Tagged: cherub

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)

Isaiah 6: Holy, Holy, Holy

Listen to the audio file

Download a worksheet for further study (pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment

Part 2: Historical Interlude

Part 3: Salvation

Chapters 1-35

Chapters 36-39

Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 6 recounts an event in “the year that King Uzziah died” (v. 1).

Key verse:

Isa. 6:3:  And one [seraphim] called to another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth.

Quick summary:

Isaiah has a stunning vision of the Lord, who sends the prophet to keep preaching to the unrepentant Jews “until the land is ruined and desolate” (v. 11).

Take note:

This is the only place in Scripture where seraphim are mentioned by name. Apparently these creatures are among the highest order of angels and serve at the throne of God. Their name, which means “burning ones,” describes their role as proclaimers of God’s holiness. They also declare that man must be purged of sin’s moral defilement before he may stand before God and serve Him. Seraphim appear to have some human features since they are depicted as standing, having faces, and having feet. Yet they also have six wings each and are capable of flight. Their acts of worship are so intense that they cause the thresholds of the divine Temple to shake. They stand ready to serve God at a moment’s notice.

In comparison, cherubim have an extraordinary appearance with four faces – those of a man, lion, ox and eagle – four wings and the feet of calves. They guard the gate to the Garden of Eden, preventing sinful man from reentering (Gen. 3:24). They also are depicted as golden figures covering the mercy seat above the ark in the Holy of Holies (Ex. 25:17-22), and they attend the glory of God in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 1).

However seraphim and cherubim are different, they appear to be some of God’s most powerful, intelligent, and beautiful creatures. Satan may have been an “anointed guardian cherub” (Ezek. 28:14) if Ezekiel 28 is a reference to him before his rebellion.

Isaiah’s vision (Isa. 6:1-7)

There is some debate as to whether this passage should be at the beginning of Isaiah rather than inserted here. But because much of what we’ve read so far – especially Isa. 2-5 – deals with events during Uzziah’s life, it seems clear that Isaiah’s vision in “the year of Uzziah’s death” (v. 1) is his inauguration into a new level of ministry. However, some argue that Uzziah’s “death” could mean the end of his civil service as king due to his leprosy. If that’s the case, Isaiah’s vision would have come many years before the king’s death. An interesting thought: Isaiah’s claim to have seen God may have been the pretext for his being sawed asunder under Manassah’s reign, according to tradition (see Heb. 11:37).

Isaiah’s vision of the Lord (Adonai in v. 1; Yahweh in v. 5) implies the Trinity in unity. Jesus is interpreted to be the one speaking in Isa. 6:10 according to John 12:41, while Paul attributes the words to the Holy Spirit (Acts 28:25-7). Also, the seraphims’ declaration of the Lord as “Holy, holy, holy” provides additional support to the notion that what Isaiah saw was a representation of the Triune Godhead if not God’s divine essence (see John 1:18). The Trinity is further implied later in verse 8, where God says, “… who will go for Us?” In any case, what Isaiah sees is different from the Shekinah glory that resides above the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, for the Lord is seated here on a throne, attended by heavenly creatures, and His robe fills the Temple.

The seraphim have been discussed above, but Jamieson, Fausset and Brown provide some added insight. They say that while the term is used nowhere else in Scripture of God’s attending angels, it is used to describe the rapidly moving serpents the Lord sent to torment the Israelites (Num. 21:6). The commentators add, “Perhaps Satan’s form as a serpent (nachash) in his appearance to man has some connection with his original form as a seraph of flight” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Logos Research Systems, S. Is. 6:2).

Isaiah’s response to this vision of the Lord is consistent with the reaction of others in Scripture who encounter God after the Fall: fear and a realization of one’s complete

inadequacy in the presence of Almighty God. Isaiah’s words in verse 5 are instructive:

  • “Woe is me, for I am ruined.” Some translations say “undone” or “lost.” Isaiah is in good company when he gasps at being in the presence of the Lord. Gideon has a similar response (Judges 6:22). So do Manoah (Judges 13:22), Job (Job 42:5), Peter (Luke 5:8) and John (Rev. 1:17). Isaiah has pronounced woes on the inhabitants of Judah; now he declares that he, too, is subject to judgment.
  • “… because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips.” John Walvoord and Roy Zuck comment: “When seen next to the purity of God’s holiness, the impurity of human sin is all the more evident. The prophet’s unclean lips probably symbolized his attitudes and actions as well as his words, for a person’s words reflect his thinking and relate to his actions. Interestingly Isaiah identified with his people who also were sinful (a people of unclean lips)” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1045).
  • “… and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah sees, not necessarily God in his full glory (John 1:18; 1 Tim. 6:16), but a representation of His presence. The writer of Hebrews, for example, says Christ is “the exact expression of His nature” (Heb. 1:3), and John tells us the Word, who is God, “became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:14).

In verses 6-7 one of the seraphim flies to Isaiah and touches his mouth with a glowing coal he has snatched with a tong from the altar. The heavenly creature declares that Isaiah’s wickedness is removed and his sin is atoned for. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown have an interesting perspective on this: “The mouth was touched because it was the part to be used by the prophet when inaugurated. So ‘tongues of fire’ rested on the disciples (Acts 2:3, 4) when they were being set apart to speak in various languages of Jesus” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, of the Old and New Testaments, S. Is 6:7).

Isaiah’s commission (Isa. 6:8-13)

The Lord’s self-reference to both “I” and “Us” strongly suggests the triune nature of the Godhead (see also Gen. 1:26; 11:7). The Lord’s questions – “Who should I send?” and “Who will go for Us?” – indicate that few are both willing and qualified to deliver the unwelcome message to the Jews, enduring hardship, rejection, and unbelief. Isaiah responds promptly to the call: “Here I am. Send me.” Eagerness for service is a sign of God’s purifying and enabling work in a believer’s life (see also 1 Sam. 3:10; Acts 9:6-8).

The Lord immediately lays out His challenging mission. Isaiah is to declare God’s truth, but it will only result in hardening of the people’s hearts. Judah’s rejection of Isaiah’s message, and the sovereign Lord who initiated it, are as certain is if they already have occurred. This passage, like many others throughout Scripture, illustrates the mystery of the parallel truths of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. This particular decree of hardening is repeated in full or in part six times in the New Testament (for example, Matt. 13:14-15; Acts 28:26-27), but it should be read in its entirety to see that God’s pending judgment will clear the ground for new national and spiritual growth.

D.A. Carson puts it well:

Isaiah fulfilled this mission to blind and deafen by proclaiming (not withholding) the truth. God here shares with the prophet the critical significance of his ministry. Sinful Israel has come to the point where one more rejection of the truth will finally confirm them for inevitable judgment. The dilemma of the prophet is that there is no way of saving the sinner but by the very truth whose rejection will condemn him utterly (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 6:1).

The Lord does not leave Isaiah or his beloved nation without hope, however. He assures the prophet that there will be a remnant, a “holy stump,” that will sprout again one day. Although Judah’s population would be almost totally wiped out, like a fallen and burned tree, God would preserve a remnant in the land. The Tyndale Bible Commentary says “there would be life in the roots of the stump from which the Messiah (‘the holy seed’) would grow again” (S 260).

Closing Thought

Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards comment:

Uzziah’s death was symbolic. He who had begun so well and had found prosperity in obedience had been struck by the dread disease of leprosy. An appearance of health and strength remained for a time, but the disease was at work within the body of the king; its marks became more and more visible as the ravages of that dread sickness took their toll. Finally, destroyed within and without, Uzziah died; his pride and his disobedience brought judgment on him. Isaiah pointed out that Judah was also diseased, just like her king, because she too had deserted the Lord (The Teacher’s Commentary, S 367).

Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips