The Stones in the Throne Room in Revelation 4

The throne in Revelation 4 is a good opportunity to think about our interpretive method for apocalyptic literature. In another post I pointed out throne room scenes are common in Second Temple apocalyptic and that the imagery John uses here is similar to several other well-known apocalyptic texts.

The throne is described as having the appearance of jasper (ἴασπις) and carnelian (σάρδιον).  The identification of ancient minerals is always tentative. For example, Jasper “was not limited to the variety of quartz now called jasper, but could designate any opaque precious stone” (BDAG). In fact, the color of the stone varied greatly.  Both Jasper and carnelian are stones in the New Jerusalem in 21:19-20, although BDAG suggests that an opal is a better translation for jasper. The words appear in only two contexts in the LXX, but both are of interest here. First, both jasper and carnelian are part of the ephod worn by the high priest (Exod 28:18) but also the decorations of the “guardian cherub” in Ezek 28:13. Jasper appears in LXX Isaiah 54:12, a description of Zion when she is re-established as the Lord’s wife after the exile.

God's ThroneEncircling the throne is a rainbow, resembling emerald (σμαράγδινος). The rainbow is more like a halo emanating out from the throne, possible “like an emerald” because the light from the throne is penetrating the transparent stones of the thrones. While emerald is among the stones in the high priest’s breastplate and New Jerusalem, the whole scene is reminiscent of Ezekiel 1:28. There a rainbow was behind the throne of “something like a man,” a representation of the glory of God.

Is there any “special meaning” to the stones in the throne room? In older commentaries, the stones in the throne of God (and the New Jerusalem) have been interpreted as having something to say about the character of God.  Even as recently as John Walvoord’s commentary on Revelation, the stones were thought to represent God’s attributes.  Jasper referred to God’s holiness, carnelian his wrath and judgment, and emerald referred to God’s grace and mercy (103-104). In addition, he observes that jasper and the “sardine” stone are the first and last stones in Exodus 28:17-21. Jasper represents Reuben, carnelian Benjamin. Since Reuben means “behold a son” and Benjamin means “son of my right hand,” Walvoord understands the stones as references to Jesus, the son of God.  As for the carnelian, Hengstenberg, thought the reddish stone was used “to represent the punitive righteousness of God, his anger, cannot be doubted when we look at the fundamental and parallel passages” (The Revelation of St. John, 245).

Older commentaries often allegorized the emerald rainbow as well. Elliot thought that the emerald rainbow was “in sight like unto an emerald;”—the well-known and lovely memorial of the covenant of grace (Horæ Apocalypticæ 1:85, cf., Simcox, The Revelation of S. John the Divine, 31). The green of the emerald “the green emerald may fitly represent God’s goodness displayed in nature.” (A. Plummer, Revelation, The Pulpit Commentary, 145).

The vast majority of modern commentators take the stones as indications of the glorious nature of the throne room of God.  God does not need a gem encrusted throne on which to sit, it is a way of described the awesomeness of God. But for someone who knows the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint, the image of “God’s throne” always includes precious stones and emeralds. For a Greco-Roman reader, imperial throne rooms are always majestic  and richly decorated.

Rather than interpret each detail in order to give it a “spiritual” meaning about God’s attributes or some hint at the incarnation of Jesus, the whole scene is intended to evoke the glorious majesty of the one who sits on the throne. To over-interpret the imagery to find an allusions to the “covenant of grace” or the attributes of God risks missing the original intention of John.

13 thoughts on “The Stones in the Throne Room in Revelation 4

  1. Many of the scholars of Revelation tend to look at the imagery found in it similar to a work of poetry—that is, each word must have a deeper meaning, as they surely could have selected a multitude of other words instead. While this isn’t entirely a bad thing, as there is no real analysis of any written work without considering the language critically, there is a point where analysis can go too far. There is most certainly a possibility that the author meant exactly what they wrote, and that the constant quest for any deeper meaning is simply getting in the way of the point of the message, as Dr. Long said. I think it is clear that I agree that the different precious stones are a representation of how amazing and glorious the throne room of God is; how bright and beautiful His throne looks, with His glory radiating outward from His throne. There is a chance that this gem-encrusted throne is meant to bring the Roman audience of this book the image how beautiful the imperial throne room is; making God out to be even greater than the Emperor.

  2. I would agree completely with your last quote, that we are so close to losing sight of the focus of the passage by reading too far into the little things such as the jewels’ representations. I believe that, first and foremost, the jewels–or as you refer to them as: stones–are meant to represent God’s majesty and power. We even equate jewels to power in our culture. You always see people like the royal family with their expensive necklaces, bracelets, and rings. You rarely, if ever, see a homeless individual walking around with a three carat ring emerald on their finger. We may view the jewels that are written of in Revelation 4 in this way, as well: they signify God’s power. As stated in the ESVSB notes, “he jewels of this book are not meant to be interpreted individually but together signify the splendor and majesty of GodT” (ESVSB 2469). It is not that we are supposed to pick each one apart and ask what they each represent; rather, we should view them as one, so that we may see the full extent of what the beauty of all of them says about our God.
    I do appreciate how some commentators have taken the jewels and assigned them to the attributes of God; however, I’m not completely sure it is biblically founded or grounded. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting view. I believe that the commentators that you quoted were reading a little too far into the meaning and representation of each jewel,but it gave a very good perspective and food-for-thought on some of the correlation to God’s attributes.
    I love the description of the “rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (Revelation 4:3). To me, the rainbow is almost the most personally significant of the descriptions because it is biblically founded in the story of Noah and how God promised to never flood the earth again. It is as if this rainbow in Revelation 4 is a reminder of God’s faithfulness. You can draw many biblical attributes of God from the rainbow and its appearance. I would not suggest going nearly that far in looking at the different jewels represented in the passage.

  3. Context is very important when looking at scripture, especially when interpreting the book of Revelation. This post is similar to that of the throne room in Revelation 4 that is mentioned. The rainbow in interesting to me as obviously we know the story in Genesis 9:13-16, the rainbow was a sign that God made that he would never flood the entire earth again, again in Revelation 4:3 we see the sign as a means of faithfulness. Although dispensationally and contextually this are two totally different events, it is the same God which is neat to see. As far as the jewels that are mentioned, it was interesting to see that some commentaries as Dr. Long mentioned view that what is inside of the throne room have significance in telling us something about the character of God. To me these verses as Joel mentioned above, is clearly just a representation of how majestic and marvelous the throne room really is. Beauty in the physical/materialistic world could be a tool that is used to show the beauty of God and his attributes. At the end of the day, I’m going to have to agree with the ESV study Bible notes which revels “the jewels of this book are not meant to be interpreted individually but together to signify the spender and majesty of God” (ESV, pg.2,469).

  4. This is an interesting topic and could do some damage to people’s egos. For people who take apocalyptic literature very seriously and emphasize it more than anything else, this could knock them on their rears. Not everything has a deeper meaning than what it is on the surface. Some things truly have a deeper meaning but others do not. The stones used to describe the throne room in Revelation 4 are probably not significant other than the fact that they are used to try to magnify the glory that is the throne. There may be some Jewish heritage significance to these stones but other than that they probably do not hold other significance. The jasper, emerald, and carnelian in verse 3 do not have individual distinct meanings. It is not like the jasper represents purity, and carnelian the wrath of God, or the emerald the grace of God. These stones are just to glorify the one on the throne. In a Greco-Roman world the emperor’s thrones would have been immaculate. This throne described by John puts those thrones to shame. While John might be poking fun at the Romans he is also just trying to get across how great this throne really is. Christians have a very bad habit of over-spiritualizing everything that is in the Bible instead of reading it as the author intended it to be read.

  5. John was brought to the throne room and got to witness a beautiful place. When he came into the room, there was someone sitting on the throne, but who? He saw stones in the room including jasper, ruby, and emerald. The emerald was being shone by a rainbow. Rainbows are an important part of God because it is a sign of one of his promises. He gave Abraham a convent after the flood by giving him a sign with a rainbow. “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (Genesis 9:16 NIV). God showed grace and mercy on the people and decided he would not flood the earth again. This could mean that the emerald stands for Gods mercy and grace. God is worthy of everything and his throne should have the most precious stones for he is worthy. Whoever is sitting on the throne is worthy of being there and having the precious stones around them. The main question is who is sitting on the throne? Could it be God or Jesus?

  6. I fully agree that there exists a danger of missing what John wanted to teach and instruct us about if we try to “over-interpret” or perhaps even apply unnecessary connotations to the different objects and stones mentioned here in this chapter of the book of Revelation. The various stones, those such as Jasper, Carnelian, Emerald, and so on are most likely a representative metaphor for the glory and majesty of the Lord Almighty. Reflecting on the fact that amazing objects such as these exist naturally in nature because of them having been created by God, it is impossible for one to not have feelings evoked within them of amazement, wonder, and appreciation for the awe-inspiring, as well as the prodigious and stupendous nature of God. As for the appearance of a rainbow surrounding the throne here in Revelation 4, there could be several meanings or explanations for this. In addition to being a symbol for the glory of God in nature, It is most likely also a symbolic reminder of God’s wonderful attributes of grace, forgiveness, mercy, and promise keeping. The symbol of the rainbow echoes that of Genesis 9, and the covenant He made between Himself and Noah using the rainbow as both an expression of His mercy and love, as well as the fact that God is the only one who is able to always keep a promise when He makes one, exemplifying aspects such as honesty, truth, and divine providence

  7. Can you please tell me who painted the artwork of the throne room you have shown on this article?
    Thank you
    Aimee Nowak

  8. While it would be interesting if each of the stones represented something, I agree that this was not the point of the revelation. What is difficult about this is that there are so many symbolic features within the text of Revelation that makes it difficult to just read it without trying to interpret it. The only time it is truly appropriate to allegorize passages in the Bible is when the authors of the Bible do so themselves. For example, the author of Hebrews does this often. A specific example is in Hebrews 1:5 when the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 2. For a long time, the understanding of Psalm 2 was that it was intended for King David and his heirs. While it is still true that the message to King David was one of the purposes, the author of Hebrews reveals that this Psalm was also about the unique relationship between the Father and the Son. As for this Revelation passage, there is a lack of biblical evidence for allegory. Further evidence is that allegory within the book of Revelation is often explained, as is the case in 1:20. Rather than have some hidden meaning, the description of the stones was more likely the lack of precise words for the “splendor and majesty of God” (ESVSB, 2469).

  9. I have a question
    In the box of exodus I thought God ask us not to give any pictorial image of Him?

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