suppose, that he now recognized the voice which had first, or formerly spoken to him Revelation 1:10, but that this was the first in contradistinction from other voices which he afterward heard. It resembled the former “voice” in this, that it was “like the sound of a trumpet,” but besides that there does not seem to have been anything that would suggest to him that it came from the same source. It is certainly possible that the Greek would admit of that interpretation, but it is not the most obvious or probable.
Was as it were of a trumpet - It resembled the sound of a trumpet, Revelation 1:10.
Talking with me - As of a trumpet that seemed to speak directly to me.
Which said - That is, the voice said.
Come up hither - To the place whence the voice seemed to proceed - heaven.
And I will show thee things which must be hereafter - Greek, “after these things.” The reference is to future events; and the meaning is, that there would be disclosed to him events that were to occur at some future period. There is no intimation here when they would occur, or what would be embraced in the period referred to. All that the words would properly convey would be, that there would be a disclosure of things that were to occur in some future time.
And immediately I was in the Spirit - See the notes on Revelation 1:10. He does not affirm that he was caught up into heaven, nor does he say what impression was on his own mind, if any, as to the place where he was; but he was at once absorbed in the contemplation of the visions before him. He was doubtless still in Patmos, and these things were made to pass before his mind as a reality; that is, they appeared as real to him as if he saw them, and they were in fact a real symbolical representation of things occurring in heaven.
And, behold, a throne was set in heaven - That is, a throne was placed there. The first thing that arrested his attention was a throne. Tiffs was “in heaven” - an expression which proves that the scene of the vision was not the temple in Jerusalem, as some have supposed. There is no allusion to the temple, and no imagery drawn from the temple. Isaiah had his vision Isaiah 6:1-13 in the holy of holies of the temple; Ezekiel Ezekiel 1:1, by the river Chebar; but John looked directly into heaven, and saw the throne of God, and the encircling worshippers there.
And one sat on the throne - It is remarkable that John gives no description of him who sat on the throne, nor does he indicate who he was by name. Neither do Isaiah or Ezekiel attempt to describe the appearance of the Deity, nor are there any intimations of that appearance given from which a picture or an image could be formed. So much do their representations accord with what is demanded by correct taste; and so sedulously have they guarded against any encouragement of idolatry.
And he that sat was to look upon - Was in appearance; or, as I looked upon him, this seemed to be his appearance. He does not describe his form, but his splendor.
Like a jasper - ἰάσπιδι iaspidi The jasper, properly, is “an opaque, impure variety of quartz, of red, yellow, and also of some dull colors, breaking with a smooth surface. It admits of a high polish, and is used for vases, seals, snuff-boxes, etc. When the colors are in stripes or bands, it is called striped jasper” (Dana, in Webster’s Dictionary). The color here is not designated, whether red or yellow. As the red was, however, the common color worn by princes, it is probable that that was the color that appeared, and that John means to say that he appeared like a prince in his royal robes. Compare Isaiah 6:1.
And a sardine stone - σαρδίῳ sardiō This denotes a precious stone of a bloodred, or sometimes of a flesh-color, more commonly known by the name of carnelian (Robinson’s Lexicon). Thus, it corresponds with the jasper, and this is only an additional circumstance to convey the exact idea in the mind of John, that the appearance of him who sat on the throne was that of a prince in his scarlet robes. This is all the description which he gives of his appearance; and this is:
(a)Entirely appropriate, as it suggests the idea of a prince or a monarch; and,
(b)It is well adapted to impress the mind with a sense of the majesty of Him who cannot be described, and of whom no image should be attempted. Compare Deuteronomy 4:12; “Ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude.”
And there was a rainbow round about the throne - This is a beautiful image, and was probably designed to be emblematical as well as beautiful. The previous representation is that of majesty and splendor; this is adapted to temper the majesty of the representation. The rainbow has always, from its own nature, and from its associations, been an emblem of peace. It appears on the cloud as the storm passes away. It contrasts beautifully with the tempest that has just been raging. It is seen as the rays of the sun again appear clothing all things with beauty - the more beautiful from the fact that the storm has come, and that the rain has fallen. If the rain has been gentle, nature smiles serenely, and the leaves and flowers refreshed appear clothed with new beauty: if the storm has raged violently, the appearance of the rainbow is a pledge that the war of the elements has ceased, and that God smiles again upon the earth. It reminds us, too, of the “covenant” when God did “set his bow in the cloud,” and solemnly promised that the earth should no more be destroyed by a flood, Genesis 9:9-16. The appearance of the rainbow, therefore, around the throne, was a beautiful emblem of the mercy of God, and of the peace that was to pervade the world as the result of the events that were to be disclosed to the vision of John. True, there were lightnings and thunderings and voices, but there the bow abode calmly above them all, assuring him that there was to be mercy and peace.
In sight like unto an emerald - The emerald is green, and this color so predominated in the bow that it seemed to be made of this species of precious stone. The modified and mild color of green appears to everyone to predominate in the rainbow. Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:28) has introduced the image of the rainbow, also, in his description of the vision that appeared to him, though not as calmly encircling the throne, but as descriptive of the general appearance of the scene. “As is the appearance of the bow that is on the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about.” Milton, also, has introduced it, but it is also as a part of the coloring of the throne:
“Over their heads a crystal firmament,
Whereon a sapphire throne, inlaid with pure.
Amber, and colors of the showery arch.”
- Paradise Lost, b. vii.
And round about the throne were four and twenty seats - Or rather, “thrones” - θρόνοι thronoi - the same word being used as what is rendered “throne” - θρόνος thronos. The word, indeed, properly denotes a seat, but it came to be employed to denote particularly the seat on which a monarch sat, and is properly translated thus in Revelation 4:2-3. So it is rendered in Matthew 5:34; Matthew 19:28; Matthew 23:22; Matthew 25:31; Luke 1:32; and uniformly elsewhere in the New Testament (53 places in all), except in Luke 1:52; Revelation 2:13; Revelation 4:4; Revelation 11:16; Revelation 16:10, where it is rendered “seat and seats.” It should have been rendered “thrones” here, and is so translated by Prof. Stuart. Coverdale and Tyndale render the word “seat” in each place in Revelation 4:2-5. It was undoubtedly the design of the writer to represent those who sat on those seats as, in some sense, kings - for they have on their heads crowns of gold - and that idea should have been retained in the translation of this word.
And upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting - Very various opinions have been entertained in respect to those who thus appeared sitting around the throne, and to the question why the number twenty-four is mentioned. Instead of examining those opinions at length, it will be better to present, in a summary manner, what seems to be probable in regard to the intended reference. The following points, then, would appear to embrace all that can be known on this subject:
- These elders have a regal character, or are of a kingly order. This is apparent:
(a) because they are represented as sitting on “thrones,” and
(b) because they have on their heads “crowns of gold.”
(2)They are emblematic. They are designed to symbolize or represent some class of persons. This is clear:
(a) because it cannot be supposed that so small a number would compose the whole of those who are in fact around the throne of God, and,
(b) because there are other symbols there designed to represent something pertaining to the homage rendered to God, as the four living creatures and the angels, and this supposition is necessary in order to complete the symmetry and harmony of the representation.
(3)They are human beings, and are designed to have some relation to the race of man, and somehow to connect the human race with the worship of heaven. The four living creatures have another design; the angels Revelation 5:1-14 have another; but these are manifestly of our race - persons from this world before the throne.
(4)They are designed in some way to be symbolic of the church as redeemed. Thus, they say Revelation 5:9, “Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood.”
(5)They are designed to represent the whole church in every land and every age of the world. Thus, they say Revelation 5:9, “Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” This shows, further, that the whole representation is emblematic; for otherwise in so small a number - twenty-four - there could not be a representation out of every nation.
(6)They represent the church triumphant - the church victorious. Thus, they have crowns on their heads; they have harps in their hands Revelation 5:8; they say that they are “kings and priests,” and that they will “reign on the earth,” Revelation 5:10.
(7)The design, therefore, is to represent the church triumphant - redeemed - saved - as rendering praise and honor to God; as uniting with the hosts of heaven in adoring him for his perfections and for the wonders of his grace; As representatives of the church, they are admitted near to him; they encircle his throne; they appear victorious over every foe; and they come, in unison with the living creatures, and the angels, and the whole universe Revelation 5:13, to ascribe power and dominion to God.
(8)As to the reason why the number “twenty-four” is mentioned, perhaps nothing certain can be determined. Ezekiel, in his vision Ezekiel 8:16; Ezekiel 11:1, saw twenty-five men between the porch and the altar, with their backs toward the temple, and their faces toward the earth - supposed to be representations of the twenty-four “courses” into which the body of priests was divided 1 Chronicles 24:3-19, with the high priest among them, making up the number twenty-five. It is possible that John in this vision may have designed to refer to the church considered as a priesthood (compare the notes on 1 Peter 2:9), and to have alluded to the fact that the priesthood under the Jewish economy was divided into twenty-four courses, each with a presiding officer, and who was a representative of that portion of the priesthood over which he presided. If so, then the ideas which enter into the representation are these:
(a) That the whole church may be represented as a priesthood, or a community of priests - an idea which frequently occurs in the New Testament.
(b) That the church, as such a community of priests, is employed in the praise and worship of God - an idea, also, which finds abundant countenance in the New Testament.
(c) That, in a series of visions having a designed reference to the church, it was natural to introduce some symbol or emblem representing the church, and representing the fact that this is its office and employment. And,
(d) that this would be well expressed by an allusion derived from the ancient dispensation - the division of the priesthood into classes, over each one of which there presided an individual who might be considered as the representative of his class.
It is to be observed, indeed, that in one respect they are represented as” kings,” but still this does not forbid the supposition that there might have been intermingled also another idea, that they were also “priests.” Thus, the two ideas are blended by these same elders in Revelation 5:10; “And hath made us unto our God kings and priests.” Thus understood, the vision is designed to denote the fact that the representatives of the church, ultimately to be triumphant, are properly engaged in ascribing praise to God. The word “elders” here seems to be used in the sense of aged and venerable men, rather than as denoting office. They were such as by their age were qualified to preside over the different divisions of the priesthood.
Clothed in white raiment - Emblem of purity, and appropriate, therefore, to the representatives of the sanctified church. Compare Revelation 3:4; Revelation 6:11; Revelation 7:9.
And they had on their heads crowns of gold - Emblematic of the fact that they sustained a kingly office. There was blended in the representation the idea that they were both “kings and priests.” Thus, the idea is expressed by Peter 1 Peter 2:9, “a royal priesthood” - βασίλειον ἱεράτευμα basileion hierateuma.
And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices - Expressive of the majesty and glory of Him that sat upon it. We are at once reminded by this representation of the sublime scene that occurred at Sinai Exodus 19:16, where “there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud.” Compare Ezekiel 1:13, Ezekiel 1:24. So Milton:
“Forth rushed with whirlwind sound.
The chariot of Paternal Deity,
Flashing thick flames.”
“And from about him fierce effusion rolled.
Of smoke, and lightning flame, and sparkles dire.”
Par. Lost, b. vi.
The word “voices” here connected with “thunders” perhaps means “voices even thunders” - referring to the sound made by the thunder. The meaning is, that these were echoing and re-echoing sounds, as it were a multitude of voices that seemed to speak on every side.
And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne - Seven burning lamps that constantly shone there, illuminating the whole scene. These steadily burning lamps would add much to the beauty of the vision.
Which are the seven Spirits of God - Which represent, or are emblematic of, the seven Spirits of God. On the meaning of the phrase, “the seven Spirits of God,” see the notes on Revelation 1:4. If these lamps are designed to be symbols of the Holy Spirit, according to the interpretation proposed in Revelation 1:4, it may be perhaps in the following respects:
- They may represent the manifold influences of that Spirit in the world - as imparting light; giving consolation; creating the heart anew; sanctifying the soul, etc.
(2)They may denote that all the operations of that Spirit are of the nature of light, dissipating darkness, and vivifying and animating all things.
(3)Perhaps their being placed here before the throne, in the midst of thunder and lightning, may be designed to represent the idea that - amidst all the scenes of magnificence and grandeur; all the storms, agitations, and tempests on the earth; all the political changes; all the convulsions of empire under the providence of God; and all the commotions in the soul of man, produced by the thunders of the law - the Spirit of God beams calmly and serenely, shedding a steady influence over all, like lamps burning in the very midst of lightnings, and thunderings, and voices. In all the scenes of majesty and commotion that occur on the earth, the Spirit of God is present, shedding a constant light, and undisturbed in his influence by all the agitations that are abroad.
And before the throne there was a sea of glass - An expanse spread out like a sea composed of glass: that is, that was pellucid and transparent like glass. It is not uncommon to compare the sea with glass. See numerous examples in Wetstein, in loco. The point of the comparison here seems to be its transparent appearance. It was perfectly clear - apparently stretching out in a wide expanse, as if it were a sea.
Like unto crystal - The word “crystal” means properly anything congealed and pellucid, as ice; then anything resembling that, particularly a certain species of stone distinguished for its clearness - as the transparent crystals of quartz; limpid and colorless quartz; rock or mountain quartz. The word “crystal” now, in mineralogy, means an inorganic body which, by the operation of affinity, has assumed the form of a regular solid, by a certain number of plane and smooth faces. It is used here manifestly in its popular sense to denote anything that is perfectly clear like ice. The comparison, in the representation of the expanse spread around the throne, turns on these points:
- It appeared like a sea - stretching afar.
(2)It resembled, in its general appearance, glass; and this idea is strengthened by the addition of another image of the same character - that it was like an expanse of crystal, perfectly clear and pellucid. This would seem to be designed to represent the floor or pavement on which the throne stood. If this is intended to be emblematical, it may denote:
(a) that the empire of God is vast - as if it were spread out like the sea; or.
(b) it may be emblematic of the calmness, the placidity of the divine administration - like an undisturbed and unruffled ocean of glass. Perhaps, however, we should not press such circumstances too far to find a symbolical meaning.
And in the midst of the throne - ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ θρόνου en mesō tou thronou. Not occupying the throne, but so as to appear to be intermingled with the throne, or “in the midst” of it, in the sense that it was beneath the center of it. The meaning would seem to be, that the four living creatures referred to occupied such a position collectively that they at the same time appeared to be under the throne, so that it rested on them, and around it, so that they could be seen from any quarter. This would occur if their bodies were under the throne, and if they stood so that they faced outward. To one approaching the throne they would seem to be around it, though their bodies were under, or “in the midst” of it as a support. The form of their bodies is not specified, but it is not improbable that though their heads were different, their bodies, that were under the throne, and that sustained it, were of the same form.
And round about the throne - In the sense above explained - that, as they stood, they would be seen on every side of the throne.
Were four beasts - This is a very unhappy translation, as the word “beasts” by no means conveys a correct idea of the original word. The Greek word - ζοῶν zoōn - means properly “a living thing”; and it is thus indeed applied to animals, or to the living creation, but the notion of their being living things, or living creatures, should be retained in the translation. Prof. Stuart renders it, “living creatures.” Isaiah Isaiah 6:1-13, in his vision of Yahweh, saw two seraphim; Ezekiel, whom John more nearly resembles in his description, saw four “living creatures” - חיות chayowt Ezekiel 1:5 - that is, living, animated, moving beings. The words “living beings” would better convey the idea than any other which could be employed. They are evidently, like those which Ezekiel saw, symbolical beings; but the nature and purpose of the symbol is not perfectly apparent. The “four and twenty elders” are evidently human beings, and are representatives, as above explained, of the church.
In Revelation 5:11, angels are themselves introduced as taking an important part in the worship of heaven: and these living beings, therefore, cannot be designed to represent either angels or human beings. In Ezekiel they are either designed as poetic representations of the majesty of God, or of his providential government, showing what sustains his throne; symbols denoting intelligence, vigilance, the rapidity and directness with which the divine commands are executed, and the energy and firmness with which the government of God is administered. The nature of the case, and the similarity to the representation in Ezekiel, would lead us to suppose that the same idea is to be found substantially in John; and there would be no difficulty in such an interpretation were it not that these “living creatures” are apparently represented in Revelation 5:8-9, as uniting with the redeemed from the earth in such a manner as to imply that they were themselves redeemed.
But perhaps the language in Revelation 5:9, “And they sung a new song,” etc., though apparently connected with the “four beasts” in Revelation 4:8, is not designed to be so connected. John may intend there merely to advert to the fact that a new song was sung, without meaning to say that the “four living beings” united in that song. For, if he designed merely to say that the “four living beings” and the “four and twenty elders” fell down to worship, and then that a song was heard, though in fact sung only by the four and twenty eiders, he might have employed the language which he actually has done. If this interpretation be admitted, then the most natural explanation to be given of the “four living beings” is to suppose that they are symbolical beings designed to furnish some representation of the government of God - to illustrate, as it were, that on which the divine government rests, or which constitutes its support - to wit, power, intelligence, vigilance, energy. This is apparent:
(a)Because it was not unusual for the thrones of monarchs to be supported by carved animals of various forms, which were designed undoubtedly to be somehow emblematic of government - either of its stability, vigilance, boldness, or firmness. Thus, Solomon had twelve lions carved on each side of his throne - no improper emblems of government - 1Ki 10:10, 1 Kings 10:20.
- These living beings are described as the supports of the throne of God, or as that on which it rests, and would be, therefore, no improper symbols of the great principles or truths which give support or stability to the divine administration.
- They are, in themselves, well adapted to be representatives of the great principles of the divine government, or of the divine providential dealings, as we shall see in the more particular explanation of the symbol.
- Perhaps it might be added, that, so understood, there would be completeness in the vision.
The “elders” appear there as representatives of the church redeemed; the angels in their own proper persons render praise to God. To this it was not improper to add, and the completeness of the representation seems to make it necessary to add, that all the doings of the Almighty unite in his praise; his various acts in the government of the universe harmonize with redeemed and unfallen intelligences in proclaiming his glory. The vision of the “living beings,” therefore, is not, as I suppose, a representation of the attributes of God as such, but an emblematic representation of the divine government - of the throne of Deity resting upon, or sustained by, those things of which these living beings are emblems - intelligence, firmness, energy, etc. This supposition seems to combine more probabilities than any other which has been proposed; for, according to this supposition, all the acts, and ways, and creatures of God unite in his praise.
It is proper to add, however, that expositors are by no means agreed as to the design of this representation. Prof. Stuart supposes that the attributes of God are referred to; Mr. Elliott (i. 93), that the “twenty-four elders and the four living creatures symbolize the church, or the collective body of the saints of God; and that as there are two grand divisions of the church, the larger one that of the departed in Paradise, and the other that militant on earth, the former is depicted by the twenty-four elders, and the latter by the living creatures”; Mr. Lord (pp. 53, 54), that the living creatures and the elders are both of one race; the former perhaps denoting those like Enoch and Elijah, who were translated, and those who were raised by the Saviour after his resurrection, or those who have been raised to special eminence - the latter the mass of the redeemed; Mr. Mede, that the living creatures are symbols of the church worshipping on earth; Mr. Daubuz, that they are symbols of the ministers of the church on earth; Vitringa, that they are symbols of eminent ministers and teachers in every age; Dr. Hammond regards him who sits on the throne as the metropolitan bishop of Judea, the representative of God, the elders as diocesan bishops of Judea, and the living creatures as four apostles, symbols of the saints who are to attend the Almighty as assessors in judgment! See Lord on the Apocalypse, pp. 58, 59.
Full of eyes - Denoting omniscience. The ancients fabled Argus as having 100 eyes, or as having the power of seeing in any direction. The emblem here would denote an everwatchful and observing Providence; and, in accordance with the explanation proposed above, it means that, in the administration of the divine government, everything is distinctly contemplated; nothing escapes observation; nothing can be concealed. It is obvious that the divine government could not be administered unless this were so; and it is the perfection of the government of God that all things are seen just as they are. In the vision seen by Ezekiel Ezekiel 1:18, the “rings” of the wheels on which the living creatures moved are represented as “full of eyes round about them,” emblematic of the same thing. So Milton:
“As with stars their bodies all,
And wings were set with eyes; with eyes the wheels.
Of beryl, and careening fires between.”
Before - In front. As one looked on their faces, from whatever quarter the throne was approached, he could see a multitude of eyes looking upon him.
And behind - On the parts of their bodies which were under the throne. The meaning is, that there is universal vigilance in the government of God. Whatever is the form of the divine administration; whatever part is contemplated; however it is manifested - whether as activity, energy, power, or intelligence - it is based on the fact that all things are seen from every direction. There is nothing that is the result of blind fate or of chance.
And the first beast was like a lion - A general description has been given, applicable to all, denoting that in whatever form the divine government is administered, these things will be found; a particular description now follows, contemplating that government under particular aspects, as symbolized by the living beings on which the throne rests. The first is that of a lion. The lion is the monarch of the woods, the king of beasts, and he becomes thus the emblem of dominion, of authority, of government in general. Compare Genesis 49:9; Amos 3:8; Joel 3:16; Daniel 7:4. As emblematic of the divine administration, this would signify that He who sits on the throne is the ruler over all, and that his dominion is absolute and entire. It has been made a question whether the whole body had the form of a lion, or whether it had the appearance of a lion only as to its face or front part. It would seem probable that the latter only is intended, for it is expressly said of the “third beast” that it had “the face of a man,” implying that it did not resemble a man in other respects, and it is probable that, as these living creatures were the supports of the throne, they had the same form in all other particulars except the front part. The writer has not informed us what was the appearance of these living creatures in other respects, but it is most natural to suppose that it was in the form of an ox, as being adapted to sustain a burden. It is hardly necessary to say that the thing supposed to be symbolical here in the government of God - his absolute rule - actually exists, or that it is important that this should be fairly exhibited to people.
And the second beast like a calf - Or, more properly, a young bullock, for so the word - μόσχος moschos - means. The term is given by Herodotus (ii. 41; iii. 28) to the Egyptian god Apis, that is, a young bullock. Such an emblem, standing under a throne as one of its supports, would symbolize firmness, endurance, strength (compare Proverbs 14:4); and, as used to represent qualities pertaining to him who sat on the throne, would denote stability, firmness, perseverance: qualities that are found abundantly in the divine administration. There was clearly, in the apprehension of the ancients, some natural fitness or propriety in such an emblem. A young bullock was worshipped in Egypt as a god. Jeroboam set up two idols in the form of a calf, the one in Dan and the other in Bethel, 1 Kings 12:28-29. A similar object of worship was found in the Indian, Greek, and Scandinavian mythologies, and the image appears to have been adopted early and extensively to represent the divinity.
The above figure is a representation of a calfidol, copied from the collection made by the artists of the French Institute at Cairo. It is recumbent, with human eyes, the skin flesh-colored, and the whole after-parts covered with a white and sky-blue drapery: the horns not on the head, but above it, and containing within them the symbolical globe surmounted by two feathers. The meaning of the emblems on the back is not known. It is copied here merely to show that, for some cause, the calf was regarded as an emblem of the Divinity. It may illustrate this, also, to remark that among the sculptures found by Mr. Layard, in the ruins of Nineveh, were not a few winged bulls, some of them of large structure, and probably all of them emblematic. One of these was removed with great difficulty, to be deposited in the British Museum. See Mr. Layard’s Nineveh and its Remains, vol. ii. pp. 64-75. Such emblems were common in the East; and, being thus common, they would be readily understood in the time of John.
And the third beast had a face as a man - There is no intimation as to what was the form of the remaining portion of this living creature; but as the beasts were “in the midst of the throne,” that is, under it as a support, it may be presumed that they had such a form as was adapted to that purpose - as supposed above, perhaps the form of an ox. To this living creature there was attached the head of a man, and that would be what would be particuLarly visible to one looking on the throne. The aspect of a man here would denote intelligence - for it is this which distinguishes man from the creation beneath him; and if the explanation of the symbol above given be correct, then the meaning of this emblem is, that the operations of the government of God are conducted with intelligence and wisdom. That is, the divine administration is not the result of blind fate or chance; it is founded on a clear knowledge of things, on what is best to be done, on what will most conduce to the common good.
Of the truth of this there can be no doubt; and there was a propriety that, in a vision designed to give to man a view of the government of the Almighty, this should be appropriately symbolized. It may illustrate this to observe, that in ancient sculptures it was common to unite the head of a man with the figure of an animal, as cobining symbols. Among the most remarkable figures discovered by Mr. Layard, in the ruins of Nineveh, were winged, human-headed lions. These lions are thus described by Mr. Layard: “They were about twelve feet in height, and the same number in length. The body and limbs were admirably portrayed; the muscles and bones, although strongly developed, to display the strength of the animal, showed, at the same time, a correct knowledge of its anatomy and form. Expanded wings sprung from the shoulder and spread over the back; a knotted girdle, ending in tassels, encircled the loins. These sculptures, forming an entrance, were partly in full, and partly in relief. The head and forepart, facing the chambers, were in full; but only one side of the rest of the slab was sculptured, the back being placed against the wall of sun-dried bricks” (“Nineveh and its Remains,” vol. i. p. 75).
The following engraving will give an idea of one of these human-headed animals, and will serve to illustrate the passage before us alike in reference to the head, indicating intelligence, and the wings, denoting rapidity. On the use of these figures, found in the ruins of Nineveh, Mr. Layard makes the following sensible remarks - remarks admirably illustrating the view which I take of the symbols before us: “I used to contemplate for hours these mysterious emblems, and muse over their intent and history. What more noble forms could have ushered the people into the temple of their gods? What more subblime images could have been borrowed from nature by people who sought, unaided by the light of revealed religion, to embody their conceptions of the wisdom, power, and ubiquity of a Supreme Being? They could find no better type of intellect and knowledge than the head of a man; of strength, than the body of the lion; of rapidity of motion, than the wings of a bird. These winged, human-headed lions were not idle creations, the offspring of mere fancy their meaning was written upon them. They had awed and instructed races which flourished 3000 years ago. Through the portals which they guarded, kings, priests, and warriors had borne sacrifices to their altars, long before the wisdom of the East had penetrated into Greece, and had furnished its mythology with symbols long recognized by the Assyrian votaries” (“Nineveh and its Remains,” vol. i. p. 75, 76).
And the fourth beast was like a flying eagle - All birds, indeed, fly; but the epithet flying is here employed to add intensity to the description. The eagle is distinguished, among the feathered race, for the rapidity, the power, and the elevation of its flight. No other bird is supposed to fly so high; none ascends with so much power; none is so majestic and grand in his ascent toward the sun. That which would be properly symbolized by this would be the rapidity with which the commands of God are executed; or this characteristic of the divine government, that the purposes of God are carried into prompt execution. There is, as it were, a vigorous, powerful, and rapid flight toward the accomplishment of the designs of God - as the eagle ascends unmolested toward the sun. Or, it may be that this symbolizes protecting care, or is an emblem of that protection which God, by his providence, extends over those who put their trust in him.
Thus, in Exodus 19:4, “Ye have seen how I bare you on eagles’ wings.” “Hide me under the shadow of thy wings,” Psalms 17:8. “In the shadow of thy wing’s will I rejoice,” Psalms 63:7. “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead him,” Deuteronomy 32:11-12, etc. As in the case of the other living beings, so it is to be remarked of the fourth living creature also, that the form of the body is unknown. There is no impropriety in supposing that it is only its front aspect that John here speaks of, for that was sufficient for the symbol. The remaining portion “in the midst of the throne” may have corresponded with that of the other living beings, as being adapted to a support. In further illustration of this it may be remarked, that symbols of this description were common in the Oriental world.
Figures in the human form, or in the form of animals, with the head of an eagle or a vulture, are found in the ruins of Nineveh, and were undoubtedly designed to be symbolic. “On the earliest Assyrian monuments,” says Mr. Layard (“Nineveh and its Remains,” vol. ii., p. 348, 349), “one of the most prominent sacred types is the eagle-headed, or the vulture-headed, human figure. Not only is it found in colossal proportions on the walls, or guarding the portals of the chambers, but it is also constantly represented in the groups on the embroidered robes. When thus introduced, it is generally seen contending with other mythic animals - such as the human-headed lion or bull; and in these contests it is always the conqueror. it may hence be inferred that it was a type of the Supreme Deity, or of one of his principal attributes. A fragment of the Zoroastrian oracles, preserved by Eusebius, declares that ‘God is he that has the head of a hawk. He is the first, indestructible, eternal, unbegotten, indivisible, dissimilar; the dispenser of all good; incorruptible; the best of the good, the wisest of the wise; he is the father of equity and justice, self-taught, physical and perfect, and wise, and the only inventor of the sacred philosophy.’ Sometimes the head of this bird is added to the body of a lion.
Under this form of the Egyptian hieracosphinx it is the conqueror in combats with other symbolical figures, and is frequently represented as striking down a gazelle or wild goat. It also clearly resembles the gryphon of the Greek mythology, avowedly an Eastern symbol, and connected with Apollo, or with the sun, of which the Assyrian form was probably an emblem.” The following figure found in Nimroud, or ancient Nineveh; may furnish an illustration of one of the usual forms. If these views of the meaning of these symbols are correct, then the idea which would be conveyed to the mind of John, and the idea, therefore, which should be conveyed to our minds, is, that the government of God is energetic, firm, intelligent, and that in the execution of its purposes it is rapid like the unobstructed flight of an eagle, or protective like the care of the eagle for its young. When, in the subsequent parts of the vision, these living creatures are represented as offering praise and adoration to Him that sits on the throne Revelation 4:8; Revelation 5:8, Revelation 5:14, the meaning would be, in accordance with this representation, that all the acts of divine government do, as if they were personified, unite in the praise which the redeemed and the angels ascribe to God. All living things, and all acts of the Almighty, conspire to proclaim his glory. The church, by her representatives, the “four and twenty elders,” honors God; the angels, without number, unite in the praise; all creatures in heaven, in earth, under the earth, and in the sea Revelation 5:13, join in the song; and all the acts and ways of God declare also his majesty and glory: for around his throne, and beneath his throne, are expressive symbols of the firmness, energy, intelligence, and power with which his government is administered.
And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him - An emblem common to them all, denoting that, in reference to each and all the things here symbolized, there was one common characteristic - that in heaven there is the utmost promptness in executing the divine commands. Compare Isaiah 6:2; Psalms 18:10; Psalms 104:3; Jeremiah 48:40. No mention is made of the manner in which these wings were arranged, and conjecture in regard to that is vain. The seraphim, as seen by Isaiah, had each one six wings, with two of which the face was covered, to denote profound reverence; with two the feet, or lower parts - emblematic of modesty; and with two they flew - emblematic of their celerity in executing the commands of God, Isaiah 6:2. Perhaps without impropriety we may suppose that, in regard to these living beings seen by John, two of the wings of each were employed, as in Isaiah, to cover the face - token of profound reverence; and that the remainder were employed in flight denoting the rapidity with which the divine commands are executed. Mercury, the messenger of Jupiter among the pagan, was represented with wings, and nothing is more common in the paintings and basreliefs of antiquity than such representations.
And they were full of eyes within - Prof. Stuart more correctly renders this, “around and within are full of eyes”; connecting the word “around” (“about”), not with the wings, as in our version, but with the eyes. The meaning is, that the portions of the beasts that were visible from the outside of the throne, and the portions under or within the throne, were covered with eyes. The obvious design of this is to mark the universal vigilance of divine providence.
And they rest not - Margin, have no rest. That is, they are constantly employed; there is no intermission. The meaning, as above explained, is, that the works and ways of God are constantly bringing praise to him.
Day and night - Continually. They who are employed day and night fill up the whole time - for this is all.
Saying, Holy, holy, holy - For the meaning of this, see the notes on Isaiah 6:3.
Lord God Almighty - Isaiah Isaiah 6:3 expresses it, “Yahweh of hosts.” The reference is to the true God, and the epithet Almighty is one that is often given him. It is especially appropriate here, as there were to be, as the sequel shows, remarkable exhibitions of power in executing the purposes described in this book.
Which was, and is, and is to come - Who is eternal - existing in all past time; existing now; and to continue to exist forever. See the notes on Revelation 1:4.
And when those beasts give glory ... - As often as those living beings ascribe glory to God. They did this continually Revelation 4:8; and, if the above explanation be correct, then the idea is that the ways and acts of God in his providential government are continually of such a nature as to honor him.
The four and twenty elders fall down before him ... - The representatives of the redeemed church in heaven (see the notes at Revelation 4:4) also unite in the praise. The meaning, if the explanation of the symbol be correct, is, that the church universal unites in praise to God for all that characterizes his administration. In the connection in which this stands here, the sense would be, that as often as there is any new manifestation of the principles of the divine government, the church ascribes new praise to God. Whatever may be thought of this explanation of the meaning of the symbols, of the fact here stated there can be no doubt. The church of God always rejoices when there is any new manifestation of the principles of the divine administration. As all these acts, in reality, bring glory and honor to God, the church, as often as there is any new manifestation of the divine character and purposes, renders praise anew. Nor can it be doubted that the view here taken is one that is every way appropriate to the general character of this book. The great design was to disclose what God was to do in future times, in the various revolutions that were to take place on the earth, until his government should be firmly established, and the principles of his administration should everywhere prevail; and there was a propriety, therefore, in describing the representatives of the church as taking part in this universal praise, and as casting every crown at the feet of Him who sits upon the throne.
And cast their crowns before the throne - They are described as “crowned” Revelation 4:4, that is, as triumphant, and as kings (compare Revelation 5:10), and they are here represented as casting their crowns at his feet, in token that they owe their triumph to Him. To his providential dealings, to his wise and merciful government, they owe it that they are crowned at all; and there is, therefore, a propriety that they should acknowledge this in a proper manner by placing their crowns at his feet.
Thou art worthy, O Lord - In thy character, perfections, and government, there is what makes it proper that universal praise should be rendered. The feeling of all true worshippers is, that (God is worthy of the praise that is ascribed to him. No man worships him aright who does not feel that there is that in his nature and his doings which makes it proper that he should receive universal adoration.
To receive glory - To have praise or glory ascribed to thee.
And honour - To be honored; that is, to be approached and adored as worthy of honor.
And power - To have power ascribed to thee, or to be regarded as having infinite power. Man can confer no power on God, but he may acknowledge what he has, and adore him for its exertion in his behalf and in the government of the world.
For thou hast created all things - Thus, laying the foundation for praise. No one can contemplate this vast and wonderful universe without seeing that He who has made it is worthy to “receive glory, and honor, and power.” Compare the notes on Job 38:7.
And for thy pleasure they are - They exist by thy will - διὰ τὸ θέλημά dia to thelēma. The meaning is, that they owe their existence to the will of God, and therefore their creation lays the foundation for praise. He “spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.” He said, “Let there be light; and there was light.” There is no other reason why the universe exists at all than that such was the will of God; there is nothing else that is to be adduced as explaining the fact that anything has now a being. The putting forth of that will explains all; and, consequently, whatever wisdom, power, goodness, is manifested in the universe, is to be traced to God, and is the expression of what was in him from eternity. It is proper, then, to “look up through nature to nature’s God,” and wherever we see greatness or goodness in the works of creation, to regard them as the faint expression of what exists essentially in the Creator.
And were created - Bringing more distinctly into notice the fact that they owe their existence to his will. They are not eternal; they are not self-existent; they were formed from nothing. This concludes the magnificent introduction to the principal visions in this book. It is beautifully appropriate to the solemn disclosures which are to be made in the following portions of the book, and, as in the case of Isaiah and Ezekiel, was eminently adapted to impress the mind of the holy seer with awe. Heaven is opened to his view; the throne of God is seen; there is a vision of Him who sits upon that throne; thunders and voices are heard around the throne; the lightnings play; and a rainbow, symbol of peace, encircles all; the representatives of the redeemed church, occupying subordinate thrones, and in robes of victory, and with crowns on their heads, are there; a vast smooth expanse like the sea is spread out before the throne; and the emblems of the wisdom, the power, the vigilance, the energy, the strength of the divine administration are there, represented as in the act of bringing honor to God, and proclaiming his praise. The mind of John was doubtless prepared by these august visions for the disclosures which follow; and the mind of the reader should in like manner be deeply and solemnly impressed when he contemplates them, as if he looked into heaven, and saw the impressive grandeur of the worship there. Let us fancy ourselves, therefore, with the holy seer looking into heaven, and listen with reverence to what the great God discloses respecting the various changes that are to occur until every foe of the church shall be subdued, and the earth shall acknowledge his sway, and the whole scene shall close in the triumphs and joys of heaven.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Revelation 4". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter