|Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary|
4:1-8 After the Lord Jesus had instructed the apostle to write to the churches the things that are, there was another vision. The apostle saw a throne set in heaven, an emblem of the universal dominion of Jehovah. He saw a glorious One upon the throne, not described by human features, so as to be represented by a likeness or image, but only by his surpassing brightness. These seem emblems of the excellence of the Divine nature, and of God's awful justice. The rainbow is a fit emblem of that covenant of promise which God has made with Christ, as the Head of the church, and with all his people in him. The prevailing colour was a pleasant green, showing the reviving and refreshing nature of the new covenant. Four-and-twenty seats around the throne, were filled with four-and-twenty elders, representing, probably, the whole church of God. Their sitting denotes honour, rest, and satisfaction; their sitting about the throne signifies nearness to God, the sight and enjoyment they have of him. They were clothed in white raiment; the imputed righteousness of the saints and their holiness: they had on their heads crowns of gold, signifying the glory they have with him. Lightnings and voices came from the throne; the awful declarations God makes to his church, of his sovereign will and pleasure. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne; the gifts, graces, and operations of the Spirit of God in the churches of Christ, dispensed according to the will and pleasure of Him who sits upon the throne. In the gospel church, the laver for purification is the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which cleanses from all sin. In this all must be washed, to be admitted into the gracious presence of God on earth, and his glorious presence in heaven. The apostle saw four living creatures, between the throne and the circle of the elders, standing between God and the people. These seem to signify the true ministers of the gospel, because of their place between God and the people. This also is shown by the description given, denoting wisdom, courage, diligence, and discretion, and the affections by which they mount up toward heaven.
Verse 6. - And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal. Sea of glass, or a glassy sea. The quality of "glassiness" may refer to the pure appearance of the sea; or it may mean that the sea was in consistency like unto glass; that is, solid and unyielding, so that there was nothing strange in the fact that it supported weights. In either case, the notion is repeated by parallelism in the next clause, "like unto crystal." But the glassy sea may mean "a glass laver," and bear no reference to what is usually called a sea. The brazen laver is described (1 Kings 7:23) as a "molten sea." St. John may therefore mean that before the throne of God was a laver of the purest material, just as the brazen laver was before the temple. One difficulty here presents itself, viz. that there would be no use for a laver in heaven, where all is pure, and the figure therefore appears a little incongruous. But as it stood before the throne, where all who came would have to pass by, it may fitly typify the waters of Baptism, passed by all Christians; and the figure would be aptly suggested to St. John by the furniture of the temple to which he has such constant allusions. And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne. This may mean either
(1) that, the throne being rectangular, the four living beings were in the middle of each side of the parallelogram; or
(2) while one was in front of the throne, the other three formed a semicircle round it, one being directly behind, and two towards the ends. Were four beasts; or, four living creatures (Revised Version); or, better still, four living beings (ζῶα). The "beast" (θηρίον) of Revelation 6:7; Revelation 11:7, etc., must not be confounded with the "living ones" of this passage. The one quality connoted by the term here used is the possession of life. The question of the precise meaning and interpretation of the vision of "the living beings" is a difficult one, and much has been written concerning it. The vision is evidently connected with the appearances described in Isaiah 6. and Ezekiel 1. and 10, and which are called in Isaiah "seraphim," in Ezekiel "cherubim." We are led, therefore, to inquire what mental ideas were pictured to the Jews under the symbolical forms of cherubim and seraphim. Cheyne shows ('Prophecies of Isaiah,' vol. 2. p. 272) that the name cherub is probably connected with kirubu, the winged ox god of the Assyrians, and with kurubu, the vulture or eagle (cf. the γρῦπες, the guardians of the treasures of the gods); and he infers that among heathen nations the mythic cherubim denote the cloud-masses which appear to guard the portals of the sky, and on which the sun-god issues at break of day. With regard to the seraphim, he compares the name of the fiery serpents(s'rafim) of Numbers 21:6, and concludes that the term was symbolical of the lightning, the weapon of the gods. Now, in Old Testament passages the cherubim and seraphim are always pictured as the attendants of God, and the workers of his purposes and judgments - an idea which may readily have been assimilated by the Jews from the conceptions of their heathen neighbours. Thus cherubim with the flaming sword are placed at the entrance of the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24); Jehovah rode upon a cherub, and did fly (2 Samuel 22:11; Psalm 18:10); he communes with his people from between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22); he is the Shepherd of Israel, who dwells between the cherubim (Psalm 80:1); the temple in Ezekiel 41:18 is adorned with cherubim, as being the dwelling-place of God; they are the attendants of the glory of God in Ezekiel 1:22-28; and the seraphim fill an analogous position (Isaiah 6:2). We may therefore infer that the appearance of the "living beings" implied the presence of some order of beings in attendance upon God, the workers of his will, and the manifestation of his glory. Again, the term used (ζῶα) and the characteristics of the appearance naturally and almost irresistibly lead us to interpret the form as one symbolical of life. The human face, the ox as the representative of domestic, and the lion of wild animals, and the eagle among birds, appear to be typical of the four most conspicuous orders of animal life. The ceaseless movements described in ver. 8 portray the same idea. The four living beings draw attention to the woes heaped upon created life (Revelation 6:8). The eyes denote never-resting activity. We may therefore believe that the living beings are symbolical of all creation fulfilling its proper office - waiting upon God, fulfilling his will, and setting forth his glory. It is noteworthy that the human face, as distinct from the Church, which is represented by the four and twenty elders, appears to indicate the power of God to use, for his purposes and his glory, that part of mankind which has not been received into the Church - the part which constitutes the "other sheep, not of this fold" (John 10:16). These representatives of created life worship God, and give (ver. 11), as a reason for ascribing glory and honour to him, the circumstance that "thou didst create all things, and because of thy will they were, and were created." The following are other interpretations:
(1) The living beings represent the four Gospels. This view is held by many ancient writers, though there are many variations in assigning to each Gospel its own representative. Victorinus considers the man to be a type of St. Matthew, who sets forth prominently the human nature of our Lord; the kingly lion is referred to St. Mark; the sacrificial ox to St. Luke; the aspiring eagle to St. John. Amongst the supporters of this interpretation (though varying in the precise applicability) are St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Athanasius, St. Irenaeus, St. Gregory, St. Ambrose, Andreas, Primasius, Bede, I. Williams, Wordsworth (for a lull exposition of this view, see Wordsworth, in loc.).
(2) The four great apostles: St. Peter, the lion; James the brother of the Lord, the ox; St. Matthew, the man; St. Paul, the eagle (Grotius).
(3) The Church of the New Testament; as the Church of the Old Testament was represented by the standards or four tribes (see Numbers 2.), on which these devices were emblazoned according to tradition (Mede).
(4) The four patriarchal Churches: the man, Alexandria, famed for learning; the lion, Jerusalem, "propter constantiam" (Acts 5:29); the ox, Antioch, as "parata obedire mandatis apostolorum;" the eagle, Constantinople, remarkable for men "per contemplationem elevati, ut Grog. Naz." (De Lyra and a Lapide).
(5) The four cardinal virtues (Arethas).
(6) The four elements (the 'Catena,' p. 246) - a view not materially differing from that first set forth above, bearing in mind the idea of the ancients that all creation was formed from the four elements.
(7) The four motive powers of the human soul: reason, anger, desire, conscience (a Lapide, quoting Grog. Naz.).
(8) The doctors of the Church (Vitringa).
(9) Four attributes of our Lord: his humanity, sacrificial life, his kingly nature, his perfect and spiritual nature soaring beyond all other men (Arethas-Cramer, p. 245).
(10) The four orders: pastoral, diaconal, doctoral, contemplative, (Joachim).
(11) The four principal angels (a Lapide).
(12) Four apostolic virtues (Alcasar).
(13) The attributes of divinity: wisdom, power, omniscience, creation (Renan). Full of eyes before and behind. From Isaiah 6:2, 3 the idea of six wings is borrowed, and also the "Holy, holy, holy" from Ezekiel 1:5, 6; the four figures and four faces (which are united in Ezekiel, but made separate in the Revelation); and from Ezekiel 10:12 the body full of eyes. The eyes denote unceasing activity. If the four living beings all faced towards the throne while standing on each side of it, St. John would see them in various positions, and observe the back as well as the front.
Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal,.... By which is meant, not heaven, nor the souls of the blessed there, nor the multitude of the holy angels, nor the first converts to Christianity at Jerusalem; for those that got the victory over the beast are said to stand upon this sea, Revelation 15:2, which these senses, especially the three last, will by no means admit of. Some by it understand the world, which may be compared to a "sea", for the multitude of people in it, as many waters in this book signify people and nations, Revelation 17:15; and to a sea of glass, which is brittle, for the frailty and transitoriness of the world, of the fashion of it, and of men and things in it; and to the clear "crystal", because all things in it are open and manifest to the omniscient eye of God; but the world, and men of it, used not to be compared to a still and quiet sea, as this is, but to one disturbed and troubled by winds and tempests, whose waters cast up mire and dirt, Isaiah 57:20. Others think the ordinance of baptism is designed, of which the Red sea, through which the Israelites passed under the cloud, was an emblem; and which may be compared to a "sea of glass", for its transparency, it clearly expressing the sufferings, burial, and resurrection of Christ; and to crystal, for its purity; and to all this for its cleansing nature, as it leads unto the blood of Christ; and its being before the throne may denote its being the way of entrance into the Gospel church. Others think the blood of Christ is meant, in allusion to the brazen sea in the tabernacle, which was made of the looking glasses the women brought, and for the priests to wash in, before they entered on business, Exodus 30:18, and to the molten sea in the temple, which was for the same purpose, 1 Kings 7:23. Christ's blood is the fountain opened to wash in for sin, and may be compared to a sea for its abundant efficacy in cleansing from all sin; and it is this which makes way to the throne, and to him that sits on it; and is a special privilege enjoyed by those who come to Mount Zion, or into a Gospel church state; there is always this laver to wash their garments in, and make them white: though this sea, being of glass, seems not so much designed to wash in; and therefore rather I think by it is meant the Gospel, compared to a "sea" for the deep things of God and mysteries of grace which are in it; to a sea of "glass", because in it is beheld, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, of his person, office, and righteousness, as well as many other wondrous things; and to one like "crystal", for the clearness, perspicuity, and evidence of the truths contained in it; and to a, fixed, still; and quiet sea, because it is the Gospel of peace, love, grace, and mercy, and brings peace, joy, and tranquillity to troubled minds, when the law works wrath: but here are no tossing, foaming, raging waves of wrath, and fury, but all smooth, stable, solid, tranquil, and quiet. And this is said to be before the throne, where the rainbow of the covenant is, of which the Gospel is a transcript; and where the four and twenty elders, or members of churches be, for their delight and comfort; and where the seven spirits of God are, to furnish men with gifts to preach it; and where the four living creatures, or ministers of the word, have their place, who officiate in it. Agreeably to this figurative way of speaking, the Jews call (p) the law, , "the sea of the law", and the "sea of wisdom"; and frequently give the characters of such and such a doctor, as being very expert and conversant , "in the sea of the Talmud", or "doctrine" (q). The Alexandrian copy, the Complutensian edition, the Vulgate Latin and Syriac versions, read, "there was as a sea of glass", somewhat that looked like one. The word "glass" is left out in the Ethiopic version, but very aptly is it so described, the colour of the sea being sometimes green like that of glass.
And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts; or "living creatures", as the word may be better rendered, agreeably to Ezekiel 1:5, to which reference is here had; and by whom are meant not the angels, though there are many things which agree with them; they are said to be the "four spirits" of the heavens, which go forth from standing before the Lord of all the earth, Zechariah 6:5. They may be rightly called living creatures, since they live a most happy life in heaven; their situation is before the throne, and in the presence of God; and their being so sedulous, diligent, and watchful in doing the will of God, may be signified by their being "full of eyes behind, and before, and within"; their strength may be fitly expressed by "the lion"; their indefatigableness in the service of God, by "the ox": their wisdom, prudence, and knowledge, by "the face of a man"; and their swiftness in obeying the divine commands by "the flying eagle"; their number of wings agrees with that of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:2; to which the allusion seems to be; and their work, in continually ascribing glory to God, suits with them: to which may be added, that the Jews often speak of four angels, , "round about his throne", that is, the throne of God; whose names are Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael; the three first they place in this manner, Michael at his right hand, Uriel at his left, and Gabriel before him (r). Sometimes thus, Michael on his right hand, Gabriel on his left, Uriel before him, and Raphael behind him, and the holy blessed God in the middle; and they are expressly called (s) by them the four living creatures, meaning in Ezekiel's vision; and they make mention of the intellectual living creatures which are , "round about the throne" (t). Notwithstanding all this, the angels cannot be intended, because these four living creatures are said to be redeemed by the blood of Christ, and are distinguished from angels in Revelation 5:8; nor are the four Gospels, with the four evangelists, here meant; for whatever agreement may be fancied there is between these, and the likeness of the living creatures; as that Matthew may be signified by the creature that has the face of a man, because he begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Christ, as man; and Mark by the lion, because he begins his Gospel with the voice of one crying in the wilderness; and Luke by the ox, because he begins his Gospel with an account of Zacharias the priest, offering in the temple; and John by the eagle, because he begins his Gospel, the first face or leaf of it, in a very high style, and with the divinity of Christ: and with what truth soever it may be said of these that they are full of divine light and knowledge, and swiftly spread it in the world, and are continually giving glory to God; yet it cannot be said of them, with any propriety, as is said of these four living creatures, that they fall down before God, and worship him, and are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb: besides, these four are represented as calling to John at the opening of the first four seals, to come and see what was to be seen; and one of them is said to give to the seven angels the vials of wrath to pour out, Revelation 5:8, to which may be added, that this sense is attended with this inconvenience, that it makes John to be one of the four creatures which he saw: nor are four particular apostles, as Peter and John, Paul and Barnabas, pointed at, as others think; nor the pure apostolical church, for the church is represented by the four and twenty elders, and these four living creatures are distinguished from the hundred and forty four thousand on Mount Zion, in Revelation 14:1. Dr. Goodwin has a very ingenious thought upon these words, could it be supported; he thinks that these four living creatures design the four officers in the Christian church, the ruling elder, the pastor, the deacon, and the teacher; the ruling elder by the "lion", who needs courage to deal with men in case of sins; the pastor by the "ox", for his laboriousness in treading out the corn; the deacon by that which has the "face of a man", it being necessary that he should be merciful and pitiful to the poor, as is the heart of a man; and the teacher by the "flying eagle", who is quick to espy errors, and soars aloft into high mysteries: but then it should be observed, that there is no such officer ass ruling elder in the church, distinct from the pastor; and that the pastor and teacher are one; so that there are but two sorts of officers in the church, pastor, and deacon; see Philippians 1:1; to which may be added, that the four living creatures are all in the same situation, and are alike full of eyes, and have the same number of wings, and are employed in the same work; all which cannot be said equally of church officers. By these four living creatures, I apprehend, we are to understand the ministers of the Gospel in general, in the successive ages of the church, to whom all the characters do well agree. And though they may not be all found in everyone, at least not in all alike, yet thou are in one or another of them, and in them as together considered. They are said to be "four", being fewer in number than the members of the church, which are signified by the twenty four elders, and yet a sufficient number; and in allusion to the four standards of the camp of Israel in the wilderness, to which there seems to be some reference in the whole of this account; as the tabernacle there was placed in the midst, so the throne of God here; as the priests and Levites were round about that, so the four and twenty elders here; as there were seven lamps, over against the candlestick in the tabernacle, continually burning, so there are seven spirits here before the throne; and as there were four princes, who were standard bearers, placed at the four corners of the camp, so here four living creatures, or ministers of the word, who are standard bearers: the standard of Judah, with Issachar and Zabulon under him, was at the east of the tabernacle; and Ephraim, with Manasseh and Benjamin, at the west; Reuben, with Simeon and Gad, at the south; and Dan, with Asher and Naphtali, at the north; and the Jewish writers say (u), that on Judah's standard was the figure of a lion, on Ephraim's the figure of an ox, on Reuben's the figure of a man, and on Dan's the figure of an eagle; and to which the four living creatures are likened here. And this number "four" may be the rather mentioned, with respect to the four parts of the world, and corners of the earth, whither the ministers of the Gospel are sent to preach, and whither their commission reaches; there being of the elect of God in all parts to be gathered in by their ministry: and very properly may they be called "living creatures", because they are alive in themselves, being quickened by the Spirit of God; or otherwise they would not be fit for their work; and because their work requires liveliness in the exercise of grace, and fervency in the performance of duty: and because they are a means in the hand of God of quickening dead sinners, and of reviving drooping saints by the word of life, which they hold forth: the situation of these four living creatures agrees with them, who are said to be both in the midst of, and round about the throne, and so were nearer to it than the four and twenty elders, and were between that and them; as the ministers of the Gospel are set in the first place in the church; have nearness to God, and much of his presence, which is particularly promised them; and stand between God and the people, and receive from the one, and communicate to the other, and lead on the worship of God, as these four do; see Revelation 4:9. And these are said to be
full of eyes; of spiritual light, and evangelical knowledge; and they have need of all the eyes they have to look into the Scriptures of truth, to search and pry into them, and find out the sense and meaning of them; to overlook the flock committed to them, they have taken the oversight of; to look to themselves, their doctrine, and their conversation; to espy enemies and dangers, and give notice of them to the churches; to look to God upon the throne, and to the Lamb in the midst of it, for fresh supplies of gifts and grace; and to see to it, that all their ministrations tend to the glory of God, the honour of a Redeemer, and the good of souls. And they had eyes
before and behind; "before" them, to look to the word of God, and the deep things in it, which continually lies before them, and to the things that are yet to come relating to the kingdom and church of Christ; and "behind" them, to observe how all sacrifices and types, predictions and promises, have had their accomplishment in Christ; they have eyes before them to watch over the church they are in the midst of, and which is the flock that is before them; and eyes behind, to guard against Satan and his emissaries, false teachers, who sometimes slyly and secretly come upon the back of them; they have eyes before them, to look to him that sits upon the throne, on whom their dependence, and from whom their expectations are; and they have eyes behind them, to look on the four and twenty elders, the members of the churches, to whom they minister.
(p) Zohar in Numb. fol. 90. 3. & 92. 1. & in Lev. fol. 24. 3. & in Deut. fol. 118. 4. Tikkune Zohar apud Rittangel. not. in Jetzira, p. 133, 134. (q) Ganz. Tzemach David, par. 1. fol. 46. 2. & 47. 1, 2.((r) Bemidbar Rabba, sect 2. fol. 179. 1. Vid. Pirke Eliezer, c. 4. (s) Zohar in Numb. fol. 91. 3.((t) Raya Mehimna in Zohar in ib. fol. 95. 4. (u) Aben Ezra in Numb. ii. 2.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
6. Two oldest manuscripts, A, B, Vulgate, Coptic, and Syriac read, "As it were a sea of glass."
like … crystal—not imperfectly transparent as the ancient common glass, but like rock crystal. Contrast the turbid "many waters" on which the harlot "sitteth" (Re 17:1, 15). Compare Job 37:18, "the sky … as a molten looking-glass." Thus, primarily, the pure ether which separates God's throne from John, and from all things before it, may be meant, symbolizing the "purity, calmness, and majesty of God's rule" [Alford]. But see the analogue in the temple, the molten sea before the sanctuary (see on Re 4:4, above). There is in this sea depth and transparency, but not the fluidity and instability of the natural sea (compare Re 21:1). It stands solid, calm, and clear, God's judgments are called "a great deep" (Ps 36:6). In Re 15:2 it is a "sea of glass mingled with fire." Thus there is symbolized here the purificatory baptism of water and the Spirit of all who are made "kings and priests unto God." In Re 15:2 the baptism with the fire of trial is meant. Through both all the king-priests have to pass in coming to God: His judgments, which overwhelm the ungodly, they stand firmly upon, as on a solid sea of glass; able like Christ to walk on the sea, as though it were solid.
round about the throne—one in the midst of each side of the throne.
four beasts—The Greek for "beasts," Re 13:1, 11, is different, therion, the symbol for the carnal man by opposition to God losing his true glory, as lord, under Him, of the lower creatures, and degraded to the level of the beast. Here it is zoon, "living creatures"; not beast.
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