The Ark of the (New) Covenant

Four Living Creatures and the Throne of God


Editor's Note: This article is the second of two in a series on the four living creatures in Revelation 4. The first article, The Four Living Creatures and the Sovereignty of God, examines the same subject in broader perspective, and this article narrows the focus to surprising similarities between the four living creatures and the ark of the covenant.


6 And before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal; and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. 7 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 (Rev 4:6–7 NASB).

Literary Context

The four living creatures (τέσσαρα ζῷα) first appear in John’s vision of the heavenly throne in Revelation 4:6–11 and then reappear throughout the book (Rev 5:6–14; 6:1–8; 7:11–12; 14:3; 15:7–8; 19:4) as fixtures of the same. They are located “in the center and around the throne” (4:6 NASB; ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ θρόνου καὶ κύκλῳ τοῦ θρόνου); they are “full of eyes in front and behind” (4:6) and “around and within” (4:8); each one resembles a different creature—a lion, an ox, the face of  a man, and an eagle in flight (4:7); and each one has six wings (4:8).[1] Along with the elders, they are leaders of worship, and they sing the hymns to God without ceasing (4:8). For example, the two hymns of Revelation 4 “make explicit the main point of the vision and of the whole chapter: God is to be glorified because of his holiness and sovereignty.”[2]

Canonical Context

As enigmatic as they are, these four living creatures are hardly original to Revelation. They are clearly related to the cherubim of Ezekiel 1—yet with several key differences. First, each creature in Ezekiel has four faces and four wings (1:6), whereas each creature in Revelation only has one face but six wings (4:7–8). Second, in Ezekiel the four living creatures seem to draw a “chariot” of sorts upon which the heavenly throne rests (1:15–21), whereas in Revelation they seem to occupy stations beneath or around the throne (4:6). Third, in Ezekiel it is the rims of the “chariot” that are “full of eyes” (1:18), whereas in Revelation the creatures themselves are “full of eyes” (4:6–8). But the four living creatures are also related to the seraphim of Isaiah 6, sharing their six wings (6:2) and singing the same Trisagion hymn (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8). Thus, the creatures John sees in his vision of the heavenly throne resemble a cross between the cherubim of Ezekiel and the seraphim of Isaiah.[3]

Historical Context

The four living creatures find precedent not only in Scripture but also in history. For example, “the closest parallels are indeed the winged sphinxes and lions that adorned thrones and stood outside temples in ancient Mesopotamia.”[4] In addition to this, “continuous adoration is a common feature in apocalyptic descriptions of heaven. First Enoch 39:12 pictures sleepless angels standing before God and extolling his greatness.”[5] Another example comes from 2 Baruch 51:11. “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, and all the armies of the angels … [emphasis mine].”[6] I found this last example particularly intriguing for reasons I will discuss below.

Synthesis

Most of the commentaries I consulted were willing to firmly conclude that the four living creatures represent something like “an exalted order of angelic beings,”[7] “the highest order of celestial beings, perhaps angels.”[8] Beyond Beale, though, who helpfully observed that they share characteristics of both Creator and creation,[9] commentators were more hesitant to associate the four living creatures with the whole created order, “the whole of animate creation.”[10] After studying this passage, however, I am not as hesitant to do so. I am persuaded that the four living creatures symbolize the new creation, crowned by man in his angelic, resurrection glory.

To support this conclusion, I will briefly connect two arguments—one from R. G. Hall and another from Jason DeRouchie. First, Hall resolves the difficulty of translating “in the center and around the throne” (4:6 NASB; ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ θρόνου καὶ κύκλῳ τοῦ θρόνου) by observing the allusion of Revelation 4:6 to Exodus 25:18–20, where the wings of two opposing cherubim form the mercy seat above the ark. He cites Josephus: “to the cover [of the earthly ark] were affixed two … ‘cherubs’ … and Moses says that he saw them sculpted on the [heavenly] throne of God” (Ant. 3.137). In other words, John’s four living creatures are “ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ θρόνου, ‘within the space taken up by the throne,’ as the back, arms, and legs of a chair are within the space taken up by the chair. They are around the throne … as the legs, arms, and back surround a chair.” In other words, the throne is not a static object but a living entity formed by the creatures.[11]

Second, DeRouchie has argued in his OT lectures on Ezekiel that the ark of the covenant is a type of the new covenant, new creation community. Just as the law was written on tablets contained in the ark (Exod 25:16) and blood from the sin offering was sprinkled on the mercy seat (Lev 16:14), so does the new covenant community have the law written on their hearts (Isa 59:21; Heb 10:16), which are also “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Heb 10:22). When combined with a robust theology of resurrection and glorification, it stands to reason that these “angelic beings” are holistic symbols of the new creation, climaxing in glorified saints (recall the third creature’s “face of man”) upon whose hearts God is enthroned supreme.

John envisions a day when Isaiah 66:1 (“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool”) no longer applies, for he hears “a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God’” (Rev 21:3). I think John might have been given a glimpse of that scene in Revelation 4.



[1] All quotations are from the ESV or NA28 unless otherwise noted.

[2] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 332.

[3] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), pp.

[4] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 234–235.

[5] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 125.

[6] R. H. Charles and W. O. E. Oesterley, The Apocalypse of Baruch and the Assumption of Moses (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918), pp.

[7] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 124.

[8] Osborne, Revelation, 235.

[9] Beale understands the many eyes, in addition to their obvious creaturely attributes, as symbols of divine omniscience and vigilance. In other words, the four living creatures reflect aspects of all created life—animal, human, angelic, divine—and creation as a whole. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 330.

[10] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 124.

[11] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 239.