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REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE - Chapter 4 - Verse 7

Verse 7. And the first beast was like a lion. A general description has been given, applicable to all, denoting that in whatever form the Divine government is administered, these things will be found; a particular description now follows, contemplating that government under particular aspects, as symbolized by the living beings on which the throne rests. The first is that of a lion. The lion is the monarch of the woods, the king of beasts, and he becomes thus the emblem of dominion, of authority, of government in general. Compare Ge 49:9; Am 3:8; Joe 3:16; Da 7:4.

As emblematic of the Divine administration, this would signify that He who sits on the throne is the ruler over all, and that his dominion is absolute and entire. It has been made a question whether the whole body had the form of a lion, or whether it had the appearance of a lion only as to its face or front part. It would seem probable that the latter only is intended, for it is expressly said of the "third beast" that it had "the face of a man," implying that it did not resemble a man in other respects; and it is probable that, as these living creatures were the supports of the throne, they had the same form in all other particulars except the front part. The writer has not informed us what was the appearance of these living creatures in other respects, but it is most natural to suppose that it was in the form of an ox, as being adapted to sustain a burden. It is hardly necessary to say that the thing supposed to be symbolical here in the government of God—his absolute rule—actually exists, or that it is important that this should be fairly exhibited to men.

And the second beast was like a calf. or, more properly, a young bullock, for so the word (moscov) means. The term is given by Herodotus (ii. 41; iii. 28) to the Egyptian god Apis, that is, a young bullock. Such an emblem, standing under a throne as one of its supports, would symbolize firmness, endurance, strength, (compare Pr 14:4) and, as used to represent qualities pertaining to him who sat on the throne, would denote stability, firmness, perseverance: qualities that are found abundantly in the Divine administration. There was clearly, in the apprehension of the ancients, some natural fitness or propriety in such an emblem. A young bullock was worshipped in Egypt as a god. Jeroboam set up two idols in the form of a calf, the one in Dan and the other in Bethel, 1 Ki 12:28-29. A similar object of worship was found in the Indian, Greek, and Scandinavian mythologies, and the image appears to have been adopted early and extensively to represent the divinity. A description of a calf-idol from the collection made by the artists of the French Institute at Cairo:

It is recumbent, with human eyes, the skin flesh-coloured, and the whole afterparts covered with a white and sky-blue drapery: the horns not on the head, but above it, and containing within them the symbolical globe surmounted by two feathers.

For some cause, the calf was regarded as an emblem of the divinity. It may illustrate this, also, to remark that among the sculptures found by Mr. Layard, in the ruins of Nineveh, were not a few winged bulls, some of them of large structure, and probably all of them emblematic. One of these was removed with great difficulty, to be deposited in the British Museum. See Mr. Layard's "Nineveh and its Remains," vol. 2 pp. 64—75. Such emblems were common in the East; and, being thus common, they would be readily understood in the time of John.

And the third beast had a face as a man. There is no intimation as to what was the form of the remaining portion of this living creature; but as the beasts were "in the midst of the throne," that is, under it as a support, it may be presumed that they had such a form as was adapted to that purpose—as supposed above, perhaps the form of an ox. To this living creature there was attached the head of a man, and that would be what would be particularly visible to one looking on the throne. The aspect of a man here would denote intelligence—for it is this which distinguishes man from the creation beneath him; and, if the explanation of the symbol above given be correct, then the meaning of this emblem is, that the operations of the government of God are conducted with intelligence and wisdom. That is, the Divine administration is not the result of blind fate or chance; it is founded on a clear knowledge of things, on what is best to be done, on what will most conduce to the common good. Of the truth of this there can be no doubt; and there was a propriety that in a vision designed to give to man a view of the government of the Almighty, this should be appropriately symbolized. It may illustrate this to observe, that in ancient sculptures it was common to unite the head of a man with the figure of an animal, as combining symbols. Among the most remarkable figures discovered by Mr. Layard, in the ruins of Nineveh, were winged, human-headed lions. These lions are thus described by Mr. Layard:—"They were about twelve feet in height, and the same number in length. The body and limbs were admirably portrayed; the muscles and bones, although strongly developed, to display the strength of the animal, showed, at the same time, a correct knowledge of its anatomy and form. Expanded wings sprung from the shoulder and spread over the back; a knotted girdle, ending in tassels, encircled the loins. These sculptures, forming an entrance, were partly in full, and partly in relief. The head and forepart, facing the chambers, were in full; but only one side of the rest of the slab was sculptured, the back being placed against the wall of sun-dried bricks."—Nineveh and its Remains, vol. i. p. 75. The head, indicating intelligence, and the wings denoting rapidity. On the use of these figures, found in the ruins of Nineveh, Mr. Layard makes the following sensible remarks—remarks admirably illustrating the view which I take of the symbols before us: "I used to contemplate for hours these mysterious emblems, and muse over their intent and history. What more noble forms could have ushered the people into the temple of their gods? What more sublime images could have been borrowed from nature by men who sought, unaided by the light of revealed religion, to embody their conceptions of the wisdom, power, and ubiquity of a Supreme Being? They could find no better type of intellect and knowledge than the head of a man; of strength, than the body of the lion; of rapidity of motion, than the wings of a bird. These winged, human-headed lions were not idle creations, the offspring of mere fancy; their meaning was written upon them. They had awed and instructed races which flourished 3000 years ago. Through the portals which they guarded, kings, priests, and warriors had borne sacrifices to their altars, long before the wisdom of the East had penetrated into Greece, and had furnished its mythology with symbols long recognised by the Assyrian votaries."— Nineveh and its Remains, i. 75, 76.

And the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. All birds, indeed, fly; but the epithet flying is here employed to add intensity to the description. The eagle, is distinguished, among the feathered race, for the rapidity, the power, and the elevation of its flight. No other bird is supposed to fly so high; none ascends with so much power; none is so majestic and grand in his ascent towards the sun. That which would be properly symbolized by this would be the rapidity with which the commands of God are executed; or this characteristic of the Divine government, that the purposes of God are carried into prompt execution. There is, as it were, a vigorous, powerful, and rapid flight towards the accomplishment of the designs of God—as the eagle ascends unmolested towards the sun. Or, it may be that this symbolizes protecting care, or is an emblem of that protection which God, by his providence, extends over those who put their trust in him. Thus in Ex 19:4: "Ye have seen how I bare you on eagles' wings." Ps 17:8: "Hide me under the shadow of thy wings." Ps 63:7: "In the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice." De 32:11-12: "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead him," etc. As in the case of the other living beings, so it is to be remarked of the fourth living creature also, that the form of the body is unknown. There is no impropriety in supposing that it is only its front aspect that John here speaks of, for that was sufficient for the symbol. The remaining portion "in the midst of the throne" may have corresponded with that of the other living beings, as being adapted to a support. In further illustration of this it may be remarked, that symbols of this description were common in the Oriental world. Figures in the human form, or in the form of animals, with the head of an eagle or a vulture, are found in the ruins of Nineveh, and were undoubtedly designed to be symbolic. "On the earliest Assyrian monuments," says Mr. Layard, (Nineveh and its Remains, ii. 348, 349,) "one of the most prominent sacred types is the eagle-headed, or the vulture- headed, human figure. Not only is it found in colossal proportions on the walls, or guarding the portals of the chambers, but it is also constantly represented in the groups on the embroidered robes. When thus introduced, it is generally seen contending with other mythic animals—such as the human-headed lion or bull; and in these contests it is always the conqueror. It may hence be inferred that it was a type of the Supreme Deity, or of one of his principal attributes. A fragment of the Zoroastrian oracles, preserved by Eusebius, declares that 'God is he that has the head of a hawk. He is the first, indestructible, eternal, unbegotten, indivisible, dissimilar; the dispenser of all good; incorruptible; the best of the good, the wisest of the wise; he is the father of equity and justice, self-taught, physical and perfect, and wise, and the only inventor of the sacred philosophy." Sometimes the head of this bird is added to the body of a lion. Under this form of the Egyptian hieraco-sphinx it is the conqueror in combats with other symbolical figures, and is frequently represented as striking down a gazelle or wild goat. It also clearly resembles the gryphon of the Greek mythology, avowedly an eastern symbol, and connected with Apollo, or with the sun, of which the Assyrian form was probably an emblem." If these views of the meaning of these symbols are correct, then the idea which would be conveyed to the mind of John, and the idea, therefore, which should be conveyed to our minds, is, that the government of God is energetic, firm, intelligent, and that in the execution of its purposes it is rapid like the unobstructed flight of an eagle, or protective like the care of the eagle for its young. When, in the subsequent parts of the vision, these living creatures are represented as offering praise and adoration to Him that sits on the throne, (Re 4:8; 5:8,14) the meaning would be, in accordance with this representation, that all the acts of Divine government do, as if they were personified, unite in the praise which the redeemed and the angels ascribe to God. All living things, and all acts of the Almighty, conspire to proclaim his glory. The church, by her representatives, the "four and twenty elders," honours God; the angels, without number, unite in the praise; all creatures in heaven, in earth, under the earth, and in the sea, (Re 5:13) join in the song; and all the acts and ways of God declare also his majesty and glory: for around his throne, and beneath his throne, are expressive symbols of the firmness, energy, intelligence, and power with which his government is administered.

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