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Introduction to Alethea In Heart Ministries

The Revelation of John - Chapter IV
Commentaries on the Entire Bible

By Rev. Henry Cowles
Professor of Church History and Prophesy at Oberlin College, and Main Editor of
The Oberlin Evangelist (responsible for giving us most of Finney's sermons).





It was at once a most sublime and a most practical feature in the prophetic visions vouchsafed to John in Patmos that so large a part of its scenes were laid in heaven rather than on earth. The stand-point of the seer was there, not here. "A door was opened in heaven," i. e., a door opening into heaven; the very door of entrance to the heavenly world; and the first thing he heard was the trumpet-voice previously heard (1: 10), saying, "Come up hither; I will show thee things which are soon to come to pass." Scenes as ineffably sublime to see from this lofty stand-point how the views of earth appear—to see the moving forces that work out a destiny as they emanate from the Great Central Power on the throne of the Universe; to see where the lightnings are forged, and to look into the great magazines of fire and storm and plague and death from which God's messengers bring forth his bolts of vengeance to hurl down upon the strongholds of his proud foes on the earth below. It reminds us of the poetic conceptions of Roman mythology which constructed vast magazines, where the king held the winds imprisoned, but drew the bars and let the gates fly open at his pleasure, that the blasts might rush forth, and the fierce winds howl, and the stricken mariners be at their wit's end; and yet other magazines for the lightning, the hail and the thunder, where the bolts were forged, and the tempests also, that gather blackness and pour abroad their terrible desolations. Somewhat such, only higher and grander far, were the scenes laid before the exile of Patmos when this door into heaven was opened, and he was called up thither to see visions of the great central throne, and of its august surroundings; to see where the ministering angels of divine judgments receive their commission; to witness the worship and to listen to the songs that ascribe immortal honor to the great Creator and Lord of all, and to Him who hath redeemed the saints of earth with his own blood.—These views of scenes in heaven, shown in their relations to things on earth in the nearer future, were not only sublime and grand, and therefore most thrilling, but they were in their nature and bearings intensely practical. We must not forget that John the seer is an exile amid scenes of wild and sad desolation, and that he wrote to his companions in tribulation, then under the pressure or the fear of deadly persecution. Now it is every thing to human hearts throbbing with personal fear and quivering with solicitude for the imperiled cause of their Master, to know that there is a most intense and earnest sympathy felt in their case by all the vast and glorious populations of the heavenly world, reaching to the very throne of the Almighty.—Those heavenly scenes bore witness to John with mighty voice that there were the elements of power—of power before which the mightiest forces of Jewish or Roman persecution seemed infinitely puny and insignificant. It was no small thing for the churches of Asia to see the demonstration of this great fact as these visions brought it home to the heart of John.—But those visions revealed not power only or chiefly, but a wondrous and most tender sympathy. All heaven seemed to gather round the book of human destiny, at first so closely sealed from view, as if the future of beings dear to their heart were written there, yet with unwavering confidence that the Lion of the tribe of Judah was competent to open it and read, and also competent as well to wield the power and the wisdom requisite to bring forth results most of all glorious and blessed for his people. Then as the first four of those seals were successively broken, with what kindness did the four living Ones summon the symbolic horses to the prophet's view with the word of command—"Come!" Moreover it was one of the most thrilling manifestations of Heaven's sympathy with the martyrs, that on the opening of the fifth seal John saw under the altar the souls of the martyred dead, and heard their prayerful cry and also that touching answer thereto: Rest yet for a little season; a few more must fall as ye have fallen; but Zion's King will surely conquer and Zion's foes must fall! So all along, the angels go forth with willing soul and tireless wing on every mission, whether of deliverance to God's people or of judgment on their foes. Every new scene in heaven heightens the assurance that God's suffering people on earth are remembered there with tenderest solicitude and most yearning sympathy.—Then, moreover, those open visions of heaven disclose the blessedness of the righteous dead who have entered into rest. You see their thronging thousands; you hear their enraptured songs; in plainest, simplest words the voice from the upper temple proclaims them "blessed;" and as if to crown all, the very hand of the Infinite Father himself wipes every tear of their eyes away!

Thus with admirable, most pertinent and forcible adaptation do these scenes in the opened heaven minister to the moral wants of the persecuted people of God on earth. It was not to amuse them with splendid pictures, and not to kindle poetic fire in their imagination for the mere warmth and joy thereof that this door into the world above was set open; but to lift their thought above the murderous edicts of tyrants, and their souls above all fear of prison, torture and death; to inspire them with the Christian heroism of faith and love and hope of a blessed immortality.—Now coupling this conception of an open heaven and its wondrous revelations with that sublime manifestation of the human person of Jesus depicted in the first chapter, we can not but admire the adaptation of these prophetic visions to the end they had in view. How impressive upon John and his first readers must these manifestations have beenfirst that of Jesus in his glory in Patmos; next that of the open heaven! Let us not overlook the wonderfully quickening power of such views upon that faith which makes unseen things real; which becomes "the evidence of things not seen," and which thus gives the victory over the world and all its forces.

The chapter gives us the prophet's first introduction to the scenes and personages of the heavenly world. In succession we have the opened door and the voice calling him up thither (v. 1); the throne and the appearance of him who sat thereon (vs. 2, 3); the twenty-four seats and as many elders sitting (v. 4); the sounds from the throne and the seven lamps of fire (v. 5); the four living ones seen, described, and their song of adoration (6-8); coincident with their song is that of the twenty-four elders (vs. 9-11).

1. After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.

"After this" [Greek, "mete tauta"], soon after, in close connection with what precedes, as in 1: 19 and also in the close of this verse.—"A door opened in heaven" is more precisely a door through which when opened one might look into heaven. He first saw this opened door, and then heard that trumpet voice, designated here as "that first voice," heard before (chap. 1: 10), inviting him to come up and enter. He does not mean the first voice compared with the many afterward heard in heaven, but that one which be heard first of all, as in chapter 1.—In this open heaven he was to witness scenes which would reveal events soon to occur on the earth.

2. And immediately I was in the Spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

3. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

"I was in the Spirit"—as in this book elsewhere (1: 10, and 17: 3, and 21: 10), always without the Greek article and therefore not precisely in the Spirit, but rather in Spirit—which means, not in the disembodied state, nor merely "in the Holy Ghost" in the usual sense of Christian experience (e. g., Rom. 8: 9, and Eph. 6: 18, and Jude 20), but in a state of spiritual ecstacy, in special spiritual relations to the great agent of prophetic vision.—"A throne set in heaven" imitates Dan, 7: 9, where we should not translate "thrones cast down" [overturned], but thrones firmly set, located, as a seat is placed for a friend to occupy.—One sat upon this throne whose brilliancy and glory could be but dimly represented by that of the most precious stones. A rainbow encircled this ineffably glorious throne.—It is not said in definite words that He who sat upon this throne was the infinite God; yet the homage rendered to Him (4: 8-11, and 5: 13), with numerous other circumstances, leave us in no doubt as to the fact.—We may well admire the wisdom that forbore to set forth any form or likeness of Him who sat on this central throne. The genius and scope of this heavenly vision demanded that the divine Father should be visible. It was by an admirable precaution against materialistic and consequently debasing views of God that the representation gives only so much as we find here—color, splendor, but no form which would naturally lead the mind to a material representation of the infinite God.

4. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.

Twenty-four "seats," but in Greek, thrones, yet of course lesser and subordinate thrones, compared with the great central one.—Here we are first introduced to the twenty-four elders ("presbuteroi"), clothed in white and wearing crowns of gold—Who are they? What do they represent?—Any thorough investigation of this point must take into account all the cases in which they come before us in this book, viz., in 4: 10, 11, and 5: 5, 6, 8-11, 14, and 7: 11, 13-17, and 11: 16-18, and 14: 3, and 19: 4.

(1.) Plainly they are not impersonal but personal—i. e., they do not represent merely abstract attributes or qualities of some unknown being, but they represent some order of conscious, voluntary beings; for they offer intelligent worship (4: 10, 11, and 5 : 8-10, and 7: 11, 12, etc.). They manifest special interest in the prophet and condescend to explain to him the meaning of what he sees (7: 13-17). These it will be seen are mainly the aspects in which they appear in this book.

(2.) The question being now narrowed down to the choice between human and superhuman beings, I judge that we must accept the former, especially because they say in their song to the Lamb—"Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation." (5: 8-11). This could not have been said and sung by any superhuman orders of created beings according to any light in our Bible. Nor is it out of harmony with this view that they appear "having golden vials full of odors which are the prayers of saints" (5: 8). Let us suppose them to be ideal representatives of the glorified saints in heaven, introduced into these visions to show the prophet and his readers what sphere the holy from earth are filling in heaven; what sympathy they still retain with their suffering brethren yet in the flesh; what access they have to the throne above and what influence there; also what their employments are. So will the significance of this representation appear in all points pertinent and instructive. Let us also notice the sympathy manifested by one of them in kindly calling John's attention to the white-robed ones (7: 13), and in his explanation (vs. 14-17)—so admirably adapted to comfort the imperiled martyrs and so appropriate as coming from one who represented the glorified saints already in heaven.

5. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.

The "lightnings, thunderings and voices" seem in this case to have been designed to make a general impression rather than to bear any special significance. Naturally they must awaken attention and inspire awe. They do not appear to reveal any thing definite. (See also 8: 5, and 16: 18.)—As to the "seven lamps of fire," see notes on 1: 4-6.—By a law of inexorable necessity, all symbols shown in vision must come down to material objects however much it may seem to degrade the grand and magnificent idea. No forms of matter wrought into symbol can possibly do justice to the qualities and powers of the Infinite God. These seven lamps of fire must not be thought of simply as so many chandeliers in an ancient cathedral. We must rather think of them as illuminating and irradiating the throne of heaven with splendor and glory such as no mortal eye could bear, but set forth here under the same general symbol which represents the church on earth (1: 20) because both are agencies for diffusing the true light of God. The divine Spirit has no function more high or glorious than that of revealing the true God to his creatures.

6. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.

7. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.

8. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.

I judge that the words "sea" and "glass" give not the reality but only the appearance. They are fine images of splendor, beauty and glory.—New persons are introduced here to us, called unfortunately by our translators "beasts." It is simply unaccountable that they should translate this Greek word (zoon) "beast," and then another Greek word (therion, in chap 13:1-4, 11, 12, etc.) by the same English word, beast. The latter is a savage wild beast, fierce, ugly, formidable, and foul—a fit symbol of a great civil persecuting power. But the word now before us means precisely a living one, endowed preeminently with life—the noblest of all created endowments. These four living ones are imitated in part from Ezek. 1, and in part from Isa. 6. From Ezekiel they have their name, "living creatures;" their number, four; their symbolic type, i. e., the animal forms that are grouped and combined to represent the noblest qualities known in the animal world—the lion, the ox or young bullock [better than "calf"], the human face, the flying eagle.—From Isa. 6 they have the six wings and in part the very words of their song, "Holy, holy, holy, is Jehovah of Hosts"—the "Jehovah" of Isaiah being translated here into the phrase—"which was, and is, and is to come." (See Notes on 1: 4.)—It is a point of some interest to reach if possible the true idea of these four living ones. What are they and what do they represent?—The data upon which to base an intelligent, reliable judgment must be found in what is said of them in this book and in the sources (Ezekiel and Isaiah) whence these characters seem to be taken by imitation. The passages in this book, other than in this chapter, are 5: 6, 8, 11, 14, and 6: 1, 3, 5-7, and 7: 11, and 14: 3, and 15: 7, and 19: 4. From these passages we learn that they are very near the central throne; are intimately associated with the twenty-four elders, yet take precedence of them; unite with them in adoration and praise; call the attention of the prophet to the revelations made at the opening of the first four seals; one of them gives to the seven angels the seven vials full of the wrath of God (15: 7). Such are their employments, as in this book.—In Ezek 1, I take the four living creatures to be symbolic representations of the providential government and agencies of God, considered especially as shaping the history and the retributive destiny of nations. Consequently they are not personal but impersonal—mere illustrations, presented in symbol, of the works of the great divine Agent and Lord of all. But in Isaiah they are manifestly personal and not impersonal. They act, they speak, they cry one to another. Consequently we must take them to be created, sinless beings of a high if not the very highest order.—In the case before us our choice must lie between the usage of Ezekiel and the usage of Isaiah. Are they, as in Ezekiel, impersonations of God's providential forces; or, as in Isaiah, veritable persons, of the noblest order of sinless beings?—I accept the latter view, because these are obviously conscious intelligent existences, performing acts and manifesting qualities that must imply distinct personality—It may be thought by some that their uniting (5: 8-10) with the twenty-four elders in the "new song"—"Thou art worthy to take the book and to open its seals, for thou hast redeemed us," etc., must imply that they too as well as the elders are from the redeemed race of men and represent them.—Over against this inference I suggest that when the four living ones lead the song (as in 4: 9-11) its theme is creation, not redemption, and that in this "new song" (5: 9) the twenty-four elders lead and give shape to the sentiment and the language, while the living ones unite from sympathy with their younger brethren (the "elders") and not because they themselves have been redeemed by Jesus' blood. This sympathy between the loftiest of God's archangels and the eldership which stands for the redeemed of earth is wonderfully beautiful, precious, and let us not omit to say, pertinent to the great moral purpose of the book, viz., to set before the persecuted saints of John's age (and of every age) the sympathy felt in their case by all the hierarchies of the heavenly world—a sympathy which manifests itself not only in their unison of heart and voice in the great choral songs of heaven for creation and redemption, but in celebrating the progressive steps of God's righteous retributive agencies as they work out in prospect and in fact the deliverance of his imperiled people, the ruin of their persecutors, and the final triumph of Christ's kingdom over all the nations.—In regard to the designation of these four beings nearest the throne as living ones, I suggest that it may express their tireless energy, "They rest not day and night;" and possibly also the fact that (unlike the saints from our earth) they have never known death. Their life-power never wanes—never has been eclipsed; mortality to them is all unknown.—The Sinaitic manuscript, one of the oldest known, remarkably repeats the word "holy" (v. 8) not merely three times but eight.

9. And when those beasts give glory and honor and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever,

10. The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

11. Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

Here we have the mutual sympathy and union of the four living ones and of the twenty-four elders in this first specimen song of heaven.—The improved text makes the verbs, "give" (v. 9) and "fall" (v. 10), both future, the sense being that whenever the living ones shall strike this song, the twenty-four elders will fall prostrate, worship, and cast their crowns at his feet in perfect and most blessed sympathy.—This song, honors and extols the Infinite Lord as Supreme Creator, declaring that out of his good will ["pleasure"], because of his supreme desire to bless with happiness, he has created sentient beings. They exist by virtue of his creative mandate.

Next Chapter (V.).

Previous Chapter (III.).

Preface | Introduction | I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | XIV | XV | XVI | XVII | XVIII | XIX | XX | XXI | XXII
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