Revelation 4:5-7

From the throne issue flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.

And round the throne, on each side of the throne, at four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind:  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 a flying eagle.



4:5.  This vision is similar to the Old Testament theophanies, especially that of Sinai.  There also, the Lord’s presence was revealed with thunder and lightning(Ex 19:16).  Storms are often used to symbolize the salvific power and majesty of God at the moment of revelation.  Further on, the author will describe, in more detail, the signs accompanying God’s self-revealing; this gives the book a sense of on-going revelation with an increasing tempo.  It is generally accepted practice to interpret fire as a manifestation of the Spirit of God.

4:6-7.  To describe the majesty of God, John uses symbols which are sometimes quite difficult to interpret.  This is the case with the sea as transparent as glass, and the four living creatures round the throne and on each side of it.  The scene may be a kind of heavenly replica of the arrangements in Solomon’s temple where there stood in front of the Holy of Holies a huge water container called the molten sea supported by figures of the oxen, twelve in number.  This similarity between heaven and the temple would be a way of expressing the connection between liturgy on earth and worship of God in heaven.

The Crystal sea may also be an allusion to God’s absolute dominion over all forms of authority on earth.  In biblical tradition the sea is often used as a symbol for the powers of darkness.  To God, however, the sea is crystal clear, that is, he is its master; the way the spirit of God moved over the surface of the waters in Genesis 1:2.

Elsewhere in the Apocalypse (15:2) it speaks of the sea of glass supporting the blessed while they praise God: just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, so those who have conquered the beast will cross this solid sea to make their way to God.

The author of the book of Revelation avails of the images used by the prophets to describe the glory by the prophets to describe the glory of Yahweh.  The four living creatures are very like those in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot of the Lord drawn by four angels representing intelligence, nobility, strength and agility.

Christian tradition going back as far as St Irenacus has interpreted these four creatures as standing for the four evangelists because they “carry” Jesus Christ to men.  The one with the face of a man is St Matthew, who starts his book with the human genealogy of Christ; the lion stands for St Mark: his Gospel begins with the voice crying in the wilderness (which is where the lion’s roar can be heard); the ox is a reference to the sacrifices in the temple of Jerusalem, which is where St Luke begins his account of Christ’s life, and the eagle represents St John,  who soars to the heights to contemplate the divinity of the Word.