Lighting Up the Apocalypse 12: Sitting, Flying, and Falling Down

Revelation 4, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7

Chapters two and three of the Apocalypse concentrate upon the words of the Word of God, though we have seen glimpses also of how He “looks” in John’s vision of him prior to the seven messages, when he turns to “see” the Voice.  The exalted Jesus then proceeded to direct various words of admonition and encouragement to the churches, and to the Church, coupled with glimpses of the reward that awaits those who hear and heed what the Spirit says.  Now, in chapter four, John is taken “further up and further in,” through a door in heaven, to see things that are barely describable. We move from instruction to wonder. Chapter four, though complex, must be taken as a whole:

After this I looked, and behold, a door stood open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, there stood a throne in heaven, with One sitting on the throne. And the Sitting One had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Encircling the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.  From the throne came lightning, and rumblings and thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was, as it were, a sea of glass, like crystal.

And in the midst of the throne, and encircling the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind— the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,   who was and is and is to come!”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the Sitting One on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before the Sitting One on the throne, and worship Him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

“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.”

The scene is full not only images, but of action.  Twice we hear that John is “in the Spirit,” as he “comes up” and beholds what is beyond the door in heaven. In the midst of what is a bewildering mystical kaleidoscope is the Sitting One.  He is the focal point around which all the action turns, from the beginning to the end of the chapter.   He himself is not described except in terms of vivid jewel-like colors.  This reticence to actually describe the Sitting One imparts to the reader a deep reverence, in the same way as Isaiah, in chapter 6, describes the scene of heaven, but not the One upon the throne Himself: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.”  But, as with Isaiah’s vision, we discern something of the character of the Sitting One by the actions and appearance of those whom He superintends.  He sits over all.

John’s vision of the heavenly court blends aspects of Isaiah’ great vision with that of the exiled prophet Ezekiel.  What is most interesting, however, is that in both Isaiah and Ezekiel, the appearance of the heavenly attendants come first—either Isaiah’s two seraphim or Ezekiel’s four cherubim.  John’s vision of the Enthroned One is followed immediately by a vision of 24 elders!  The first place of the elders in Revelation suggests that something has shifted from the time of the prophets to John’s vision, so that humankind takes a place more proximate to God. John, Isaiah, and Ezekiel all emphasize the holiness of God—but with the prophets there seems to be more emphasis upon God’s transcendence, and otherness, because of the attending angels, whereas with the theologian, there is also a keen awareness of God’s new kind of immanence, or concrete presence among us.

Orthodox take note of this at Christmastide, when we sing that the Theotokos, the mother of us all, has supplanted the original “throne of the Cherubim.”  The Incarnation, by which God the Son assumed all that is to be human, has made a place for human beings to sit with Him, on thrones in imitation of the great King, and wearing crowns as an image of His great glory. Their thrones are given, of course, and have not eternally stood; their crowns are granted as a reward, and not theirs by natural right.  But the twenty-four sit there, representing glorified humanity in its fullness, the righteous and redeemed of the old and new covenants (twelve tribes, twelve apostles!)  Besides this, their white priestly garments express their God-given role to intercede for the rest of the creation—the original task of humanity was to care for God’s creation, to be “priests,” offering all back to God in thanksgiving, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes it in For the Life of the World.  Where folk-lore might have expected that immediately after the throne we would see the angelic host, instead we find glorified human representatives! This striking detail tells us something about the mysterious One on the throne—He encompasses what it is to be human, and has communion with His creation.  They sit with Him.

But the other-worldly attendants still have their role.  Next we hear that the Sitting One is encircled by four creatures whose characteristic is to have life (they are living creatures) and who fly around the throne, always chanting the glory of the Sitting One. Isaiah’s seraphim are remarkable for their six wings, four for covering, and two for flying. Ezekiel’s living creatures are remarkable for their agility, their mystery, their all-seeing eyes, and their representation of the whole of the created order, including humanity.  What John sees combines the seraphim and cherubim, as the four living creatures superintend the worship of those around the throne.  They are strange, with six wings, but familiar, with a make-up that reflects our world.

These worship ceaselessly, like Isaiah’s seraphim, but the chant has slightly changed.  Before Isaiah’s eyes, two sang antiphonally, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” John’s eyes see four strange creatures (as did Ezekiel), and his ears hear instead, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God Almighty who was and is and is to come!” The prophet Isaiah, on seeing his vision, was simultaneously reminded of the otherness, the holiness of God, and of His startling presence in the world—His mysterious transcendence, and His glorious presence everywhere.  Ezekiel received the same deep message, as the cherubim, enthroning the all-holy God, “bore” Him to the exiles in their sadness.  The apostle knows even more about this same God, and so hears the thrice-holy song addressed to the LORD of all the heavenly hosts (now comprised of angels and humans).  And the chant that he hears concerns the One who is the great I AM, who has come, and is coming again, into our world.  Isaiah and Ezekiel perceived God’s limitless presence in heaven and on earth; John knows more specifically of how the living One has deeply visited us, and how He has promised to come again.  The Sitting One, with His sitting human attendants, is hymned by these mysterious living ones with wings, who tell of the God who IS, and who makes all time significant.  They fly and they chant.  And whenever they sing of God’s utter independence, yet deep involvement in our world, the elders respond.

It has been granted to the elders to sit near the great throne, adorned with crowns—but now, they respond and fall prostrate before the only rightful Sitting One, and cast down their decorations.  He alone is worthy. Old Testament visions of the enthroned One speak about giving glory and honor to God; John’s vision of worship adds to this “thanksgiving,” eucharistia —“And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the Sitting One on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down…and worship.”  They sit, but then they fall prostrate, in adoration of the One who has done so much for them.

 

The song that the twenty-four sing implies the theme of thanksgiving. It is, of course, the creation itself that leads them to give thanks.  God is worthy of praise because He is the Creator of all: “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.”  Here, the twenty-four echo a number of Psalms in the OT which give reasons for why we praise and thank God.  This reasonable worship is one of the hallmarks of our faith. We do not simply mindlessly pay homage to a divine Autocrat. OT scholar Walter Brueggemann speaks of the distinction between pagan worship, which simply adduces all the qualities of the terrifying gods, and the Psalms, which invite us to contemplate WHY our God is to be thanked and praised. We do not offer praises without understanding!  Rather, as the Liturgy says, we are “reasonable sheep” whom He has created for communion with Himself, and who have innumerable reasons for our worship.  Foundational to our gratitude is the gift of life itself—we exist because we were created, not randomly, but by the will of the One who Is.

The major theme of chapter four’s vision and worship, then, is God the Creator. This Sitting One has granted to His human creatures the right to sit, but also the grace to fall down as they see and hear the flying angelic hosts.  Some have assumed that chapter four is about the Father, and then that we go on in chapter five to concentrate upon Jesus, the Lamb.  However, as Trinitarian Christians, we are in a position to see that John does not divide the holy Persons in this way.  He, like we, knows that the Father is the Creator, through the Son all things were made, and that the Holy Spirit is the giver of life.

After all, he has already has introduced us in chapter 1 to the “Son of Man,” in a description that combines characteristics of both Daniel’s Son of Man (Dan 7) and the “Ancient of Days” to whom this Son of Man ascends. Unlike Ezekiel 1, John does not move on in chapter four from a description of the cherubim to a detailed description of the One upon the throne.  But we have a glimpse who this great One is through those who worship Him—the twenty-four, and the four creatures, who have humanity and creation imprinted upon their beings. We may not yet clearly see Who on the throne, but we hear in the hymn that He is the One who created, Who IS, who has come, and who will come.  He is the One who wills to be attended by humans as well as by angels.  He is the One who gleams forth in jasper, carnelian, and rainbow-emerald—the holiness of the Father, the assumed humanity of the Son, and the enlightening and life-giving variety of the Holy Spirit (represented in the seven torches adjacent to the throne).  We will perceive more about this One in the ensuing vision of the Lion-Lamb.   Thanks be to our triune God for the many ways that He shows Himself, and for His servant, John, through whom we may see this astonishing vision of sitting, flying, and falling down, and take our place there.

 

 

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