In a recent article, we turned our attention to Revelation 4:4, where John described the twenty four elders who surround the throne of God: “Around the throne were twenty four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads.”
It was our contention that the twenty-four elders are exactly that: they are elders! They are symbolic of the ruling authority in the church; the office of the elder. The pattern for the government of the church is found in heaven. As it is in heaven, so it is on earth.
Now, in Revelation 4:6b–8, we come to something a bit more difficult, something much more enigmatic. We come to the four living creatures. Who, or what, are the four living creatures?
Many suggestions have been made. The early church fathers thought that the four living creatures were symbolic of the four gospels: Matthew was compared to a man, because he begins with the generation of Christ; Mark to a lion, because he begins at the preaching of John; Luke to an ox, because he begins his narrative by mentioning the priesthood; and John to an eagle, because he penetrates, as it were, to the secrets of heaven.
The problem was that even the church fathers could not agree as to which creature represented which gospel (Origen said that Matthew is the man, Mark the eagle, Luke the ox, and John the lion; Victorinus had Matthew as the man, Mark as the lion, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle; Athanasius had Matthew as the lion, Mark as the man, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle). While the early church fathers thought the four living creatures were symbolic of the gospels or the gospel writers, the astrologers have their view: they identify the four living creatures with the symbols in the four quarters of the zodiac. The view to which most commentators hold is the view that sees the four living creatures as representative of the whole created order of animate life. None of these views is ultimately satisfying.
Cherubim and Seraphim
And so we come back to the question: who, or what, are the four living creatures? There are a couple of leads given in the text that help us in identifying the four living creatures.
The first lead is the song they sing, verse 8: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!” The song should sound familiar to you, for it echoes the song of Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). Do you remember who sang that song in Isaiah 6? It was the seraphim, described in verse 2 of Isaiah 6, as follows: “Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” The four living creatures sing the song of the seraphim! There is a correspondence, then, between the seraphim of Isaiah 6 and the four living creatures of Revelation 4. They sing the same song.
The other lead provided in Revelation 4 concerning the four living creatures is their description: “full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle” (4:6b-7). The description should be familiar, as well. We read a similar description in that profound and difficult chapter of the Bible, Ezekiel 1. William Hendriksen summarizes the similarities between Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 as follows: “There is a very close connection between this entire throne vision and the first and tenth chapters of Ezekiel … Notice the following striking resemblances. In both cases these beings are called ‘living ones’ (cf. Ezekiel 1:5 with Rev. 4:6). In both cases the symbolic number is the same, namely, four (cf. Ezekiel 1:5 with Rev. 4:6). In both cases the appearance of their faces is compared to that of man, lion, ox, and eagle (cf. Ezekiel 1:10 with Rev. 4:7). In both cases they are closely associated with the throne (cf. Ezekiel 1:26 with Rev. 4:6). In both cases fire moves to and fro among the ‘living ones’ (cf. Ezekiel 1:13 with Rev. 4:5: ‘Out of the fire went lightning.’). In both cases these ‘living ones’ are said to be studded all over with eyes (cf. Ezekiel 1:18; 10:12 with Rev. 4:8). In both cases a rainbow encircles the throne with which the ‘living ones’ are associated (cf. Ezekiel 1:28 with Rev. 4:3).”
Ezekiel actually goes on to identify the living creatures as cherubim in 10:20. The cherubim, of course, are those who creatures who guard the presence of God. Remember Genesis 3? God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden and places cherubim on the East with flaming swords flashing back and forth to guard the presence of God. Remember the tabernacle and temple? Woven on the curtains facing east, were cherubim, guarding the presence of God. Remember the Ark of the Covenant? On the top of the mercy seat sat cherubim facing one another, the tips of their wings touching one another, guarding the presence of God. Remember Psalm 99? God sits enthroned between the cherubim. There is a correspondence, then, between the cherubim of Ezekiel 1 and the four living creatures of Revelation 4. Their description is nearly the same.
The four living creatures of Revelation 4 have as their background the seraphim of Isaiah 6, as well as the cherubim of Ezekiel 1. It would seem then that the four living creatures are either seraphim or cherubim, or a blending of the two.
Though such a view may appear to be tenable and even attractive, it falls short. To begin with, though the four living creatures sing the song of the seraphim of Isaiah 6, they are not called seraphim; and though the description of the four living creatures may be similar to that of Ezekiel 1, they are not called cherubim. Moreover, these Old Testament passages seem to draw a distinction between the seraphim and the cherubim, so that to blend them here in Revelation 4 would seem to do an injustice to the angelic order.
Furthermore, there are also differences between these Old Testament passages and Revelation 4. The song of the four living creatures in Revelation 4 is not identical with the song of the seraphim in Isaiah 6; it is close, but it is not identical. You can compare the songs and see the differences for yourself. Neither is the description of the four living creatures in Revelation 4 identical with the description of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1; again it is close, but it is not identical. Each of the four living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision had four faces, in Revelation; each creature has one face. The four living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision had four wings, in Revelation, each creature has six wings.
All of this leads us to conclude that while the four living creatures have their background in the seraphim of Isaiah 6 as well as the cherubim of Ezekiel 1, they are not to be identified as seraphim, nor are they to be identified as cherubim, nor are they to be identified as a blending of the two. John has in view something else.
Proclaiming of the Word
What, then, does John have in view? Who, or what, are the four living creatures? The four living creatures are symbolic of the proclamation of the Word. The four living creatures are symbolic of the office of the Minister of the Word and Sacraments. The four living creatures are symbolic of the preaching office.
Though the early church fathers were incorrect in seeing the four living creatures as the gospels, they were on to something in connecting the four living creatures to the Word. Though the commentators who see in the four living creatures the seraphim of Isaiah 6 or the cherubim of Ezekiel 1 or a blending of the two may fall short of the proper interpretation, they are on to something. After all, the Scriptures themselves draw the closest parallel between the angelic ministry and the ministry of the Word. Consider Psalm 103:20–21, “Bless the Lord, you His angels, who excel in strength, who do His word, heeding the voice of His word. Bless the Lord, all you His hosts, you ministers of His, who do His pleasure.” The Psalmist brings the angelic ministry into the closest connection with the ministry of the Word.
But what is it that seals the argument? What is it that leads us to conclude that the four living creatures are symbolic of the office of the preaching of the Word? It is the number “four”. Even as the number twenty-four confirmed that the twenty-four elders are symbolic of the ruling office in the church, so the number four confirms that the four living creatures are symbolic of the preaching office in the church.
What is the significance of the number four? Think of the four corners of the earth, the four points of the compass, the four winds. Where must the gospel be proclaimed? To the ends of the earth! The four living creatures are representative of the preaching office, and the proclamation of that Word that must go forth to the ends of the earth.
Leading in Worship
The role of the four living creatures—symbolic as they are of the office of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments—then, is certainly that of leading in worship. Consider the following verses. Revelation 4:8: “The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” Revelation 5:8: “Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 5:14: “Then the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.” Revelation 7:11: “All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God.” Revelation 14:3: “They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders.” Revelation 19:4: “And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who sat on the throne, saying, ‘Amen! Alleluia!’” Together with the twenty-four elders, the four living creatures are responsible for guarding the worship of the One who sits on the throne. To the elders and the ministers, then, belongs the responsibility of guarding the true worship of the living God.
Heralding the Judgment
But the role of the four living creatures extends beyond that of worship, and in extending beyond that of worship, it extends beyond that of the elders. The four living creatures, symbolic of the preaching office, are also responsible for heralding the judgment to come.
Consider Revelation 6:1–8, where you read of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In each case it is the four living creatures who are connected with the riding forth of the horsemen—those horsemen that ride forth in judgment. The four living creatures, then, are connected to the opening of the seven seals, those seals that represent the unfolding plan of redemption: judgment upon the sinful world, salvation for the church.
Consider also Revelation 15:7, where one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels the seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God. Again, the four living creatures are connected to the pouring out of the bowls; they are connected with judgment. There is also an implied connection with the trumpets of chapters 8–11. What do trumpets do? They sound forth! What does the proclamation of the Word do? It sounds forth. The four living creatures then are connected directly with the opening of the seals; they are connected directly with the pouring out of the bowls; they are connected indirectly with the sounding forth of the trumpets. As they herald God’s Word, judgment is proclaimed.
Is the picture becoming clear? Do you begin to understand why the four living creatures, symbolic of the office of preaching, are described in terms that draw upon the seraphim, who sing of the Holiness of God, and the cherubim, who guard the presence of God? In the preaching of the Word, the holiness of God is proclaimed, but also the judgment that comes upon those who presume to approach Him.
Remember the cherubim standing on the East of Eden, flaming swords in their hands flashing back and forth? Adam and Eve learned that the only way back to life is through death; the only way back to the presence of God is to go through the sword of the cherubim! What is the proclamation of the Word, but the proclamation of God’s holiness, and the proclamation that the only way back into the holy presence of God is through the sword of the cherubim? What is the proclamation of the Word but the proclamation that Christ has gone through death to bring us life? What is the proclamation of the Word but the proclamation that Christ has gone through the sword of the cherubim to bring us into the Holy presence of God?
It is the preaching of the Word that guards the presence of God! Here is the significance of the eyes: those eyes search, they judge the thoughts and intents of the heart. Is not the proclamation of the Word precisely that? Does not the Word penetrate your heart? Does not the Word judge the thoughts of your heart; the intents of your heart; and lay open your heart before the penetrating, burning, and healing light of God’s holiness?
It is the preaching of the Word that guards the presence of God. Here is the significance of Hebrews 4:12-13, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” The Word of God guards the place of His rest; Hebrews 4 speaks of the rest of God, and it concludes with the Word that guards it. Note also as the Word is living, so the four creatures are living, the proclamation of the Word is living!
It is the preaching of the Word that guards the holy presence of God. Here is the understanding of the Word of God as one of the Keys of the Kingdom: it opens the kingdom to some, even as it closes it to others (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31, Questions and Answers 83-84).
In that connection, do you begin to understand why the office of preaching is set before us in such enigmatic terms? Because the preaching of the Word is itself enigmatic; we do not understand how it works! I know not how this saving faith to me He did impart, nor how believing in His Word wrought peace within my heart…I know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin, revealing Jesus through the Word, creating faith in Him. We may not understand how it works, but praise God that it does!
Do you see, then, the brilliance of Revelation 4? The office of the elders is represented in the twenty-four elders, the office of preaching is represented in the four living creatures! The government of the church is right there in Revelation 4, oriented to the throne of God. As it is in heaven, so it is on earth.
More on the role of the four living creatures, the office of the preaching of the Word, next time…
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. He also is the President of the Board of Reformed Fellowship.