The Four Living Creatures and the Sovereignty of God

Blessing Found in Revelation 4

Few books of the Bible are as intimidating as the book of Revelation. One broad sweep through the text and the reader is confronted with symbolism of all manner. Whether it be golden lampstands, seven stars, a dragon, or a tree of life, Revelation is a book full of symbols of eschatological (end time) proportions that beg for interpretation by the faithful reader. However, the reader need not be fearful of seeking out the treasures of this book, for it comes with a promise: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev 1:3). One of the more prominent and perplexing symbols in Revelation is that of the four living creatures. Searching out their meaning is indeed worth the effort.

Thesis

In Revelation 4, John recounts his vision of the throne room of heaven. One specific symbol in John’s account is the four living creatures. The four living creatures in Revelation 4, as described by John, are creaturely in appearance and are involved in the specific activity of ceaselessly giving glory to and worshiping God (4:6–8). Ultimately, this symbol encourages saints to endure by offering a hopeful assurance in God’s absolute sovereignty over his creation's history and trajectory––that is, creation’s past, present, and future.[1] For this, God is worthy of all glory.

The Living Creatures in Revelation

The main point of Revelation 4 seems to be that the Creator God is sovereign and worthy of praise.[2] In this context, John describes the four living creatures, primarily noting their physical appearance and activity. He notes they are “full of eyes in front and behind” (4:6).[3] Further, John offers individual descriptions of each living creature: “the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight” (4:7). He concludes their physical appearance by noting their six wings (4:8).

Apart from their physical appearance, though, John also describes their orientation and actions. He first observes their proximity to the throne (4:6). He then describes what seems to be their primary activity, namely, offering ceaseless “glory and honor and thanks” (4:9) to God by proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (4:8). It’s noteworthy to recognize the twenty-four elders’ response, as it will be expounded later: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (4:11, emphasis mine).

These living creatures are not relegated to this passage. Indeed, they appear throughout Revelation. Their purpose is primarily worship (5:8, 14; 7:11; 19:4). Yet, they are also involved in holy judgment (6:1; 15:7). However, in light of John’s descriptions and their activity, the overarching sense is that they are representative of creation and they are completely submissive to God and working to serve his sovereign purposes.

These four living creatures are not unique to John’s vision of the throne room.[4] The term “living creature” itself occurs throughout Scripture. I note one specific instance. However, of special interest are the Old Testament (OT) descriptions of the throne or throne room of God accompanied by the presence of living creatures.

Living Creatures in the Greater Canonical Context

The term “living creature” first occurs in the creation account (Gen 1:21). This is important to note. However, in a description more similar to Revelation 4, Ezek 1:5–28; 10:15, 20 collectively describe Ezekiel’s encounter with four living creatures, which he later identifies as cherubim (10:15). The prophet describes each as having the faces of a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle (1:10). Also, he notes that the living creatures are “underneath the God of Israel” (1:26; 10:20), which seems to signify God’s authority. Although there are some slight physical differences compared to John’s experience, the living creatures’ creatureliness and submissiveness to God is consistent.[5]

The calling of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 6) is also very similar to John’s vision. Isaiah, like John, was given a vision of the throne room of God. It seems what Ezekiel and John describe as living creatures, Isaiah identifies as seraphim that each have six wings and who are actively worshiping God (Isa 6:1–3). These seraphim are proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (6:3).[6] The takeaway is, once again, these creatures are in complete, worshipful submission to God’s authority.[7]

The Sovereignty of God

In light of the greater biblical context, the four living creatures seem to symbolize God’s created order and its submission to the sovereignty of God. In other words, the presence of the four living creatures serves to communicate God’s absolute control of his creation, specifically his creation’s redemptive history, past, present, and future. This is derived not only from the creaturely descriptions of the four living creatures, but also their activity, and it is firmed up by John’s intentional connection to similar OT accounts.

As noted, the four living creatures in Revelation 4 are giving glory to God specifically recognizing that he is the one “who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8). More specifically they seem to be leading worship because the elders respond to their initial praise. The response of the elders is to fall down and extol God because he is the creator (4:11). The overwhelming sense is one of hopeful assurance in God’s control over creation throughout time. The rendering of “living creature” in the creation account of Genesis firms up the assessment that, based on John’s creaturely description of the living creatures, they are meant to signify creation. Further, the connection of the four living creatures to the OT accounts of Ezekiel and Isaiah strengthen the assurance that the God who was in control of his created order then (“who was”) is the same God who is in control of his created order now (“and is”). The eschatological hope comes from the proclamation that God will continue to be in control of his created order in the future (“and is to come”). The rest of Revelation only further affirms and escalates this eschatological hope.

Conclusion: Blessing Found

John’s description of the four living creatures, as strange and otherworldly as it may seem, effectively communicates a very hopeful message. Their presence assures readers or listeners familiar with the OT that this is the same God who was in control in the past, working history out for his purposes. Also, the living creatures’ present submissiveness to and worship of God confirm what creation was actually meant for, namely, basking in the glory of and worshiping God (Ps 148). Further, this same submissiveness and worship assures the reader or listener that even in the midst of present uncertainty, persecution, seeming chaos, and suffering, God remains in absolute control of his creation. Finally, the living creatures communicate the hopeful assurance that God is the coming one who will remain in control, and he is working all things out for the good of his people and the glory of his name. This undeniably encourages the Christian to joyfully endure.[8] Truly, those who read or hear the words of this book will indeed find blessing.




[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 237.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 332.

[3] The eyes are commonly interpreted to symbolize divine omniscience. As extensions of God’s omniscience, they are his agents who see all and do only God’s will. See Beale, The Book of Revelation, 233; Osborne, Revelation, 330.

[4] ζῷον [zōon] is the Greek word rendered “living creature” (Gen 1:21; Ezek 1:5–28; 10:15, 20; Rev 4:6b–9; 5:8, 11, 14; 6:1, 3, 5–7; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4).

[5] In the Babylonian context, Ezekiel would likely have recognized that some of the Babylonian gods resembled these living creatures. This could be observed as a pagan perversion of a heavenly reality. Nonetheless, their positioning beneath the throne of God, and their moving where the spirit went signifies their submission to God, and by implication God’s authority over Babylon and the exile. See, Jason S. DeRouchie, Lecture 15: Ezekiel, “The God who is present” 2–3, http://jasonderouchie.com/dero....

[6] The expression, “Holy, holy, holy” only appears two places in Scripture: Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4.

[7] Outside the biblical canon, the early Jewish apocalyptic pseudepigraphical text of 2 Baruch also contains descriptions of the four living creatures in an eschatological context that are similar to biblical descriptions: “For there shall be spread before them the extents of Paradise, and there shall be shown to them the beauty of the majesty of the living creatures which are beneath the throne…” (2 Bar 51:11).

[8] Osborne, Revelation, 333.