I looked, and I saw a violent storm coming out of the north – an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead, they did not turn as they moved.
Their faces looked like this: each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upwards, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
In this study we will see what we can learn from the appearance of these creatures in the vision.
These really are strange creatures, seemingly born out of fire. Although the holy glory of God, from which they appear to come, would certainly explain the great brightness and the effect on the atmosphere.
I found myself thinking about the four faces that the creatures have. Their human form and human face is not too unexpected. Angels have human form, and in one part of scripture we are told that people may have entertained angels completely unaware of the fact that they were angels (which brings into question the depiction of angels as always having wings). We are also told that we are made in the image of god, and so should not be surprised too much at something similar for all the higher created beings.
So, to take that analogy, coming from scripture itself, the human face can be said to show that these creatures represent god. But the heads of these creatures were not human heads. On the right of the human face was that of a lion.
This face of a lion made me think of the Lion of Judah. There is a lot of meaning that can be gathered from this. Not least of which is that the lion was the symbol for the tribe of Judah. It is from this tribe that the kings of the Hebrews were selected – both Saul and David were of the tribe of Judah. And so, because of this, you need to take care when the bible refers to Judah, especially in the prophets. Sometimes it can refer to the tribe. Sometimes it refers to the kings. Sometimes it refers to the future king – Jesus (more on this later). And sometimes it refers to all of the Hebrews. Why? Because the king is the ultimate representative for the whole nation, and the king was also of Judah.
So to speak of Judah could also be to speak of the whole nation. This is what it has become today – because today we speak about the Jews, meaning all those of Judaism and their relatives worldwide, and the citizens of the nation of Israel. But this word ‘Jew’ is derived from the name ‘Judah.’ And so it is today that Judah really does represent all Hebrews.
But there is more to be seen here. One title that was used of the king David was the Lion of the tribe of Judah. But in Revelations, this same title is applied to king Jesus. And for all true Christians, the Lord our Father sees us as being in Jesus. So this face, in one sense, represents all the people who are the Lord’s, because Judah can refer to all the Hebrews – god’s chosen people; and the Lion of Judah can refer to Jesus, in whom is all those who were saved through his sacrifice on the cross.
And yet there is even more. We are told that King Jesus was called to be at God’s right hand. This has a very special significance. When a ruler or a general called someone to be at their right hand, this was a very special honour. It was declaring the other to be an equal. Now take a moment for this to sink in for a while. This is a pre-incarnation vision that shows that the Lion of Judah is honoured as equal in status to the Most High.
And think of what the significance of this was for the exiled Hebrews who were considering themselves as despised by God. Here was an indication that he still thought of them as his chosen people and that they were in a place of honour with Him. This is symbolically the very opposite of rejection.
The symbolism of the face to the left was harder to work out – that of an ox. The word that came to me while meditating on this was ‘sacrifice.’ That the Lord was going to redeem all to himself through sacrifice. It was not only lambs that could be offered for sacrifice, or doves. An ox was also acceptable.
So as I thought about this, I began to wonder if the strange heads of these four living creatures were a kind of representation of the gospel message.
Out of all the kinds of creatures that could be owned by any individual of the Hebrews, the ox would be the most valuable. Again think about that for a moment, and how it adds to the meaning of the killing of the fatted calf in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The ox is also the strength that was used in the farming of the ancient world, and is still used as such in many places today. So by the power of the ox comes cultivation, and the increase of wealth and prosperity. In the spiritual sense, this also represents spiritual power or strength, the ability to overcome things and to make strong.
That would certainly be a very powerful symbol to the captured Hebrews in the land of the Babylonians. Their position seemed to be a poor one, without hope of change. But the Lord was showing that he had the power to change things, to break the hard ground like the plough that is pulled by the ox. He has plans in place to prosper them, and he has not forgotten them.
In the same way, for us today, the Lord is revealed in strength. There is nothing in your life that is too great for the Lord. He has plans to prosper you.
Finally we have the face of the eagle. The eagle, of course, is known for soaring at high altitude, higher than all other birds, and to have the eyesight keen enough to spot and identify its pray from such a great distance. The eagle has always been a symbol for the watchfulness of God, how he sees all and that nothing goes without his noticing it.
Being watched was very much a part of the ancient cultures in a way that is almost forgotten today. The all-seeing eye is one of the most pervasive symbols of the ancient Egyptian culture, and with it the knowledge that their gods were weighing the deeds of men and kings. The same idea existed in the Roman/Greek culture, but with a much more negative slant to it. They called this the ‘evil eye’ and there was a lot of superstition surrounding the idea of avoiding the gaze of the evil eye. To this end, they built their villas as a square with an inner courtyard. Any windows would only open on this inner courtyard, and there would be a walkway around the edge covered over – all in an attempt, even through architecture, to avoid the evil eye.
Certainly there could be seen to be the message from this symbolism that the Lord sees his people, he knows what is going on. He is aware of where they are and what their plight is. And this, literally, with eyes in the back of his head – as if to emphasise the fact that he misses nothing.
There is the slightly scary aspect of the eagle – when it has spotted it’s prey, it tucks in it’s wings and shoots down from the sky at great speed. So to see the symbol of the eagle is also to see that change can come quickly, and unexpectedly. It also reveals that the power of life and death is in the hands of God.
Some commentators indicate that the eagle represents rationality, that the Lord has his people in mind and is making His plans. I am not sure how much I would agree with this, from the sense that the Lord is outside of time and so already sees everything that has happened, is happening now, and will happen in the future. All his plans were already in place before the act of creation even began.So in terms of rationality, I would think that this was only to emphasise that God understands the situation, knows how the people feel, and so on.
There was also the ancient belief that the eagle had the power to look into the sun, and so there was the feeling that the eagle also represented the ability to see the face of God. It was like these living creatures were saying, by their appearance, we have seen God – and He is glorious! Holy and lifted up! And we come from Him to you, to let you know that He is still with you and has not forgotten you.
So, to sum up, we can see, just through the symbolism of the four faces of the living creatures, that they come to represent a visitation from God. They reveal that the Lion of Judah is in the place of honour, treated as though equal with the Most high – and that this symbol includes all those in god’s chosen people, or all those in Christ. We have the symbol of the ox, showing that the Lord can redeem all things through sacrifice. The ox also reveals the strength to deal with all things, breaking up the hard ground, providing fertility and so to bring prosperity. You will not be left in a desperate situation, because the will of the Lord is to prosper you. And finally that the Lord sees all from His lofty throne, and that He can intervene quickly on the earth at any time, and probably when you least expect it. He knows the situation, he sees all, and he will intervene to change things.
These things can all mean different things to different people. It all depends what is going on in your life at the time that you are reading these things. But these four faces tell us much about God Himself, and what He wants to reveal of himself to you, and how he has plans for you.