And Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal; and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind. And the first living creature was like a lion, and the second living creature was like a calf, and the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within. And they do not rest day and night, saying ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:6-8).

These living creatures are the same as the ones the prophet Ezekiel saw surrounding the mobile throne of God (Ezekiel 1:5-14).[1] The creatures accompanied the Lord as he took Ezekiel on an “investigative tour” of God’s people. “He said to me, ‘Son of man, do you see what they are doing…Go in, and see'…Then He said to me, "Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel do…Have you seen this, O son of man? Turn again, you will see greater abominations than these." (Ezekiel 8:6,9,12,15). In Revelation 6 these same creatures use similar language, “Come and see” as four horses and riders come into view (Revelation 6:1,3,5,7). The fact that these creatures are “full of eyes” indicates that they are involved in the judgment.[2] Ezekiel identifies them as cherubim, a category of angels (Ezekiel 10:20). These living creatures appear repeatedly in the book of Revelation[3] and the context always has to do with judgment.

Jewish tradition holds that the faces of these four creatures were the same as those on the standards[4] (“flags”) of the 4 leader tribes of Israel as they camped around the sanctuary in the wilderness (as recorded in Numbers 2).[5] A study of these standards and the tribes associated with them gives some interesting keys for understanding Revelation 6—the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse”—because each of the horses with their riders are introduced by one of the living creatures.

When the children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt and camped in the desert, God directed that “the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, everyone by his own camp, everyone by his own standard, according to their armies” (Numbers1:52). The Levites camped in the middle, around the sanctuary (v. 53), while the tribes were camped around in four groups of 3 tribes apiece.[6] Each of the groups of 3 tribes had a leader tribe (Judah, Ephraim, Reuben and Dan). Each group had a direction (north, south, east and west) from the sanctuary where they camped, and these directions have prophetic significance.[7] Each leader tribe had a standard (flag) that they camped under, which according to tradition had one of the faces of the four living creatures. The assignment of the faces by Jewish tradition (lion-Judah, man-Reuben, ox-Ephraim, eagle-Dan) can also be deduced by comparing the tribal characteristics that are found in Genesis 49[8] and elsewhere with the symbolic characteristics of the creatures themselves. Each creature symbolizes a characteristic of God: the lion represents His power and sovereignty, the calf or ox His self-sacrificing mercy, the man symbolizes His righteousness (as seen in the humanity of Christ) and the eagle His swift justice.[9] In chapter 6 each creature with its specific characteristic introduces the judgment of people who are divided into “tribes” (categories) according to how they have responded to God.

Continue to next section: THE FOUR TRIBES

[1] In Revelation the creatures are each depicted with one face, but this emphasizes just one aspect of their role as representatives of the angels and guardians of the holiness of the universe. Ezekiel saw that each creature actually had all four of the faces, reflecting the eternal attributes of God.

[2] Psalms 11:4-7, 2 Samuel 22:28, 1 Kings 14:22, 15:11. The “eyes of the Lord” have two related functions: to watch and protect His children, and to discern the wickedness of His enemies. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3) “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). “The ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He ponders all his paths. His own iniquities entrap the wicked man, and he is caught in the cords of his sin” (Proverbs 5:21,22).

[3] Revelation 4: 6,8,9, 5: 8,11,14, 6:1-7, 7:11, 8;9, 14:3, 15;7, 19:4

[4] A standard was a banner or ensign used by the tribes of Israel and had the same function as a flag today.

[5] See The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, MD, 1977) vol. 1 p. 576 commentary onb Ezekiel 1:10.

[6] Although there were 12 tribes, the tribe of Joseph was divided into two according to his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, making 13.

[7] The vision of the four creatures in Ezekiel 1 suggests that the directions associated with the creatures is the same as that of the standards in the encampment around the sanctuary in the desert. Ezekiel saw the vision coming from the north (Ezekiel 1:4). Each had a human face in the front (south), the face of a lion on the right side (east), the face of an ox on the left side (west), and the face of an eagle at the back (north)” (Ezekiel 1:10 NLT). These are the same directions associated with the creatures on the tribal standards that is seen in Numbers chapter 2.

[8] The context of the descriptions of the tribes of Israel in Genesis 49 is the end of time, and specifically, what will “befall” them in the judgment, as indicated by the introductory statement, “Jacob called his sons and said, 'Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days” (Genesis 49:1). These are obviously spiritual rather than physical tribes as the literal tribes have been scattered and lost with the exception of the tribe of Judah (the Jews).

[9] The Lion: Genesis 49:8-10, Proverbs 30:30, Hosea 11:10, Revelation 5:5, the Calf: Exodus 29:10, Leviticus 8, 9:8, Leviticus 4:3 13,14, 16:6,11, Numbers 8:8,12, Ezekiel 45:18-20, the Man: Genesis 1:26,27, Ecclesiastes 7:29, Hebrews 2:6-9, the Eagle: Deuteronomy 32:11, Exodus 19:4, Revelation 12:14