Rev. 4:4 – Around that throne were 24 thrones, and on the thrones sat 24 elders dressed in white clothes, with gold crowns on their heads.
Around the throne in heaven John sees 24 thrones upon which are seated 24 elders wearing white clothes and gold crowns. There has been a great deal of speculation about the identity of the elders. The two major views are that they represent the church raptured prior to this time and rewarded in heaven, or that they are angels given great responsibility. Likely, these are not angels because angels are never numbered in scripture – although they are described as “myriads” in Heb. 12:22 – nor are they enthroned or given crowns. And there’s no evidence in scripture that angels receive rewards. In addition, the elders wear human garments that suggest endurance and victory. Therefore, it seems reasonable that they represent the redeemed of God – Old and New Testament saints.
That they are seated denotes honor, rest and satisfaction. That they are near the throne of God signifies intimacy with the Creator. Their robes represent the righteousness of the saints – the imputed righteousness of Christ as well as their righteous deeds. Their crowns depict authority and victory, and the fact that they so eagerly cast their crowns before the throne of God illustrates their clear understanding that the One seated on the throne has given them their righteousness and granted them their lofty position. These crowns are stephanos, similar to those given to victors in Greek games, not diadema, or crowns of sovereign rulers, suggesting the elders have been judged and rewarded.
The ESV Study Bible summarizes well the identity of the elders: “Their number may reflect the orders of priests serving in the OT temple (cf. 1 Chron. 24:7–19) but more likely they symbolize the unity of God’s people, encompassing OT Israel (led by the heads of the 12 tribes) and the NT church (led by the 12 apostles), like the new Jerusalem’s 12 gates and 12 foundations (Rev. 21:12, 14). Their thrones resemble those of God’s heavenly court in Dan. 7:9–10 (cf. Rev. 20:4).”
Notice how the elders relate to the four living creatures. John says, in verses 9-10, that whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the One seated on the throne, the 24 elders fall down before Him, cast their crowns before the throne, and praise Him:
Our Lord and God,
You are worthy to receive
Glory and honor and power,
Because You have created all things,
And because of Your will
They exist and were created.
The Book of Revelation is filled with hymns of praise, and many times it is the elders – sometimes with the four living creatures or the angels – leading in worship. For example:
- In Rev. 5:9-12 the four living creatures and 24 elders sing a new song, praising the worthiness of Jesus, while “countless” angels declare the worthiness of the Lamb.
- In Rev. 7:11-12 all the angels, the elders and the four living creatures fall on their faces before the throne and worship God.
- In Rev. 11:16-18 the 24 elders fall on their faces once again and worship God.
- In Rev. 19:4 the 24 elders and the four living creatures fall down and worship God, saying, “Amen! Hallelujah!”
Warren Wiersbe writes, “The theme of this hymn (Rev. 4:11) is God the Creator, while in Revelation 5 the elders praise God the Redeemer. The praise in Revelation 4 is given to the Father on the throne, while in Revelation 5 it is directed to the Son (the Lamb) before the throne. The closing hymn (Rev. 5:13) is expressed to both, another proof of the deity of Jesus Christ” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Re 4:1).
If the elders represent Israel and the church, are they actually the patriarchs and the apostles (presumably Paul in the place of Judas Iscariot)? Are they others chosen to represent the redeemed of God throughout the ages? Or are they merely symbols? We don’t know. The elders are never named. And in heaven the emphasis is on the One seated on the throne, on the Lamb of God, and on the seven-fold Spirit before the throne. Perhaps our focus should be less on the identity of these elders than on what they are telling us: that the One seated on the throne is worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because He has created all things, and because of His will they exist and were created.
Next: Flashes from the throne (Rev. 4:5)