The four living creatures: Rev. 4:6-11

Previously: Flashes from the throne (Rev. 4:5)

The scripture

Rev. 4:6: Also before the throne was something like a sea of glass, similar to crystal. In the middle and around the throne were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back. 7The first living creature was like a lion; the second living creature was like a calf; the third living creature had a face like a man; and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. 8Each of the four living creatures had six wings; they were covered with eyes around and inside. Day and night they never stop, saying:

                Holy, holy, holy, 

                Lord God, the Almighty,

                who was, who is, and who is coming.

9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the One seated on the throne, the One who lives forever and ever, 10 the 24 elders fall down before the One seated on the throne, worship the One who lives forever and ever, cast their crowns before the throne, and say:

                11 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 (HCSB).

We come  at last to the most fascinating creatures in this scene of heaven’s throne room: the four living creatures. What makes them so hard to identify is the fact that they share features of the seraphim (Isa. 6:1-7) and cherubim (Ezek. 1:4-14; 10:20-22), yet even their similarities are not consistent.

The cherubim here have six wings, like the seraphim in Isa. 6:2, whereas the cherubim in Ezek. 1:6 have four wings each. They are called by the same name, “living creatures.” But in Ezekiel each living creature has all four faces, while in Revelation a separate face belongs to each one. “Variation and blending of such features is a reminder that in prophetic visions, images symbolize mysterious unseen realities” (ESV Study Bible, Rev. 4:6-8).

These spectacular beings are covered with eyes front and back. One resembles a lion; another, a calf; another, a man; and another, a flying eagle. Each has six wings covered with eyes. Together, they never stop proclaiming the holiness and power of God. These creatures are closer to God than the elders, residing in the middle of the throne and around it. Perhaps this signifies their unfallen state, but more likely – since Christ’s redemption completely removes sin and its consequences from fallen humans – their close proximity to the throne speaks of God’s sovereign choice of where His servants will serve. There is no hint that the elders resent the living creatures, or that the living creatures treat others condescendingly; all are focused in worship on the One seated on the throne.

Commentators offer a variety of explanations of the four living creatures. Some argue simply that these are exalted angels who extol the attributes of God. Others say they represent Christ as seen in the four gospels: in Matthew, the Lion of the tribe of Judah; in Mark, the ox (or calf) as the Servant of Yahweh; in Luke, the incarnate Son of Man; and in John, the eagle as the divine Son of God. J.F. Walvoord and R.B. Zuck offer this view: “As the Holy Spirit was seen symbolically in the seven lamps, probably the four living creatures symbolically represent the attributes of God including His omniscience and omnipresence (indicated by the creatures being full of eyes) – with the four animals bringing out other attributes of God: the lion indicating majesty and omnipotence; the ox, typical of faithful labor and patience; man, indicating intelligence; and the eagle, the greatest bird, representing supreme sovereignty” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Re 4:5–11).

One other view, expressed by R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and D. Brown, says the four living creatures in this context best describe “the redeemed election-Church in its relation of ministering king-priests to God, and ministers of blessing to the redeemed earth, and the nations on it, and the animal creation, in which man stands at the head of all, the lion at the head of wild beasts, the ox at the head of tame beasts, the eagle at the head of birds and of the creatures of the waters” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 4:8-9).  Looking at Rev. 5:8-10, the living creatures join the elders in singing a new song to the Lamb, who has just taken the seven-sealed scroll from the hand of the One seated on the throne. Together they proclaim, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals; because You were slaughtered, and You redeemed [people] for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth.” The bracketed word “people” (in the HCSB) is the word “us” in some manuscripts, supporting the idea that the living creatures are human representatives of the redeemed. However, if the correct translation is “people,” then the living creatures may not in fact be human.

In any case, the four living creatures inhabit the throne room of God, and continually they worship and serve Him. Perhaps they help John, and us, see the heavenly reality of what is pictured on earth in the Jewish encampment in the wilderness. According to Jewish tradition, the “four standards” under which the Israelites pitched their tents were: A lion for Judah (east); an eagle for Dan (north); an ox for Ephraim (west); and a man for Reuben (south). In the midst of the camp was the tabernacle, where the Shekinah glory – the symbol of divine presence – resided. Many things on earth are given to us as “shadows” or “copies” of greater heavenly realities. For example, the Book of Hebrews teaches that the law and its ceremonies under the old covenant are “shadows” of the good things to come. And Christ entered the sanctuary in heaven with His own blood, obtaining eternal redemption for us; this was pictured in the sacrificial system under the old covenant, by which the high priest entered the holy of holies once a year to atone for people’s sins (see Heb. 9:11-12).

Keep in mind as we continue our study of Revelation that first-century readers no doubt were familiar with Judaism, and even if John’s writings came late in the 90s (as futurists argue) rather than in the 60s (as preterists contend), the sacrificial system in place in Jerusalem until the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. would have remained quite vivid in their minds. For them, the living creatures may have been seen as the “reality” of what was pictured in old covenant symbols and practices.

Next: The seven-sealed scroll (Rev. 5:1-4)