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Revelation 4

Chapter 4

This chapter draws heavily upon imagery in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1.  Below are the parallels.

Revelation 4:2 “There in heaven stood a throne.”

Ezekiel 1:26 “Over their [1] heads there was something like a throne…and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form.”

Isaiah 6:1 “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne.”


Revelation 4:3 “The one seated there looks like jasper [green] and carnelian [red]….”

Ezekiel 1:27 “Upward from what appeared like the loins [of the one seated in the throne] I saw something like gleaming amber [dark orange yellow] something that looked like fire; and downward I saw something that looked like fire….”


Revelation 4:3 “[A]round the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.”

Ezekiel 1:28 “Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around [the one seated on the throne].”


Revelation 4:5 “Coming from the throne are flashes of lightening, and rumblings and peals of thunder.”

Ezekiel 1:4 At the first appearance of God and his attendants, Ezekiel sees “a great cloud with brightness flashing around it and fire flashing forth continually.”


Revelation 4:6 “In front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.”

Ezekiel 1:22 “Over the heads[2] of the living creatures [cherubim] there was something like a dome, shining like crystal, spread out above their heads.”


Revelation 4:6 “Around the throne and on each side of the throne are four living creatures….”

Ezekiel 1:5 “In the middle of it [in the middle of something like gleaming amber that was in the middle of the fire flashing from the cloud] was something like four living creatures [cherubim].”


Revelation 4:6-8 The four living creatures are “full of eyes in front and behind…and all around and inside.”

Ezekiel 1:18 “The rims of all four [wheels associated with the four cherubim] were full of eyes all around.”


Revelation 4:7 “[T]he first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.”

Ezekiel 1:6,10 “Each [of the cherubim] had four faces…the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle.”


Revelation 4:8 Each of the four living creatures had “six wings.”

Ezekiel 1:6,11 “Each of them [the cherubim] had four wings…two wings, each of which touched the wing of another [cherub] while two covered their bodies.”

Isaiah 6:2 “Seraphs were in attendance above him [God]; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet and with two they flew.”


Revelation 4:8 “Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, The Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’”

Isaiah 6:3 “One [Seraph] called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”


v. 1: So far in Revelation, an open door is good (3:8[3]) and a closed door is bad (3:20).  The door itself seems to represent the same thing in each appearance: the way out of death and into life.

“The first voice” is Christ’s (1:10).

Christ says, “Come up here….”  Heaven is in some real sense up above us.[4]

I am not sure what the “this” of “what must take place after this” refers to.  It could refer to those things in the messages to the churches of Asia.  Each of those messages addressed the churches’ immediate problems or problems that were soon to befall those alive at that time, things like the persecution of Domitian in 3:10.   Thus, perhaps “what must take place after this” is what must take place after the things predicted for immediate future of the churches of Asia, after things like the persecution of Domitian.  Then again, “after this” may mean after John’s experience of receiving the vision.  It would be like saying, “this is what must take place after today.”  I favor this second interpretation.

v. 3: I think the tense here is significant.  John is telling this vision as a past event because he had the vision itself in the past: “I was in the spirit” (v. 2), but he uses the present tense to describe the throne and its attendants in this chapter: “The one seated there looks like Jasper.”  I think this means that what John describes in 4:3-11 symbolizes eternal qualities of God, not future events on earth.  Only in Chapter 5, when John begins to use the past tense again, do the descriptions symbolize (ironically) future events.  Thus, chapter four basically says, “This is what the throne of God is (always) like,” while chapter five basically says, “I saw the following things happen before the throne of God, and they symbolized future events.”

I do not understand the symbolism of jasper (green) and carnelian (red).  In 21:11 jasper is used as an example of quality and rarity.  Oecumenius says the jasper “signifies for us God’s ability to give life” (53).  He also says the carnelian “is another precious stone” by which John “describes the awe of God.  ‘For our God is a devouring fire’ says the hierophant Moses” (53-54).  This interpretation of carnelian does agree with the use of fire in the description of God in Ezekiel 1:27.  There might also be significance in the fact that the first and last (alpha and omega) stones in the high priest’s ephod were carnelian and jasper.  Perhaps there is also significance in the fact that the first stone of the ephod is carnelian and the first stone in the foundations of the new Jerusalem is Jasper.[6]

In Ezekiel 1:28 the rainbow around God’s throne seems like a regular rainbow (with all the colors of a rainbow), whereas here it is said to look like an emerald.  I do not understand the significance of the emerald as a color, but perhaps John simply means that this rainbow had the brilliance of an emerald (not necessarily the color of an emerald).  If the greenness of the emerald is significant, then perhaps its significance is similar to the significance of greenness of the jasper.  The rainbow itself must signify the mercy of God (Genesis 9:12-15).  Oecumenius has a beautiful interpretation of the rainbow: “It indicates all the holy and ministering spirits around God…” (54).  It is a sublime image, all the angels surrounding God’s throne and forming a brilliant rainbow that signifies the mercy of God.

v. 4: Opinions vary widely about who these twenty-four elders are. Oecumenius says, “Only God, the one who knows the hidden things, and he to whom they are revealed, would know who were the twenty-four elders seated on the thrones.”  I agree with him.  Nevertheless, below are some possibilities.

Oecumenius goes on to guess that they might be famous patriarchs, prophets, or apostles (55-56).  His selection, however, seems a little random to me.  If these twenty-four are humans, then I think the most reasonable conclusion is that they are the twelve patriarchs of Israel (fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel) and the twelve apostles.[7] Revelation 21:12-14 identifies these two groups of twelve with each other.  And Matthew 19:28 says, “When the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”  In that context, it seems as though the apostles are in a superior position to the twelve patriarchs, which would make it strange to see both groups of twelve in a single assembly of equals.  Still, the apostles will judge the twelve tribes, not the twelve patriarchs.  Perhaps the passage is saying that the apostles will inherit the authority of the old patriarchs, which would make the twelve patriarchs a foreshadowing of the twelve apostles, and the twelve apostles an allusion back to the twelve patriarchs.  In that case, the two groups of twelve could be reasonable candidates for the twenty-four elders here.

On the other hand, I think Johnson makes a very good case for seeing these elders as angels of some type.  He does this by pointing out that they seem to be grouped with angels and to be distinct from redeemed humans.[8] Taken by itself, the first part of his argument (where he says that they seem to be distinct from redeemed humans) is not entirely convincing to me.  After all, if certain redeemed humans will be distinguished from other redeemed humans by having special honors (as Christ seems to suggest in Matthew 19:28), then being distinct from the mass of redeemed humanity might not necessarily mean that the elders are angels.  However, Johnson’s argument is not only that these elders are distinct from the mass of redeemed humanity, but also that they are always grouped with angels.

Johnson believes the number twenty-four is a reference to the “twenty-four courses of priests engaged in the service of the temple” (430).  He is not arguing that these are human priests but rather that the structure of the human priesthood reflected that of this heavenly body.  I think this is also a good point since these twenty-four are obviously ministers of God in a special sense.  I do not know which opinion I favor more.

John describes “seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God.” This is clearly a reference to the “seven spirits who are before his throne” (1:4).  I believe these spirits are the seven angels of the seven churches in Asia.  Following Clement, Oecumenius believes they are archangels and quotes Hebrews 1:7 (which references Psalm 104:4): “Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.’”

Albrecht Dürer St John and the Twenty-four Elders in Heaven


v. 6: John describes “a sea of glass, like crystal.”  I do not know exactly what this sea is supposed to be or to represent, but I suspect that the image is related to the dome shining like crystal in Ezekiel 1:22.  I wonder if this sea is what Solomon had in mind when he had the Sea made for the temple?[9] I believe the image recurs in Revelation 15:2 in the “sea of glass mixed with fire.”  The sea of glass mixed with fire is an allusion to the Red Sea.  I say this because the people of God who are standing beside this sea of glass mixed with fire sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.  The song of Moses (which foreshadows the later song of the Lamb) is in Exodus 15:1-18.  Moses leads the Israelites in singing it after they have all passed safely through the Red Sea.  Often, the sea (or any body of water) represents death and the forces of chaos over which God has power and out of which he brings life and order.  Paul describes the passage through the Red Sea in this light by comparing it to baptism[10] (1st Corinthians 10:1-2).   Other images confirm this view of the sea.   It is the chaotic “face of the deep” in Genesis 1. Peter compares the flood of Noah to Baptism (1st Peter 3:18-21). I believe when Christ walked on the sea (Matthew 14:25-26), he was giving a demonstration of his power over it, i.e., over the forces of death and chaos.  Compare this with Job 9:8.  Note also Matthew 8:26-27 and compare with Psalm 89:9-10.  Jonah, in the belly of the fish (in the depths of the sea) is also an image of death, and when he emerges it is symbolic of rebirth.  This is why Jesus uses Jonah to allude to his own death and resurrection (Matthew 12:39-40).  Perhaps also the sea is symbolic of death in Revelation 21:1 when John writes, “[T]he sea [i.e., death] was no more.”  But the sea may be used as a metaphor for other things than death and chaos, and the sea of crystal here in 4:6 seems like a permanent, positive feature of God’s presence, which makes it difficult to interpret as death or God’s authority over death, since death will be no more at some point.  If it really is an allusion to the “dome” in Ezekiel 1:22, perhaps an understanding of that dome would help.

Since these creatures are so similar to the cherubim in Ezekiel 1, I believe they are cherubim also.  Oecumenius does not believe that they are cherubim because their features differ in some ways from those of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1, but this seems like a weak reason to reject John’s living creatures as cherubim.  Even within the book of Ezekiel, the features of cherubim differ from vision to vision.  In Ezekiel 1:6,10, each cherub has four faces: human (in the front?) lion on the right, ox on the left, and eagle (on the back?).  But in Ezekiel 41:18-20, the images of the cherubim carved on the temple walls depict them with two faces: a human face on one side and a young lion face on the other.  Furthermore, the giant statues of  cherubim in the temple’s Most Holy Place (1st Kings 6:23-28) seem to have two wings a piece, whereas those in Ezekiel 1:6 have four wings.  (I think it is interesting that, if one adds these two giant statues of cherubim to the two images of cherubim on the lid of the ark itself, four cherubim are represented in the Holy of Holies, just as there are four cherubim here in John’s vision.)

v. 7: I feel certain that every feature of these cherubim should represent something, but I do not know what most of it means.  I believe the fact they have eyes all over represents their vigilance as guardians (Genesis 3:24) and possibly the omniscience of God, who sees all.  The fact that they are on all four sides of God’s throne may also represent both of these qualities: they are positioned in every direction (omniscience/omnipresence) and surround God like an honorguard.  However, what each individual animal represents is beyond me.  Oxford believes that they represent “humankind and all animals” but does not say why humankind and all animals are represented in an angel’s form.  What is such a representation trying to say?  Johnson claims that all of animated nature is represented in these four: humans, wild beasts of prey (lion) domestic animals (ox) and fowls of the air (eagle) but he does not cite any Biblical source justifying this belief and the list is not really comprehensive.  What about wild creatures that are not beasts of prey?  And is an eagle not a wild beast of prey?  Oecumenius also believes that these four represent the living creatures of earth, but extends the symbolism, writing, “[S]ince every living body is composed of the four elements…each of the living creatures represents one of these” (57-58).

All three commentaries agree that the four living creatures represent all of animated creation.  I like that idea, but the specific connections which these commentaries make seem a little arbitrary.  The first chapter of Genesis would be a much better starting point for trying to explain how these four creatures might be connected to animated creation in general.  Genesis 1 gives the impression of categorizing animated creation into four groups, but the groups seem to be: fish (all things living in the water), birds (all things that fly in the air), land animals (all things, except humans, that live on land), and humans, who rule over the other three orders of animals.[11] Since these four living creatures do not seem to conform to those categories, I suspect that they represent something other than animated creation, but what that is I do not know.  They do all have one common feature: power, the power of authority in the human, and the power of ferocity and/or strength in the other three animals.

[1]See Ezekiel 10:15,20 where Ezekiel explains that these “living creatures” in his vision were cherubim.

[2] But below the throne of God (Ezekiel 1:26).

[3] See note on 3:7.

[4] See note on Acts 1:9-11.

[5] For a discussion of this day see notes at 20:4.

[6] See the appendix Precious Stones of New Jerusalem and the High Priest’s Ephod at the end of the notes.

[7] I would not let the fact that John himself is an apostle dissuade me from believing that the twelve apostles make up half of these elders.  It is strange to think about John having this vision in which he sees a representation of himself (which he might not even recognize as himself – see 7:13) among the twenty-four elders while he is still alive on Earth, but this vision is not necessarily of heaven as it was at the moment John had the vision, but rather as it is ideally and as it will be in reality.  Remember that Christ, in 4:1, tells John that the vision is of future events.

[8] See chapter 7 for instance.

[9] See my Key for Solomon’s Temple in my notes on 2nd Chronicles.  The sea in the temple is described in 2nd Chronicles 4.

[10] Baptism is itself symbolic of death.  See Romans 6:4

[11] See also 1st Corinthians 15:39.


6 Responses to “Revelation 4”

  1. […] 1:26 “Over their [1] heads there was something like a throne…and seated above the likeness of a throne was something […]

  2. […] 1:26 “Over their [1] heads there was something like a throne…and seated above the likeness of a throne was something […]

  3. […] 1: So far in Revelation, an open door is good (3:8[3]) and a closed door is bad (3:20).  The door itself seems to represent the same thing in each […]

  4. […] 1: So far in Revelation, an open door is good (3:8[3]) and a closed door is bad (3:20).  The door itself seems to represent the same thing in each […]

  5. […] 1:22.  I wonder if this sea is what Solomon had in mind when he had the Sea made for the temple?[9] I believe the image recurs in Revelation 15:2 in the “sea of glass mixed with fire.”  The sea […]

  6. […] 1:22.  I wonder if this sea is what Solomon had in mind when he had the Sea made for the temple?[9] I believe the image recurs in Revelation 15:2 in the “sea of glass mixed with fire.”  The sea […]

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