The Four Living Creatures
Jan 14, 2016
[Note: I fixed the previous weblog from January 13, which had been missing the first line. I also made other corrections throughout the weblog.]
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 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 “when every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea” (Revelation 5:13) give glory to God, the four living creatures say “Amen” (Revelation 5:14). This great scene foresees all of creation in agreement with God, a time when all things are reconciled to Him (Colossians 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 Numbers 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 (Numbers 2:3-9).
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” (Genesis 49:3). Jacob referred to Dan as “a serpent in the way” (Genesis 49:17), and his banner was of a flying eagle carrying away a serpent.
The flag of the last tribe (Ephraim) was taken from Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy 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” (Revelation 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, whereas 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 Revelation 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
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.” John affirms this in Revelation 4:6, 8, saying, “the four living creatures… are full of eyes around and within.” Some say that these “eyes” are actually windows on a space ship. Zechariah saw one stone on which were seven eyes (Zechariah 3:9). Later, he says that “these seven” are “the eyes of the Lord, which range to and fro throughout the earth” (Zechariah 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.
This is part 43 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones