If you missed yesterday’s post, make sure you’ve read Revelation chapter 4.
Because what we saw was a vision of God on his throne in the heavens. A throne surrounded by bizarre creatures covered in eyes, accompanied by flashes of lightning and the roar of thunder, and attended by continuous praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!”
Although it’s pretty standard stuff, really, when you look at the other visions of God recorded in the Old Testament: Daniel 7; Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1. Clearly the one on the throne in John’s vision is not just any god. By using very similar images and terminology, he can be identified as the God of Daniel and Isaiah and Ezekiel; the God of Israel; the God of the Old Covenant. This is Yahweh we are seeing, in all his glory.
But there are also some features that are strikingly different. New images that have their origin not in Old Testament visions of God, but in the day-to-day customs of the Roman imperial court. John is presenting not just the God of Israel; he’s also portraying God as the one who holds power over the mighty Roman empire! In comparison with this God, the human emperor – for all his glory – is just a pale and shadowy imitation.
Let’s look at each of these in turn. Today, we focus on the Jewish background to this powerful scene.
The God of Israel
In fact, today’s post is simply a set of Old Testament readings of when God appeared to people in spectacular fashion. This is so you can be “up to speed” with the original readers of Revelation in terms of the effect of John’s vision in how it brings together some of God’s more famous photo-ops in Scripture.
We begin with God’s appearance on Mt Sinai in Exodus. Read through this extract and note any similar ideas or images you find in Revelation chapter 4.Ex 19:16-24 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled… 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him….23 Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.'” 24 The LORD replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the LORD, or he will break out against them.” Ex 24:9-10 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.
You probably noticed the trumpet-like voice (Rev 4:1) was like the trumpet blast at
Sinai (Ex 19:16) – so loud that everyone trembled. God answered in thunder. And the sea of glass in Rev 4:6 was like the clear pavement at Sinai. (The sea in the ancient world was seen as symbolic of the chaotic forces that humans couldn’t control. In Solomon’s temple there was a bronze sea around the throne, symbolising God’s rule over the primeval forces of chaos.) The overriding theme of this scene is untouchable holiness.
Now take a look at when God appears to Isaiah:
Although Revelation was written some 800 years later, we have the same group of six-winged creatures singing – and still being called upon to sing their old hit, “Holy, holy holy.” As with most aging bands, no-one wants to hear their new stuff.
Now read part of Daniel’s vision:
In Revelation 4 we also see multiple thrones and a great throng of worshippers. (And as we’ll see in later posts, much of the content of the worship in chapter 5 is taken from Daniel’s vision.)
Probably the vision most influential on the imagery in Revelation 4 is that of Ezekiel:
In Revelation we also come across the living creatures, who themselves are covered in eyeballs. (In Ezekiel’s vision it’s the wheels that are covered in eyeballs. They fixed that obvious design flaw by the time they released Seraph 2.0.) Later Christian writers saw the four creatures as representing the four gospels. More likely they are representatives of the whole of creation (a wild beast, a beast of burden, a bird, and a human).
Other similarities between Ezekiel and Revelation are:
- Flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, and flaming torches.
- The description of a figure on a throne.
- The throne is described in terms of precious stones.
- The throne is surrounded by a rainbow. (The rainbow is a reminder of both grace and judgement.)
There are also some other sources you’ll probably be less familiar with: some of the Jewish writings between the time of the Old and New Testaments. Although we don’t hold them to be inspired Scripture, they’re a helpful record of Jewish thought at the time. John’s vision in Revelation 4 has some features in common with these writings, too. Here are just two examples:
Like the vision in 1 Enoch, Revelation 4 has a throne, crystal, fire, lightning, and angels attending the one on the throne.Apocalypse of Abraham 18:2-6 And I heard a voice like the roaring of the sea, nor did it cease on account of the rich abundance of the fire. And as the fire raised itself up, ascending into the heights, I saw under the fire a throne of fire, and round about it the watchfulness of many eyes, even the all-seeing ones reciting their song, and under the throne four fiery Living Ones singing, and their appearance was one, and each one had four faces. And such was the appearance of their countenance, that each one had the face of a lion, a man, an ox and an eagle, and because of their four heads upon their bodies, they had sixteen faces, and each one had three pairs of wings, from their shoulders, from their sides, and from their loins.
Revelation 4 also has four creatures with the same selection of faces. The Apocalypse of Abraham just makes it a bit more intense, with four creatures with four heads, and each head with four faces.
A lot of reading for today – but to what end? Why does John describe this vision by drawing on Old Testament and other Jewish sources? What’s he trying to say?
Firstly, I think he’s trying to make the point that this is the God of the Old Testament, and that John writes as one of his prophets. By describing the scene in terms of other prophetic visions, John is showing that God still reveals himself to human prophets.
Secondly, it’s to show that this God – the Father of Jesus Christ – is the same God as the one we read about in Israel’s Scriptures. Although many Jews had rejected his Messiah, those who do accept Jesus are the ones who are being faithful to Israel’s God.
And thirdly, it’s to give confidence that just as God has been sovereign in the past, he will continue to be so in the future. This same God will continue to judge those who oppose him and to protect those who belong to him.
In short, it sets the current crisis (fledgling church in a hostile empire) in the wider history of a sovereign God and his chosen people.
So how does this encourage you? Think about that today.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the Greek and Roman background to this chapter.