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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

Revelation 4

Verse 1

Revelation 4:1. After these things denotes succession of visions, not of time; and the rest of the verse is preparatory to the vision rather than strictly speaking a part of it. The apostle must be understood to be still ‘in the spirit,’ for that is the state in which at chap. Revelation 1:10 he hears the voice now again referred to. Two things are introduced to us by the word behold: (1) A door opened in heaven, not opening but open, so that there may be the freest intercourse between heaven and earth (comp. Ezekiel 1:1; John 1:51); and that we, seeing into heaven, may understand what is to happen upon earth. Faith is the condition of true wisdom. (2) The voice, identified with that spoken of in chap. Revelation 1:10 by being described in the same language. It is the same mysterious voice of judgment, therefore, as that heard there. The Seer is invited to ascend to the place whence the voice issued, and is told what will be shown him. The language describing what he is to see has already met us in chap. Revelation 1:1; Revelation 1:19; and it points to the fortunes of the Church throughout the whole period of her history down to the time of her glorification.

Verses 1-11

Chaps. 4 and 5 form the third section of the Apocalypse; but the struggle of the Church, which it is the main object of the book to describe, does not yet begin. These two chapters are preparatory to the struggle, presenting us with such pictures of the glory of the heavenly Guardians of the Church as may fill our minds with confidence that, whatever be her trials, she shall be conducted through them to a glorious issue. As the foundation of all that God is, has done, and will do, St. John receives in chap. 4 a vision of His absolute holiness, which is borne witness to by His Church, and by the whole of His redeemed creation. This is followed in chap. 5 by another vision, from which it appears that the mystery connected with the dealings of the thrice holy One (chap. Revelation 4:8) shall not last for ever. In Immanuel, the Incarnate Lamb of God, the mystery otherwise so oppressive shall be made manifest; and our hearts may be at peace. The visions of these two chapters have their parallel in Isaiah 6:0, where the vision of the thrice holy God presented to the prophet (Revelation 4:1-8) is introductory to his terrible commission at Revelation 4:9. Isaiah is warned by his vision that the Almighty, notwithstanding the mystery of His dealings, is holy, and that the beings who see what He is doing cannot but adore Him.

Verse 2

Revelation 4:2. As the closing expression of Revelation 4:1 in the Authorised Version, after these things, is not necessary to complete the meaning of the clause to which it is at present added, it seems better to connect it with what follows at the beginning of the second verse. It thus constitutes a resumption of the same expression in Revelation 4:1, and introduces the true beginning of the visions to be described. St. John is prepared for them by passing into the spiritual or ecstatic state. Even in Revelation 4:1, indeed, he was in that state; but here, where the visions begin, there is a propriety in making special mention of the fact, and the word was , which is properly ‘became,’ may be designed to call our attention to the renewal of the first vividness or fervour of his spiritual condition. Two things are seen: (1) A throne set in heaven (comp. Ezekiel 1:26-28). The verb ‘set’ seems to express not merely that the throne was there, but that it was so by the Divine appointment and arrangement (comp. Jeremiah 24:1; Luke 2:34; John 2:6; John 20:5-7; Revelation 21:16). For the particular shape and aspect of the throne see on Revelation 4:6. (2) One sitting on the throne. It is not easy to determine who is meant. That the Sitter on the throne is neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit is indeed obvious from the fact that in later verses He is distinguished from them both (chaps. Revelation 5:5; Revelation 5:13, Revelation 6:16). But is He the Father or the Triune God? Commentators generally adopt the former view, but there is much that may seem rather to determine in favour of the latter. The whole scene is founded upon Isaiah 6:0, where we have not only the throne high and lifted up, the seraphim, and the train filling the temple, but also the Trisagion, ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ etc. The vision of Isaiah, however, is always justly regarded as one of the greatest adumbrations of the Trinity contained in the Old Testament (comp. especially Revelation 4:8, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us? ’), so that we are thus naturally led to think now also of the Trinity. In addition, it has to be observed that one great distinction between the visions of chap. 4 and chap. 5 seems to lie in this, that in the former we have the Almighty presented to us as He is in Himself absolutely, that in the latter only are we directly introduced to the Covenant of grace in which we learn to know God as Father. Nor does it seem that there ought to be any peculiar difficulty in accepting this interpretation on the ground that the Son and the Holy Spirit are afterwards spoken of as if distinct from Him who occupied the throne. All that is contended for is, that God is here introduced to us as He is in Himself, and not according to that separation of hypostases or personalities revealed to us in other passages of Scripture. We deal as yet with the Divine Being as He exists in Himself, and with Him viewed in that light the conception of Trinity in Unity is fundamentally connected.

Verse 3

Revelation 4:3. The description of Him that sat upon the throne is given: He was like unto a jasper stone and a sardine. It has been noticed that the two stones here mentioned are the first and the last in the ‘breastplate of judgment’ (Exodus 28:17; Exodus 28:20); but it is difficult to attach any importance to this circumstance, for the order is reversed, the sardius being there the first, and the jasper the last. The analogy of Ezekiel 1:27 seems to warrant the inference that the colours of the two stones were not mixed throughout, but that the upper part of the body was marked by the one and the lower part by the other. There can be little doubt, though some interpreters dispute the fact, that the colours of these stones, as well as of the emerald to which the rainbow round about the throne was like, are to be understood symbolically. From chap. Revelation 21:11 we learn that the colour of the jasper was a bright sparkling whiteness, while that of the sardius was a fiery red. The first, therefore, can hardly denote anything but that holiness of God which this very chapter shows to be the feature of His character mainly in view of the sacred writer at the time (Revelation 4:8); the second most naturally expresses the wrath with which He consumes His enemies, and which is represented in the lightnings, etc., of Revelation 4:5 (comp. Psalms 1:3, etc.; Ezekiel 1:4).

The colour of the rainbow is described as that of the emerald, or green. Not that the other colours are awanting, but that they are subordinate to, or lost in, that green colour, which of all others is the most pleasing to the eye. The object itself, its colour, its Old Testament history, and even the mode of its formation in nature, combine to suggest the meaning of the rainbow, the holiness and wrath of God encompassed by His covenant grace. It is difficult to say whether we are to think of this rainbow as a half or a whole circle spanning the throne. The mere fact that it is called a ‘rainbow’ is not conclusive in favour of the former, for the Seer employs his figures with great freedom (comp. Revelation 1:13, Revelation 2:17, and the ‘green’ colour in this verse); while the words ‘round about the throne,’ and the language used in chap. Revelation 10:1, suggest the latter. We are probably to think of the rainbow as either floating above the throne or as encompassing it in a vertical plane. For the rainbow comp. Ezekiel 1:28.

Verse 4

Revelation 4:4. In the next part of the description we are told that there were round about the throne twenty-four thrones, and upon the thrones twenty-four elders. It is important to observe the word ‘thrones’ (not as in the Authorised Version, ‘seats’) here used by St. John, for there can be no doubt that it is deliberately chosen in order to bring out the fact that the glorified Church of Christ is placed in no lower position than that of the Saviour’s and the Father’s throne (comp. Revelation 3:21). These twenty-four thrones were like the rainbow ‘round about the throne.’ It may be a question whether they were within or without the circle of the rainbow. Chap. Revelation 3:21 seems to determine against the latter. But perhaps we are even to think of them as set in the very circle of the rainbow in order to denote standing in the covenant of grace. The thrones were occupied by twenty-four elders; and, as these unquestionably represent the one Church of Christ in its triumphing condition in heaven, the number must be taken from some idea which presented itself to the mind of the Seer as a suitable expression for the whole Church of God. The twenty-four divisions of the sons of Aaron, described in 1 Chronicles 24:0, might have suggested it, the only difficulty being that this classification of the priest hood belongs to the time of the Temple rather than of the Tabernacle. It seems better, therefore, to have recourse to the doubling of the number twelve, so that the whole number twenty-four may represent the Church in her double aspect as at once the Church of the Old Covenant and of the New. We have already met with this principle of doubling, although in a somewhat different form; and there does not appear to be anything unnatural in resorting to it now. The twenty-four elders, thus embodying the conception of the Church of Christ in her perfected condition, have three characteristics. (1) They are sitting, the attitude of rest and honour. (2) They are clothed in white garments, the robes of perfect purity, the robes of priests. (3) They have on their heads golden crowns, those of chaps. Revelation 2:10, Revelation 3:11, and Revelation 14:14, in which last passage the same ‘golden crown’ is assigned to the Son of man. Like Him, they are not only priests but kings. At chap. Revelation 6:11 the ‘white robe’ alone, without the golden crown, is given to the souls under the altar; but the reason is obvious. These souls are waiting. Here the time of waiting is past. The Church is before us in her triumphing condition.

Verse 5

Revelation 4:5. The description is continued with the mention of lightnings and voices and thunders which proceed out of the throne. These represent neither the ‘outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ nor the ‘agency of the Gospel,’ but the fact that the throne of God is a throne of judgment (Psalms 9:7). The world is judged not merely by God Himself, but by His Church (chap. Revelation 2:27). Judgment against sin is a necessary accompaniment both of holiness and love. Nor need it surprise us that such indications of judgment should proceed from the throne at a time when the Church is regarded as having attained her glorified condition, and is safe from all her enemies, for it is not so much the actual exercise as the attribute of judgment that is now in view, and such an attribute is eternal. These lightnings and voices and thunders, therefore, are not to be regarded as a manifestation peculiar to the moment at which they are witnessed by the Seer: they are essential and perpetual accompaniments of the throne. In addition there were seven torches of fire burning before the throne, which are explained to be the seven spirits of God, or, in other words, His one Spirit in the fulness and manifoldness of His operation. Yet it is not the gracious operation of the Spirit by which God calls enlightens, and sanctifies the world that is in view. It is rather His penetrating influence, similar to that of chap. Revelation 1:14, by which He searches the innermost recesses of the heart.

Verse 6

Revelation 4:6. And before the throne as it were a glassy sea like unto crystal. The most various opinions have been entertained regarding the ‘glassy sea’ here spoken of, some of which may at once be set aside. It can hardly be intended to signify ‘the will and law of God in constituting the kingdom of grace,’ or ‘the mysterious judgments of God,’ or ‘the purity, calmness, and majesty of God’s rule,’ for no passages of the Old Testament can be referred to in which these principles of the Divine government are represented by a sea similar to that now mentioned. Other interpretations, again, such as those that understand by it ‘Baptism’ or ‘the volume of the Scriptures,’ may also be rejected as having no foundation in the imagery of this book. The idea that the sea is identical with the river of the water of life ‘clear as crystal’ in chap. Revelation 22:1, may likewise be regarded as untenable A sea and a river are entirely different from one another, and it is impossible to connect the ‘sea’ of chap. Revelation 15:2, which must be the same as this one, and upon which those who had overcome took their stand, with the ‘river’ of chap. 22. More naturally might we be led to associate the great brazen sea of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:23-26) with the sea here spoken of, were it not that, as a general rule, the imagery of the Apocalypse appears to be taken not from the temple, but from the tabernacle, and the ‘laver’ of the latter is never called a sea.

In endeavouring to determine the meaning of the figure, we must have recourse to that rule of interpretation so often needed in the Apocalypse, which calls us to supplement the description given of any object in one place by what is said of it in another. Doing so in the present instance, the ‘glassy sea’ of chap. Revelation 15:2 supplies various hints which may be helpful to us here. That sea is not only glassy, but ‘mingled with fire,’ an expression which at once suggests the thought of the Divine judgments, while the same thought comes prominently forward in the song sung by those who, standing upon the sea, celebrate the ‘righteous acts of the Lord which have been made manifest.’ Again, it is to be observed that the song sung by these conquerors is called ‘the song of Moses, the servant of God,’ as well as ‘the song of the Lamb;’ and the most natural reference of these words is to the song of triumph sung after the crossing of the Red Sea, of which it is said, ‘Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea’ (Exodus 15:1). The propriety of this reference is confirmed by the fact that it is not said of these conquerors that they ‘had gotten the victory over the beast’ (Authorised Version), or even that they ‘had come victorious from the beast’ (Revised Version), but that they ‘had come victorious out of the beast,’ the preposition used distinctly indicating that they had been delivered by escape from their enemies rather than by victory over them in the field. To these considerations let us add that the deliverance of Israel from Egypt had been always appealed to, both by Psalmists and Prophets, as the peculiar token of that providential care and guidance which the Almighty extended to His people (Psalms 66:12; Isaiah 43:2-3), and we shall be led to the conclusion that in the ‘glassy sea’ of this verse we have an emblem of that course of Providence by which God conducts those who place themselves in His hands to then-final rest in His immediate presence. The different manner in which the ‘sea’ is viewed in the words before us, and in chap. Revelation 15:2, seems to favour this conclusion. In the one it is simply ‘before the throne,’ and under the eye of Him by whom the throne is occupied. It is seen from the Divine point of view, and is therefore only ‘clear as crystal.’ Its darker are to Him as bright as its more transparent elements. The ‘fire’ that is mingled with it is not less a part of His counsel than its most pellucid waters: ‘the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to Thee’ (Psalms 139:12). In the other it is occupied by man, and is seen from the human point of view. Hence the ‘fire,’ always there, but not mentioned in the first instance, is now seen. They who stand upon it cannot forget those ‘righteous acts’ of God which they have witnessed, or the troubled paths by which they have escaped the great enemies of their salvation. Judgment upon their foes, as well as mercy to themselves, marks the whole of that way by which they have been led. It may be only further remarked in conclusion, that to behold in the glassy sea the Almighty’s providential guidance of His people harmonizes with the whole spirit of a chapter dealing mainly with creation and providence before we pass in chap. 5 to the more special subject of redeeming grace.

The description is continued, and we are next introduced to four living creatures full of eyes before and behind, which were in the midst of the throne and round about the throne. The living creatures do not support or bear up the throne; nor are they to be thought of as stationed together at the same spot. They are rather at the extremities of two diameters passing through the centre of the round throne, thus preserving perfect symmetry. In other respects the relation of these beings to the throne presents some difficulty, because it is natural to think that the Seer, having begun his description with Him that sitteth on the throne, is now proceeding from the centre outwards. The four living creatures would thus appear to be outside both the Sitter on the throne and the twenty-four elders and the glassy sea. But this is not probable (1) Because the words describing their position indicate a greater degree of nearness to the throne. (2) Because of the position of the cherubim in the tabernacle. (3) Because in chap. Revelation 5:6 the absence of the words ‘in the midst of’ before ‘the four living creatures’ seems to show that the latter are so closely connected with the throne as to be almost a part of it. The real explanation is to be found in this, that the position of the cherubim in the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle was above the mercy-seat. In like manner the living creatures here spoken of are not on the same level as the throne. Although, therefore, St. John really describes from within outwards what he beheld, and although, before we reach the present point of his description, he has already spoken of the outermost circle, that which bounded the glassy sea, it does not follow that the living creatures were beyond that circle. They were really above it, yet within it; and it is by now lifting his eyes upwards that the Seer beholds them. What has been said finds support in the language of Isaiah 6:2, where the prophet, after speaking of the Lord’s sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, adds, ‘above it stood the seraphim.’ It is remarkable to see how St. John manages to combine the visions of both Isaiah and Ezekiel, the one the prophet of the coming Saviour, the other the prophet of the restored Church. By the view now taken the harmony of the description is preserved, and the four living creatures’ are a part of the accompaniments of the throne, and not beyond it.

They are full of eyes, we are further told, before and behind: they share the attribute of God, seeing in all directions with a penetrating glance (comp. chap. Revelation 1:14), that they may the better execute the Divine purposes.

A fuller description of them is now given.

Verses 7-8

Revelation 4:7-8 a. And the first living creature was like a lion, and the second living creature like a bull-calf, and the third living creature had its face as of a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, having each one of them severally six wings, are full of eyes round about and within. Want of space will not permit us to enter at any length upon the meaning of these remarkable figures, and the writer of this Commentary may therefore be pardoned if he refers to his fuller treatment of the subject in the Bible Educator, vol. iii. p. 290. It may be enough to say at present that the points to be chiefly noted are the following: (1) That the living creatures here are substantially identical with those mentioned in connection with the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:0), the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:18-20), the Temple of Solomon (2 Chronicles 3:11-13), and the visions of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:5). Slight modifications of structure are due simply to the fact that the idea intended to be expressed by them had become clearer as time ran on. (2) That a human element has a place in each. Their general form suggests what is human not less than what is bestial. This point is rendered clear by the peculiar method of expression adopted in the case of the third ‘living creature’ of the present passage. The human figure was characteristic of them all; but, in addition to less distinct indications, the third had also the human face. (3) That, while thus in part human, they are also marked by characteristics taken from other forms of creaturely existence. They have wings, and three of them have respectively the faces of a lion, of a bull-calf, and of an eagle. (4) They do not symbolize attributes of the Almighty. Creaturely position and ministerial functions properly belong to them. (5) If, then, we ask now what they represent, it would seem as if one answer only can be given. They represent in the first place man, but, secondly, man as the crown and head of this lower creation, man with his train of dependent beings brought near to God and made partakers of redemption, thus fulfilling in symbol the language of St. Paul, that ‘the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21). (6) Finally, it may be observed that the meaning of the animal faces spoken of is to be found in a direction entirely different from that in which it is usually sought. The animals named are not the emblems of majesty, endurance, and soaring energy, but of strong and fierce rage. They represent qualities that strike terror into the hearts of men, and they suggest the idea of a destructive force which nothing is able to withstand. Thus, then, they now surround the throne of God, from which proceed lightnings and thunderings and voices; and there they symbolize redeemed creation as it adores the holiness and magnifies the righteous judgments of its Lord.

Verse 8

Revelation 4:8 b. And they have no rest day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord, who art God, the Almighty, he which was and which is, and which is to come. The Trisagion thus sung by the living creatures is found also in Isaiah 6:3, in a passage which we have already seen lies largely at the bottom of the description of this chapter. It is thus natural to think that it is sung to the glory of God in the same character as that in which He there appears, that it is sung therefore to God in the absoluteness of His being and perfections, and not as specially the Father. With this agrees the fact, seen especially in the last words of this chapter, that it is the glory of God as Creator rather than Redeemer that is especially contemplated throughout the whole vision. The ascription of praise appears to consist of three parts, not as commonly supposed of two. He to whom it is sung is first addressed as ‘Lord’ or Jehovah, and is then celebrated as ‘God;’ as ‘the Almighty;’ and as ‘He which was, and which is, and which is to come.’ The order of the clauses in the third part is different from that in Revelation 1:8. There the Lord Himself speaks, dwelling first upon the thought that He ‘is’ before mentioning that He ‘was’ or that He ‘is to come.’ In singing this song the living creatures ‘rest not day nor night’ We are reminded of the words of our Lord in John 5:17, ‘My Father worketh even until now, and I work.’ The work of God as the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all knows no intermission. He is everywhere present throughout His wide creation, upholding all things by the word of His power, and as marvellous in that work as in the utterance of the first fiat which summoned them into being. Therefore do the living creatures, ‘full of eyes round about and within,’ always waiting upon Him, always watching Him, never rest from adoring, as He never rests from working.

The Trisagion of the living creatures immediately awakens the response of the whole Church of Christ represented by the twenty-four elders.

Verse 9

Revelation 4:9. And when the living creatures shall give glory and honour and thanks to him that sitteth on the throne, to him that liveth for ever and ever. In these words we have a description of the Trisagion which has just been sung, and the description introduces the fact that the four-and-twenty elders are stirred by the lofty melody. It is remarkable that this should be the order of the song of praise. We might have expected that the twenty-four elders as representing the Church would be first, and that by them the representatives of creation would be stirred to a like enthusiasm. As it is, the order is reversed. The explanation is to be sought in the general character of this chapter, as compared with the one that follows it. The song raised is not so much one of praise for redemption, as of praise for that creation and providence of God which preceded and prepared the way for redemption. Redeemed creation therefore begins it; but it is immediately taken up by the Church.

Verse 10

Revelation 4:10. The four and twenty elders shall fall down before him that sitteth on the throne, and shall worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and shall cast their crowns before the throne, saying. Three acts of worship and homage on the part of the elders are described, ‘falling down,’ ‘worshipping,’ and ‘casting their crowns before the throne.’ It is not necessary to ask whether the crowns thus cast down are again resumed, for it is simply the act of homage that is described. The song of the Church follows.

Verse 11

Revelation 4:11. Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to take the glory, and the honour, and the power, for thou didst create all things, and because of thy will they were, and they were created. In the response thus proceeding from the Church, we mark a higher tone than in the song of the four living creatures to which the response is given (Revelation 4:9). The word ‘our’ is introduced, marking the more intimate relationship in which these redeemed ones stand to God. The word ‘power’ is substituted for ‘thanks,’ not that they fail in gratitude, but that, in the very excess of gratitude, they completely forget themselves. The article is introduced before each substantive, not to carry us back to the ‘glory,’ etc., of Revelation 4:9, but to show that what is present to their minds is ‘the’ glory, ‘the’ honour, and ‘the’ power, which are the absolute possession of the Almighty. Hence also it seems better to translate the verb by ‘take’ than by ‘receive’ (comp. chaps. Revelation 5:7; Revelation 5:9, Revelation 11:17). Lastly, the verb to take is in the aorist not the present tense, an indication that those who use it are contemplating in thought the completion of God’s great plan, and His victory over all His enemies, as an accomplished fact. The particulars embraced under the word ‘because’ refer primarily to creation; and so far, therefore, the majority of commentators are right in saying that the Almighty is here celebrated as creation’s God. Yet it is not enough to say this. The Church cannot view God first as Creator simply, and then as Redeemer. Her view of Him is one, and in the works of His hands, as well as in the provisions of His grace, she beholds her redeeming God. Redemption is the final issue of all the works of God. But, feeling thus, we may pause at the thought of creation, and may praise Him who called it into being for this end. Thus looked at also, there is no tautology in the last two clauses of the verse. ‘Thou didst create all things,’ that is the simple fact. ‘Because of Thy will,’ etc., is more than the fact; it is the ground upon which their creation rested, that they might be the expression of the will of Him who creates that He may have a creation in His Eternal Son. The combination of ‘were’ and ‘were created’ is undoubtedly very difficult to understand. The first verb does not mean ‘came into being;’ nor can it mean that, having had no existence before, they existed after God created them; for, in that case, the order of the two clauses ought to have been reversed. Besides which, it is not the manner of St. John to apply the verb ‘to be’ to temporary and passing objects. No explanation seems possible but that which leads us to think of an eternal type existing in the Divine mind before anything was called into existence, and in conformity with which it was created when the moment of creation came. The idea thus expressed is very similar to that of Hebrews 8:5, ‘See that thou make all things according to the pattern that was showed thee in the Mount.’

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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Revelation 4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". 1879-90.