September 21: Revelation 4:1-7

Revelation 4:1-11

With chapter 4, a new division of the book—the beginning of the main body—is introduced. The vision of chapter 4-5 leads into the great vision cycles that make up the bulk of chapters 6-18. As has been previous noted, the book of Revelation is also structured as a letter, and, from the standpoint of epistolary (and rhetorical) form, the throne-vision in chaps. 4-5 functions something like the propositio, or main statement (proposition) of the case to argued or expounded in the main body of the letter, the probatio. The visions (and vision cycles) which follow serve as the probatio, demonstrating (or “proving”) what is represented in the vision of chaps. 4-5.

Rev 4:1

The structural shift is clear from verse 1, with its chiastic shape, marking a separation from the previous vision in 1:9-3:22:

“These things” refer specifically to what John heard and experienced in the previous visions, including the messages to the seven churches. The expression meta\ tau=ta (“after these [thing]s”) must be understood in this sense. Central to the verse is the description of the voice, which is again that of the risen Jesus, as in the earlier vision of 1:9ff:

“and the first voice which I heard as a trumpet speaking with me…”

It is Jesus who calls John to “step up” into heaven. The visionary motif of doors or gates opening into heaven is relatively common (cf. Gen 28:10ff; 1 Enoch 14:15ff; Testament of Levi 5:1, etc). An invitation to enter and experience the realm of the heavenlies is essentially a commonplace in apocalyptic literature (e.g., 1 Enoch 14:8ff; Testament of Levi 2:6ff; Martyrdom of Isaiah 7; cf. Koester, p. 359).

Rev 4:2-3

The parallel with the first vision is seen also in the language used in verse 2:

“(And) straightaway I came to be in the Spirit, and see!…”

With the shift to a new visionary location, the author mentions again being “in the Spirit” (e)n pneu/mati, 1:10). This consistent reference to the Spirit is important in terms of understanding the source and (revelatory) nature of the visions as described by the seer. The central point of the vision is that of God’s ruling-seat or “throne” (qro/no$) in Heaven. It is here that the rhetorical (and polemical) thrust of the book of Revelation begins to come clearly into focus: the rule of God (and Christ) in Heaven contrasted with the false/wicked rule of earthly (spec. Roman imperial) government. Of course, the idea and image of God’s throne goes back to most ancient times, with the royal iconography (and ideology) of the ancient Near East, and continuing on to the time of the Roman empire. There are numerous references in the Old Testament (Psalm 9:7; 11:4; 103:19, etc), but the most prominent passages include visionary scenes of the heavenly court, such as 1 Kings 22:19ff (par 2 Chron 18:18ff); Isa 6:1-3; Ezek 1:4ff (v. 26); Dan 7:9-10. The “throne” represented the ruling power of God, and served as a graphical way of depicting or referring to God, and could almost be seen as a living/divine entity in itself. Note here in vv. 2-3, how closely connected God and the throne are:

“See! a seat of rule [i.e. throne] was set in the heaven, and upon the ruling seat [i.e. throne] (One was) sitting, and the (One) sitting (was) in vision [i.e. appearance] like a stone (of) iaspis and sardios, and a (rain)bow [i@ri$] circling round the ruling seat in vision [i.e. appearance] like a smaragdos (stone)”
[The words in italics indicate colored stones or gems—purplish(?), red {carnelian}, and green {emerald}]

In many ways, the throne (and its surroundings) simply reflects the manifest and glorious appearance of God—the divine/heavenly character reflected by the description, which resembles that of other theophanies in the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition (Exod 24:10; Ezek 1:26-28; 10:1, etc). In the developed Jewish mystical/visionary tradition of the Rabbinic and early medieval periods, the “throne-chariot” (merkabah, inspired largely from Ezek 1) was a fundamental symbol.

Rev 4:4

As the description of the throne vision continues, we move outward from the center of the throne itself, and a somewhat surprising detail emerges:

“And circling round the ruling seat [qro/no$] (were) twenty-four (other) ruling seats [qro/noi], and upon the ruling seats (were) sitting twenty-four Elder (One)s cast about [i.e. clothed] in white garments, and upon their heads (were) gold crowns.”

The description of these twenty-four seats as “seats of rule” (qro/noi), which circle around God’s throne (qro/no$), rather clearly indicates that the persons/beings on these seats share in God’s rule in some way. They are called by the common term presbu/tero$, referring to an old/elder person. It is not entirely clear whether these should be regarded as: (a) heavenly beings, or (b) glorified human beings. They do seem to be distinct from the heavenly Messengers (i.e. Angels) in that the Messengers are sent by God out into the world (as his “eyes” or to convey his word), while these “Elders” appear to have fixed places (of rule) around His throne. The use of the term presbu/tero$, along with the number twenty-four (12 x 2), suggests that they represent the people of God—perhaps as a heavenly counterpart, or corollary, to God’s people on earth. The specific number 24 suggests a combination of (a) the twelve tribes of Israel, and (b) the twelve apostles (i.e. the Church). Recall that Elders, representing Israel, were present at the covenant Theophany in Exod 24; similarly, Elders, representing believers in Christ, were appointed by the Twelve (apostles) who were present at the establishment of the “new covenant” (Mark 14:22-25 par), and who represent the new constitution of the people of God (cf. the symbolism in Acts 1:6ff, 15ff; chap. 2). The twelve apostles and the twelve tribes are closely connected in an (eschatological) saying of Jesus (Matt 19:28; par Lk 22:28-30), and also in the vision of the “new Jerusalem” at the end of the book of Revelation (21:12-14ff, to be discussed). The crowns on the heads of the elders similarly suggest a connection with believers, who will inherit the crown/wreath (ste/fano$) as a heavenly honor (and sign of eternal life), as well a sign that they have a share in the kingdom/rule of Christ (2:10; 3:11).

Rev 4:5-7

After the description of the Elders, the vision returns to more traditional theophanous imagery:

    • “(lightning) flashes and voices and thunderings”—this draws upon ancient Near Eastern storm theophany, most commonly applied to the ‘Lord’ (Baal) Haddu (the Storm [deity]) in Canaanite religion, but was found just as prominently in Israelite descriptions of El-Yahweh. In the Semitic/Hebrew idiom, the word for thunder is literally “voice” (loq), based on the idea of thunder as the “voice” of God.
    • “seven lamps of fire burning in the sight of the ruling-seat”—this repeats the description from 1:4, and again refers to these heavenly beings as “the seven Spirits of God”. That these “Spirits” should be understood as heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) is clear from the explanation in 1:20 and 3:1, as well as various references in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition (Psalm 104:4; Ezek 1:12-13; Zech 4:2, 10; Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7; 90:21, etc).
    • “a glassy sea like ice-crystal”—this is said to be “in the sight of [i.e. in front of] the throne”, and also is a traditional image (cf. Exod 24:10; Ezek 1:22, 26), which likely is related to ancient Near Eastern cosmology, i.e. the firmament and God’s throne above the waters (Gen 1:6-7; cf. Psalm 29:3; 93:4; 104:3; 148:4).
    • “four living (being)s (appear)ing full of eyes in front and in back”—these living [zw=|a] beings are similar in description to those in Ezek 1:4-10 (cf. also Isa 6:2-3). Here they are said to be “in the middle” of the throne, perhaps meaning “in the middle, where the throne is”, and also “in a circle” around the throne. They feature prominently in the remainder of the vision.

The appearance of each of the four “living beings” combines various human, animal, and hybrid/heavenly characteristics. This is common, from the standpoint of ancient or traditional religious iconography, when attempting to describe the Divine. The ancient Near East, in particular, made use of many images of winged animals or beings with human and/or animal faces. It is almost as though it was necessary to make use of all the characteristics of living creatures, and the attributes these characteristics represent (strength, power, beauty, wisdom, etc), in order provide even a remotely adequate description of God. These living beings, indeed, have as their main task the praise and worship of God (v. 8). This aspect of the vision will be discussed in the next note.

Much has been made of the specific appearance of each being, resembling, in turn: (a) “a lion”, (b) “a bull/calf”, (c) human (“face/appearance as a man”), and (d) “an air(borne eagl)e flying”. These have been interpreted numerous ways, including the famous (traditional) association with the four Gospels (Evangelists). However, it is probably best to interpret them (if one must) as representing all of creation—specifically, living creatures (animal and human). It is, in particular, the noblest and most regal (lion, bull, human, eagle) portions of the animal world (according to the traditional reckoning) which are represented. Special emphasis is given on the wings of these living beings (v. 8), and this will be addressed in the next daily note (on vv. 8-11).

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