Revelation 4 begins the second vision “in the Spirit.” This is the vision in heaven. The first two verses are laden with import. The first verse opens and closes (an inclusio) with the eschatological phrase “after this.” The first “after this” reminds us that we are now on those things “that are to take place after this” (Rev 1:19). That is, we have moved from those things John has seen and those things that are to what will be. After this, “I looked” or better “I saw.” Thus the opening paragraph is signaled with “I saw,” reminding us that this is a vision. Then we have “I heard,” also a common way to open paragraphs. Thus we have a doubling of this feature at the opening of this section.
These verses begin a written fantastic image. It is reminiscent of descriptions in Ezekiel and Daniel (and Zechariah 4). The “sea of glass, like crystal” is from Ezekiel 1:22 (cf. Ezek 10:1 for the throne). As Ezekiel explains it, it is similar to the firmament in the sky (the glass structure holding the stars above which is the waters above, cf. Gen 1:6). It is not surprising that the heavenly sanctuary would be described by looking at the cosmic sanctuary of Genesis 1.
The twenty four elders even mention the creation with their words, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11). Moreover, it is not surprising that the vision is described by allusions to the earthly copies of the heavenly sanctuary: the tabernacle and temple (also Mount Sinai) as well as Aaron’s robe. For the latter, the gems mentioned remind us of the studs on the robe. For the former: the seven torches of fire are the lamps, the cherubim are under this throne (cf. Ezekiel 10:14), and many more as Revelation continues. We see glimpses of Mount Sinai with the lightning and thunder.
Some additional observations: We see in this passage more of the vision alluded to in those earlier letters. For example, the open door and the seven spirits are familiar from the letters. There are twenty four elders, twelve times two. Some have suggested that the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles are the human reflection of this heavenly image. We have mentioned overwhelming brightness before and overwhelming sound, we might add now to the former overwhelming color. The rainbow and the stones of various colors highlight this idea.
But these details should not distract us from the big picture — we are hearing about the throne of God. The description is of His throne and His heavenly court as King. God reigns. This is an important message to hear as we see the six judgments that unfold.
Chapter five, also begins with doubling of a signal phrase, this time, “I saw…and I saw” (Rev 5:1-2). Rev 5:6 uses “I saw” to mark a new paragraph under this. Thus it is not surprising that the fantastic vision continues. Jesus “has conquered” reminding us of how in the letters he promised things to the “one who conquers.” It is this conquering that gives Him the power to open the scroll in the right hand of God and break its seals. Jesus is worthy.
The next paragraph (marked by “I saw”) is a vision of “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev 5:6). It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are interpreted as “the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” Horns are symbolic of power. This is not to say that God has multiple spirits. Seven is a symbolic number — here it indicates the fullness or completeness of the Holy Spirit being poured out at Pentecost. In the previous chapter it had said, “before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” (Rev 4:5). The image has shifted to Jesus in chapter five because He has conquered and become possessor of the Spirit. In any case, the cherubs and elders sang a new song praising Jesus for accomplishing salvation.
The last section of the chapter is a doublet of “Then I looked [I saw], and I heard…” (Rev 5:11). And then another “And I heard” at Rev 5:13. The fantastic vision continues but now concentrates on what John heard the elders and angels say and then on what John heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea say.
Chapter six opens with a doublet, “Now I watched [I saw]…and I heard” (Rev 6:1). Then each seal is opened with one or both of these phrases except the last which is noted by silence (the opposite of “and I heard” in Rev 8:1). “And I looked [I saw]” (Rev 6:2) “a white horse.” The rider received a crown and came out conquering and to conquer with his bow in this first seal. This horseman represents conquest, white symbolizing victory. “I heard…and I looked [I saw]” opens the second seal with a red horse this one with a rider “so that men should slay one another” with a great sword he received (Rev 6:3-4). This horseman represents slaughter, red symbolizing blood. The third seal, marked by “I heard…and I looked [I saw],” has a black horse. This horseman represents famine. The fourth seal, marked by “I heard…and I looked [I saw]”, has a pale horse and its rider has the name Death, and Hades followed him, given authority to kill a fourth of the earth (Rev 6:7-8). The horses resemble Zechariah 1:8, 6:1-3. These four things span the entire time from the death and resurrection of Christ until His return.
The fifth seal, marked by “I saw,” shows us the martyrs who cried out, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They received white robes and were told to ret a little longer until the number of their fellow servants who were also to be martyred should be complete (Rev 6:9-11). The sixth seal, marked by “I looked [I saw],” shows us the opening scene of The [Lord’s] Day when everyone hides. This should remind you of Adam and Eve hiding on The Day.
Chapter seven then begins, “After this I saw…” reminding us of chapter four. What follows will then be the final judgment interlude. Like the rest of the first five cycles, the pattern is to introduce the character (Rev 4-5), then six judgments (Rev 6), a promise for the church (Rev 7), then the final judgment (Rev 8:1). Those angels given power to harm earth and sea were instructed not to do so until the servants of God were sealed on the forehead. The number of the sealed were 144,000. 144 is twelve times twelve as the text shows by listing twelve thousand from each tribe: Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph [aka Ephraim], and Benjamin. Judah is fronted because it is the tribe of Christ. Reuben, the eldest and also a son of Leah, is second. Gad and Asher were children of Leah’s servant Zilpah. Simeon and Levi were earlier children of Leah, but got demoted. Isaachar and Zebulun were later children of Leah. Since Levi is counted and Joseph gets counted twice (Manasseh and Joseph), Dan is left out. The order does not reveal any pattern I have been able to discern. And also unlike the census taking in Numbers, each tribe has the same number. Twelve is the number standing for the people of God (twelve tribes, twelve apostles). 144,000 is a multiple of twelve and ten (12x12x10x10x10). Ten is a significant number meaning fullness. This reminds us of the symbolic number of the poetic blessing to Rebekah: “thousands of ten thousands” (Gen 24:60). The number 144,000 then multiplies the twelve tribes times the twelve apostles and then by fullness thrice. They were marked with a seal, alluding not to Cain in Genesis 4 but to Ezekiel 9:4, so that they would be spiritually protected from the four calamities (not that physically they would not die, as is clear earlier). It is a promise for the church.
That we are not to take the number literally but visually (or visionally) is confirmed by the way the next section, again marked by “After this I looked [I saw],” begins, “behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” (Rev 7:9). This is the same group as the 144,000 but now stressing that they come from Jews and Gentiles and are uncountable, which is what had been promised to Abraham (like sand on seashore, stars in heaven, Gen 22:17). The phraseology reminds one of the table of seventy nations listed just before the Tower of Babel episode. Some of the language of the promises reminds us of the end — no more hunger, thirst, crying (i.e., “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17, cf. Rev 21:4 and Isa 25:8). These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation and they praise God and the lamb — they are priest-kings.