Saturday, 18 June 2011 16:57

Pt. 25 - The Four Living Creatures

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”  (Revelation 4:6-8)

Four_Living_CreaturesThe four living creatures around the throne of God are seen as somewhat enigmatic in scripture since they are never directly identified. They are merely described in the most bizarre fashion, having attributes of four different animals, multiple sets of wings, the appearance of men, and eyes all over them.

Complicating the identification process is the fact that Isaiah, Ezekiel and the Revelation each provide slightly different portrayals of them, as though they were different creatures in each instance. Or perhaps they were the same creatures, but were described in different ways for some symbolic purpose. All things considered, the potential symbolism behind these beings is difficult to understand, and the only thing we truly know about their identity comes from the prophet Ezekiel, who described them as "cherubim" (Ezekiel 10:15), the highest order of angels created by God. So in this week's post, let’s see if we can unpack some of this symbolism and determine who or what these strange beings really are. 

Visions Are Symbolic

Before we begin this analysis, it’s important to remember that we’re reading about a VISION of the Lord’s throne rather than the Lord’s throne as it really is.  In other words, we’re being shown a number of symbolic features that are intended to convey a greater truth. Any time the Lord shows us a vision, we need to put on our symbolic hats to understand what it is we’re reading.

For instance, Joseph had a vision when he was a boy (Genesis 37) where he and his brothers were in a field binding sheafs of grain. In this vision Joseph’s sheaf stood up straight, while his brothers sheafs all bowed to his sheaf. This seemed like foolishness to his brothers at the time, who eventually used Joseph's visions and his favored status with their father as an excuse to sell him into slavery. However the vision was fulfilled years later when his brothers came to Egypt because of famine in Canaan, and were forced to bow to their brother Joseph in his new role as Pharaoh's administrator.

Another example of this concept is the vision of Pharaoh (Exodus 41) where seven fat cows came up out of the Nile River, followed by seven emaciated cows that proceeded to eat the seven fat cows. We know from Joseph’s interpretation that this meant that seven years of plenty in Egypt would be followed by seven years of famine, and that is exactly what came to pass.

In both of these instances these men were presented with bizarre symbolism that was NOT to be taken literally. It all pointed to a greater truth that was ahead. So while most commentators maintain that the Revelation should be taken literally in order to avoid error, we have to remember that John was “in the spirit” when he received these "visions". As with Joseph and Pharaoh, what John was seeing was NOT literal, but symbolic.

In short, what we really need to do is to determine the intended meaning behind the symbolism of the four living creatures. And I believe it's a composite of several things.

The Four Archangels

To begin with, the account of the four living creatures in chapter 4 places them “around” the throne and covered with eyes, as though they stood in the presence of God and saw everything there was to see.  We know that Ezekiel called them "cherubim", which is the highest order of angel that likely exists. So this suggests that we may be reading about the four archangels Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Raphael, because they also stand in the presence of God, as noted by Gabriel;

ArchangelThe angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.”  (Luke 1:19)

This interpretation has some merit since the archangels who stand before God are never seen in scripture at the same time as the four living creatures, even though both are portrayed as standing in the presence of God. From this we can reasonably deduce that they may be one and the same.

The eyes all around these creatures suggests that nothing escapes their notice. Since the archangels are the highest order of angel, all other angels are subservient and would likely report to them. Given this, the Archangels would certainly be aware of everything transpiring on the earth. This would be consistent with the symbolism of eyes all around them. The "eyes" likely represent the millions of angels that are constantly monitoring the earth.

The fact that the creatures continually declare the holiness of the Lord would also be consistent with the four archangels, who are portrayed in scripture as messengers that declare and defend the holiness and authority of God.

Still, it’s curious that these creatures are seen in different ways in other passages of scripture like Isaiah and Ezekiel, prompting us to wonder if these are the SAME creatures in each instance, or different creatures altogether. For instance, in this passage in Revelation they are seen as a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle, with each one having six wings and eyes all around. Four_FacesHowever, in Ezekiel chapter 1 the four living creatures are described a little differently, with EACH living creature having the four faces of a lion, ox, man and eagle. And instead of SIX wings, they had only FOUR, with a set of man‘s hands apparently replacing the other two wings. The fact that the four living creatures are portrayed as having the appearance of men could be a reference to the fact that these angels have appeared this way to people when God sent them as messengers.

Another point to consider is that they could be the same four beings throughout scripture, but with symbolism that changes slightly in order to convey a progression that is taking place. For instance, in Daniel's visions of Four Beasts, the first kingdom of Babylon was portrayed as a lion with two wings, and it's clear that these two wings symbolized Nebuchadnezzar's appointed reign over the earth. However, by the time Alexander the Great's kingdom arose, Macedon/Greece was portrayed as having four wings, or an even greater appointed rule. So the four wings of Ezekiel's living creatures could find themselves with two additional wings in the Revelation simply due to a progression in their appointed power.

Whichever interpretation is correct, each of these various descriptions have many points of agreement, even though a few points seem different. I say “seem” different because the differences may vary depending on the perspective of the viewer, much as the four gospel accounts provide different information based on the perspective of the Apostle. And speaking of the four Gospels, they also play a role in the symbolism behind the four living creatures.

The Four Gospels

Many commentators have described how the four living creatures carry a symbolic component that is found in each of the four Gospels. These components are specific to four attributes that are found in Jesus Christ, and are laid out separately in each of the books. In other words, the four faces of the cherubim are reflected by the four depictions of Jesus in the four gospels, with each face representing one of the gospel books.

Cherub-LionConsider that the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes the kingship or royalty of Jesus, the ‘Lion of Judah’ whose royal genealogy is given at the beginning of the book. While each of the gospels describe Jesus in his role as the king of Israel that will reign over the earth forever, Matthew's gospel emphasizes this role. As a result, the face of the lion is tied to the book of Matthew.

Cherub-OxThen, there is the Gospel of Mark, which emphasizes the servanthood and sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus carried our burdens all the way to the cross and is portrayed in the Bible as the long-suffering servant.  Hence, this Gospel is represented by the face of an Ox, which is both a beast of burden and a sacrificial animal.

Cherub-ManWe also have the Gospel of Luke that emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. Luke provides a genealogy of Jesus that traces his ancestry back to Adam. This is done to emphasize that Jesus is the ‘Second Adam’ and the ‘Son of Man’ that will redeem mankind. Therefore this gospel is represented by the face of a man

Cherub-EagleFinally, the Gospel of John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus, who is God in the flesh, and who will rule the earth forever as God in the flesh. In prophetic passages of scripture, angels are often portrayed as various types of birds, and Jesus was “the angel of the Lord” as described in the Old Testament, and represented here by the face of an eagle.

From this we can see how the four faces of the four living creatures are symbolic of these four aspects of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the four gospels.  And why not, since all of scripture speaks of Jesus Christ in one way or another.  Perhaps it’s a good time to recall the rabbinical statement that “scripture barely speaks unless it speaks of Messiah.”

We can also note that the four curtains and gates of the Tabernacle carried four colors that correspond to these four attributes. For instance, the color purple represented the lion and the kingship of Jesus, since purple was the color reserved for royalty. Then, red represented the ox, the sacrificial animal whose blood symbolized the crucifixion of Jesus. The color white represented the man, the Second Adam dressed in white linen that would redeem mankind. And finally, blue symbolized the sky where the eagle flies, which is symbolic of heaven and the divinity of Jesus.

The 24 Wings

There is also the matter of the total amount of wings of the four living creatures, and this symbolism is difficult to reconcile. Since each has 6 wings, this gives us a total of 24 wings. This may seem irrelevant at first, but everything in these visions have import in one way or another, so they do mean SOMETHING. The following are some suggestions of how they could be applied.

First, it‘s possible that the 24 wings are symbolic of the 24 elders that are also seen in chapter 4. At the very least they have something to do with what symbolically surrounds God's throne.  

On the other hand, they could represent the combination of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles. Then again, many believe that the 12 tribes and 12 Apostles ARE the 24 Elders, so this symbolism could be applied the same way in both instances.

But a third option is that these 24 wings represent the 12 tribes of Israel alone, with 2 wings designated for each of the tribes. These wings could denote how each of the tribes will become “sons of God” one day when they turn to their Messiah and become redeemed. This option may have the most merit because there is another facet to the 24 wings that can be found in the tribal arrangement around the Tabernacle in the wilderness.

The Tabernacle and the Tribes

When God prescribed the specifics for the building of the Tabernacle, he also prescribed how the 12 tribes of Israel would encamp around it. With the Holy of Holies representing the throne of God, the Israelites were then arranged around his throne in a specified manner as described in chapter 2 of the book of Numbers. The adjacent illustration demonstrates this arrangement, which not surprisingly coincides nicely to the faces of our cherubim. Since this arrangement is described in detail in Numbers, we won’t review the entire plan here. However, we will review the four primary tribes and the symbols on their four standards, because THAT is where we pick up the symbolism behind four faces. 

Tabernacle_TribesFirst, notice that the camp of Judah was located on the East side of the Tabernacle, consisting of the three tribes of Issachar, Judah, and Zebulun. The symbol on the standard of Judah was a lion, one of the four faces of the four living creatures. 

Then we have the camp of Ephraim located on the West side, and composed of the three tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin. The symbol on the standard of Ephraim was an ox, which again was one of the four faces of the living creatures.

On the South side was the camp of Reuben, which was composed of the three tribes of Gad, Reuben and Simeon.  The symbol on the standard of Reuben was that of a man, again one of the four faces.

Finally, the camp of Dan was on the North side, consisting of the three tribes of Asher, Dan and Naphtali.  The symbol on the standard of the tribe of Dan was an eagle, the last of the four faces on the four living creatures.

From these examples we can see how the symbolism behind the four living creatures is a perfect match for this Tabernacle arrangement. The Tabernacle, the place of God’s presence, was surrounded, protected, and worshipped by the tribes associated with each standard. And the four symbols on these four standards corresponded perfectly with the four faces of the four living creatures who also surround, protect, and worship God.  The symbolism is a dead ringer. So not only do the four faces symbolize the four gospels, they also symbolize the encampment of the 12 tribes.

When we consider all of this symbolism together, we can only speculate that the four living creatures are a composite of the four archangels and their subordinates, along with the four gospels and the tribal encampment around God’s Tabernacle.

The Twenty-Four Elders

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”  (Revelation 4:9-11)

As mentioned in a previous post, these 24 Elders are probably representative of the 24 courses of priests that served in the Temple during the times of the Kings of Israel, having been established by King David himself. The fact that they are wearing thrones would suggest that they rule with Christ, a role that is assigned only to the overcomers described in the ‘seven letters’ to the churches. And when they lay their crowns before God’s throne, that seems to be a clear indication that their authority is due only to Christ himself, and not through anything that they have done. But isn’t that one of the themes that runs throughout scripture?

Next Time

From a Hebraic perspective we have to remind ourselves that the entire book of Revelation is about the coming Wedding Supper of the Lamb. The book describes who will or will not be in attendance at this wedding, and it goes to great lengths to describe why. So with the wedding day getting closer and closer, chapter 4 introduced us to the Father of the Groom. Now, chapter 5 will introduce us to the Groom himself, and we'll begin that analysis next week.

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