The Four Living Creatures
Revelation 4:6-8 says,
6 … and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. 7 And the first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like that of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within…
These four living creatures represent all living creatures on the earth. Each is the “king” from its own division. The lion is the king of wild beasts (predators). The second is the “calf” (moschos). This Greek word is what the Septuagint translation uses to mean “a bull.” The bull is the “king” of the cattle. The third is the man, who is the overall “king” of the earth. The fourth is the flying eagle, which is the “king” of birds.
These living creatures are seen worshiping God, and so, “when every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea” (Rev. 5:13) give glory to God, the four living creatures say “Amen” (Rev. 5:14). This great scene foresees all of creation in agreement with God, a time when all things are reconciled to Him (Col. 1:20).
The Four Divisions of Israel’s Tribes
When Israel was organized into a kingdom at Mount Sinai, each tribe was camped in its own place around the throne of God—that is, the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle. Each had its own “standard,” or banner/flag, and on each flag was pictured a different “living creature.” So Num. 2:2 says,
2 The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance.
On each of the four sides were three tribes of Israel, and in the midst of each side was the leader among those three tribes. The placement of each tribe is given in Numbers 2. To the east was Judah, with its banner of a lion. Next to him on either side was Issachar and Zebulon (Num. 2:3-9). The twelve tribes were situated this way:
The flags of the first three tribes were determined by Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49. Jacob called Judah “a lion’s whelp” (Genesis 49:9). Reuben means “Behold, a son,” and Jacob calls him “my firstborn” (Gen. 49:3). Jacob referred to Dan as “a serpent in the way” (Gen. 49:17), and his banner was of a flying eagle carrying away a serpent, as eagles are known to do.
The flag of the last tribe (Ephraim) was taken from Moses’ blessing in Deut. 33:17, where Moses calls Ephraim “the first-born of his ox,” (i.e., the ox of Joseph, whose two horns were Ephraim and Manasseh).
The tribes of Israel (and their placement around the throne) were meant to represent all living creatures. The four tribes were the leading tribes in Israel, but they were also the leaders of creation itself.
Ezekiel’s Vision of the Four Living Creatures
Ezekiel’s book opens with the prophet’s vision of the throne of God, around which were depictions of the four living creatures seen on the flags of Israel’s four leading tribes. Ezekiel 1:10 says,
10 As for the form of their faces, each had the face of a man, all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle.
The prophet’s description shows that there were four identical depictions on all four sides of a central object that looked like “glowing metal in the midst of the fire” (Ezekiel 1:4). Many in recent years have claimed that the prophet was seeing a space ship. That topic, of course, is outside the scope of this study. What is clear is that the prophet was seeing something similar to what John saw on Patmos, with only a few differences.
John saw the four living creatures as separate and distinct beings, whereas Ezekiel saw four living creatures each having all four faces on its four sides. Either way, the meaning is the same, for they represent all of creation.
Each of the four faces in Ezekiel’s vision were positioned to match the placement of the tribes of Israel around the tabernacle (Ezekiel 1:10). The prophet saw his vision as he looked to the north (Ezekiel 1:4). Hence, this strange object was moving south toward the prophet, and so the first face he saw was that of man. Reuben’s flag flew south of the tabernacle.
The prophet then saw the lion on the right. The right side would be the east side when looking north. On the east side was Judah’s flag picturing the lion.
The prophet then saw the ox on the left. The left side would be the west side when looking north. On the west was the flag of Ephraim picturing the ox. (Later, in Ezekiel 10:14, the ox is called a “cherub.”)
Finally, the northernmost face came into view, and Ezekiel saw that it depicted an eagle. The tribe of Dan was situated on the north side of the tabernacle, flying his flag which pictured the flying eagle carrying away the serpent.
It is clear, then, that whatever Ezekiel saw was also revealed years later to John. Ezekiel saw these living creatures having “four wings” (Ezekiel 1:6), whereas John saw them with “six wings” (Rev. 4:8). Some may believe that John saw a space craft with updated technology, but we are concerned with its spiritual meaning and how it presents the divine plan for creation.
Four is the number of the earth, or the material creation, and six is the number of man. (See my book, The Biblical Meaning of Numbers from One to Forty.) Therefore, we can say that God was revealing to Ezekiel a pattern of creation, while John saw the six-winged creatures in terms of man’s leadership—specifically, man as a fully reconciled creature. The revelation shifts from general to specific, from creation to man.
Wings themselves are dependent upon the wind for their usefulness. The Hebrew word for wind is ruach, which means “spirit, breath, wind, air in motion.” The word can be used to describe natural wind or one’s spirit. Ezekiel 1:12 describes these four creatures, saying, “wherever the spirit was about to go, they would go, without turning as they went.” This must be an important detail, because it is repeated in Ezekiel 1:17 and again in Ezekiel 10:11.
Spiritually speaking, this shows that the four living creatures do not deviate from the movement of the Spirit. Being in perfect harmony and agreement, they go wherever the Spirit sends them. In such a perfected state, each creature has all four callings, so that if he is led to perform the function of Judah, he goes in that direction without having to turn. If he is led to perform something within the calling of Ephraim, he goes in that direction without having to turn.
John tells us in Rev. 4:6 that the four living creatures were “in the center and around the throne.” Were they in two places at the same time? Were there two sets of living creatures? We are given no clue, but if we were to picture the scene in physical terms, we would have to depict living creatures decorating the throne itself and another more active set of four around the throne.
At any rate, throughout the rest of this section of John’s revelation, he treats the four living creatures as if there is just one group that actively worships God.
The Eyes of God
Rev. 4:8 also says that the four living creatures “are full of eyes around and within.” What are these eyes?
Ezekiel 1:18 says, “and the rims of all four of them were full of eyes round about.” Ezekiel 10:12 says that “the wheels were full of eyes.” Some say that these “eyes” are actually windows on a space ship. Zechariah saw one stone on which were seven eyes (Zech. 3:9). Later, he says that “these seven” are “the eyes of the Lord, which range to and fro throughout the earth” (Zech. 4:10).
The eyes thus show us that nothing is hidden from Him. All that happens on earth is fully known and understood by the God of heaven.
The Cause for True Worship
The four living creatures in Rev. 4:8 have a purpose:
8 And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”
The text of their worship is taken from Isaiah 6:3,
3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.
Such worship is the model for all creation to follow. But worship is not mere lip service. There are many who mouth these words, but who do not live what they say. In fact, it has been said that Christians lie most when they sing. That is, perhaps, a bit harsh. It is probably more accurate to say that Christians often worship without understanding, and so their words do not match their real life in the world.
The world tells us that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In other words, we tend to imitate those that we admire. A more biblical way of expressing this is to say that imitation is the sincerest form of worship. God is less interested in our words than in our way of life. The right words are good, of course, but they are meaningless and even hypocritical apart from a godly way of life.
The four living creatures who continuously acknowledge the holiness of God represent all creation in agreement with God in every aspect of life. They recognize His holiness not only with their mouths, but also with their hearts. They represent creation with the law of God written on its heart. The New Covenant promises of God are thus fulfilled. Somehow God found a way to turn the hearts of all men, so that they would become His people, and He would be their God (Deut. 29:12-15).
The Twenty-Four Elders
Revelation 4:9, 10 continues,
9 And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne saying,
Here we see additional information about their worship. Not only do they acknowledge the holiness of God, but they also “give glory and honor and thanks to Him.” Such worship comes from a grateful heart that is in awe of His works, His power, His love, and His wisdom. Who would not worship Him? “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Thy name?” (Rev. 15:4). When God’s righteous acts are revealed, all nations will indeed come and worship Him, not because they have been condemned by the Old Covenant, but because God has fulfilled His promise to mankind through the New Covenant.
Upon seeing the worship of the four beasts (i.e., all creation), the twenty-four elders “fall down before Him” and “worship Him.” This scene is not meant to picture twenty-four elders falling down, then getting back up, only to fall down again continuously every time the living creatures sing Holy, Holy, Holy. We are to understand that this is the purpose of creation and the goal of history. We are to understand that God has the power to make it happen, and that the will of man cannot withstand or prevent God from fulfilling His promises.
So the twenty-four elders acknowledge that He is the King of Kings. This is why they “cast their crowns before the throne.” It is a metaphor for recognizing that their own authority was given by God and is therefore subject to the sovereignty of God.
The Creator’s Rights
The summarized text of their worship is given in Rev. 4:11,
11 Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created.”
Here the twenty-four elders acknowledge the law by which God has the right to subject all things to Himself. It is by right of creation, for the Creator owns that which He creates. By this same law we own the labor that we put into any project, unless we are slaves. When a man builds furniture, he uses wood that was created by God. God owns the wood, but man has a claim on the furniture on account of his labor that has shaped the wood to make it more useful.
God’s six-day time of labor in the first chapter of Genesis gives God the rights that come with ownership. Men have mere authority in the earth that is subject to the sovereignty of God. Man’s authority is real, but it is not final. Man’s decisions to disobey God are done according to his authority, but in the end, the law gives God the right to overrule the will of man.
Man was made of the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7). Man was made of material that God created—dust. God lays claim to the land, saying “the land is Mine” (Lev. 25:23). He also told the prophet in Jeremiah 27:5, 6,
5 I have made the earth, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and I will give it to the one who is pleasing in My sight. 6 And now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and I have given him also the wild animals of the field to serve him.
If God has the right to give His land to Nebuchadnezzar, He also has the right to take it away from him and to give it to another. The pride of man thinks that he is absolute owner of the land that he rules, but even King Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way that this was not so. In Dan. 4:34, 35 we read his humble testimony about how he learned that his authority was secondary to the sovereignty of God.
Because man was created, he does not have the lawful right to sell himself or his “land” (dust of the earth) into slavery to sin forever. His rights are only temporary, lasting only until the Jubilee. The law of Jubilee asserts God’s right to take it back and to do with it according to His will. By this law, then, having not given away His sovereign rights as the Creator, God is able to give the dominion to Jesus Christ and to restore all creation, putting all things under His feet.
This is what is being celebrated by the four living creatures and by the twenty-four elders. They recognize that the love of God would not allow His creation to remain enslaved to sin beyond a certain point in time. They recognize His wisdom in not giving man sovereignty over his own destiny, but limiting him to various levels of authority. Because this awesome plan is so little known among the people on earth, few are able to worship Him with full understanding and appreciation. But the twenty-four elders understand, agree, and worship Him in awe.
This, then, is the revelation of the fourth chapter of Revelation which correlates with the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet—the daleth, the open door. This is the revelation of those who are called to go higher into the realms of God. The voice of God said in Rev. 4:1, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” By the end of this chapter, and again in the next, we see the revelation of the restoration of all things, where “the whole earth is full of His glory.” This is “what must take place” before the divine plan is completed and earth history, as we know it, ends.