From the throne came flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder. And in front of the throne were seven torches with burning flames. This is the sevenfold Spirit of God. In front of the throne was a shiny sea of glass, sparkling like crystal. In the centre and around the throne were four living beings, each covered with eyes, front and back. The first of these living beings was like a lion; the second was like an ox; the third had a human face; and the fourth was like an eagle in flight. Each of these living beings had six wings, and their wings were covered all over with eyes, inside and out.Revelation 4:5-8
I am very aware of the difficulty Chapter 4 of Revelation presented to you. As I have said before I have thought to myself, “What am I doing tackling Revelation? Have I bitten off more than I can chew?” Many experts have said, “This book is challenging and who is up to the task.” Yet we still have to try, don’t we? Especially if we want to understand the depth of what the Spirit is saying to the churches. I am also aware that many of my readers have dropped off the pace. The way I approach things is maybe not to your liking. When I want to understand something at a deeper level I will look at all the angles. That approach has put some of you off. Especially during my investigation of the churches when I went down all the rabbit holes. And now with this difficult image – The Twenty-Four Elders and the Four Living Beings – when I gave you the challenge to work it out for yourself. Many baulked at that notion, some of you protesting to the point of saying things like:
- “If it challenges you Ian; then it is beyond me.”
- “You have all those resources in your library; I don’t. Just tell me the answer.”
- “How am I supposed to work this out if it confounds the experts?”
Here now I offer my interpretation of A Difficult Image. I have wrestled with this passage and this image over the last weeks. I have not been satisfied with the interpretations I listed in Gem 2227. In my opinion they didn’t link the Four Living Beings together in a way that made sense. Surely our interpretation of the Four Living Beings must relate to the point of the letter. The image, of both 24 Elders and Four Living Beings must connect to:
- the overall flow of the text,
- the historical setting of the seven churches
- the flow of the text from earth to heaven
- the challenge to believers to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches
- the reason for giving the believer a glimpse into heaven
- the reason why four seemingly unconnected word pictures are combined together
Isn’t that the point of these visions? If that is the case, how and for what reason are the lion, ox, man and eagle combined together? I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t gain anything from the interpretations offered in Gem 2227. I have followed the advice I have given to Deeper Bible participants over and over. Don’t run to the commentaries first, do your own thinking and ask the LORD for insight before you look at commentaries. The difficulty is found in the combination of the Lion, the Ox, the Man and the Eagle. The Ox is the odd man out. (I deliberately phrased it in those words.) I agree with Gordon Fee’s comment:
All attempts to draw meaning from these four images literally come crashing down since they are thoroughly – and intentionally – an odd mixture. Allow the images to spark your imagination rather than approaching them analytically.Gordon Fee
I asked myself, Why is the ox in the list? Then I prayed and asked the One who inspired the Book, why the Ox? What is the point of comparison with the ox? What am I missing? I decided to search my memory banks for related Scriptures referring to the lion, ox, man and eagle. The first verses that came to mind were:
Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.Isaiah 40:28-31
The second passage I thought of was:
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”Matthew 11:28-30
When the second passage came to mind I thought, “Is this the connection to the ox? The yoke and the oxen? Really LORD, is that the point of comparison with the ox?” The more I have thought about it, the more convinced I am. It makes more sense than I first realised. Some of you readers thought the ox was symbolic of ‘domesticated animals’ while the lion symbolised ‘wild animals’. I thought, of course, the ox is synonymous with the yoke. That makes perfect sense in this context of the four living beings. At that point I remembered a book loaned to us by SIL colleagues in Sulawesi written by Bill Gothard called Character Sketches. The sketches were taken from the animal kingdom and the characteristics of the animals applied to us as God’s people.
The characteristics related to the ox and oxen found in the commentaries focused on strength, servitude, service and patient suffering. But what if the connection is the fact that the ox and oxen are the animals most symbolic of the idea of bearing the yoke. I then thought of the lion and the eagle in a similar way. Look at Isaiah 40:31 again.
|But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength.
|They will soar high on wings like eagles.
|They will run and not grow weary.
|They will walk and not faint.
But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. [Eagle] They will run and not grow weary. [Lion] They will walk and not faint. [Man] I am not sure necessarily that the ox needs to be equated with the first example in Isaiah 40:31. It could be just those people who trust the LORD are in focus. But it is fair to say in a midrashic way of thinking that the lion is in mind as the animal which runs and doesn’t grow weary. The lion chases the gazelle or antelope until it catches it. Even more so if the lions hunt as a pride and conserve their strength until the prey tires, at which point another lion takes over. The same principle holds true for all members of the big cat family.
I also wonder if the analogy cannot be applied further if ‘hearing’ were in focus. Let him who has ears let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Is it appropriate to bring in a second point of comparison with the ears of big cats, well all cats really? Allow me to add an Ian story at this point. As these thoughts struck me in series, I experienced a second connection.
I shoot cats (domestic ones around our property). Before you react to that comment, allow me to explain. We are surrounded by stray and domestic cats and all their kittens. If I let them, they have taken to poohing on our section. So I bought two large-pump-action-water-pistols to dissuade them from doing that. One morning after I had been musing on the above and its application to the Four Living Beings of Revelation, I saw a cat up at the bird bath outside on the deck. I moved slowly to the ranchslider to open it and squirt the cat. I opened it as slow and silently as I could, all the time watching the cat. I was succeeding to the point where I began to slide the door open a crack. The cat’s ears pricked up and moved upon which the cat turned in the direction of the [faint] noise. No sooner did it lay eyes on me but it leapt down and was running. It left me thinking, “Yes, cats’ ears are fine-tuned to noises to alert them to danger or prey, domestic or wild. Is there one point of comparison here or two? Hearing and running?
Let’s switch now to the analogy of the eagle. As the text above reads, ‘they will soar high on wings like eagles’. Or as other versions put it, “they will mount up on wings as eagles.’ The point of comparison in the case of the eagle could also be two-fold. Firstly, the way in which an eagle uses the thermal updrafts to gain height effortlessly or the connection could be to the extraordinary eyesight of an eagle. Their impressive wingspan allows them to fly at dizzying heights! Bald eagles can soar 3,000 metres or more into the air, using thermal air currents to support their ascent. This allows them to conserve energy for more important activities, like looking for prey and migrating long distances.
Secondly, the eagle’s eye is among the sharpest in the animal kingdom, with an eyesight estimated at four to eight times stronger than that of the average human. An eagle’s vision is exceptionally sharp because each eye has two foveae, areas of acute vision, as compared with the human eye which only has one. The cones in the eagle’s fovea are very small and tightly grouped, allowing the eagle to see small details from extreme distances. We call a person an “eagle eye” if they have 20/20 vision, but bald eagles have much sharper eyesight than that. In fact, they typically have 20/40 or 20/50 vision, making them expert hunters. They can spot a small animal two miles away with amazing clarity. They also have a 340-degree field of view—with even better peripheral vision than owls. The comparison of eyesight could either be in regard to the clarity with which we see or the idea of the bird’s eye view on a macro-scale.
Is there yet another point of comparison? Eagles are said to have a grip 10 times stronger than a human’s. This comes in handy when they use their talons to pick up fish from a lake and keep holding it while gliding through the air. Could this ability be compared to the followers of Christ hanging on to the Lord until the end? Just asking the question.
Add to the above comparisons the analogy of the ox and the yoke. It is not as though this was a New Testament concept only. The Jews were very familiar with the concept of the rabbi’s yoke being his teaching. I am also sure that I don’t need to convince you of their familiarity with the the idea of running the race and walking the walk as being an analogy for living life according to the precepts of God’s teaching. Do you see how well these terms fit with the repeated refrains of chapters 2 and 3?
If we return to the passage in Ezekiel 1 that I gave you in Gem 2226 we see the following if I select the relevant portions.
From the centre of the cloud came four living beings that looked human, except that each had four faces and four wings. . . Each had a human face in the front, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle at the back.Ezekiel 1:5-6, 10
We must conclude that each face was represented in one image of a human being. Thus the human face in the front, lion on the right, the ox on the left and the eagle at the back applied to each human being. Now isn’t that interesting? The qualities of all four beings apply to us all. Thus those who are urged to use their ears to listen to what the Spirit says to the churches applies to us all. Likewise running the race in pursuit of the goal like a lion is for all of us. Walking the walk of faith to the end is for all humans. Staying yoked to the yoke of Christ like the ox is the lot of all Christians. Besides, when we share the yoke together it makes the burden lighter still. Why would we seek to be unyoked or yoked as individuals and pulling the load on our own? Finally (the face at the back), we are to soar to great heights like eagles, effortlessly rising in the Spirit in order to gain greater insights and see clearly from great heights the bigger picture.
I am convinced that is the point of this four-way comparison. It not only satisfies me that I have found the point or points of comparison but it spurs me on to emulate the lion, the ox and the eagle as one who wants to follow God. Thanks for the incredible word picture LORD. But yes there are still things to unpack. Take the time to ponder what I have given you and come up with your questions, comments or input. I hope it satisfies and inspires you too. I have not seen this interpretation on the Four Living Beings anywhere else. I am sticking my neck out to give this to you as what I think to be the point of the passage which satisfies me that it meets the six-fold list that I gave you at the beginning of this Gem. Now I will await your reactions. In the next Gem I will wrap up Chapter 4 of Revelation. Time to ask your remaining questions.