Revelation 4 Bible Commentary

B. W. Johnson’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Revelation 4)
The Open Door in Heaven.

SUMMARY.--The Voice from Heaven. The Throne and He Who Sat on the Throne. The Twenty-four Elders. The Four Living Forms. Their Cry Night and Day. The Doxology of the Twenty-four Elders.

      It is generally agreed that with this chapter the third section of Revelation begins. Chapters 4 and 5 are preparatory visions. It is not until chapter 6 is reached that the future begins to be uncovered. In these chapters there is revealed through the open door of heaven the Almighty upon the throne in glory surrounded by adoring creatures. The symbolism declares that he holds in his hands the destinies of the world and knowledge of the future. Then it is declared that to the Lion of the tribe of Judah it has been given to open the book of destiny and to reveal the future. To the Son, who appears in a symbolic form, the book is given amid the praises of Elders and living creatures.

      It is noteworthy that the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament, those who had the clearest visions of the reign of Christ, were permitted to behold a similar scene as a preparation for their revelations Ezekiel (Ezek. 1) and Isaiah (Isa. 6) are each allowed to behold the glory of God. As the Old Testament prophets, when about to enter upon their work, were inaugurated to the office of making known the future by a vision of the Almighty, so John, the New Testament prophet, the last prophet of the world, was permitted to have a similar vision. Though the visions differ, the most striking symbols are beheld by all three of the prophets. All see and describe the throne of God, with its sublime surroundings; all speak of the One who sits on the throne, though they make no attempt to describe his person; all record his glory; Ezekiel beholds living creatures around the throne, full of eyes, with four wings and two hands; Isaiah sees the seraphim with six wings who cry, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. In John's vision the four beasts are about the throne, full of eyes, with six wings who cry, Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty. In the case of all the prophets the vision of God is preparatory and indicates that he is about to impart the secrets of his future, hitherto held in his own bosom.

      1-3. After this. "After these things," as in the Revision. After the letters to the churches had been dictated. "The things which must be after this" are yet to be shown. I looked. Rather, "I saw in vision." A door was opened in heaven. Heaven standing open so that the throne within could be seen. The first voice which I heard. The same voice that he had heard at first. See 1:10. Come up hither. Through the opened door. The things which must come to pass hereafter. Hence, we know that what John sees in the vision just opening belongs to events still future when he wrote. 2. I was in the spirit. At once he was lifted to that spiritual exaltation which enabled him to behold the heavenly visions. A throne. The throne of God was revealed and One sat on the throne. 3. He that sat was to look upon like a jasper stone and a sardius. We learn from 21:11 the qualities of the jasper meant; a stone of dazzling brilliance, a mountain of light, clear as crystal. The two probably symbolize the splendor, holiness and judgments of God. Rainbow round about the throne. The rainbow was a pledge of God's faithfulness to his covenants (Gen. 9:13). God sits upon the throne, splendid, dazzling, terrible, but compassed about by the Covenant of Grace.

      4-6. Round about the throne were four and twenty seats. Rather, "thrones." The central throne was encompassed by twenty-four lesser thrones. Four and twenty elders sitting. These ancients were (1) twenty-four in number; (2) they were clothed in white, the color of victory and purity; (3) on their heads were golden crowns, not the diadem which means a kingly crown, but the golden crown of honor (Stephanos). Critics are not agreed as to the signification of these elders, but most of them think that they symbolize the glorified church of God gathered round the throne. They disagree as to the significance of the number twenty-four. There were twenty-four courses of priests. There were twelve tribes, and twelve apostles. Possibly the number of the latter was doubled to symbolize the entire church, Jew and Gentile. In a note below I will give my own view of the Twenty-four Elders. 5. Lightnings and voices and thunders. These seem to portray the threatenings and judgments which proceed from the throne. Seven lamps of fire. These bright light-giving lamps symbolize the Holy Spirit in the fulness of its manifestation, indicated by the seven Spirits of God. See note on 1:4. 6. A sea of glass like unto crystal. This deep, transparent sea before the throne is supposed to symbolize the purity and calmness of the Divine rule. It stands solid, calm and clear. In the midst of the throne. The four forms which are next described were to the right and left of the throne and in the midst between these extremes. The throne was in their midst. Four living creatures. See Revision. Four "beasts," as in the Common Version, is an incorrect idea. The Greek for "beasts" is different. They are four Zoa, "living forms." Full of eyes. Their eyes looked backward as well as forward. The description of these wonderful objects is next given. See notes at end of chapter.

      7-8. The first creature was like a lion. It looked like a lion, but was not a lion. It had other characteristics. Like a calf. Had a body similar to that of the ox. Had the face of a man. Otherwise its structure differed from that of men. Like a flying eagle. It will be seen that four departments of animated nature are represented. That of the wild beasts of prey; that of domestic animals, the human species, and the fowls of the air. Each is represented by what, in the eyes of a Hebrew, would be regarded as its highest type. 8. The four living creatures. Their common characteristics are now pointed out. All have six wings; they are full of eyes, and they all unite in a ceaseless cry of praise to God. Full of eyes within. They were full of eyes before and behind, and when the wings were lifted John saw that they were full of eyes within also. The eyes, sleepless, possibly symbolize never resting, wakeful activity. They have no rest. They never rest from praising the Lord.

      9-11. And when the living creatures shall give glory and honor and thanks to him that sitteth on the throne. Shall utter such praises as are given in verse 8 . Then the twenty-four elders also join in swelling the anthems. It will be noted that these two classes, whatever they signify, are both about the throne, and both engaged in harmonious praise of the Almighty. 10. Cast their crowns before the throne. There are four elements in this worship: (1) They fall down; (2) they adore; (3) they cast their crowns before the throne, an act of homage which gives Him who sitteth there all the glory of their crowns; (4) they offer ascriptions of praise. 11. Worthy art thou, etc. The chorus in which they join ascribes all glory to God as his right as the Creator. Because of thy will they were. Not as in the Common Version. They do not say that God created all things "for his pleasure," but that his will was the efficient cause.


      The meaning of the Twenty-four Elders and the Four Living Creatures has been the subject of much discussion. It has been held by many discreet commentators that the first symbolizes the Redeemed Church, and the latter the Animated Creation, joined around the throne in the praises of the Almighty. It is always with hesitation and a degree of pain that I differ from those whose opinions I have studied with profit, but I am compelled to think that none of the explanations are entirely adequate. I give below my reasons, and what I think the correct view:

      THE FOUR LIVING CREATURES.--What is symbolized by these forms? If the reader will turn to Ezek. 1, he will find that the exiled prophet of the old dispensation saw by the river Chebar of Babylon, the same beings that John described in this chapter. While there are minor differences, the great features are the same. Each prophet, John and Ezekiel, sees (1) four living creatures; both see (2) four faces, like those of a man, a lion, an ox or calf, and a flying eagle; (3) the living creatures of each prophet are full of eyes; (4) in each case they are winged. There is one minor difference in the wings: John sees six wings, while Ezekiel mentions four wings and a pair of hands under the wings, making six members. The seraphim of Isaiah, chapter 6 had six wings. The similar appearance, and the fact that the same Greek term is used to represent them, proves beyond doubt that the "four beasts" of John are the "four living creatures" of Ezekiel. If we therefore can ascertain the significance of the symbols beheld by the Old Testament prophets, we will be able to ascertain what the same symbols mean in Revelation. We are not left in doubt about the identity of the beings described by them. In the tenth chapter Ezekiel describes certain beings that he beheld the second time; and in verse 22 he says: "And the likeness of their faces was the same faces which I saw by the river Chebar, their appearances and themselves." He also says in verse 15, that these are the "living creatures I saw by the river Chebar." Again, in verse 20 he affirms the same thing, and says: "I knew that they were the cherubim." Isaiah, on the other hand, declares that the figures he saw were seraphim.

      Here, then, is solid ground. The four living creatures, or "beasts," of John are not the four elements, four quarters of the earth, four continents, or four evangelists, but are cherubim or seraphim. The forms seen by these prophets are probably symbolical of their nature and work. The information given in the Scriptures is scanty, but they are always represented as being very near the throne of God. When man sinned, it was cherubim who guarded the way to the tree of life. In the tabernacle cherubim hovered over the mercy seat and were figured upon the curtains. The Almighty is addressed elsewhere as the One who dwells between the cherubim The brightness of the glory of the Lord is represented as attending them in Ezekiel; and in the vision of John they are "in the midst of and around the throne." In the fifth chapter the Lamb stands "in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts." In some way the cherubim are immediately about the throne of God.

      The forms seen by Isaiah, Ezekiel and John have a symbolical significance. These angelic intelligences represent the courage of the lion, the patient strength of the ox, the intellect of the man, and the swiftness of the eagle. They are full of eyes, or see all things; their wings are always in motion, or they are distinguished by tireless activity, and the continually cry, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty;" or, without ceasing they minister to the glory of God. Thus much can be said concerning the "four beasts," or "cherubim," without indulging in speculation. Cherubim are present at the fall of man; cherubim also celebrate his redemption and the triumph of the reign of Christ. Whether they also symbolize four forms of earthly creation is a matter left to conjecture.

      THE FOUR AND TWENTY ELDERS.--What has been said will aid us to determine the meaning of these heavenly elders. It has been usually held that they were men, representative of the redeemed. The number has been troublesome, but they have been supposed to represent the twelve apostles and twelve patriarchs. I think that a careful examination of all the passages in which they occur will show that they are of kindred character to the cherubim (the four beasts) and to the angels. 1. They are about the throne--(4:4.) 2. When the cherubim give glory to God, they also worship--(4:10.) 3. Together they sing the new song--(5:9.)* 4. When the angels honour the Lamb, these unite in saying, Amen--(5:14.) 5. When the innumerable multitude of redeemed, clothed in white robes, praise God for salvation, the angels and elders, and four beasts are not with these redeemed ones, but about the throne, and join together in a separate ascription of praise from that offered by men--(7:9-12.) 6. One of the elders informs John concerning those arrayed in white robes, and it is evident that he does not belong to their number--(7:13.) 7. When the final triumph comes, and the seventh trumpet angel proclaims that "the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ," the four and twenty elders who were sitting on their seats before the throne fell upon their faces and gave thanks to God--(11:17.) 8. In chapter 14, the Lamb has one hundred and forty and four thousand saints about him, who sing a new song "before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders." From all these passages, it will be seen that the elders are grouped, not with the martyrs, or redeemed, or the one hundred and forty and four thousand; not with saved men, but with the angels and the cherubim about the throne of God. This distinction marks their character. They belong to the heavenly intelligences; to the same class as the cherubim and angels. They are princes of heaven. They are twenty-four in number. This number is probably associated with the twenty-four courses of priests engaged in the service of the temple, the institutions of which were "patterns of things in the heavens." They are of the retinue that surround the throne and serve in the presence of God, and they constantly join in the adoration of the angelic hosts, and are incessantly employed in carrying out God's plans for the salvation of the world. [430]

      * See the New Song in the Revised Version. The New Song praises the Lamb for redeeming men and making them a kingdom and priests, but the Four Living Creatures and the Twenty-four Elders neither here nor elsewhere offer praises for their own redemption. They do not belong to the redeemed.