Revelation 4

One may well shrink from the risk of dimming, by the employment of any human words, the grandeur of such a passage as this. It is a passage which brings us not only to the threshold of Heaven, but opens a vista into Heaven itself. We also now enter on an entirely new portion of the Apocalypse. It was the golden candlesticks with the Son of Man walking in their midst, and the messages to the seven representative Asiatic Churches, which hitherto engaged the attention of the Seer of Patmos. He is now to pass within the Palace gates into the presence-chamber of the King. The "former trumpet-voice" summons him to higher manifestations.

It is, moreover, the Future—the future of the Church militant and then the glories of the Church triumphant—which are henceforth to engage his thoughts, "Come up here and I will show you the things which must be hereafter." That 'hereafter' is to occupy the whole sequel of the Book. The present chapter and the one following present to us in glowing coloring the scenery of Heaven. They give, as it has been appropriately called, the description of the celestial council-chamber—also the words of the threefold song which thrills on the lips of its glorified inhabitants. It is the first of this triple theme of praise which we mainly listen to in this vision.

As we might well imagine, when the privileged Disciple gets his initial glance into that Heaven of Heavens, it is the magnificent Throne of Deity, the focus and center of all, which arrests his gaze. And combining the description of the chapter with others which follow, this grandest of visions—truly a Revelation of Revelations—consists in the manifestation of God as the God of Redemption. It is the FATHER (His redemption-name, in His paternal covenant relation to His people) who is seated on the Throne. The second Person in the adorable Trinity is subsequently represented under the name and form of a LAMB—the emblem of His mediatorial character and work. The seven lamps of Fire (flaming torches), burning before the throne (like 'the seven spirits of God' of the opening chapter), form the appropriate symbol of the HOLY SPIRIT in the plenitude of His gifts to His Church, enlightening, purifying, refining—"the Spirit of judgment and the Spirit of burning."

The Throne itself was like a jasper and a carnelian stone, the emblems alike of purity and justice; for the jasper, whatever it was, is spoken of in a later chapter as being "as clear as crystal." While encircling all, was the Rainbow of emerald—the refreshing memorial of the covenant of grace—tempering the awe which must have been felt by the emission, ever and always, from "out of the throne" of the old Sinai symbols of judgment, "lightnings and thunderings and voices." "Green (emerald)," says the best of the old commentators, "is of all colors the most agreeable; . . . and when God represents himself as the jasper and carnelian, He exhibits Himself in His holiness and glory; . . . but the green rainbow is a mark of the Divine condescension and forbearance. . . . We are not able to fix our eyes on the Divine majesty and holiness—they frighten us away; but the friendliness of God allures us and inspires us with an assured confidence." Such were the leading features in the vision.

But there were, besides, other imposing and significant accessories. There was before the Throne "a glassy sea like unto crystal." A needful space thus intervened between these great and glorious figurations and the person of the spectator; while the Sea of glass itself suggested the calm majestic repose of the Heavenly Temple, in contrast with the discords and disharmonies of the earthly. Strange and marvelous, too, were other forms in immediate proximity with the throne. "Round about the throne were twenty-four thrones" (lesser thrones), upon which twenty-four elders were sitting in the symbols of priesthood and royalty, of endurance and victory, arrayed in white clothing, and having on their heads crowns of gold. These assessors were doubtless representative beings—the representatives of a double twelve—the twelve Patriarchs or tribes of Israel under the old, and the twelve Apostles of the new dispensation—those same who are subsequently heard blending their voices in the twofold song descriptive of both economies, "The Song of Moses the servant of God and the Song of the Lamb."

Nor is this all. "In the midst of the throne—(perhaps, rather "in front of the throne"), and round about the throne—were four Living Creatures full of eyes before and behind," and which assumed the fourfold similitude of a lion, a young ox, the face of a man, and an eagle. These six-winged beings were also doubtless representative; and though other figurative meanings, as we shall see, may be attached to them, they were intended, in the first instance, to symbolize, not as in the case of the twenty-four elders, the later and more glorious results of Redemption, but all the Creatures of God, or rather, Creation itself, animate and inanimate. They are the embodiment of creature perfection, creation-life—Strength, Patience, Intellect, Activity—and as such they have their assigned place and mission to celebrate the glory of the Great Supreme. Their unresting song, struck by the key-note of the Book, is this, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come."

But they sing not that song alone—it is an antiphonal strain. Their ascription is immediately followed by a repeater from the twenty-four elders, who take their blood-bought crowns and cast them before the throne—by the expressive act disowning all claim of merit or righteousness.

It is specially, however, to be noted, that this their opening song, is not a Redemption-anthem; it is not even the anthem of Providence—both of these are reserved. It is the earlier—the anterior ascription which had been sung of old by the morning stars at Creation's birth—"And when those living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives to the ages of the ages, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and worship Him who lives unto the ages of the ages, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, "You are worthy, O Lord (or, as it is in some translations, "Our Lord"—our God in covenant—differing thus from the song of the four living creatures), to receive glory" (or rather) "the glory, and the honor and the power" (which these Your representative creatures have rendered You), for You have (not redeemed, but) created all things, and for Your pleasure they are and were created."

This rapid and superficial outline of the vision itself will be better filled in and supplemented, as we endeavor to ascertain its practical bearing on the case of the Apostle of Patmos and on ourselves.

(1.) As to the special meaning and lessons it conveyed to John. In this vision, the truths and symbols regarding the Church on earth which were set before him in the first chapter, were, if it may be so expressed, authenticated and countersigned in Heaven. It was shown to him that they formed as glorious a reality in the upper, as in the lower Sanctuary. A Jew, and familiar with the writings of the Prophets, he could hardly fail, as he now gazed within that opened door, to call to mind two similar pictorial revelations, unfolded at an earlier era to Seers of kindred spirit and temperament with himself. The first of these was that remarkable vision given to the Prophet Isaiah when just entering on his great career. He stood, as he himself tells us, under the entrance of the holy Temple of Jerusalem. All at once gates and inner veil seemed mysteriously uplifted or withdrawn, and he was permitted to gaze far within, on those awful recesses, which even no prophet was permitted to enter—the very Holy of Holies itself. There he saw the Jehovah of Israel seated on a throne—"seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple." The two bright-winged seraphim as a royal guard stood on either side. Each had six radiant wings: with two of these the head was covered, in token of reverence—with two the feet, in token partly of imperfection, partly of humility—two were outstretched as if ready for flight, in token of willing obedience.

It was a seasonable Apocalypse to the untried and misgiving youthful messenger, at a time when the horizon was black with storm and disaster. The Assyrian was about to make his nest in the cedars of Lebanon, ready to swoop down on the doomed and defenseless kingdom of Judah. And more depressing to the fervid spirit of the young Prophet was the inveterate obstinacy of the hearts he had been called to quicken. Was his mission to be surrendered in despair? Will he use his prophetic foresight only to proclaim "Ichabod" (the glory has departed) in the midst of a guilty people and a hopeless cause; and perhaps abandon his own faith in the God of his fathers? Is the cruel tyrant who sat enthroned in the palaces of Nineveh, henceforth to rule the earth without a rival? A glimpse within that temple told him the reassuring truth. There was there a Living Being mightier than the Assyrian king Sennacherib. His name was "The King, the Lord Almighty," surrounded with ministering spirits, swift of wing in his service, and reverentially waiting His commands. And even though, at the very time, he was told that the cities were to be "wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without men, and the land to be utterly desolate"—yet the Lord being in His holy place, the children of Zion might well be joyful in their King.

The earth would never be without its Ruler—Judah would never be without its God. In the blinding splendors of that temple-vision, he could exclaim in trembling transport, "My eyes have seen the King!" What though earthly armies should be let loose on the people and the land he loved, his ears had just heard glorious Creatures chanting the song, (and so loud and fervid was the ascription, that post and pillar and cedar-gate shook to their foundations,) "Holy, Holy, Holy! the whole earth is full of His glory."

It is enough—he is nerved for more than half a century of toil and heroic endurance, "The Lord reigns; let the people tremble—He sits between the cherubim; let the earth be moved. The Lord is great in Zion; and He is high above all the people. Let them praise Your great and awesome name; for it is Holy."

The other kindred vision, which could not fail to be familiar to John, was the still sublimer one given in a later age to the Prophet Ezekiel. That mourning exile was located, with many of his banished countrymen, on the banks of the river Chebar. The land of their fathers was lying desolate—the city sitting now uninhabited, that was once full of people. A whirlwind seemed to come from the far north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, chariot-like in motion—a series of mighty wheels of strange complexity intersecting one another, were turned by means of four living creatures. "Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle." While high over all was "the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone; and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it." This likeness of the glory of the Lord was moreover encircled with "the appearance of the rainbow that is in the cloud in the day of rain."

Ezekiel, like Isaiah, was filled at this time with saddest anticipations. All around, in the land in which he was a stranger, he beheld the visible symbols of gigantic regal power, boundless ambition, savage cruelty. He listened to the crushing story of human tyranny and wrong. But the vision on the Chebar revealed, in his case too, a mightier than the mightiest of human kings and tyrants—wheels higher than these chariot-wheels of Assyria—wheels apparently involved and in confusion, 'wheel within wheel;' but all, when understood, moving in sublime harmony.

Glorious, mighty beings were impelling them, putting their shoulders to their gigantic circles; while above all, was a lustrous throne of sapphire purity and righteousness; and on that throne—not as in the marble sculptures on which the Prophet's eye must often have gazed, the gigantic embodiment of brute force—but "the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it"—with the bright emblem of grace and love—the encircling rainbow. What did these picturings reveal to the lonely exile? What did they tell him? But to bide his time—to fear neither the might of Babylon nor Assyria; for there was a great Being enthroned over and above the wheel-like complications and confusions of the lower world, and directing them all. Himself holy and omnipotent. "Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked like a surface, sparkling and awesome like crystal," which was beneath His feet. He had also an army of glorified creatures doing His pleasure, who would yet vindicate His ways in the restoration of His people, and in the evolution of good to His Church and to mankind.

John, the later of the three Jewish Seers, needed a similar assurance in times of similar darkness and impending woe. He had, indeed, as we have previously seen, already received the guarantee of the Church's safety—beholding his Lord walking amid the candlesticks, with the two-edged sword in His mouth, and holding the stars in His hand. But these same soul-comforting truths, viewed from the earthly standpoint, are now further confirmed by this glimpse into the heaven of heavens. Gazing within that opened door, he too has his apprehensions allayed. He also, like the two ancestral Prophets, beholds in vision a glorious PERSON, a personal God, a personal King; not as the earlier Seer did, enveloped in whirlwind and cloud—but seated on a throne of jasper and carnelian in a blaze of light—with the clear sea of rock-crystal before Him reflecting His own glorious image, and angelic servants waiting upon Him, eager to do His pleasure; while the well-known Rainbow, the Rainbow of God, spanning the firmament—the rainbow which succeeded the deluge on the earth—was again seen, the blessed pledge of peace and love!

John knew that the world was on the eve of great events; that even the apparently immutable throne of the Caesars would soon rock to its foundation. But what of that? There was one seated on the Throne he now beheld in that unveiled Heaven, who "lives for the ages of the ages"—a King above all human kings, a power that would outlive all human dynasties and empires. "The Lord God Almighty" was the name by which He was adored by these living Beings. All else might change—HE was unchangeable. Whatever tribulations may be appointed, the Apostle and the Church will patiently endure, because they are ordained by Him.

The complicated wheels of Ezekiel are again to revolve but their revolutions he can now calmly and trustfully contemplate. With the simple faith of the little child in the dark Temple of Shiloh, as further truths are to be unfolded to him, he can say—"Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears."

But though these were the special lessons of the time for John, there are comforting lessons of another and more general kind, for us also. We must not think of this vision as one, so to speak, improvised for a particular occasion—in other words, that it is the representation of an exceptional scene in Heaven, introductory to the subsequent unfoldings of the Book. It is a glimpse or symbol of what Heaven is now, and what Heaven will be to all of us who enter within the gates into the city; its peerless element of glory and bliss consisting in the full vision of God—God in His covenant aspect, as the God of Salvation—His throne encompassed with the emerald rainbow.

Interesting is it to contemplate the diverse multitude of worshipers who surround Him—the Redeemed from the earth, as well as the other multitudes of created intelligences. The Redeemed are here represented in their twofold character of "kings and priests." As kings, wearing golden crowns—as priests, wearing white clothing; while the other worshipers, who appear under the fourfold similitude, are described as "full of eyes" (or "teeming with eyes"), and moreover, that "they rest not day nor night." From this we may infer their wakeful vigilance, their unceasing, untiring employment in the heavenly ministry; the four-fold symbol further indicating, it may be, different occupations, and different arenas for the enlistment of their immortal energies, but all conspiring to promote the glory of the one great Object of adoration and love.

We are further reminded, as we listen to the majestic voice in the vision, that all events in the world's history and our own are planned—appointed. "Come, said that voice, and I will show you things which must be hereafter." That word must is a precious one, considering Who utters it. The Divine Being seems to say of, and to every actor in the subsequent chapters, as He did to Cyrus of old, "I clothed you, though you have not known Me." The program of coming events is in His hands! That Heaven where He reigns supreme is a world of order. In the calm blue of these serene ethereal heights, there are no more rolling clouds or moral hurricanes—no more darkness and gloominess. Justice and Judgment are the habitation of His throne: Mercy and Truth go before His face.

We may further, from this vision, draw the inference how deep is the sympathy between the members of the Church triumphant (the church in heaven) and the Church militant (the church still on earth). These twenty-four elders—the representatives of the Redeemed from the earth—form part of the worshipers of the enthroned King, and are present during the future unfolding of the great drama. How cheering and elevating the thought that even now, amid our struggles and trials, "the great ones of the olden time"—the glorified dead, are interesting themselves in us; sympathizing with us in our sorrows, desiring our welfare—waiting, it may be; to give us welcome home!

And more solemn than all—how near this other world is—or may be. "Heaven is in no far distant star"—no "land that is very far off." There is but a narrow curtain separating from the true inner sanctuary. A door is opened, and Heaven is there! Death seals our bodily senses, as a temporary trance did John's, and we are ushered in a moment (in the twinkling of an eye) before "God the Judge of all, and the spirits of just men made perfect."

Oh! are we ready? Whether it be in the lonely Patmos of a long sick-bed, or fresh from the marts of busy life, or like Isaiah, at the threshold of the Temple, or like Ezekiel, in the Chebar of a distant land—are we ready for John's summons, "Come up here?" Are we ready to meet the twenty-four elders? Are we ready to put on the white robe and the golden crown? Are we ready to take up the holy song? Are we ready to meet the Holy God?