The Day of Atonement was a day of judgment, in which the true spiritual condition of those who had availed themselves of God's plan of salvation was revealed,[1] and on that day their final destiny was determined. There was also, through the ritual of the scapegoat, a symbolic judgment of Satan, the originator and instigator of sin.

Some commentators have felt that because the word “judgment” does not appear in Revelation 4 and 5[2] that these chapters cannot represent the Day of Atonement, which was a day of judgment.[3] We should keep in mind, however, that the Old Testament passages that describe the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16 and 23) do not have the word “judgment” either, even though the concept of judgment is very clear. But besides the “door standing open in heaven”, there are other strong evidences in chapters 4 and 5 that these scenes represent the “Day of Atonement” and the judgment that took place on that day.

The importance of firmly establishing what is going on in chapters 4 and 5 cannot be emphasized too strongly. A wrong interpretation leads to erroneous conclusions about the whole first half of the book. For many theologians these chapters are simply an interesting picture of what heaven is like. Others set the events of these chapters in the first century, depicting the inauguration of Christ into His kingly or priestly reign. With this interpretation the following seven seals and seven trumpets have some kind of historical application, interesting but not particularly relevant to us. But if these chapters are the first stage of a judgment that will escalate through the whole rest of the book of Revelation until sin is finally eradicated, then chapters 4 and 5 are of vital importance so that we can know what is happening in the invisible spiritual realm right now.

First of all, judgment in chapters 4-7 is suggested by the corresponding section in the chiastic structure (see 1: Chiastic Literary Structure). The chiasm in Revelation consists of mirror image sections with related themes. For example, the church on earth is paired with the church in the kingdom and the seven trumpet plagues are paired with the seven last plagues. The section which includes chapters 4-7 is paired with Revelation 19:1—20:15, which has to do with the executive judgment, where the sentences pronounced in favor of the righteous and against sinners are carried out.[4] But the sentences that are carried out in the executive judgment have already been determined before Jesus comes.[5] The two stages of judgment are familiar to anyone who has been involved in a trial, in which the evidence is examined and a sentence is pronouned by the judge or jury, and then the sentence is executed. The prior determination of guilt or innocence has been termed the “investigative” or “pre-advent” judgment. We would expect that the “investigative” judgment would be paired in the chiasm with the “executive” judgment, which would mean that chapters 4-7 represent the investigative judgment that takes place on the Day of Atonement.

Moreover, the first thing John heard was a voice “like a trumpet” (Revelation 4:1). In the Old Testament sanctuary calender the feast of trumpets announced the Day of Atonement.[6]

The next thing John saw was a throne (v.2). Later he saw more thrones with twenty-four elders sitting on them. Of the 35 times thrones are mentioned in Revelation, 19 are in Revelation 4 and 5. The Psalmist tells us, “You sat on the throne judging in righteousness…He has prepared His throne for judgment. He shall judge the world in righteousness” (Psalms 9:4,7,8). Many other scriptures make it clear that the throne is for judgment.[7]

The prophet Daniel saw the investigative judgment in the vision of Daniel 7, and that vision has significant parallels with Revelation chapters 4 and 5. Daniel “watched till thrones were put in place… the court was seated [“the judgment was set” KJV] and the books were opened“ (Daniel 7:9,10).[8] Daniel saw in this judgment scene that “a thousand thousands ministered to Him; Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him” (Daniel 7:10). The same number of angels is present in the judgment scene of Revelation—“I heard the voice of many angels around the throne…and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11).

The judgment scene in heaven described in Daniel 7 climaxed with the opening of books—“The court was seated and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:10). The central event of Revelation chapters 4-7 is also the opening of a book (in chapter five this will be identified as the “Lamb’s Book of Life”). In Revelation 20:12 we see that the Book of Life is opened in the judgment along with other books: “Books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books”.[9]

Besides the obvious links between this section and Daniel 7, there are also close links with Revelation 14, which clearly has to do with the Investigative Judgment. The central verse is Revelation 14:7—“Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come…” The links between the two passages are obvious:



“A Lamb as though it had been slain…worthy is the Lamb” (Revelation 5:6,12).

“Behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion” (Revelation 14:1).

“Before the throne” (Revelation 4:6).

“Before the throne” (Revelation 14:3).

“I saw twenty four elders…four living creatures” (Revelation 4:4,6).

The four living creatures and the elders” (Revelation 14:3).

“Each having a harp….and they sang a new song” (Revelation 5:8,9).

“I heard the sound of harpist playing their harps…They sang as it were a new song” (Revelation 14:2,3).

“Receive glory…for You created all things” (Revelation 4:11).

“Give glory to Him...who made heaven and earth” (Revelation 14:7).

“out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation…” (Revelation 5:9,10).

“To every nation, tribe, tongue and people” (Revelation 14:6).

The obvious and close connection between these two sections suggests that chapters 4 and 5 are closely related to the central theme of chapter 14—“the hour of His judgment” (v. 7).

Another prominent symbol in Revelation 4 and 5 are eyes: the lamb has seven eyes (5:6), and the “four living creatures” who are “around the throne” are “full of eyes in front and in back…around and within” (4:6,8). Eyes symbolize the Lord’s distinguishing judgment of those who are righteous from those who are not, for example, “A king who sits on the throne of judgment scatters all evil with his eyes” (Proverbs 20:8).[10]

The presence of “the four living creatures” is one of the strongest evidences that this chapter is a scene of “investigative judgment.” These creatures will be explained more thoroughly later in this chapter, but briefly, they are the same creatures which figure prominently in Ezekiel chapters 1-11, which give a clear picture of the investigative judgment of God’s people.[11]

As the scene continues into chapter five, the central drama is the Lamb taking a sealed scroll “out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne” (Revelation 5:7). This is reminiscent of Psalms 110:5—“The Lord is at your right hand; He shall execute kings in the day of His wrath. He shall judge among the nations.” Moreover, one of the titles of the Lamb is “the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5), a clear reference to Isaiah 11:1-5 where the Root of David “shall not judge by the sight of His eyes…but with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth.” Jeremiah adds, “I [God] will cause to grow up to David a Branch of righteousness. He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.” (Jeremiah 33:15-17, 23:5).

In summary, the language, symbols and scriptural links indicate that the scenes of Revelation 4-7 depict the Investigative Judgment which takes place in heaven before the Second Coming of Christ. This is the heavenly reality of that which was foreshadowed by the Day of Atonement in the earthly sanctuary which is described in Leviticus 16.

Continue to next section: 4:2-4 BEFORE THE THRONE

[1] The concept of people being ‘registered’ will be more fully explained in chapter 5, the scroll with the 7 seals.

[2] The thirteen instances of the use of the Greek words for judge and judgment are all either in the second half of the linguistic chiasm (from chapter 14 on) or refer to events which will take place at that time (6:10 and 11:18). The word is used in connection rewards and punishments, not investigation. The two instances (14:7 and 20:4) in which the word for judgment relates to an investigative phase are followed within their context by the executive phase (14:17-20, 20:11-15).

[3] Some scholars believe that this scene represents the inauguration of Christ into His priestly ministry after His resurrection and ascension. However, there are few, if any parallels in the symbolism of Revelation 4 and 5 with the Old Testament passages describing the inauguration of the high priest, (Exodus 29, 40, Leviticus 9, 1 Kings 8, 1 Chronicles 16,17, 2 Chronicles 5, 29 Ezra 6) whereas there are rich parallels with those describing the Day of Atonement. Other commentators have interpreted these passages as the coronation of Jesus to His kingly reign (see for example Revelation of Jesus Christ by Ranko Stefanovic, Andrews University Press). This theory is addressed in appendix 2.

[4] When Jesus comes the righteous who are alive will be caught up to be with Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17) while the wicked will be slain and eaten by birds (Revelation 19:21). The righteous who have died will be resurrected and will “live and reign with Christ for a thousand years: (Revelation 20:4) but the wicked who have died will not be resurrected “until the thousand years is finished” when they will rise to face the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:5-15).

[5] Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12 NIV).

[6] The trumpet was used to show God’s people their danger, their sin, their duty, or their reward. Once a year there was a special feast of trumpets: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation... It is a day of blowing of trumpets” (Numbers 29:1). This day occurred 10 days before the Day of Atonement (v.7) and reminded the people that this solemn day was at hand.

[7] The throne is often a symbol of judgment, for example, Psalm 11:4-6, 97:2,3, Proverbs 20:8, Isaiah 16:5, Matthew 25:31-46, 1 Kings 7:7, 10:9.

[8] Daniel saw the thrones being “put in place,” whereas John saw the court already seated (Revelation 4:3, 4). The throne was surrounded by witnesses, angels numbering “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” in both scenes (Revelation 5:11, Daniel 7:10). In Daniel 7 this court takes place before the second coming of Christ, while enemy powers are still warring against God’s people.

[9] This scene, which takes place after the 1000 year millennium, is different from chapter 4-7 which is the judging of those “who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:7). This later judgment is of those “whose names have not been written in the Book of Life” (Revelation 13:8).

[10] “The Lord is in His holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men... For the lord is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright” Psalms 11:4-7. This one “judgment” passage contains three of the symbols of Revelation 4: the temple, the throne in heaven, and eyes, and has to do with distinguishing the righteous from the wicked, the same theme of Revelation 4-7. See also 2 Samuel 22:28, Psalms 33:13, Proverbs 5:21, 15:3, 1 Kings 14:22, 15:11, 2 Chronicles 12:7, Isaiah 59:15, Ezekiel 8:12, 9:9.

[11] Representative of these chapters are the following: “Son of man, do you see what they are doing…now turn again, you will see greater abominations…Go in and see the wicked abominations which they are doing…have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel do in the dark…they say, ‘the Lord does not see us….therefore I also will act in fury. My eye will not spare nor will I have pity….Go through the midst of the city, put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it….utterly slay old and young…but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark” “I will judge you according to your ways, and I will repay you for all your abominations” (Ezekiel 8:5-9:6, 7:8).