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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Revelation 4

Verses 1-11

Elevation and Vision

Revelation 4:1

It is a serious error to suppose that we can rightly apprehend the highest truths whilst we live on a low plane of thought and conduct, and yet it is a very common error. Those who grovel in the dust, nay, who wallow in the sensual mire, yet believe themselves competent to discuss the most solemn problems of existence and destiny: they conclude that the truths concerning God His existence, laws, government, revelation and purpose are apprehended and understood mentally like theories of mechanics and mathematics. It is a profound mistake.

I. To see eternal realities with open vision we must preserve a pure and sensitive soul. Recently in some experiments in colour photography it was attempted to reproduce the colours of the spectrum. The experiment succeeded so far as the bars of colour in the interval between the violet and the red were concerned: but the camera failed to represent the ultra hues, the film was not sufficiently sensitive to seize the hidden mystery of colour, and a couple of blotches alone witnessed to the existence of the unseen rays. Thus a coarsened soul in its dark misgivings bears witness to unseen things, yet it lacks the subtlety to discern and realise the glorious realities of the transcending universe. Our spirit must be uplifted by fellowship with God, made sensitive by purity, refined by love, kept steady by a great hope and confidence, or it cannot reflect and realise eternal verities. It is not so much by intellectual acuteness as by truth and purity in the inward parts that we lay hold of the things of God.

II. To apprehend justly and influentially eternal truths our life must be lofty in its spirit and aim. The real explanation of our dubiety and despair is not to be sought in our intellectual defects and limitations, but rather in the narrowness, egotism, and debasement of our thoughts, ideals, and strivings. We need to get on a higher plane of thinking, sympathy, and purpose. 'Come up higher and I will show thee.' Is not that the call of God to us? We are told that from the bottom of a pit the stars are visible at noonday, but to those who are content to dwell in the murky depths of low thinking, feeling, and action, the lights of the upper universe are lost in impenetrable obscuration. Character is the chief source of illumination; noble conduct best augments the inner light; life aspiring to high standards rather than logic divines the secrets of eternity.

W. L. Watkinson, The Ashes of Roses, p. 104.

References. IV. 1. H. S. Holland, Vital Values, p. 58. W. Morison, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 379. J. Keble, Sermons for Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 354. W. H. Simcox, The Cessation of Prophecy, p. 82. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xv. No. 887. IV. 1, 2. H. J. Bevis, Sermons, p. 155. IV. 2. Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 124.

The Rainbow and the Throne

Revelation 4:2-3

I want to dwell on the rainbow round the throne like to an emerald. Do you see any mystical meanings in that rainbow? I shall tell you what it suggests to me.

I. In the first place it speaks to me of this, that the permanent is encircled by the fleeting.

Whenever a Jew thought of the throne of God, he pictured one that was unchangeable. 'Thy throne, O God, is an everlasting throne,' was the common cry of psalmist and of prophet. Other thrones might pass into oblivion; other kingdoms flourish and decay. There was not a monarchy on any hand of Israel, but had risen and had fallen, like a star. But the throne of God, set in the high heaven, where a thousand years are as a day, that throne from all eternity had been, and to all eternity it would remain. Such was the throne which the Apostle saw, and round about it he descried a rainbow. It was engirdled with a thing of beauty, which shines for a moment, and in shining vanishes. The permanent was encircled by the transient. The eternal was set within the momentary. The sign and symbol of unchanging power was rooted in the heart of what was fleeting.

II. Another truth which is suggested here is that power is perfected in mercy. The rainbow has been symbolical of mercy, ever since the days of Noah and the flood. God made a covenant with Noah, you remember, that there should never be such a flood again. Never again, so long as earth endured, was there to fall such desolating judgment. And in token of that, God pointed to the bow, painted in all its beauty on the storm-cloud that rainbow was to be for ever the sign and sacrament that He was merciful.

III. The heavenly setting of mystery is hope.

As the Apostle gazed upon the throne, there was one thing that struck him to the heart. 'Out of the throne came voices, thunderings and lightnings.' Whose these voices were, he could not tell. What they were uttering, he did not know. Terrible messages pealed upon his ear, couched in some language he had never learned. And with these voices was the roll of thunder; and through it all, the flashing of the lightning; and John was awed, for in the throne of God he was face to face with unutterable mystery. Then he lifted his eyes, and lo, a rainbow, and yet it was different from earthly rainbows. It was not radiant with the seven colours that John had counted on the shore of Patmos. It was like an emerald what colour is an emerald? It was like an emerald; it was green. Around the throne, with its red flame of judgment, there was a rainbow, and the bow was green. Does that colour suggest anything to you? To me it brings the message of the Spring. You never hear a poet talk of dead green; but you often hear one talk of living green. It is the colour of the tender grass, and of the opening buds upon the trees. It is the colour of rest for weary eyes. It is the colour of hope for weary hearts.

G. H. Morrison, The Return of the Angels, p. 317.

References. IV. 3. D. M. Pratt, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liii. p. 186. H. S. Seekings, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xvii. p. 605. G. R. Fetherston, A Garden Eastward, p. 15.

Revelation 4:4

'In Brescia,' says Prof. Villari, during the Lent of 1486, 'Savonarola, with the Book of Revelation for his theme, found it easier to stir the sympathies of his hearers. His words were fervent, his tone commanding, and he spoke with a voice of thunder; reproving the people for their sins, denouncing the whole of Italy, and threatening all with the terrors of God's wrath. He described the forms of the twenty-four elders, and represented one of them as rising to announce the future calamities of the Brescians. Their city, he declared, would fall a prey to raging foes; they would see rivers of blood in the streets; wives would be torn from their husbands, virgins ravished, children murdered before their mothers' eyes; all would be terror and fire and bloodshed. His sermon ended with a general exhortation to repentance, inasmuch as the Lord would have mercy on the just. The mystic image of the elder made a deep impression on the people. The preacher's voice seemed really to resound from the other world; and his threatening predictions awakened much alarm. During the sack of Brescia, in 1572, by the ferocious soldiery of Gaston de Foix, when, it is said, that about six thousand persons were put to the sword, the inhabitants remembered the elder of the Apocalypse and the Ferrarese preacher's words'.

The whole state of man is a state of culture; and its flowering and completion may be described as Religion or Worship. There is always some religion, some hope and fear extended into the invisible from the blind boding which nails a horseshoe to the mast or the threshold, up to the song of the elders in the Apocalypse.


References. IV. 4, 10, 11. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. viii. p. 441. C. Anderson Scott, The Book of Revelation, p. 155. IV. 6, 7. A. P. Stanley, Sermons on Special Occasions, p. 291.

The Emblems of the Evangelists

Revelation 4:6-8

These four beasts what are they? The devout fancy of the Christian Fathers regarded them as emblems of the four Evangelists St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John those supreme benefactors of the Christian Church who have bequeathed to all generations that priceless legacy, the story, from their several standpoints, of that Life of matchless love which was the revelation of the unseen God and Father. There is some variation in the application of the imagery, but I shall follow what seems to me the aptest and truest interpretation that of St. Augustine.

I. St. Matthew the Lion. Of course the key to this emblem is the old fancy that the lion is the King of the Beasts. And you see the appropriateness of the emblem?

St. Matthew wrote his Gospel as an appeal to unbelieving Israel in the dark days when that terrible, crushing disaster had befallen the nation the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus and the dispersion of the people over the face of the earth. When they were broken, scattered, and despairing, St. Matthew, the Jewish Evangelist, wrote his Gospel, not to upbraid them with their unbelief, but to make a last gracious appeal to them, and to prove to them, after the manner of demonstration which the Jewish mind appreciated, that the Lord Jesus, whom their fathers in their blindness had rejected, was none other than the King of Israel the Promised Saviour, the Holy Messiah, the Son of David's royal house, whom the prophets had foretold, and whom, generation after generation, believing men had been dreaming of and praying for and longing after.

St. Matthew gathers up all the promises of God and all the hopes of His people, and shows how they are fulfilled and realised in the King and Saviour.

II. St. Mark the Man. And how apt this emblem is! St. Mark has no theological thesis, no apologetic purpose. He simply tells the story of our Lord's ministry, and he never stops to point a moral or deduce a consequence.

If St Matthew depicts Jesus as the Son of David, the King of Israel, St. Mark depicts Him as the Son of Man, the prophetic Servant of the Lord: 'Behold, My servant, whom I uphold, 'Mine elect, in whom My soul delighteth; I have put My Spirit upon Him: He shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles'.

III. St. Luke the Calf. And here is something puzzling. The calf is the sacrificial victim, and if there be any book in the New Testament which has nothing to say of sacrifices of victims and priests and altars and shedding of blood, it is the Gospel according to St. Luke. St Luke was a Greek, a physician of Antioch, and he knew nothing about Jewish typology and symbolism, and there is nothing about sacrifices in his Gospel. And yet those ancient mystics found his emblem in the calf.

It is certainly puzzling; but just consider it, and you will perceive the appropriateness of it. What is sacrifice? It is not a priest. It is not a victim. It is not a reeking altar. Oh, no! it is the giving of oneself for others. It is Love, and Love is the keynote of St. Luke's Gospel.

His Gospel reveals him as a Christian gentleman with a chivalrous compassion for every feeble and defenceless thing. And that is sacrifice that, and not the priest or the bleeding victim or the crimson altar. And what makes the Sacrifice on Calvary is not the Cross, the nails, the spear; it is the Love which brought Jesus to that awful doom and moved Him to bear it all for our sinful sakes. And St. Luke's is the sacrificial Gospel because it is the Gospel of the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

IV. St. John the Eagle. And this hardly needs explanation. There is a radical difference between St. John and the other Evangelists. The latter tell us about Jesus as He appeared among the children of men, and you discover by and by, as the story proceeds, that this Man was something more than a man, and you reach at last the conviction that He was God. But St John begins at the other end. Remember his immortal Prologue. He starts by saying: 'Now here is what I am going to tell you about not the story of a human life but the story of a divine manifestation. The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and we beheld His glory.' That is St. John's starting-point; and the starting-point makes such a difference. He lifts us at once above Bethlehem. He never says a word about the inn or the manger: he carries us away up to the Throne of God and brings us down thence in company with the Incarnate Saviour.

It is like an eagle's flight. I saw an eagle once in the Western Highlands. It had alighted in the neighbourhood of a shepherd's flock, and he scared it away lest it should plunder his lambs, and it took wing and soared up into the blue sky, growing less and less until it seemed but a dim speck, scarce as big as a skylark. The old fable says that the eagle is the only creature whose eye can look undazzled on the blazing sun; and there could be no fitter emblem of St. John. He lifts us above the noise and strife of earth, and sets us amid the blaze of the heavenly glory.

David Smith, Man's Need of God, p. 149.

References. IV. 6-8. H. S. Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. 1. p. 40. A. P. Stanley, Sermons on Special Occasions, p. 57.

Revelation 4:7

'In times of opposition,' says Milton at the close of the Apology for Smectymnus, 'when either against new heresies arising, or old corruptions to be reformed, this cool unpassionate mildness of positive wisdom is not enough to damp and astonish the proud resistance of carnal and false doctors, then (that I may have leave to soar awhile, as the poets use) Zeal, whose substance is ethereal arming in complete diamond, ascends his fiery chariot, drawn with two blazing meteors, figured like beasts, but of a higher breed than any the zodiac yields, resembling two of those four which Ezekiel and St. John saw; the one visaged like a lion, to express power, high authority, and indignation; the other, of countenance like a man, to cast derision and scorn upon perverse and fraudulent seducers; with these the invisible warrior, Zeal, shaking loosely the slack reins, drives over the heads of scarlet prelates, and such as are insolent to maintain traditions, bruising, their stiff necks under his flaming wheels.'

Revelation 4:8

I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. 'What,' it will be questioned, 'when the sun rises, do you not see a disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?' 'Oh, no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty. I question not my corporeal eye, any more than I would question a window, concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.'

William Blake.

References. IV. 8. F. St. John Corbett, The Preacher's Year, p. 106. H. J. Bevis, Sermons, p. 165. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. i. p. 283. J. J. Blunt, Plain Sermons (3rd Series), p. 204. J. Keble, Sermons for Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 374. Bishop Wilberforce, Sermons, p. 231. H. Alford, Quebec Chapel Sermons, vol. i. p. 1. J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons (9th Series), p. 112. IV. 9-11. C. Kingsley, The Good News of God, p. 325.

For an Exposition of chapter v. see A. B. Davidson's Waiting Upon God, p. 351. V. 2. Bishop Gore, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liii. p. 384.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Revelation 4". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. 1910.