Thrones Around the Throne

(Chap. iv. 4.)


This rainbow-girdled throne is a throne of judgment: "Out of the throne proceeded lightnings and voices and thunders." Mercy may and does restrain judgment within fixed limits, or use it sovereignly to fulfill purposes of widest, deepest blessing. None the less is it plain that the "throne of grace," to which it is the part of faith now to "come boldly, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need," is not here before us. Even the bow of promise itself speaks of a "cloud over the earth," which might seem to threaten ruin as by another deluge. The promise to Philadelphia warned of an "hour of trial" which was to "come upon the whole world, to try them that dwell upon the earth," while it assured the overcomers there that the Lord would keep them out of this. And now before the lightnings are seen to issue from the throne, before the peal of judgment startles the world from its security, we find "round about the throne four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment, and on their heads crowns of gold." The promise has been fulfilled, and the "kings and priests" of God are around the throne of God.

That these are "thrones," not seats merely as in the common version, is not contested, so far as I know, by any one. That they are men, not angels, who sit upon them, should be plain by many considerations. Their very title of "elders" speaks for it, and in Israel these were the representatives and rulers of the people. Their number, twenty-four, if to be illustrated by any thing in Scripture, can only be referred to the twenty-four courses into ,which David divided the priesthood. And this reference is confirmed by the priestly actions of these elders in the next chapter (v. 8). They are crowned priests, - "kings and priests," - the "royal priesthood" of which Peter speaks (i Pet. ii. 9). And when they act in that capacity, the angels stand in a separate company outside of them (v. ii).

They are therefore saints, not angels, as the general consent of interpreters acknowledges. There are "thrones" indeed among angelic powers, but no priests: for priest­hood speaks of mediation and of sin which requires it, and no provision of this kind is needed by the holy or exists in behalf of the fallen angels. No doubt the angel-priest of the eighth chapter will be urged by some but here it is in behalf of men he offers, and there is but One to whom it belongs to add to the prayers of the saints that which gives them efficacy. Christ, therefore, though presented in a mysterious manner, must be the Priest in this case. Nowhere else in Scripture is there the most distant thought of angelic priesthood.

But if the elders are saints, how are they represented to us in this picture? Not, plainly, as departed spirits, but as glorified beings, raised or changed, and evermore beyond the power of death. Not till Christ gets His human throne do His people get theirs (chap. iii. 21). All rewards proper wait till the day when we shall stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, and receive for the things done in the body (2 Cor. v. io). Thus it is clear that the scene at which we are looking supposes resurrection come, and the voice of the Lord to have called us to Himself. Thus alone could the thrones around the throne be filled.

For the same reason we cannot conceive of any representation here of the position of Christians as now known to and enjoyed by faith. We are indeed "raised up together, and seated together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. ii. 6); but this is a question of acceptance, not of reigning. Christ reigns, it is true, but in no wise has He taken that place as our representative. Seated upon the Father’s throne, we are not seated in Him, nor ever shall be with Him there. Thus such a thought is absolutely forbidden to us, as that of a positional application of the vision before us.

More plausible would be the thought of anticipation, - a pledge and assurance for our encouragement of what is to be only at the end enjoyed. Such anticipations there are in the book before us. The multitude out of all nations, who are seen in the seventh chapter as already "come out of the great tribulation," present us, in fact, with such an anticipatory vision. The woman of the twelfth, clothed with the glory of the sun, is in some such features similarly anticipative. Thus the principle is one we cannot refuse, and which must apply in this case. We have only to ask, Is there any thing which in fact would prevent our so applying it?

Now, if we look at the white-robed multitude of the seventh chapter, which is the nearest in resemblance to the vision of the elders, if the latter be anticipative, we find one very marked difference between the two. The former is a complete whole, separated from the other visions which surround it, and not an integral part of the prophetic history. It forms no part of the events of the sixth seal, as it plainly forms none of the seventh, but, with its kindred vision of the Jewish remnant sealed, is inserted parenthetically between them. It interprets the course of the history, rather than forms part of it; and here the moral purpose of the interpretation is quite evident.

But suppose we had found, on the contrary, this company associated with the course of the prophecy throughout; present and worshiping when the Lamb takes the book; interpreting some of the after-visions; mentioned as present when other events take place: should we not look at it as strange and incongruous indeed to be told that it had no existence as such during this very time that it was only anticipatively brought before us, - an encouraging vision, not an actual fact?

Such is the relation of the elders to the prophecy before us until the nineteenth chapter closes with the appearing of the Lord. They sing the song of redemption when the Lamb takes the book; they interpret as to the white-robed multitude; they worship again when the seventh trumpet sounds; in their presence the new song is sung which the one hundred and forty-four thousand alone can learn; and when Babylon the Great is judged, they fall down once more before the throne, saying, "Amen, Hallelujah." It is not till after this that the Lord appears. Thus the elders in heaven are no transient vision, but an abiding reality all through this long reach of prophecy. We must accept the fact of glorified saints enthroned around the throne of God from the commencement of the "things that shall be." With this, many other things are implied of necessity. The descent of the Lord into the air; the resurrection of the dead; the change of the living saints; the rejection of the rest of the (now merely) professing church; the close of the Christian dispensation. All this we have already found in Scripture to take place before the incoming "end of the Jewish age," - the last week of Daniel’s seventy. The internal evidence harmonises completely with what is derived from the general consent of prophecy, in proving to us to what point in the dispensations we have here arrived.

Daniel had long before this spoken of thrones around the throne. "I beheld," he says, "till thrones were placed (R.V.), and One that was Ancient of days did sit" (chap. vii. 9). But he can tell us nothing more as to the occupants of these thrones. The earthly, and not the heavenly side is given to him to unfold. John not only shows us the occupants, but his vision antedates that of Daniel, and raises the thrones themselves to a higher elevation. We must pass on to the twentieth chapter of this book to find the scene which the Old-Testament prophet depicts, and there the character of rule is limited every way both as to time and place. "They lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years." This is earthly rule, and not yet the new earth; but it is just as plainly said of Christ’s "servants" in the New Jerusalem, "they shall reign forever and ever." Here the limitation is gone, and the heirs of God, joint-heirs with Christ, are fully manifested.

The idea of a millennial reign, true and scriptural as it is, tends to get too large possession df the thoughts of those often styled "millennarians," a word which answers to the early "chiliasts," - both derived from this "thousand years" of rule. And these, as shown in Papias, Justin, and Irenaus, conceived of it in a Jewish and earthly fashion, seriously conflicting with the Christian’s heavenly hope. To this Old-Testament expectation many in the present day have swung round again, and we cannot too earnestly protest against it.

The truth is, that to those whose hope is the millennium, it is quite natural and necessary to go to the Old Testament for their views of it. But then they are in the line of Jewish promises, and an appropriation of these to a greater or less extent is to be looked for. This is the mode in which have been produced some of the most heterodox and evil systems of the day. If we would "rightly divide the Word of God," it can be only by respecting the divisions which the Word itself has established for us. And if we ask ourselves, What has the New Testament to say of the millennium? for how much of our knowledge of it are we indebted to its pages? the answer will be impressive and should be enlightening.

In the New Testament we find, first of all, that it is a millennium, - that is to say, that it is limited as a period. It belongs not to eternity. It precedes the "new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness;" closes with the judgment of the great white throne, and passing away of present things.

It is not, therefore, as so often represented, Sabbath­rest, but only the last day of man’s work-day week, the last of the probationary dispensations. Its true type is the sixth day of the creative week when man and woman are put at the head of earthly government, and not the seventh day, which God hallows because He can rest. The merest glance at Rev. xx., - the merest reference to the Old­Testament prophet, ought to make this so plain that there should be no need to spend another word in its defence.

But what, then, must be the effect of substituting for what is everlasting that which is temporal and transient merely? Certainly, it cannot be a light one. With many, it has perverted the whole future before them, and introduced into it elements destructive to Christianity. To any, it must be hurtful, just in proportion to their occupation with it. For the truth it is that sanctifies. Error demoralizes and despiritualises. How much, if it touch that in which the heart is called to rest, as it were, looking forward and entering into it as that in which God shall rest eternally? What indeed we hope for, we prac­tically reach after, and are controlled and fashioned by it. The New Testament speaks of the binding of Satan during these thousand years, and of the deliverance of creation from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. It speaks also - and this is the positive feature which it adds to the Old-Testament picture, - of the reign of the saints with Christ over the earth. This is expressed in the Lord’s promise to the apostles that they should "sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt. xix. 28); in the authority given over ten or over five cities (Luke xix. 16 - 19); in the promise of the rod of iron (Rev. ii. 26, 27); and of sitting with the Son of Man upon His throne (iii. 2!). In the twentieth chapter of this book, it is the one thing we find as to the millennium besides the fact of its being such, and the binding of Satan. These things are significant. The New-Testament blessings are "in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. i. 3), and thus the book of Revelation adds but the heavenly side to the earthly picture. It shows us beyond the judgment of the dead the new heavens and earth, and the tabernacle of God with men; and then the prophecy closes with the description of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city.

The millennial rule, characterized by the rod of iron which dashes in pieces the opposition of the nations, is a special, exceptional kingdom for a great purpose, which being accomplished, it is given up. Christ sits now at the right hand of God until He makes His foes His footstool; and this subjecting of His enemies goes on until death, the last enemy, is subdued. This is preparatory to the judgment of the great white throne, and after this Christ delivers up the kingdom to the Father, that God may be all in all (I Cor. xv. 24 - 28). The special kingdom closes, but this does not and cannot touch the blessed truth that the throne in the heavenly city remains, past all changes, the "throne of God and of the Lamb;" nor this, that "His servants shall serve Him and shall reign forever and ever." The thrones around the throne abide forever. The joint-heirship with Christ - wonder of divine grace as it is - on that very account can be no passing thing. The rod of iron passes away. All that speaks of sin as present passes necessarily. The glory of the grace remains. In the ages to come He will show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kind­ness toward us through Christ Jesus (Eph. ii. 7).


(Chap. iv. 5 - 12.)

As I have said, the character of the throne as a throne of judgment is not seen until the saints are seen upon their thrones around it. In fact, we may say, it does not assume this character until they are there. For the "lightnings and voices and thunders" which now proceed from it are plainly not the announcement of any special judgment, but of the throne as a judgment-throne. This entirely accords with the fact that the dispensation of grace is at an end, the Christian Church complete, and with the saints of past ages glorified. On the other hand, when the kingdoms of the earth shall have become the kingdom of Christ, the throne will not be characterized as here it is. Righteousness will reign, but the fruit of it will be peace, and the effect, quietness and assurance forever (Isa. xxxii. 17).

Thus we have in the lightnings and thunders proceeding from the throne neither the attributes of the day of grace nor those of the kingdom of glory, but rather of that interval of time which we have been already considering, in which, God’s judgments being upon the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness (Isa. XXVI. 9). The bow of promise encircling the throne tells of the storm when it shall have passed - the effect designed from the beginning.

And before the throne, the seven lamps of fire bear witness of its action as suited to the character of Him who sits upon it. They are the sevenfold energy of the Spirit of God, who ever works out the divine purpose in the creature, whether it be in creation as at the beginning - when He brooded over the waters, or in sanctification - when we are new born of the Spirit, or in resurrection - when the work of grace ends in glory. And these seven spirits rest upon the Branch of Jesse when the government of the earth is put into His hand; "the Spirit of Jehovah shall rest upon Him; the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Jehovah; and He shall be of quick understanding in the fear of Jehovah: and He shall not judge after the sight of His eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of His ears; but with righteousness shall He judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth; and He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips shall He slay the wicked one" (Isa. XI. 2 - 4). Here is the same perfect character of government. In both we see "man’s day" ended and the "day of the Lord" commencing its course. Nor shall its sun ever go down.

Before the throne, also, is "a sea of glass like unto crystal." Before the typical "heavenly places" among the shadows of the law, there stood in Solomon’s day a "sea" of water, at which the priests washed their hands and feet before they went in to minister in the sanctuary. But the priests are now gone in; the defilements of earth are over, and there is no longer need of cleansing. The sea is therefore here a sea of glass.

Abiding purity has succeeded to constant purification. No wind can henceforth even ruffle it. The lightnings and thunder cannot disturb its rest, - to it are as if they were not. Thus the elders rest upon their thrones in peace.

Below, we shall find the meaning of the judgment-character assumed by the throne. The conflict between good and evil is nearing its crisis; the power of evil is rearing itself in gigantic forms; open blasphemous defiance of God is succeeding to secret impiety; men are loudly saying, "Let us break their bands asunder and cast away their cords from us," and it is time for God to put to His hand, and to meet His adversaries face to face.

As, therefore, the cherubim and the flaming sword united to bar fallen man from paradise, - as, when Israel had reached the limit of divine forbearance, Ezekiel saw the infolding fire and the cherubic forms of judgment, - so now once more, but without the wheels within wheels of providential use of earthly instruments (God not to speak by a Nebuchadnezzar, but in plain wrath from heaven), the cherubim are seen.

"And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes before and behind. And the first living creature was like a lion, and the second living creature like a calf, and the third living creature had the face as of a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, having each of them six wings, are full of eyes round about and within; and they have no rest day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come."

The living creatures are in the midst of the throne, yet round about it, - identified with it, yet distinct. To picture this, as some have tried to do, may be difficult, and yet the idea involved in it is not difficult at all. The government of God is carried on, as Scripture represents it to us, largely at least, through created instruments. The Old Testament shows us thus angelic ministries in sway over the earth; the New Testament speaks of "thrones and dominions and principalities and powers" (Col. i. i6). They are thus creaturely, yet identified with the divine. Thus were the judges in Israel called "gods," and our Lord says, "He called them ‘gods’ unto whom the word of God came" (Jno. x. 35). Here we have the idea which the words as to the living creatures "in the midst of the throne and round about the throne" seem intended to convey.

The "living creatures" certainly show that they are "creatures;" although no stress can be laid upon this word as used by the R. V. here, in place of the objectionable one, "beasts," in the older translation. The Greek word is, "living ones," though generally used as the equivalent of our word, from the Latin, "animal," which literally means the same thing. But the forms are those of the heads of the animal creation, - the lion, of wild beasts; the calf or ox, of cattle; the eagle, of birds; and man, of all. Such symbols could not be - were forbidden to be - used of God Himself. Their six wings are intended, surely, to lead us back to Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim, who cry, "Holy, holy, holy," also, just as these; and here "with twain they covered their face, and with twain they covered their feet," the suited reverence of creatures in the presence of God. They are not, then, direct symbols of God Himself.

That they are the angels as a class is more like the truth, as is plain from what we have already seen; yet in the fifth chapter they are broadly distinguished from the angels, who are seen in a separate company round the throne; while, if the elders represent the redeemed, they are in our present one distinguished from these also. That they are a distinct class among the angels has in itself no scriptural probability, though it is the favourite traditional view. That they are symbols can scarcely be doubted; hardly of a race of beings of whom elsewhere we have no trace. Lastly, that they symbolize the Church, as distinct from other bodies of redeemed, is negatived by all the Old-Testament passages.

The view which alone harmonizes all that is conflicting in these is, that they are symbols of that government of God over the earth which may be exercised by angels, will be over the millennial earth by the redeemed associated with Christ Himself. The transition we shall find, in fact, in these very chapters of Revelation; while cherubim were, as we know, upon the tabernacle-vail, which the apostle declares to be the "flesh," or human nature, of Christ (Ex. xxvi. ii; Heb. X. 20).

Hence also - as having reference to the government of the earth - the living creatures are four in number, 4 being significant of earthly completeness, as in the "four corners of the earth." Their six wings speak of restless activity, - perhaps of restraint upon evil, for 6 speaks of this limit imposed by God. The eyes within and around show regard to God - for "within" is toward Him that sits upon the throne - and perfect, not partial, knowledge of things on every side. For the simple complete obedience of the creature would keep it free from displaying the short-sightedness of the creature.

Now, if we look at the appearance of the living creatures themselves, we shall find that each one furnishes us with some view of the divine government which supplements and balances the rest, and that the order also is significant, as in Scripture every thing is. What the Lord teaches us as to every jot and tittle of the law is true no less of the whole inspired Word. How significant that the first form is that of a lion, the symbol of royal and resistless power! This is the first necessity for government, in which feebleness is only another name for failure. Christ’s own name in the chapter following is, "Lion of the tribe of Judah," and when He acts in that character, no one will be able for a moment to resist Him. It will be the most absolute sovereignty that the world has ever seen.

But then, by itself, assuredly, this symbol would mislead. When John looks for the Lion of the tribe of Judah, he sees a "Lamb as it had been slain;" and when even wrath is ready to be poured out upon men, it is spoken of as the "wrath of the Lamb." Indeed, that is what makes it so terrible. It is the wrath of love itself. It is the judgment of One with whom judgment is a "strange work." It is judgment which is so unsparing because love energizes the arm and guides the blow. It is judg­ment, for which there is no remedy, - which can alone fulfill the counsels of, perfect wisdom and goodness; judgment which prayer cannot be offered to avert, but for which prayer is made and accepted by God.

Slow indeed it has been in coming! So the ages of misrule and evil, of oppression and wrong, would say. So murmur the downtrodden; so scoffs the infidel. The prophet cries, "How long?" The wicked, pursuing his successful wickedness, says, "God hath forgotten: He hideth His face; He will never see it." All are expecting from the government of God the rapid and decisive action which they think alone suited to Him in whose hands all power is.

Hence, the "slow ox" follows the lion here; with strength equal to his, but used how differently! The ox is the symbol of patient labor, and which has man’s good for its end. So the apostle uses it (I Cor. ix. 9, io). It is the mystery of apparent slowness that is here explained. "God is not slack, as some count slackness," but in all His government works out unfailingly counsels of wisdom in which man’s blessing will surely at last be found. Not in the lion is the highest type of sovereignty. The lion’s is brute force at the bidding of impulse merely. The ox works under the control of mind.

But there is more than this, which the next cherub speaks of: for now a human face greets us - "the third living creature had the face of a man." And what strikes us first in this? Not mind merely, though there is mind, and in it lies the power he has - power which both the ox and lion own. But that only completes the thought which we have had already presented. Surely beyond this, and rather than this, what strikes us in a human face in the midst of such surroundings, is its familiarity. Here we have what we can understand in a way we cannot the lion or the ox; and as a symbol of divine government, it forces upon us irresistibly the conviction that in it God seeks to be known by us. Not only is He working out blessing in the end. He is meeting us also now, and giving us to know Himself. He is cultivating intimacy with us. And this every soul of His own can better un­derstand in His personal dealings with himself, than in His ways at large - His public government of the world.

Here in our little world we can find, at least, if we will, how "tribulation worketh patience; and patience experience, and experience hope." Here the darkness and the sorrow, the night and the storm, yield (at least afterward) their "peaceable fruits." Here, if we "go down to the sea in ships, and have" our "business in the deep waters," we but the more "see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep." And how sweetly assuring is this knowledge of a living God, for whose care we are not too little, and from whom no circumstance of our lives, no need of our souls, is hid. Would that we all knew this better, which the most exercised among us knows best! We shall find in it, what this "face of a man" may well prepare us for, that it is not necessarily in great and out­of-the-way occurrences that God most manifests Himself. He has here as elsewhere a way of taking up and magni­fying what is little by putting Himself into connection with it; and thus (as in all His works) the microscope will convey as much to us, it may be more, than the telescope. For He is every where: "One God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all."

Yet because He is God, there will be that every where which will remind us in whose presence we stand. No where can we escape from the mystery which attends His presence. Nor would we if we realize this as its meaning. A God always comprehensible by us would be only such an one as ourselves: but magnify man into God you cannot. Still there will be the "light inaccessible, which no man can approach unto." Yet this is light, not darkness, and it makes nothing really dark, as men profess; rather in this light we see light, - the knowledge of God illuminates all other things.

And this is what is intimated, I believe, by the last of these living ones : "The fourth living creature was like a flying eagle " - an eagle on the wing. For the "way of an eagle in the air" is one of the four things of which the wise man speaks as "too wonderful" for him (Prov. xxx. x8, 19). And this is to be joined with what the eagle in itself conveys to us as a "bird of heaven," - a type of what is heavenly; especially with its bold, soaring flight, for which the ancients assigned it to the apostle John as his emblem.

Thus, then, these cherubic figures speak to us, and in their praise they celebrate the holiness, power, and unchanging nature of the covenant God. The Old-Testament names, as all the way through this part, come up again. It is this God who is our Father, but not as Father do we find Him here. He is our God, if Father: and as such the elders worship Him. For "whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to Him that sitteth on the throne, to Him that liveth forever and ever, the four and twenty elders fall down before Him that sitteth on the throne, and worship Him that liveth forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, "Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honour and power; for Thou hast created all things, and because of Thy will they were, and were created."

How blessed is this worship! The constraint is that of the heart alone: the spirit of praise dictates the praise. They are intelligent, and give the reason of it; not here redemption, but creation. By and by they celebrate redemption also, but one theme does not displace another: all that God is and has done is worthy of Him, and they express their adoration as dependent on the will of Him who, for His glory, had created them. This perpetual worship of heaven is the witness of the perpetual freshness of abiding blessing traced by the happy heart to God as its source. May we learn better on earth this song of praise!