Verse 5 tells us that from God’s throne come “flashes of lightning, rumblings, and thunder.” These display the terrifying splendor of God’s glory and point us back to the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:16). Matthew Henry comments on the sights and sounds proceeding from the throne: “Thus he gave forth the law on mount Sinai; and the gospel has not less glory and authority than the law, though it be of a more spiritual nature” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Re 4:1–8).
Thunder is a recurring sound throughout Revelation. One of the four living creatures speaks with a voice like thunder when the Lamb opens the first seal (6:1). There are thunders, rumblings, lightning and an earthquake when an angel takes the incense burner, fills it with fire from the heavenly altar, and hurls it to the earth (8:5). When the Ark of the Covenant appears in the sanctuary in heaven there is lightning accompanied by rumblings, thunder, an earthquake, and severe hail (11:19). In Rev. 14:2 John hears a sound from heaven like cascading waters and the rumbling of loud thunder. When the seventh bowl is poured out, there are lightning, rumblings and thunder (16:18). And when the marriage of the Lamb is announced John hears something like the voice of a vast multitude, like cascading waters, and like the rumbling of loud thunder (19:6).
Warren Wiersbe observes, “These ‘storm signals’ [from Rev. 4:5] will be repeated during the time of judgment, always proceeding from the throne and temple of God. God has indeed prepared His throne for judgment (Ps. 9:7; note also 77:18). Our world does not like to think of God as a God of judgment. They prefer to look at the rainbow around the throne and ignore the lightning and thunder out of the throne. He certainly is a God of grace, but His grace reigns through righteousness (Rom. 5:21). This was made clear at the cross where God manifested both His love for sinners and His wrath against sin” (Re 4:1).
After the thunder, John notes, “Burning before the throne were seven fiery torches, which are the seven spirits of God” (v. 5). The phrase “seven spirits” ties back to Rev. 1:4 and to Rev. 3:1, where Jesus describes Himself as “[t]he One who has the seven spirits of God.” While some Bible commentators say the seven spirits are angels and others argue that they represent the seven churches of Asia Minor, it seems best to understand these fiery torches as the Holy Spirit, who at times in scripture is associated with fire and judgment.
For example, in Isa. 4:4 the citizens of Judah are told that all who remain there will be called holy “when the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the blood-guilt from the heart of Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of burning.” This is followed by the promise, “Then the Lord will create a cloud of smoke by day and a glowing flame of fire by night over the entire site of Mount Zion and over its assemblies” (v. 5). In Matt. 3:11 John the Baptist declares, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the One who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to take off His sandals. He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Picking up on that prophecy, Jesus tells His followers after His resurrection, “This [the Father’s promise] is what you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4b-5).
The phrases “seven spirits” (or seven-fold Spirit) and “seven fiery torches” contain the number seven, which depicts fullness or completeness and is the number of God. The Spirit’s location before the throne of God illustrates His close relationship with the Father and the Son (who appears before the throne in chapter 5). It also may demonstrate His readiness to be sent out from the throne – to empower and equip the Lord’s servants for ministry. Since Yahweh appears in flames in the Old Testament (in a burning bush and a pillar of fire in the Old Testament, for example), and since Jesus appears with fiery eyes and feet like heated bronze (in Rev. 1), it should not surprise us that the Holy Spirit shares in the flaming qualities of holiness and judgment. One final thought: the seven fiery torches correspond to the seven-branch candlestick in the holy of holies, a further indication John sees a manifestation of the Holy Spirit before the throne in heaven.
John then records that “before the throne was something like a sea of glass, similar to crystal” (v. 6a). This may correspond to the brass vessel before the sanctuary, where the priests washed in preparation for service. The sea of glass also appears in prophetic visions of God’s throne room. For example, in Exodus 24, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 of Israel’s elders see “something like a pavement made of sapphire stone, as clear as the sky itself” beneath God’s feet. Ezekiel sees “[T]he shape of an expanse, with a gleam like awe-inspiring crystal” spread out over the heads of the living creatures (Ezek. 1:22). And later in Revelation John sees “something like a sea of glass mixed with fire” in heaven (Rev. 15:2).
But what is this sea? Consider this note in the ESV Study Bible: “It is the ‘floor’ of heaven and the ‘ceiling’ of the created universe, and its transparent tranquility shows heaven’s peace in contrast to earthly turmoil” (Rev. 4:6-8). Matthew Henry adds this thought: “As in the temple there was a great vessel of brass filled with water, in which the priests were to wash when they went to minister before the Lord (and this was called a sea), so in the gospel church the sea or laver for purification is the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, who cleanses from all sin, even from sanctuary-sins. In this all those must be washed that are admitted into the gracious presence of God on earth or his glorious presence in heaven” (Re 4:1-8). The sea of glass appears to be the only thing not active in the throne room, where lighting flashes, thunder booms, living creatures proclaim the holiness of God, and 24 elders fall down in worship. Perhaps in one sense the sea of glass represents the tranquility that comes from God’s work and His creature’s worship. For the one whose mind is fixed on the Creator, there is “perfect peace” (Isa. 26:3).
Next: Living creatures