Meaning of the FOUR FACES of the FOUR living creatures
The four living creatures in Rev 4: 6, 8 are not often referred to as angels although they have characteristics of angels. They are super-beings identified with the throne of God, and once with the tree of life in Eden (3: 24). They appeared in Ezekiel’s vision of the throne of God as Cherubims (Ezekiel 1:5–11, 15, 20; 10:12, 14–15). Isaiah identified them as Seraphim (Is 6: 2-3). Their roles look like guardians of the throne, and more importantly, proclaiming the holiness of God (Is 6: 3; Rev 4: 8). Of particular interest are their faces as described by Ezekiel and John (lion, ox, man, and flying eagle). What is the meaning of the faces?
First, look at the throne through the lens of Semitic socio-religious and political traditions. Contextually, the vision of these beings occurred in the heavenly sanctuary. So, we won’t look any farther. An allusion is made to Moses when he was instructed to make figures of cherubims to spread their wings over the mercy seat (Ex 25: 18-22; cf. 1 Kgs 6). Not so much information is given about their appearance.
Second, the four faces are familiar among Jews. According to Number 2; 10: 11-25, the encampment of Israel were divided into FOUR divisions “under their banner (Hebrew דֶּגֶל “dě·ḡěl”)” around the TABERNACLE. Commentaries explain the standards or banners this way:
“The degas (Hebrew), “standard,” was the large field sign that belonged to each division of three tribes, and was also the banner of the tribe at the head of that division. The oth, “ensign,” was the small flag or banner that was carried at the head of each tribe and of each subdivision of a tribe.” (Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (1998). Manners & customs of the Bible (p. 163). North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.)
“The Hebrew term used here, oth (also meaning “sign”), likely refers to an insignia, perhaps comparable to a family crest, unique to each tribe. Since Moses characterizes each tribe in a particular fashion (Deut 33), it is likely that certain symbols were associated with each individual group.” (Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Nu 2:2). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)
“Standards were visible signs of a certain recognized form for directing the movements of large bodies of people. As the Israelites were commanded to encamp “each by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house,” the direction has been considered as implying that they possessed three varieties: (1) the great tribal standards, which served as rallying points for the twelve large clans of the people; (2) the standards of the subdivided portions; and, (3) those of families or houses.” (Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 95). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.)
The Four divisions and their totemic symbols are the following:
Judah on the East (Lion)—Isachar, Zebulon
Reuben on the South (Man)—Simeon, Gad
Ephraim on the West (Ox)—Manaseh, Benjamin
Dan on the North (Flying eagle holding a serpent)—Asher, Naphtali (Jewish tradition says the emblem of Dan was changed from a snake to a flying eagle)
The concept of the encampment of Israel around the TABERNACLE parallels the FOUR living creatures AROUND THE THRONE. We are here given the reason why the four living beings worship God and proclaim His holiness in the same manner Israel was to worship God and to be holy to Him (Lev 11: 44, 45; 19: 19: 2; 20: 26). But their significance is deeper than that. The faces of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders are used symbolically to highlight the Judeo-Christian concept of the redeemed in the book of Revelation: the 144,000 (Jewish) and the multitude from all nations (Gentile nations). See my article “The recipients of the book of Revelation” for further clarification.
Mathew Henry makes allusion of the encampment to the preaching of the gospel thus: “These were of use for the distinction of tribes and families, and the gathering and keeping of them together, in allusion to which the preaching of the gospel is said to lift up an ensign, to which the Gentiles shall seek, and by which they shall pitch, Isa. 11:10, 12.” (Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 188). Peabody: Hendrickson.)
One last exciting analogy, if you arrange the divisions by the number and order of their encampment, you’ll get an image of the CROSS. REVELATION CHAPTERS FOUR AND FIVE FOCUSES ON THE SLAIN LAMB WHO IS WORTHY!!! We once again come back to the REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST.
In another article, I will show how Revelation chapter four is an architectural concept of the New Jerusalem.