Summary: Published March 2023; To understand the book of Revelation one must gain a good understanding of what is represented by many different prophetic symbols. In chapter four of the book, we are introduced to four living creatures around the throne in heaven. They continue to be mentioned throughout the prophecy until their last appearance in chapter nineteen. This article gives you a frank discussion of what the living creatures are, and why we understand them to be symbols identifying the agencies of God’s executed judgment.
6 “…And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. 7 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. 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!”
When John is caught up to heaven for the second of many visions he would record for this prophecy, we can’t help but notice a plethora of objects in this scene which require an appropriate form of spiritual meaning or explanation: a throne and One sitting on it; seven lamps of fire burning before the throne; twenty-four thrones surrounding the central throne with twenty-four elders; a rainbow over the throne; a sea of glass before the throne; lightnings and thunderings and voices emanating from it. Yet one of the more peculiar objects are the four living creatures described by the verse above. Are these things real? Will we see these creatures when we are taken to heaven in the rapture and form part of the twenty-four elders? (Please see this article https://www.reintgenchristianbooks.com/prophetic-symbols-revelation/ )
Let’s start with some observations about the general character of chapter four. The scene is no longer lampstands on the earth and God’s dealings with “present things” (Rev. 1:19). Now John is caught up to heaven to view “things which must take place after these,” that is, after the present things were completed (Rev. 4:1). The first thing he sees is a throne set in heaven and One sitting on it. The objects mentioned above from this chapter all have a connection with this central throne. It undoubtedly is a throne of government/judgment. It is not the throne of grace associated with Christianity and the Christian dispensation. The end of chapter three brings the end of churches on the earth. Now God’s dealings shift to Israel, the earth, and the world. The lightnings, thunderings, and voices coming from the throne match what was experienced by Israel when they stood before Mt. Sinai and God was delivering to them His law (Ex. 19:16, 18). The sea of glass is a future modification of the sea of water in the lavers, used for purification of the priests, that were part of both the Jewish tabernacle and temple. The rainbow reminds us of the destruction of the world in the time of Noah and God’s covenant with the earth to not use water again as a means of judgment. The worship by the living creatures is of God in His Jewish dispensational names – Lord, Almighty God, and Jehovah. All very Old Testament in character.
We don’t have to search far to find corresponding references in O.T. scripture to the four living creatures. Twice in the early chapters of Ezekiel we find detailed descriptions of them (Ez. 1:5-25, 10:1-22). Here they are identified as cherubim (Ez. 10:20). And here they were also associated with God’s throne (Ez. 1:26, 10:1).
The circumstances in Israel at the time of Ezekiel’s testimony are significant for determining the character of the living creatures. Many years previously, the nation was split into two kingdoms because of Solomon’s idolatry – Israel in the north (ten tribes) and Judah in the south (two tribes). In the time of Elijah and Elisha the northern kingdom was steeped in idolatry. God brings in the Assyrian to overrun Israel and disperse the northern tribes into the surrounding Gentile nations (2 Kings 17:23). God preserved Judah a while longer for the sake of David, His servant (2 Kings 20:6). But soon Judah was also filled with idolatry and God used the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and its temple, taking the wise and young of the Jews captive to Babylon. This was the time of Ezekiel’s testimony. The manifested glory and presence of Jehovah was seen by Ezekiel in vacating the temple and city right before the Babylonian destruction. God was giving responsibility of the government of the world over to the Gentiles. Israel was set aside by God, and He declared the Jews as “not My people…I will not be your God” (Hos. 1:9).
The appearance of the living creatures (cherubim) in Ezekiel’s vision was at a time of severe judgment of Israel. The Jews had forsaken Jehovah and turned to idolatry. They had miserably failed in keeping God’s covenant of law and they had reached the limits of God’s forbearance. Certainly, it was a significant period of activity involving God’s government of the world. The throne of God’s government of the earth was seen by Ezekiel in his vision. The four cherubin were the foundations of this throne. The visions seem to indicate God’s presence and throne were leaving the temple and Jerusalem. Because of Israel’s rebellion God could no longer tolerate living in the midst of Israel and governing the world from Jerusalem. This was the time when the ark of the covenant, the physical representation of God’s throne, was lost forever. Two cherubin, carved out of wood and overladed with gold, overshadowed the mercy seat of the ark, while the tablets of God’s law were stored inside (Ex. 25:17-22). All speaks clearly of God’s government/judgment, and significant changes about to take place.
One more O.T. example: After the fall of man, God used cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life on the east of the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24). Adam, Eve, and the devil had judgments pronounced on them by God. The cherubim were placed there to enforce the consequences of Adam’s sin and to bar man’s possible return to paradise. This has the character of government/judgment.
So now, in Revelation four, we see the throne and the cherubim again. What are we to make of it? Will not the character of this appearance show a similarity of circumstances to that which was seen before? I would think we should expect significant activity taking place in God’s government of the earth. John’s vision doesn’t have the exact same descriptions of the living creatures as does Ezekiel, but the similarities are striking enough to give us confidence that the Holy Spirit has us on the right path for spiritual understanding.
The living creatures in some way have involvement with God’s creation. The heads of creation are found in their faces – the lion (wild beasts), the young ox (domesticated beasts), the eagle (birds), and man (over all). Their forms reflect the chief creatures of earth and air, which were saved in Noah’s ark (the sea excluded). They are emblems of power, firmness, intelligence, and speed – symbols representing the divine attributes involved in the administrative government of God over the earth. Each one not only had eyes in front and behind (for perception of all things), but also around and within (for intelligence and wisdom). Like the numbers seven and twelve, the number four also has prophetic associations. Four represents the earth, and earthly completeness, as in the four corners of the earth (Rev. 7:1). The four living creatures symbolize this perfection of attributes associated with God’s providential power in His execution of judgment on the earth.
One of the noticeable differences between Ezekiel’s living creatures and those seen in John’s vision are the six wings instead of four. This seems to be another merging of previously separated Old Testament symbols in the Revelation. In John’s first vision in chapter one the description of Jesus merges the features of the Son of Man with those of the Ancient of Days (Rev. 1:13-18). They were separate in Daniel (Dan. 7:9, 13), but in the Revelation they are the same person. In Revelation four the characteristic features of Ezekiel’s living creatures are merged with those of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision (Isa. 6:1-4) – now the cherubim have six wings and cry out in worship of God, “Holy, Holy, Holy…” The seraphim attending God’s throne in Isaiah are symbols of God’s judgement according to His holiness. This merging of cherubim and seraphim features speaks of the fullness of God’s judgment necessary to meet the ripening of evil at the end of the age.
Another difference to be noted are the wheels within wheels associated with the living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision (Ez. 1:16, 19-21). It has no part in John’s vision in the Revelation. The government of God is carried on, as Scripture teaches, largely at least, through created instruments. Daniel’s visions not only show us angelic ministries in authority over the earth, but also God’s plan to use four successive Gentile world kingdoms to afflict suffering and judgments on the Jewish people; then the New Testament speaks of “thrones and dominions and principalities and powers (Col. 1:16, Eph. 3:10, 6:12) – all creature instruments used by God in His providential government of the earth. The wheels within wheels, seemingly connected to the living creatures in Ezekiel, refer to this use. Now they are missing in Revelation four. Why? At the end of the age, God will, with greater and greater intensity, act in plain wrath from heaven above. This becomes increasingly obvious in the Revelation narrative, beginning in chapter six.
Finally, we need to answer this question: Why is John’s vision of heaven in Revelation four the first time the living creatures are seen in Scripture since Ezekiel’s vision and the Babylonian captivity? Shouldn’t we be reasoning that there must be a significant change taking place in God’s government of the earth? That would be spiritually insightful on our part. One way of viewing the general character of the Revelation is that its main point is the return of Jesus Christ to this world (Rev. 19:11-21). Everything preceding this in the book is preparation for this event, which will bring in the kingdom of God on the earth for a 1000-year reign:
Revelation 20:1-6 (NKJV)
20 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. 2 He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; 3 and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while.
The Saints Reign with Christ 1,000 Years
4 And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.
Jesus will rule and reign over the earth for a thousand years and the glorified heavenly saints will reign with Him. Even the NKJV editors agree with this in their subtitle inserted in the passage above. And Jesus promised the same to the overcomer:
Revelation 3:21-22 (NKJV)
21 To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.
22 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
We could never sit with Jesus on His Father’s throne – that is reserved for deity, for the Son of God. But we are promised to share His earthly throne and reign with Him over His earthly kingdom. It is because of His humanity – He will reign over the earth as the Son of Man. God, as His Father, “…has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man.” (John 5:27) Because of the work He did as a man, the work of the cross, we can share in the throne and authority given to Him as the Son of Man. Of course, this must wait until we have been glorified like Him, conformed into His image (Rom. 8: 29-30). Then Paul tells us this in Hebrews:
Hebrews 2:5-11 (NKJV)
5 For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. 6 But one testified in a certain place, saying:
“What is man that You are mindful of him,
Or the son of man that You take care of him?
7 You have made him a little lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And set him over the works of Your hands.
8 You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”
For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. 9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.
Bringing Many Sons to Glory
10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren,
This passage shows the connection between Jesus and His redemptive work and the many sons/brethren He brings with Himself to glory. This glory He obtains He receives as the Son of Man; He shares His glory with us (John 17:22). Significant to this discussion is the fifth verse of this passage: God has not put “…the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels.” This speaks of the millennial world. It will not be under angelic authority, but under Christ and those that are His in heavenly glory. Paul also says this: “Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?” (1 Cor. 6:3)
The reason the living creatures are seen in John’s vision in Revelation four is because of the preparations God is making for the coming millennial kingdom of Jesus, the Son of Man. One of the significant changes for this time will be associating the glorified heavenly saints with God’s government of the millennial earth. This is what is taking place in the heavenly vision of chapters four and five.
Revelation 5:6-11 (NKJV)
6 And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 Then He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.
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. 9 And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll,
And to open its seals;
For You were slain,
And have redeemed us to God by Your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
10 And have made us kings and priests to our God;
And we shall reign on the earth.”
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands,”
No one in all creation, not man or angel, was deemed worthy to open the book in God’s right hand. But after a slight pause to prove the impotence of all others, the Lord Jesus comes forward to answer the proclamation (Rev. 5:1-5). John sees the Lion of the tribe of Judah as the Lamb, despised and rejected on earth, exalted in heaven, come forward to take and open the book. He is marked by perfect power (seven horns) and perfect wisdom (seven eyes) – the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth (the divine attributes necessary in administrating God’s government – Isa. 9:6-7).
In the eleventh verse of the passage above it is noticeable that when the angels are mentioned they are in a circle around/outside the Lamb, the living creatures, and elders. Why were there no angels noticed in chapter four? And why do we now see them in chapter five? There must be an explanation. The inference seems to be this: The action of the Lamb taking the book and preparing to open its seals, marks the change in the administration. Up to this point in time angels had the execution of this power from God. Where judgments were in question, or other extraordinary intervention on God’s part, angels were the instruments (i.e., Sodom and Gomorrah). But now, as soon as Jesus takes the book, the twenty-four elders seem connected to the living creatures. The elders are the heavenly saints – the O.T. saints and the N.T. church – who will rule with Christ over the inhabited world to come. The elders and the living creatures seem united as one in praise of the Lamb in a new song about His redemption of them. Both groups are combined here in a new way, while now, as a consequence, the angels are distinctly separate. If we suppose that in chapter four the administration of judgment was still in the hands of angels, it is understandable that they would not be distinguished from the living creatures there. Whereas in chapter five, if there is a change in administration, and in view of Christ’s millennial kingdom, the angels are no longer recognized as the executors, but instead, the power is to be in the hands of the glorified heavenly saints (the twenty-four elders). Therefore, the angels step back from the living creatures to this outer circle, being eclipsed by the heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. The song from the passage above ends with, “And have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign over the earth.”
The living creatures are symbols that identify the agents/instruments God uses in His government of the earth. Chapter five of Revelation is the commencement ceremony for Jesus Christ and His co-heirs, installing them in this privileged position of service in anticipation of the earthly kingdom of Jesus, the Son of Man.