The Twenty-Four Elders by William Blake

The 24 elders in Revelation 4-5 are a good test-case for methods of interpretation in this unusual book. What is important in this vision is the worship God receives from all of creation. Is the number 24 significant?

There are a few unusual views for the 24 elders we should probably set aside early on. For example, some have taken the number 24 as the 24 books of the Old Testament. (This is mentioned by Greg Beale, although he does not advocate for this view, Revelation, 326). The evidence for this view is The Gospel of Thomas 52. There Jesus says that there were 24 prophets who spoke to Israel, meaning the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  This means the “elders” are the book which the Lamb fulfills in his death and resurrection. Ford identified the 24 as the “great men of the faith” listed in Sirach 44-49, although few have been persuaded by her argument. Henry Morris argued the rather unique view that the 24 elders are the 24 ancestors of Christ, Adam to Pharez (The Revelation Record).

In most cases, the 24 elders are either angles or humans.  David Aune sorts commentators into these two categories. If they are humans, then there are several possibilities to identify who those humans might be.

The Elders are Angelic beings. No other human beings are present when John is called up to heaven.  Isaiah 24:33 may refer to angels as elders and  Psalm 89:7 describes God enthroned among his “council.” Colossians 1:16, Eph 3:10 and 6:12 refer to angelic hierarchy as “thrones. There are several places in Revelation in which the elders re-appear.  In each of these verses it seems unlikely that humans are in view (5:8, 7:13-14, etc.)

This is a tradition, beginning with Old Testament texts and extending into the apocalyptic literature, of God’s counsel as consisting of angels. That these are angels is consistent with the general apocalyptic images gathered together in this chapter.

Sepher ha-Razim 1.8  Within, three princes sit on their thrones; they and their raiment have an appearance like fire and the appearance of their thrones is like fire, fire that gleams like gold, for they rule over all the angels of fire. (Cited by Aune, 1:61)

The Apoc. Zeph. A  And a spirit took me and brought me up into the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called “lords”, and the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more (brilliant) than the light of the rising sun. (And they were) dwelling in the temples of salvation and singing hymns to the ineffable most high God. (Cited by Aune, 1:61).

If the scene in heaven is a “heavenly temple,” then the 24 elders may be a reference to the 24 priests / Levites who lead  worship in Solomon’s temple.

The 24 elders are humans. In support of the 24 elders as humans, commentators usually note that angels are never called elders anywhere else in scripture (Isaiah 24:33 is a debated passage.)  In addition, the white clothing and crown are promised to the churches of Asia Minor if they “overcome.” There are three variations on this view. First, the Elders may represent the Church. The letters to the seven churches were all addressed to the “angel” of the church.  This is an indication that an angel might represent a church.  Here, these heavenly inhabitants represent the church of this age.  Several classic dispensationalists have held this view, including Ryrie (Revelation 36) and John F. Walvoord Revelation (107). In fact, Walvoord entitles chapter 4 “The Church in Heaven” because they are rapture before the time referred to by this chapter.

Second, the Elders may represent Israel. The 24 thrones are based on the 24 priest in David’s temple (1 Chron. 24:3-19 or the 24 Levites in 1 Chron5:6-31, cf. Josephus, Ant 7:363-367).

Qoh. Rab. 1.11 In the Hereafter, however, the Holy One, blessed be He, will number for Himself a band of righteous men of His own and seat them by Him in the Great Academy; as it is said, “Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed for the Lord of hosts will reign in mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before His elders shall be glory” (Isa XXIV, 23). It is not written here “Before His angels, His troops, or His priests” but “before His elders shall be glory.”

Tanhuma, Shemot 29   The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future cause the elders of Israel to stand as in a threshing floor, and He will sit at the head of them all as president and they will judge the nations of the world.

Third, the Elders may represent the Old Testament and New Testament Saints. For some, the 24 thrones are twelve for the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 for the 12 apostles. Occasionally this is expressed as “the church of all ages,” or as Swete thought, the elders represent “the church in its totality” (Revelation, 68-69). An a-millennial interpretation of Revelation would naturally see the Old and New Testament believers as the same church

One other possibility is that the elders are human, but the image is designed as a parody of the 24 lictors (bodyguards) who normally accompanied the Emperor Domitian. Suetonius described Domitian as follows:   “He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter ,Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.” (Aune 1:292)

While it is probably better to avoid dogmatism on this point, my understanding of the 24 elders is that they are angels who worship God before his throne. This might overlap with the lictors in a Greco-Roman throne room scene. Since there is a distinction between the elders and the “saints” later in the book, this identification seems best. In this case the number 24 (12 and 12) might not be significant for interpreting the imagery.