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AN INTRODUCTORY THEOPHANY
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Revelation 4:1. Saw.—Observed, not specially “looked up.” Opened.—Set open. Trumpet.—Revelation 1:10. Which said.—The voice is put for the person speaking.
Revelation 4:2. In the spirit.—Implying a rapt state of mind, absorbed wholly in the things now unfolded. Compare St. Peter’s “trances,” and St. Paul’s “visions.” “It is implied that he was caught up through the open door into heaven, and saw what was going on above.” Compare the conception of Dante’s poem. Throne.—See 1 Kings 22:19. A similar description of the throne of God may be found in the book of Enoch, xiv. 17–23. See also Ezekiel 1:0; Daniel 7:0. He who sat on the throne is not named (see Jewish reticence in relation to the sacred Name), but “He is 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.
Revelation 4:3. Jasper.—The ancient jasper was the translucent stone now known as chalcedony, a dark, opaque green (Exodus 28:20; Revelation 21:19). This colour is, however, unsuitable as a description here. In the later reference the jasper is spoken of as “clear as crystal,” and then the brightness of the jasper blends with the red glow of the sardius, which is a red carnelian, fiery in colour. Together the images denote the powerful splendour which beamed from Him who sat on the throne. Compare Ezekiel 1:26-27. Rainbow.—Symbol of Divine mercy, beautiful in itself, and veiling the splendour. Emerald.—Green. “The iris is compared to it here, because the modified and mild colour of green apparently predominates in the rainbow.” Ancients felt very strongly the relief given to the eye by looking at it.
Revelation 4:4. Elders.—“The representatives of Christ’s Church and people—of those whom Christ calls His friends” (John 15:15). Two sets of twelve. The Christian Church of St. John’s day was a Jewish Christian Church. The two sections are represented in the one set of elders: not Jews and Christians as distinct bodies. White.—Note the importance of this symbol of purity throughout the book. “They are the glorified embodiment and representatives of the people of God.” (Stuart prefers to explain the number by the division of the priesthood into twenty-four classes which David made.) Crowns.—With the robes denoting their king-priestly character.
Revelation 4:5. Proceeded.—ἑκπορεύονται, continually proceed. See the associations of the giving of the Law on Sinai (Exodus 19:0). Thunder and lightning are our most impressive nature suggestions of the Divine majesty and power. “By these are signified the instructions of God’s law, the encouragement of His promises, and the warnings of His judgments.” Lamps of fire.—I.e. seven resplendent, glorious beings, all radiant, like burning torches, or lamps. Or it may be a symbol of the Divine Spirit, whose sevenfold gifts are spoken of.
Revelation 4:6. Sea of glass.—Figure from the “sea” that was in front of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:23, etc.). This temple has a real sea in front of it. It is suggested that fickle, movable waters represent the unguided, unreasoning, and unprincipled thoughts of men. By analogy, the calm, glass-like sea represents those counsels of God, those purposes of righteousness and love, often fathomless, but never obscure, always the same, though sometimes glowing with holy anger, like unto crystal, resplendent and pellucid. The pavements, or, as we say, floors, of palaces and elegant houses of the East are constructed with expensive and splendid materials. Here the idea is that the pavements or floors are all of precious and diaphonous stones, appearing to him who should walk upon them pellucid, like the waters of the ocean. In the Koran, Belkis, the Queen of Sheba, is represented as supposing the pavement on which she walks in the audience-hall to be a sea (Moses Stuart). Four beasts.—Living beings. Their position in relation to the throne is not clear. They were either the supports or ornamentation of the throne. Full of eyes.—Teeming with. Easterns indicate greatness and variety of power by multiplying representations of the organ. (Curiously enough, the Fathers regard these beasts as representing the Four Gospels, which had no recognised existence in St. John’s day). Perhaps they represent animate nature. But it is more probable that, as they take precedence even of the crowned elders in their ceaseless worship, they represent redeemed humanity, Birks says: “They seem to represent four distinct classes, each federally united among those blessed saints who occupy the foremost places in the kingdom of glory.” For Stuart’s view see “Suggestive Notes.”
Revelation 4:7. “Four beings 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.” The number four is, in the Apocalypse, almost always associated with the earth.
Revelation 4:8. Six wings.—Compare Isaiah 6:1-4. Full of eyes.—Compare Ezekiel 1:18; Ezekiel 10:12; Zechariah 3:9. Multiplicity of eyes may symbolise vitality and vigilance. Within.—This may mean, inside their wings; and these eyes were seen when the wings were spread. Almighty.—Heb. in Isaiah, “God of hosts.”
Revelation 4:9-10. Beasts give glory.—The idea of this and the following verse is, that when the redeemed Church realises the voice of creation in its worship, it reverently joins in the worship. “All Thy works praise Thee in all places of Thy dominion, and Thy saints shall bless Thee.” See the ascriptions of praise to Jehovah in 1 Chronicles 19:10-13; Psalms 96:2-3; Psalms 96:7-10. Cast their crowns.—Alford compares Tacitus, Ann., XV. 29:3, 6, where Tiridates lays down his crown before the image of Nero, as a token of homage for his kingdom. The future tenses, “shall worship,” “shall cast,” indicate what is often and customarily done in heaven. Simcox suggests that the tenses in this book may be accommodated to the rules of Hebrew rather than of Greek grammar.
“Thus concludes this magnificent exordium to the principal visions of the book. Chap. 5 is intimately connected with it, but it is rather to be regarded as a special proem to chap. 6–11, than as a proem to the book at large. The impressive nature of the scene presented in chap. 4 cannot but strike the mind of every intelligent reader. The holy seer was duly prepared, by such an august vision, for the disclosures which follow, and the mind of the reader can hardly fail to be prepared, also, to look for them with deep interest. It cannot escape even the most unobserving, how greatly this whole scene resembles the inaugural theophanies in Isaiah 6:0 and Ezekiel 1:0” (Stuart).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Revelation 4:1-11
The Eternal Throne and its Surroundings.—From the very first, and still, there will be found a side of peril in the very intensity with which the Lord Jesus Christ is presented to us. He may take our attention off from God, and seem to stand in front of Him. Our Lord Himself recognised this possible evil, during His earthly life. He might absorb too fully the interest of His disciples, and therefore we find Him, in His conversations with them, constantly putting His Father, as it were, in front of Himself. The apostles show precisely the same anxiety. They will not let the interest of men stay with Christ. He leads men to God. By Him they believe in God. Remembering how jealous the Jews were of the primary truth of the Divine unity, we can easily see that it would have been a fatal objection to Christianity if it could be reasonably shown that it put Christ in the place of God. Essentially Christ is God; but revelationally, and for particular purposes of manifestation, He is apprehended as the Son of God, and as Son, He must not be confused with the Father, or, in any sense, put in His place. This important distinction explains this introductory vision of the eternal glory of God. The seer has brought the Lord Jesus Christ vividly before us as the Living, White One. He is going to deal with the present activities of that Living One in the Church, and in the world in which His Church is set. He will be filling all our thoughts with Christ. But there must be no possibility of mistake, no possibility of our even seeming to put dishonour on God, or showing Him any slight, or failing to recognise His supreme relations with the actual, present work of Christ. So the vision of this chapter is given, and God is seen receiving the absolutely sole worship of the representatives of all creation, animal and human. He is God alone. Heaven is visioned as the sublime palace of the eternal King, and a door is set open so that we may enter the audience-chamber; and we may well be awed by the magnificence, the sublimity, of the scene.
I. The throne.—To this much attention is given in Eastern Kingdoms. (For Solomon’s throne, see 1 Kings 10:18-20). The stability of this throne is even more impressive than its splendour. However shifting and changing may be the panorama of events recorded in this book, that throne remains the same. Heaven and earth may pass away. That throne abides. It cannot be moved, because “righteousness and judgment are its habitation.” Carefully observe that no attempt is ever made in Scripture to describe Him who sitteth on the eternal throne. He must ever simply be to us the “I AM.” “Existence—uncaused, independent existence.”
II. The supports of the throne.—The four living creatures, as the representatives of all creation. The honour and dignity of God is the supreme concern of every living thing. His throne is upheld by their needs, which God alone can meet; by their trustings, which are its buttresses; and by their service in their spheres, which witnesses to their Master.
III. The front of the throne.—Two ideas are suggested in connection with the sea of glass.
1. The shining pavement is like solidified water.
2. The brazen sea, in front of the temple, indicated the need for purity in all who came to worship. The former idea is the more probable one, and only a figure of magnificence is intended. Or the idea of waving sea, settled into glassy stillness, may suggest the sublime peace of God’s eternal presence. “Where, beyond the voices, there is peace.”
IV. The courtiers.—Four and twenty elders. Officers were always in the royal presence at Eastern Courts, and these often represented the provinces of the country, or dependent nations. The elders stand for the Church as at present redeemed. The full chorus of creation rises now to God; but the full chorus of humanity does not rise yet. It is but the chorus of a portion.
V. The worship.—The point to notice is, that God’s praise is begun by creation; taken up and ennobled by the redeemed Church, but perfected only when all are redeemed, and the completed Church can join the song of Nature, and so all the earth “praise God.”
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Revelation 4:1. An Anticipative Triumph-Song.—The fourth and fifth chapters are to be regarded as a song of triumph sung even before the contest begins, and conveying to us an assurance of what will be the issue. It will not be forgotten that this is elsewhere the manner of St. John. Before the great contest delineated in the fourth gospel, which begins at chap. 5, we have the victory of the Redeemer over Nicodemus, the woman of Samaria, and the Galilean nobleman. When speaking, in his first epistle, of the struggles of Christians with the world, St. John uses the words, “And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (Revelation 5:4). He does not speak of the weapons with which the Christian soldier prepares himself for the battle, but of the “victory” with which, as if it were his armour, he is, from the first, equipped. In other words, it is St. John’s manner of thought to sing his song of triumph before the fight begins, and that is exactly what he does in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Apocalypse.—W. Milligan, D.D.
A Vision of the Glory of God.—The fourth chapter is a vision of the glory of God. His throne is supported by four living creatures, and twenty-four elders fall down before it. These are the representatives of Nature and of the Church. The former represent the forces of nature, which, in the ancient religions, sat upon the throne, personified in the Pagan deities, but which, in the monotheism of the Bible, play a more modest part, and are employed in bearing up the throne of God—that is to say, in establishing His kingdom. They are represented by the four living creatures which are supposed to be the chefs d’œuvre of the animal creation—the lion, the bull, the eagle, and man. The twenty-four elders represent the Judæo-Christian and the Gentile Church, twelve for each of these two moieties of the primitive Church, in conformity with the types of the twelve patriarchs, the twelve tribes, and the twelve apostles.—F. Godet, D.D.
Revelation 4:3. The Rainbow Symbol.—The discovery made of the Divine mercy in the covenant of grace refreshes the mind as the green relieves the eye from the fatigue and glare of other colours. “In the arched iris spanning the Divine throne the ancient Church beheld an emblem of the Divine severity, blended with love; in it she saw the dark showers of His judgments, gilded by the bright beams of His mercy. The heavenly Bow spake to her of the Deluge, the shipwreck of the world for sin; it spake to her also of calm and sunshine after the storm.”—Wordsworth.
Being in the Spirit.—He was in a rapture, as before (Revelation 1:10), whether in the body or out of the body we cannot tell; perhaps he himself could not: however, all bodily actions and sensations were for a time suspended, and his spirit was possessed with a spirit of prophecy, and wholly under a Divine influence. The more we abstract ourselves from all corporeal things the more fit we are for communion with God; the body is a veil, a cloud, and a clog to the mind in its transactions with God. We should, as it were, forget it when we go in before the Lord in duty, and be willing to drop it, that we may go up to Him in heaven.—Matthew Henry.
Eastern Abstraction.—It is well to remember that Easterns have a power of mental abstraction—of separating themselves for a time from their bodies—which is quite inconceivable to Westerns. Illustrate by the experiences of Yogis, Brahmans, Buddhists, and even Dervishes.
Revelation 4:6. The Throne and the Living Creatures.—The whole imagery is to be conceived of thus: The throne on which the Divine Majesty is seated rests upon four living creatures, who form its animated and moving basis. Instead of being like the throne of earthly kings, i.e., resting upon inanimate and lifeless substances, its support is constituted of living, moving, rational creatures, ever watchful, and ever ready to move, as Ezekiel says, like “a flash of lightning” (Ezekiel 1:14). These living creatures are represented as endowed with forms which are symbolical and highly significant. They are “full of eyes”; i.e., they are ever wakeful and watchful, looking every way, seeing everything, and ready to move in any direction. They are, taken as a whole in respect to their ultimate design, symbolic of the all-pervading power, providence, and government, of God, who uses them as His instruments. The first has the appearance of a lion; and the lion is the king of wild beasts, and an image borrowed from him is indicative of power, strength, sway. The second is like to an ox; and this is the most valuable of tame beasts, and the image of patient and useful labour. The third has the face of a man; and this is indicative of reason and intelligence. The fourth is like to an eagle; and this indicates velocity, and far-sighted and penetrating vision. The special meaning of these symbols is not to be applied immediately, or directly, to the attributes of God Himself, but to be regarded as primarily indicative of powers possessed by the ζῶα. Yet the ζῶα thus constituted, are themselves symbolic of the attributes of the Godhead. These living bearers of the Almighty’s throne, as the author represents the matter, serve Him with great power, with patient obedience, with quickness of intelligence and reason, and with a rapidity and perspicacity which may indeed be compared to that of the eagle, but of which this king of birds is, after all, only a faint image. The same may in truth be said of all the other symbols; but then, imperfect as they are, they are the best which the natural world could afford, and are therefore chosen by the author with good reason. The ultimate meaning is: God is everywhere present, and executes His purposes by an agency powerful, wise, unremitted, and speedy whenever speed is required.—Moses Stuart.
Revelation 4:8. The Unity of God.—God is one. The unity of any being contains two ideas.
1. Oneness in number, whereby it is parted from all other beings without itself.
2. Oneness within itself, as opposed to every other compound.—Bishop S. Wilberforce.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Revelation 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany