Who are the “Four Living Creatures” in Revelation 4?

Like the 24 elders, the four “living creatures” worship God at his throne (Rev 4:6b-8a). The NIV places these creatures “in the center, around the throne.” This reflects the difficulty of the syntax of this line in Greek. It could mean they are simply in the immediate vicinity of the throne, near the throne.

Most scholars think John’s vision draws on the throne room vision from Ezekiel 1-2. If this is true, then these creatures in Rev 4 are cherubim. In Ezekiel the four creatures are a part of the throne of God, more or less the “wheels” of the Throne-Chariot of God. There are, however, a number of differences between these creatures and Ezekiel 1-2. The four creatures are described as having similar other-worldly features. They are “full of eyes,” or “eyes all around.” This is similar to Ezekiel 1; the cherubim are “wheels within wheels, full of eyes.” But the description is also slightly different; the faces are not quite the same in Revelation.

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the MusŽe national du Moyen-åge

Thirteenth century ivory carving of Christ surrounded by the four living creatures from the Muse national du Moyen-åge

It is possible the description in Revelation recalls something of Ezekiel, but also may have been influenced by other developments in Jewish thinking about angels. One possibility is that John intended to make a reference to archangels. In the Hebrew Bible, there are no archangels, although Gabriel (Dan 8:16, 9:21, Luke 1:18, 26) and Michael (Dan 12:1, Jude 9) are two specific, named angels given that distinction in later Jewish documents. “Archangel” does appear in Jewish literature, but it is perhaps not the right designation for these angels.

It is possible these many-eyed creatures are apocalyptic “watchers.” In some apocalypses written well before the first century, there is a category of angelic being who are designed by God to “witness” everything (1 Enoch 1:5, Jubilees 4:15; 8:3; 10:5). According to 1 Enoch 6-36, some of these angels came down to earth and taught humans sinful practices (like making war and sorcery, but also medicine and cosmetics, 1 Enoch 8). They also had relations with human women and created “the giants.” Michael and Gabriel (along with Surafel or Uriel, depending on the manuscript of 1 Enoch) “observed carefully from the sky” all of this wickedness and called out to the Most High to judge these angels and to destroy the wickedness they had caused (1 Enoch 9-10). The result, of course, is the flood (and a blockbuster Hollywood film).

The Targum on Ezekiel has an expanded description of the cherubim. In Tg. Ezek. 1:6 the angelic beings face four faces, each of which have four faces, sixteen to each creature, with sixty-four faces in all. This kind of elaboration is also found in 3 Enoch 21:1-3:

R. Ishmael said: The angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me: There are four creatures facing the four winds. Each single creature would fill the whole world. Each of them has four faces and every single face looks like the sunrise. 2 Each creature has four wings and every single wing would cover the world. 3 Each one of them has faces within faces and wings within wings. The size of a face is 248 faces, and the size of a wing is 365 wings. 4 Each creature is crowned with 2,000 crowns and every crown is like the rainbow; its brightness is as the brightness of the sun’s orb and the rays which shine from each separate crown are as the brightness of the morning star in the east. (P. Alexander, OTP 1: 277)

Each of the four creatures has a different appearance. Only the third is said to have the “face” of a man, but based on Ezekiel 1 it may be that only the face is in mind. A major difference between these four creatures and Ezekiel 1 is that each creature has a different face, while Ezekiel 1 describes four creatures with four faces each. These creatures have wings like the Seraphim of Isaiah 6 and they worship God is a very similar manner as the Seraphim, but other characteristics (such as the faces and eyes, etc.) are similar to Ezekiel.

AliensMany attempts have been made to ferret out some meaning of the four faces, some more serious than others. The church fathers usually tried to find the four gospels in the faces, but never really agreed on which gospel was intended. It is probably best to agree with the majority of modern commentaries and see these faces as referring to the highest creature in four categories, wild animal, domestic animal, flying animal, and man.

We can know for certain these creatures lead worship in heaven (Rev 4:6-9; 5:8-9, 19:4) and they appear to be associated with the throne of God. In Rev 6:1-7 they will announce the coming of the four horsemen after each seal is opened, and in 15:7 one of these creatures gives the seven bowls of God’s wrath to the angels who pour them out on the earth (16:1).

 

14 thoughts on “Who are the “Four Living Creatures” in Revelation 4?

  1. I feel like John has been drawing from Ezekiel because he has read the Hebrew bible. Everything that we know can be taken and expounded on, this is why I think that the descriptions are different. Some people are better at describing what they see with their words than others, so maybe the perception that Ezekiel had was the same as that of John, but John just chooses to word his description differently than that of what he has read in the Hebrew texts. There are many different ways that someone can describe an object. One person may go with a base level observation, while the next person may pick out smaller details that give a description that is easier to envision for a reader.

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  2. I feel like when you begin to try to find meaning in something, such as between the 4 creatures and the 4 gospels, you tend to see far deeper into things than they were really meant. I’m sure there are many “4” numbers one could find in the bible and try to compare the 4 creatures to it. I think, with limited knowledge of what they are, and just basic descriptions, it would be best to read it as it is, take what we can from it, and wait until it is fully revealed who or what they are. I think otherwise would just be trying to find out things that really aren’t meant to be found out or see meaning in things that there isn’t any true meaning and if it was truly important to see what exactly they represent, it would have been included.

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  3. I also feel like John is drawing from the vision in Ezekiel. There is so much in Revelation that ties back to imagery in the Old Testament. These were symbols that would have been readily connected in the minds of Jewish believers, less so by Gentiles, and possibly much less by Gentiles in the modern age, without intense study. Whatever these creatures are, they are definitely representative of the immense power that God has, and embody the eternal worship that he deserves. Also, with note to the differences, there is a story that my brother and I like to tell. We were both there and we both witnessed it, yet each time we tell the story it is from our own unique perspective, and there are times where someone could swear that we were telling two different stories. Imagine that, removed by massive span of years, and different cultures. It is little wonder that the description of these creatures is different between these two men.

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  4. For me, it is extremely difficult to “ferret out” any profound meanings from the four beasts. The parallels between John’s description and the one in Ezekiel certainly make it seem like they are describing the same things, albeit in different ways. My knowledge of Revelation is not necessarily at your level, so I am hesitant to speculate on whether or not they are representative of anything. One thing that I did realize is that these beasts seem to set the standard for worship, and God most likely created them to embody his power, majesty, and glory.

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  5. I have never even had a clue what the four animals might be. I have never understood those animals to have any connection to each other or any pattern to be among them. wild animal, domestic animal, flying animal, and man. First off they all have 6 wings. So they all can fly. But i guess i can see the truth behind them being the “greatest” of the animal sections. But i certainly have no way of understanding anything beyond the English of what i find in my bible (and i suppose i understand the Greek as well). I am looking forward to learning about this as well.

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  6. I believe that this will always remain a mystery for us while we are still here on earth. There are some things that we just won’t know until we get to heaven. It is important to understand everyone’s different writing styles and the fact that some people are better with words than others. In this case, it doesn’t appear that the person describing these are good with words and thus struggle writing what truly they saw. Imagery is something that is key in the book of Revelation because a lot of what is described hasn’t been seen by human eye. Acknowledging the fact that we don’t know, requires us to put our trust in God and know that someday we will receive answers when we are in heaven with God.

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  7. I find it interesting that 3 of the 4 Living Creatures closest to the Throne of the True and Living God are what we humans (created in God’s image) would call “animals.” What in the world are the implications of this?!

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  8. It is quite interesting to read the book of Revelation and see a lot of parallels to the book of Ezekiel and Isaiah. With these different animals, there is no doubt that they will be as described in the book of Revelation. I can’t help but realize that the four living creatures most likely are symbolized. The “Lion” referring to Isa. 11:7, the “ox” in the same verse, the “Eagle” in Isa 40:31, and the “Human” most likely referring to Jesus on this earth. Again, these are based off of the passage in scripture, but it seems as if these creatures will look entirely covered in eye’s. Not quite sure how the eyes will relate to anything, but there is a great deal of described attributes that will be really cool. Nobody will never really know what the creatures will look like, but if the passage has them described in previous books of the Bible, I believe that is the best and most accurate description.

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  9. It can be quite surreal reading the book of Revelation and seeing how similar it feels to tales of fantasy, and of creatures that you would find in series such as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. The book of Revelation has quite a distinct and different tone than the rest of the bible, and adds a lot of mystery to the end times, such as the mystery of these creatures of many faces and of different varying looks. They sit at the throne of God, and brings the question of whether the book of Revelation is an extended metaphor, or if the details and creatures discussed are literal. Nonetheless, if literal, then these four creatures are definitely quite fascinating.

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  10. Similar to what Sean said, it’s very easy to read Revelation with a point of view that is very fantasy oriented. I’ve always head the saying “nobody is going to have perfect end times theology” because the events haven’t happened yet. A lot of the book of Revelation is referring to Old Testament, therefore I believe it is possible that we can make reference to the living creatures talked in Revelation 4:6-8. The big question that I got out of reading this article was, are the living creatures mentioned just metaphors or references toward Old Testament prophecy.

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    • I liked the saying that you referred to and I would agree with it as well. No one will truly know what to say and what to do, all because nothing has happened yet. There is no way anyone could predict the future except God since he has a plan already made out and ready to go for everyones lives.

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  11. John pulling from Ezekiel or the Old Testament is not only unsurprising, but should be expected. It ties things together in many ways. However, with the literature and attempts at understanding certain imagery, we are still left somewhat clueless. Perhaps these four creatures are ambiguous to our understanding, or John’s, but it’s yet another reinforcement of intimidating imagery in apocalyptic literature. The Four Horsemen get some bad wraps — even in modern culture such as Pride and Prejudice & Zombies (I assure you, Jane mentioned none of the sort). But to picture these creatures in heaven literally at the feet of God who have the job of announcing them — I feel like that gives us some concrete imagery of their importance. So whatever it may be, that is an understanding we can have.

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  12. The word “living creatures” is Zôon (Gk: Zoon = dzo’-on ). It simply means “Alive” or “Living ones.” It is also our word for animal or organism – originating from an egg and is used 23 times in Scripture.
    An important thing to recognize is the vast creativity of God that reaches beyond our fallen world. Zôon are real, created beings full of life. They are not symbols. They are not earthly animals. They are four very complex, gifted and dedicated creatures closest to the One on the Heavenly Throne with one on each side and in the center ceaselessly declaring the holiness of God. I’m in awe just thinking about it!

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