The twenty-four elders in the
Revelation of John / William Barclay’s interpretation.
The twenty-four elders in the
Revelation of John / Fritz Grünzweig’s interpretation.
The twenty-four elders in the Revelation of John
/ John F. Walfoord and Roy B. Zuck’s interpretation.
The twenty-four elders in the Revelation
of John / Peter Ketter’s interpretation.
The twenty-four elders in the Revelation
of John / Adolf Pohl’s interpretation.
The judgment of God.
The righteousness of God.
The throne of God.
The four living creatures.
The 24 elders in the Revelation of John. / Interpretation by
The eternal existence of every human being.
Table: The earths linguistic families.
In the last two years the question has frequently been raised at Immanuel.at’s
discussion forum as to what group of persons is actually represented by the twenty-four elders in
the Revelation of John. Some commentators take the view that the elders are to be seen as the “totality
of all the faithful” or as “symbolizing the congregation of all the time”, and this view has
achieved wide circulation. This interpretation cannot, however, be reconciled with the text of
Scripture as it is presented to us in Revelation. Although I have indicated my position in several
Discourses already, there has not so far been any concrete analysis such as would demonstrate the
correctness of this assertion, so that is what I would like to provide here. I hope that the
extracts from other commentators’ attempts to elucidate this point which I quote below will give
readers who are not so familiar with the subject the opportunity of forming a picture of the broad
range of opinions and the degree of their objective relevance.
(Texts in a black frame are quotations from visitors to this site or from other authors.)
1. In the Old Testament we find indications of a kind of heavenly consistory.
The prophet sees God sitting on his throne, with the whole heavenly host accompanying him on his
right or left hand (1Ki 22,19). In the Book of Job the sons of God present themselves to the
Lord (Job 1,6; 2,1). Isaiah speaks of God as a king who reigns in glory before his elders (Isa
24,23). In the story of the Fall, man is accused by God of having eaten the fruit of the
forbidden tree and - in a somewhat peculiar turn of phrase - having “become like one of Us”
(Gen 3,22). It is a very ancient idea that God is surrounded by a heavenly council. Perhaps the
twenty-four elders have something to do with this.
2. At the time of the Babylonian Exile it was unavoidable that the Jews should come into contact with the dominant ideas of Babylonian thought. It is thus altogether possible that Babylonian conceptions should at times have infiltrated their thinking, especially when the starting point showed a certain similarity. For instance, twenty-four gods of the stars were known to the Babylonians and were worshiped by them. The power of the stars was an integral part of the Babylonian religious imagination. It is thought that these twenty-four stellar divinities of Babylonian thinking could have evolved with the Jews into twenty-four angels who stand around the throne of God, and that the elders represent these angels.
3. We come now to explanations which in our view are a great deal more probable. In Israel there were so many priests that it was impossible that they could all serve in the Temple at the same time. Consequently they were divided into twenty-four divisions, as the Old Testament tells us (1Chr 24,1-18). The highest ranking of these were known as the elders of the priests. At times they were also known as the officers of the sanctuary and the officers of God (1Chr 24,5). It is thought that the twenty-four elders could symbolize the twenty-four divisions of the priests, who bring the prayers of the saints before God (Rev 5,8), seeing that precisely this forms part of the task of the priests. In the same way the Levites too were divided into twenty-four divisions, in order to praise God as singers with harps, cymbals and lyres (1Chr 25,1-31). The elders in Revelation also have harps (Rev 5,8). So on this account the twenty-four elders could be the heavenly equivalent of the priests and singers involved in the worship of the Jerusalem Temple. The latter would then be an analog of the perfect worship of God in heaven, of which all divine service on earth is only a pale reflection.
4. It has also been suggested that the twenty-four elders might represent the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles. The names of the twelve patriarchs are written in the holy city, New Jerusalem, on the twelve gates, and the names of the twelve apostles are written on the foundation stones of the wall. The patriarchs and apostles are the foundation on which the church is based, so it is altogether plausible that the twenty-four elders should represent them.
5. The most likely of all theories, in our opinion, is that the twenty-four elders are to be taken as a symbol of those who remain faithful to God. The white garments are promised to those who overcome (Rev 3,4), and those who are faithful unto death will receive the crown (Gk. ‘stephanos’) of life (Rev 2,10). Those who leave everything to follow Jesus will one day sit upon a heavenly throne (Mt 19,27-29). All we are told about the twenty-four elders fits well with the promises that are made to the faithful followers of Jesus. But why the number twenty-four? Here we can draw on what is accurate about the explanation that would like to see the twenty-four elders as equivalent to the patriarchs and apostles. Because the congregation consists of both Jews and Gentiles, this gives us the figure of twenty-four. While there were twelve tribes originally, here their number has doubled, as Jews and Gentiles together belong to the Kingdom of God. The twenty-four elders thus embody the church in its totality. We must remember that what we have here is a vision, a showing of what is to come about, not a representation of what already is. And so the twenty-four elders stand for the entire congregation, who one day will give praise and worship to the living God in his glory.
(*This extract has been taken from the book “Revelation of John I” (p 163 ff) by William Barclay.)
Point 1) Seeing that this point calls for a rather extensive commentary, it will be
treated below, following point 5.
Point 2) In advancing the supposition that the Jews might at that time have adopted the twenty-four stellar gods of the Babylonians and transmogrified them into twenty-four angels, Mr Barclay overlooks the fact that the Book of Revelation is not an invention of John’s, but - for believing Christians at least - a revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, which was given him by the Father (Rev 1,1). And the Almighty is not dependent on any ‘part of the Babylonian religious imagination’ in order to reveal to his Son his plan of salvation for the human race. It follows, on the basis of these statements, that the book cannot include any merely human misconceptions of any kind whatsoever.
Point 3) An interpretation of the twenty-four elders as a symbol of the twenty-four priestly divisions in Old Testament Judaism would fall far short. These twenty-four divisions are a classification that applies to Israel in the time of the Old Testament; the future heavenly order will not be based on any such human classifications. Nor can we reasonably expect to meet with an exclusively Jewish tradition in eternity (unlike the Millennial Kingdom of Peace on earth).
Point 4) The interpretation that sees the elders as representing the patriarchs and the apostles has something to be said for it. However, this view is questioned - not altogether unjustifiably - by another commentator, Peter Ketter, quoted below. This view would entail John’s seeing himself in the vision, as a resurrected apostle, which does not seem terribly likely.
Point 5) This variant, where the twenty-four elders are seen as symbolizing those who remain faithful to God, does indeed seem a close approach to a solution, and so is very widespread in Christian circles. But unfortunately the author has made a blatant error in his reference to Mt 19,27-19. These verses do not state that “Those who leave everything to follow Jesus will one day sit upon a heavenly throne” - rather, the Lord here promises to the twelve apostles, and to them exclusively, that “in the regeneration” (i.e. in the General Resurrection at the end of the world) they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. It is likewise easy to refute this conflation of Jews and Gentiles - and so of the patriarchs and the twelve apostles - in the congregation of all time. Not only that the apostles were also Jews is every Jew who comes to believe in Jesus Christ a Jew by birth, but in faith he is a Christian. And just like all other Christians of all nations, he too is a part of the Christian congregation, and so has at the judgment nothing more to do with the faith of Moses or with the twelve patriarchs - or indeed with the twelve apostles, who as we are told will judge the Israelites of the Mosaic dispensation. What is more, in the Christian faith the Jew is saved, but according to the traditional (not the biblical!!) faith of Moses, on the basis of which he is strictly bound to refuse to recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his own Messiah, he is eternally lost.
No one comes to the Father but through Me.
Jn 14,6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me". Jn 14, 6;
Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father.
1Jn 2,23 Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father;
the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. 1Jn 2,23;
(See also Chapter 13: “The Last Judgment.”)
Point 1) Here we find a reference to Isa 24,23, which likewise mentions certain elders, before whom the Lord of Hosts rules in his glory on Mount Zion. If we examine the context of this passage, it is easy to recognize that when “that day” is referred to. what is meant is the Day of the Lord, and the start of the dominion of God in the Temple of Jerusalem in the Millennium. And that means that we are here in that same time of prophecy in which John, in Revelation, sees these twenty-four elders in heaven. We can therefore take it as read, with a high degree of probability, that the two texts are actually referring to the same group of persons. So it isn’t as if this passage just has something to do with the twenty-four elders - these figures quite plainly are the twenty-four elders. But unfortunately that does not bring us any closer to a precise specification of their identity.
For the LORD of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, And His glory will be before His elders.
Isa 24,21 So it will happen in that day, That the LORD will
punish the host of heaven on high, And the kings of the earth on earth. 24,22 They will be gathered
together Like prisoners in the dungeon, And will be confined in prison; And after many days they
will be punished. 24,23 Then the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed, For the LORD of hosts
will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, And His glory will be before His elders. Isa
(See also Chapter 08: “The reorganization of
heaven and earth.”)
The “heavenly host” and the “sons of God” are also suggested as a possible
interpretation of the twenty-four elders. These would be angels, or heavenly beings, and as this
view is advocated by a number of commentators in what follows, we would like here at once to examine
the question whether this kind of approach has any justification in Scripture. It might be extremely
illuminating, in this connection, to compare those attributes associated with the twenty-four elders
(Rev 4,4) with those of the angels.
Essentially, three features can be made out:
- the white garments,
- the victorious crowns and
- the thrones.
White garments do occur in connection with angels (Jn 20,12; Acts 1,10), though in these passages the angels can readily be identified as such - unlike the twenty-four elders. Rev 3,18 as well must be associated with the angel of the congregation of Laodicea. What we are told in Rev 3,4-5 relates, on the other hand, to those who overcome of the congregation of Sardis, and so quite plainly to human beings. Even plainer are the statements we find in Rev 7,13-14:
They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Rev 7,13 Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, "These
who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?" 7,14 I
said to him, "My lord, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones who come out
of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of
the Lamb. Rev 7,13-14;
According to this, the whiteness of the robes is a proof that they have been washed
and made “white in the blood of the Lamb”. And this is an absolutely clear indication that these
are not angels, but resurrected human beings in heaven who have accepted the redeeming sacrifice of
Our Lord for their sins.
And when we consider the crowns, we again find the association with human beings confirmed by the New Testament Epistles. Paul, to begin with, says of himself that an imperishable crown is laid up for him in heaven (1Cor 9,25, Phil 4,1, 2Tim 4,8), and he urges Timothy to “endure hardship” and “fight the good fight” so that he too may receive the victor’s crown (2Tim 2,3-5). Peter likewise writes in his First Epistle to the elders of the congregation that they should shepherd the flock of God “not for sordid gain, but with eagerness”, so that on the Second Coming of the Lord they may receive the victor’s crown (1Pet 5,1-4). And James again promises to those who persevere under trial that they will receive the crown of life (Jam 1,12). The Lord Jesus himself says in the epistle to the church in Smyrna (Rev 2,10) that he will give the crown of life to those who remain faithful unto death, in spite of affliction; and he praises the congregation of Philadelphia (Rev 3,8-11), because they have kept his word and have not denied his name, and urges them to hold fast to what they have, in order that no one take away their crown.
All these statements where a victor’s crown is promised, then, refer to human beings. And the justification for this is always that they have been victorious over human weakness (they have fought the good fight, they have not denied the Lord’s name, they have remained faithful unto death in the time of affliction, they have endured temptation). And “victory” actually seems to be the general significance of this crown in a New Testament context. We find it again in connection with the locusts of the fifth trumpet in Rev 9,7, to whom power is given to hurt men for five months - these creatures have “crowns like gold” on their heads. And then there is the rider on the white horse in Rev 6,2, of whom we are told that he went out “conquering and to conquer” and who, in the interpretation put forward at Immanuel.at, is to be identified with the human Antichrist - to him too a crown is given. And finally, at the “harvest of the earth” in Rev 14,14-15, the Son of Man - that is to say, the Lord Jesus - has a golden crown on his head.
But besides the scriptural passages we have quoted above, the thrones of the twenty-four elders too are a completely unambiguous indication that these are not angels but human beings. Here first of all Scripture refers to the throne of the Almighty, and then in Mt 19,28 we find the glorious throne of Our Lord Jesus Christ, followed in the same verse by the twelve thrones on which the apostles will sit in the regeneration, to judge the twelve tribes of the Mosaic Israel.
In the regeneration you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Mt 19, 28 And Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, that you
who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne,
you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Mt 19,28;
We can draw two conclusions from this:
1. Scripture gives us no reason to suppose that angels or other heavenly beings
should have the distinction of sitting on a heavenly throne.
2. The thrones in heaven are reserved for the Father and for the Son, then too
for the twelve apostles in the “regeneration” - the resurrected apostles, that is to say - and
finally, for the twenty-four elders themselves.
If we now consider that according to Scripture the Father, the Son and the twelve apostles are all judges, the inference suggests itself that the thrones in heaven are a distinguishing mark of the role of judge; so the twenty-four elders as well, like the twelve apostles, must be resurrected human beings who are acting as judges. And this would refute the view that the twenty-four elders could be angels. Angels cannot judge human beings, we are told by Scripture. As Paul writes in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, quite the reverse is true: it will be human beings who judge angels.
Do you not know that we will judge angels?
1Cor 6,2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If
the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? 6,3 Do
you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life? 1Cor 6, 2- 3;
(Texts in a black frame are quotations from visitors to this site or from other authors.)
a) “Around the throne were twenty-four thrones”
(Rev 4, 4): God gives
to those who sit upon them a portion of his power.
b) “And on the throne I saw twenty-four elders sitting”: twelve representatives of the People of God, of the Old Testament and the New Testament respectively. Although the version of the Greek text of Rev 5,9 used by Luther, reading “You have purchased us”, has been superseded by the more authentic “You have purchased men”, which we find in the most ancient Greek manuscripts, all the same this interpretation still seems plausible, seeing that in other passages in Revelation as well the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles have a part to play (Rev 7,4 ff; 21,12.14). We can also point to the twenty-four priestly orders of the Levites in the Old Testament (1Chr 24). It remains an open question whether the elders are perfected human beings or angels. At all events, though, they represent the people of God on earth. Thus they also bring the “incense” of prayer in golden bowls, the prayer of the children of God to God (Rev 5,8).
c) “Clothed in white garments”: this stands for God-given purity, righteousness and holiness, and at the same time it is a reference to the ceremonial robe of priestly service (Lev 6,3; 6,7.13; 16,4; Isa 61,10). We too have the privilege of priestly service, in that we can present our petitions to God. Our priestly garment here is the righteousness that we have in Jesus Christ in the sight of God (1Pet 2,9, 2Cor 5,21, Rev 1,6).
d) “And golden crowns on their heads”: on thrones, and with crowns - this is an indication of their royal office. We too, as believers, have received from Our Lord a share in his royal power (1Pet 2,9, Rev 1,6, 3,21, 22,5). “The petitions of the children of God represent their share in God’s world dominion, even today” (Christof Oetinger). God wants us to enter into communion with him in such a way that he can give us a portion of all that he is, has and does (Rom 8,17). And yet what efforts he must make in order to bring us to this goal (cf. Isa 43,24). Priestly service is directed from the world to God. Kingly service, on the other hand, is directed from God to the world.
(*This extract has been taken from the book “Johannes-Offenbarung 1. Teil” [“The Revelation of John, Part 1” (p 139 ff) by Fritz Grünzweig).
While point a) is one with which we can fully concur - especially in view of the
interpretation advanced here of the twenty-four elders as judges - the actual question whether the
twenty-four angels are men or angels is not really answered helpfully by Mr Grünzweig in his
point b). His reference to Rev 7,4, on the grounds that here as well “the twelve tribes of Israel
and the twelve apostles have a part to play”, breaks down just in view of the circumstance that
this passage actually contains a mention of the twelve tribes of Israel - and only the twelve tribes
of Israel - while the apostles do not figure at all. In Rev 22,12.14, on the other hand, both the
patriarchs and the apostles are mentioned. But seeing that both classes are human beings, it would
be expected, if they are both mentioned in the same breath, that the elders too should be identified
as human. Our author however fails to draw this conclusion: with a lack of logical consistency, he
just states that it is an open question whether we here have to do with human beings or angels. As
far as our analysis goes, we have already clarified this question above, and shown how any
identification of the elders with angels is impossible.
But if we now, in the interest of consistency, want to see the two groups - the apostles and the patriarchs - as constituting a single class, then we are forced, in view of the Lord’s statement in Mt 19,28, to see the patriarchs in the role of judge as well. And then we find ourselves faced with the question who, as Israelites, they are supposed to judge, since Israel, as we know, is to be judged by the apostles, who themselves are of Israel. Mr Grünzweig’s explanation in point c), with reference to the “white garments”, is one that we can only agree with; when the author continues his commentary, on the other hand, he deviates from the topic of the twenty-four elders, for whatever reason - and especially in point d).
(Texts in a black frame are quotations from visitors to this site or from other authors.)
These crowns resemble the crowns that were given to victors in the athletic
competitions of the Ancient Greeks (stephanos - by contrast with the crown or diadem of a
supreme ruler, for which the expression diadema was used). The fact that the elders wear
crowns seem an indication that they have already been judged and rewarded.
>Many speculations have been voiced as to the identity of the elders. Opinions divide into two main groups: (1) the elders represent the congregation, which has been caught up into heaven to receive its reward before the time of the Great Tribulation; and (2) they are angels, to whom an important office has been given. The number 24 is a representative number, as is plain just from the fact that in the Law of Moses there were 24 regulations to which the priests were subject. (...)
The formulation of the song of praise (Rev 5,9-10, FH) lends some support to the view that the twenty-four elders are angels, even if this possibility is not explicitly indicated. Biblical commentators are not unanimous on this point, but it would appear that the elders cannot be angels but rather represent the congregation, seeing that they sit on thrones and wear the victor’s crown. At this point in the fulfillment of the divine plan of salvation angels have not yet been judged or rewarded - but all the same they shortly take up the song of praise in honor of the Lamb, the song that is sung by the elders and the living creatures (5,11-12). The variety of possible interpretations should not obscure our sensibility to the beauty of the image presented here and the miracle that it conveys.
(*This extract has been taken from the book “Das Neue Testament - Offenbarung” [“The New Testament - Revelation”] by John F. Walfoord and Roy B. Zuck, p 584 ff).
Mr Walfoord is here correct in declining to see the twenty-four elders as
angels. On the other hand, when he states that they “represent” the congregation, he too gets
into the territory of symbolism and analogy, without offering any kind of concrete analysis.
(Texts in a black frame are quotations from visitors to this site or from other authors.)
The throne of the All-Highest is surrounded by a royal court that is
worthy of the divine majesty. It is true, of course, that no one can come anywhere near the
glory and dignity of God. All creatures, even the highest, are as nothing beside him. “As a
speck of dust in the scales is the whole world before you, as a drop of dew that at morning
falls upon the earth” (Wisd 11,22). But the Infinite does not want to be enthroned in
unapproachable distance, in shining solitude. And so there are twenty-four thrones in a circle
around him, and the twenty-four elders or presbyters occupy them. These, then, are honorable men
and imbued with princely dignity. Their insignia are the white garment of the priest, at the
same time a sign of enlightenment, and the kingly diadem or crown of victory. The celebrant puts
on white and gold at the high feasts of the Lord. Their office involves not taking part in the
judgment, but rather in paying homage to God (4,10, 5,11, 19,4, etc.). They have a mediating
role between earth and heaven (5,8), and have knowledge of the secrets of heaven (5,5, 7,13 ff).
But who are these veterans around the throne of God? Biblical commentary is still trying to
unravel this riddle.
Two interpretations out of the many in existence have the greatest plausibility, but it is hard to decide which of the two is correct. Many exponents - among them distinguished biblical exegetes - take the twenty-four elders to be angels, and here our first thought would be of the class of angels called “Thrones” (Col 1,16). Their being just twenty-four, however, presents something of a difficulty, and there has been a tendency to derive the number from heathen religious beliefs, as a reference to the twenty-four gods of the stars worshiped by the ancient Babylonians. The high rank of these heavenly attendants on the throne would not be hard to understand if they were angels. And yet, it seems, there is more to be said for identifying them as human beings. We should not forget that we are here faced with a vision. “The group of enlightened ones presented in this visionary scenario is the choir of the Old Testament patriarchs” (Joh. Michl, Die 24 Ältesten in der Apokalypse des heiligen Johannes [The 24 elders in the Apocalypse of St John], Munich 1938, p 143).
To divide the number up, into the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles, is to go too far. John would hardly have seen his own image sitting on a heavenly throne! The tradition of representing the congregation of the faithful at divine service in the person of twenty-four elders, and the division of the priests into twenty-four classes, each with a single president, are sufficient to account for the origin of the number. The lofty distinction of these representatives of the Old Testament People of God, the rights of whom the church of Christ had inherited, gave the disciples of Jesus courage and confidence in their struggles and tribulations, enabling them to endure in hope that they too might receive the golden crown of victory, after they had drunk the cup of suffering here on earth, following in the footsteps of their divine Master (cf. Mk 10,37 ff, Mt 20,21ff). And perhaps it is actually enough, without any specific reference to the Old Testament, to see the twenty-four elders as “the embodiment of humanity before God. In ripe old age. Youth is not capable of comprehending the fullness of humanity. The last expression of humanity is age, in which trials have been completed, the heights and the depths tasted and all has arrived at maturity” (Rom. Guardini, Der Herr [The Lord], 3rd edition , 621 ff).
(*This extract has been taken from the book “Die Apokalypse” [“The Apocalypse”] by Peter Ketter, p 87 ff).
Any interpretation involving the angels or the twenty-four stellar divinities of the Babylonians has already been ruled out by the above analysis. Mr Ketter’s reference to Col 1,16 in connection with the angelic theory is not very convincing, for Paul is in fact not talking of angels here at all, but rather of the “visible” and the “invisible”. So on the one hand these thrones - assuming they are to be associated with the invisible, that is to say, the heavenly dimension - could indeed be the thrones of the twenty-four elders, and the latter then, as we concluded above, would be resurrected human beings. On the other hand, the thrones as they are presented in this scriptural passage could with equal validity be ascribed to the visible sphere and interpreted as earthly thrones. We might even think to see a kind of analogy here, in view of the word order: the visible = thrones and dominions, the invisible = rulers and authorities - in which case the thrones would clearly be included under the visible, as the thrones of earthly rulers.
Visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.
Col 1,16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on
earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all
things have been created through Him and for Him. Col 1,16;
The supposition that we might here be faced with the “choir of the Old Testament
patriarchs” cannot be reconciled with the realization which the author has reached earlier, namely
that the twenty-four elders on their thrones are judges - who then, on this view, would have to
judge the Old Testament people of the Israelites. But Our Lord tells us in Mt 19,28 that the people
of the Mosaic covenant will be judged by the twelve apostles, and by them alone. The final
interpretation of the elders as “the embodiment of humanity before God” is formulated in rather
general terms, and does not really help us to a better understanding of the passage.
(Texts in a black frame are quotations from visitors to this site or from other authors.)
As verse 2 names first of all the throne, and then the person who sits upon it,
here too the first thing in this heavenly setting to be mentioned is the thrones: and around
the throne were twenty-four thrones. These are chairs of majesty that occupy a clearly
subordinate position. They lack uniqueness, nor are they placed in the center. The occupants of
the thrones fall down and cast their crowns before the throne in verse 10, again testifying to
their dependence. But who are they? And upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting,
clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.
The number 24 might lead us to suppose that these elders represent the congregation of the Old and New Covenants, in other words the perfect and finally complete congregation. In 21,12.14 we again find twice twelve in a similar context. Their white robes could indicate their status as justified (as in 3,4.5.18), their crowns could be a reference to the crowns of victory won by the congregation (as in 2,10 and 3,11) and their harps (5,8) taken to equate them with the multitude of those who have overcome (cf. 14,2 and 15,2). This is an easy interpretation for the reader of the Luther’s time-honored translation to fall into, seeing that Luther, following the unreliable reading that was available to him, has the elders uttering the following words of praise in verse 5,10: “And Thou hast made us to be a kingdom and priests to our God.” This is how redeemed Christians would speak.
But hardly any more recent translations still follow this reading (instead of “us”, “them” is preferred). The elders do not give us to understand, either in 5,10, in 4,11, 7,11, 11,16-17, 14,3 or 19,4, that they have God to thank for their own redemption. The number twenty-four is so often just the number of completeness, in each and every context, that it is hardly possible to see it as a double of the people of twelve tribes. White garments might just be angelic robes, without any suggestion of purification through the blood of Christ. Harps are to be found in the Old Testament everywhere, whenever praise is uttered, and crowns are a universal symbol of dignity. No - the idea that the elders might be the transfigured congregation is not so immediately attractive as it appears at first sight. If we look back over chapter 4, we will find that the themes of redemption and of the congregation have not been sounded yet at this point.
Or do the elders perhaps embody the whole of humanity? But this idea strikes us more as an assumption than as a well-founded interpretation of the text. The simplest solution is to see them as being one of the companies of angels situated in God’s heavens. We find one point after another that confirms this. Like the angel in 8,3-5, they offer up the prayers of the saints (5,8), like angels they explain visions (5,5, 7,13-17), they praise God like the other choirs of angels (4,10-11, 5,9-10.14, 7,11-12, 11,16-17, 14,3, 19,4). In 7,14 John addresses one of them as “My lord”. Nothing suggests that they have entered into the service of God in heaven at a particular moment in time, like the redeemed singers of 7.14. On the contrary, they serve God “from eternity to eternity”. Their number is simply a sacred number, perhaps derived from the number of the groups of musicians and singers in Temple services as indicated in 1Chr 24, the presidents of whom were also referred to as elders.
(*This extract has been taken from the book “Die Offenbarung des Johannes 1. Teil” [“The Revelation of John, part 1” by Adolf Pohl, p 162 ff).
Mr Pohl cannot quite persuade himself to see the elders as the transfigured
congregation either, but in the end he decides to go for the angelic interpretation. As Revelation
describes them, they do indeed have many features in common with angels. But the most important
difference is overlooked here: neither in Revelation, nor anywhere else in the Bible, do we find
angels sitting on heavenly thrones. Scriptures shows us that angels are there to serve, not to be
rulers or judges.
In the light of the scriptural passages cited so far, with the accompanying
analysis, we can therefore rule out the following interpretations of the twenty-four elders of
- as the cosmic gods of the Babylonians
- as angels to whom an important office has been given
- as standing for the elders who acted as priests in the Jerusalem Temple
- as symbols for the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles
- as the embodiment of the entire congregation, consisting of both Gentiles
What the foregoing analysis has however yielded, with a relative lack of ambiguity -
in so far as it is at all possible to speak of an absence of ambiguity when endeavoring to expound
the Bible - is as an indication that the twenty-four elders from the Revelation of John could well
be resurrected human beings who are here exercising the function of judges. And here we are
immediately and obviously faced with the next question - who are they going to judge, or who is
going to be subject to their judgment?
Here Our Lord’s reference to the function of the twelve apostles as judges may perhaps help to illuminate this question. The apostles, we are told, will judge the twelve tribes of Israel, that is to say, the Jews of the Mosaic Covenant. As mentioned earlier, those Jews who have come to believe in Jesus Christ and have been converted to Christianity may be Jews as far as their birth goes, but in faith they are just as much Christians, and brothers and sisters in the Lord, as any other members of the congregation. It follows that they will not have to be judged by the apostles either. The other unbelieving Jews, who do not follow either the Mosaic or the Christian faith, are of course to be put in the same category as the unbelieving Gentiles from the nations, and will be judged with them at the Last Judgment.
Now we know from Scripture that on the Second Coming of the Lord, those who are dead in Christ will be resurrected and caught up into heaven (1Cor 15,50-53, 1The 4,15-17). And seeing that the Epistle to the Hebrews says that it is given to men to die once, and after this (following resurrection) comes judgment, these dead must also be judged in heaven after their resurrection.
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.
Hbr 9,27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and
after this comes judgment, 9,28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of
many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await
Him. Heb 9,27-28;
But as we can now see from Rev 11,18, this will not be a penal judgment but a judgment of praise and reward, in which these persons who are dead in Christ will receive their recompense.
The time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants.
Rev 11, 18 "And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and
the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the
prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those
who destroy the earth." Rev 11,18;
And it is just in connection with this judgment of reward that applies to those of the dead who have been resurrected in Christ, that judges will be needed. We have indications, both in the Old Testament and in the New as well, of this judgment. Daniel describes (Dan 7,9-10) the vision of this judgment with which he was favored:
II kept looking Until thrones were set up. The court sat.
Dan 7,9 "I kept looking Until thrones were set up,
And the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow And the hair of His head like
pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire. 7,10 "A
river of fire was flowing And coming out from before Him; Thousands upon thousands were attending
Him, And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; The court sat, And the books
were opened. Dan 7, 9-10;
And John too has an account of the same judgment in Revelation, in connection with the first resurrection:
Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them.
Rev 20,4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and
judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of
their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast
or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to
life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
20,5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Rev 20, 4- 5;
In both cases, then, we find that thrones are set up, and the court takes its seat.
And if the interpretation advanced here is correct, then it is these twenty-four elders who will
take their seat upon their thrones to pass judgment on the congregation that has been caught up into
heaven in the Rapture, in the ensuing judgment of reward.
Earlier on we took Our Lord’s saying in Mt 19,28 as a point of departure. Here he
tells us that the twelve apostles will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. But besides the
conclusions we have so far been able to draw from this, there are two more important questions that
demand to be considered here:
1. Why are the twelve apostles not mentioned in Revelation at all, if they are to
judge the twelve tribes of Israel?
Inasmuch as the end of the salvific history of Israel will only occur after the
Millennium (the Thousand Years’ Kingdom of Peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is also their
Messiah), the judgment on the Israelites, including all those who may still come to acknowledge the
God of Israel in the Millennium - like the judgment on the ungodly of all times and places - will
only take place after this period, at the end of the world on the occasion of the Last Judgment. The
judgment of reward before the Millennium, on the Second Coming of the Lord, only brings Christian
salvific history to a close. The Universal Judgment at the end of the world, however, at which the
twelve apostles will preside as judges, is only referred to in Revelation in verses 20,11-15, and
then only with reference to its effects on those who are judged, not to the judges.
2. The twelve apostles, after all, can be seen as the forefathers of the
Christian congregation. So how is it that they are not appointed to judge the Christians, their
place being taken by the 24 elders?
Now this is a question which makes it incumbent on us to try to cast a little more
light on the principles of God’s “jurisdiction” - in so far as we can draw any inferences
about this from Scripture. It may be very helpful here to look more closely at God’s becoming man,
in his Son. The second person of the divine Trinity became man specifically in order to offer us
human beings the redeeming sacrifice for our sins through his death on the cross. And here a
perfectly justified question suggests itself - why was a “redeeming sacrifice” needed at all? Is
God not free in his decisions? And if he is, why can he not forgive any sins he chooses to?
If we grapple with this question and study the scriptural evidence, we will come to recognize that it is the absolute righteousness of God which cannot tolerate unrighteousness in any shape or form, not even in its most rudimentary traces, and quite independently of the motivation. An offence against the absolutely just commandments of God can only be atoned for by death. God gave humanity life and his commandments, and if anyone does not keep his commandments, God will take back the gift of life. It follows that the sinful person - and that includes the whole of humanity - is guilty before God, and deserves to be condemned.
Prv 19,16 He who keeps the commandment keeps his soul, But he who is
careless of conduct will die. Pro 19,16;
But now we are told in Scripture, after all, that we are saved by grace, and grace
is in no way a category of righteousness but rather one of compassion. So does God here prove “unjust”?
It looks like it - but only at a first glance: when, that is, we do not look into the cause of this
grace. The cause is presumably God’s love for humanity - that is correct so far. But yet the love
of God cannot close its eyes to evil. Even the love of God must answer to the justice of God. There
is no way of getting around that.
So here we find ourselves faced with a dilemma. Justice demands that every human being who has sinned against God’s commandments must be condemned. And seeing that all human beings have sinned, we are all equally guilty. The love of God, however, wants to give all men the possibility of salvation, right up to the last second of their earthly life, if they are only conscious of their transgression, do penance and allow themselves to be converted. In the Old Testament, the Old Covenant, God thus allowed the Jews to offer up the life of an animal for their transgressions, by way of compensation and as a penitential sacrifice. In the New Covenant, God has offered this same salvation to all human beings all over the world. But since there could hardly be enough sheep and bulls in the world to atone for the sins of the whole of humanity through animal sacrifice, God had his own Son become man, and it was his Son who died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, so satisfying God’s justice and God’s love at the same time.
So we can see that the grace of God is not owing to God’s abdicating from his justice and turning a blind eye to our transgressions. Rather God chose the only way possible by which both his justice and his love could be reconciled: he sacrificed himself for us human beings.
There is perhaps no better parable to explain God’s actions here than the story of Prince Shamil, an Avar leader of the northern Caucasus in the early 19th century, as reported by the economist Roscher:
“In the interests of preserving unity and discipline in his tribe, the
Prince had given the strict order that no one was to lay hands on the booty which belonged to the
tribe as a whole. Anyone who infringed this command was to be punished with a hundred lashes of the
Then the order was broken for the first time - and the culprit was the Prince’s aged mother. So what was to be done? If punishment were not to be carried out, the justice of the Prince would be called in question, and his orders would never again be taken seriously.
Roscher reports that the Prince closeted himself in his tent for a whole day. Then he came out, and gave instructions that the punishment was to be inflicted. .
But as the first blow came whistling down on the back of his mother, he tore off his cloak, threw himself over his mother and called out to the soldiers, “Keep at it, and not one stroke too few!”
He had found the solution! His mother was saved, and at the same time the torn and bleeding back of the Prince showed the seriousness of his commands, showed how indispensable it was to maintain right and justice in the tribe.”
(After Werner de Boor: Der Brief an die Römer [The Epistle to the Romans], WStB, R. Brockhaus Verlag [R. Brockhaus Publishers]).
And so, too, the blood and the death of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross shows how
uncompromisingly God in his justice judges sin, and how extensive, at the same time, is his love for
us human beings.
The consequence of sin and salvation through grace
Sin is every act that goes against the commandments
of God (Ex 20:3-17; Mt 5:21-48). The consequence of every single one
of these acts is the death of the perpetrator - and not just the
first, physical death, but the second death (Rev 21:8), to which the
sinful person will be condemned at the Last
Judgment after Resurrection from the dead with his or her new and
eternally existing body. Just as the first death is merely a
transitional period up till the resurrection, so too the second
death is not an extinction of the human person but rather an
eternally prolonged existence, distant from God in the darkness of
(See also Discourse 30: “Why did Jesus have to die
on the cross?”)
This event of the redeeming sacrifice of the Son of God was what made true
communication between humanity and God possible at all - not just for prophets and chosen
individuals, but for all people without exception. Any person, then, who says that he or she cannot
reach God has never really made the effort. Humanity’s connection with God is the Holy Spirit. The
“line” is always open, every day of the week and right round the clock. So anyone can
call God. And just as telephone numbers consist of seven digits, so God’s telephone number
consists of seven words. They are easy to remember, and yet they are hard for many people to dial:
Lord, please forgive me all my sins.
Rom 10,8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your
mouth and in your heart" - that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 10,9 that if
you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from
the dead, you will be saved; Rom 10, 8- 9;
After that you can talk to God and tell him everything that is troubling you, and
all the matters where you stand in need of help - as well as everything that makes you happy, and
for which you are grateful. But we must take care to dial this “number” in its entirety. As with
telephone numbers the first two digits give the area code, so too the first two words of God’s
telephone number indicate an act of choice. If you cannot bring yourself to utter the word “Lord”,
you can’t be surprised if you fail to get a connection. And if you can’t say “please”, it
shows that you are not sorry for what you have done.
But there is a second reason too for this unique event in world history - one that is also closely connected with the judgment and righteousness of God. We must not forget that, just as in the court of justice where the twelve apostles will be the judges, so also in the court of justice presided over by the twenty-four elders the Son of God will sit on his glorious heavenly throne, in the midst of the thrones of the twenty-four. And as the Father has given all judgment to the Son, so the Son has given judgment to his servants. We found it a little strange that the twelve apostles should be appointed as judges over Israel rather than over the congregation, but if we consider it more closely we can see that here too it is the absolute righteousness of God that is at stake.
It is not God the Almighty who judges humanity: he has given over the office of judge to his Son, who became man, lived as man and died as a man on the cross. It is thus a man who will judge humanity, and no one can have any doubts about the righteousness of this judgment on the grounds that “God has no idea of the difficulties of human existence”. Jesus Christ became familiar with human life in all its heights and in all its depths and was able to evaluate it for what it is, and hardly anyone living before or since can match that experience.
For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son.
Jn 5,21 "For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes. 5,22 "For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, 5,23 so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. Jn 5,21-23;
But He emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
Phil 2,5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 2,6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 2,7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 2,8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Phil 2, 5- 8;
For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.
Hbr 2,17 Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all
things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God,
to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 2,18 For since He Himself was tempted in that
which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. Heb 2,17-18;
And so likewise the righteousness of God dictates that the twelve tribes of Israel
should be judged only by Israelites, for a Gentile Christian would not have either the capacity or
the credibility required if he were to be appointed to judge the Israelites. Turning this the other
way around, though, it also becomes clear why divine order makes it impossible for the twelve
apostles - who are of Israel - to judge the congregation. And from this we can again conclude that
the twenty-four elders, if they are indeed judges, must be Gentile Christians who have been
justified in the eyes of God in heaven. But why should their number be just twenty-four? Is that
again just the “vast number representing the congregation of all time”, as is frequently claimed
by allegorical interpreters? Is it a symbol for the “the entire flock of the Divine Shepherd”?
Or is it no more than a “sacred number”, as Mr Pohl opines in the above passage?
Let us take another look at the scriptural passage where the Lord promises his twelve apostles that they will sit on thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel.
In the regeneration you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Mt 19,28 And Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, that you who
have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you
also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Mt 19,28;
If we again try here to make inferences from the twelve apostles that will cast
light on the twenty-four elders, the picture that meets us is somewhat different. There are twelve
apostles, because there are twelve tribes of Israel for them to judge (where the sons of Zebedee -
John and James - would judge the tribe of their father respectively their mother). And if we can
assume that the Lord chose twelve apostles for this very reason, then it does not seem too plausible
to assert that the twenty-four elders are only symbolic - whether in their persons or in their
number. If we can suppose that the elders and the apostles are to be seen against the same
background, then just as the number of the apostles has reference to the twelve tribes of Israel, so
the number of the elders must be connected with the original tribes of the Gentile nations.
When we try to test this supposition in the light of the findings of the most recent scientific research in global ethnography, however, we find a surprising situation. Since the Second World War it is evident that there has been hardly any serious fundamental research done in this field - a reaction to the madness of National Socialist racial theory under Hitler. The reference works that are accessible all date from before the War, and some of them are based on completely outmoded assumptions. But seeing that when we consider the original tribes of the earth above all a parallelism in terms of language may be assumed - after all, the phrase “of all peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9; 11:9) occurs frequently in Scripture - it follows that here too a comparative examination might be very illuminating. Now it is an interesting fact that when we consult the lexicons of linguistic theorists, we find it stated that throughout the world there actually are around 24 basic languages or families of languages, from which all the other languages of the world have developed..
(See also the table ”The earths linguistic
families.” at the end of this Discourse).
The background to this may perhaps be seen in the story of Babel, where God, as a punishment for the arrogance of humanity, confused the single language they had spoken till then, so that they could no longer understand one another and were scattered abroad throughout the world.
"Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech."
Gen 11,6 The LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they
all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they
purpose to do will be impossible for them. 11,7 "Come, let Us go down and there confuse
their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech." 11,8 So the LORD
scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the
city. 11,9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of
the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.
Gen 11, 6- 9;
(See also Table 01: “Chronological table from Adam
So if we can safely assume that the confusion of tongues that took place at Babel gave rise to twenty-four basic languages throughout the world - and so twenty-four original ethnic groups - and that they are the origin of all present and future peoples and nations, then the following picture presents itself: on the one hand the twelve tribes of the Israelites of the faith of Moses will be judged by the twelve apostles after the Millennium, at the end of the world; and on the other, each of the twenty-four elders of Revelation will judge his own people. And this will take place, as the following scriptural passages show, on the Second Coming of the Lord, when all the Christian faithful of all nations, tribes, peoples and languages will stand before the throne of God, having been caught up into heaven.
A great multitude from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne.
Rev 7,9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude
which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before
the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;
Rev 7, 9;
The great multitude in the above passage (Rev 7,9), coming from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, is now indeed the congregation of all time. They are clothed in white robes because they have had recourse to the redeeming sacrifice of Our Lord for their sins, and now stand sinless before the throne of God to be judged in the judgment of reward. And the next passage (Rev 4,4) then tells us of the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God. This means that this great multitude, the congregation now translated into heaven, is standing both before the throne of God and before the thrones of the twenty-four elders.
Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting.
Rev 4,4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the
thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their
heads. Rev 4,4;
If we now go a bit further in Revelation, we come to the passage (Rev 20,4) where the court takes its seat upon the thrones. We can infer from the context here that we again have to do with the judgment of reward, the judgment of praise - inasmuch as those who are being judged or rewarded are those who “had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God”. And the judges are mentioned in the first part of this verse, where it states “I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them.”
Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them.
Rev 20,4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and
judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of
their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the
beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came
to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. Rev 20, 4;
No specific names are given here - instead we are just told, “I saw thrones, and they sat on them”. The use of this plural pronoun “they” plainly must refer to a group of persons that has been mentioned earlier, having the force of a backward reference. When we try to find this group in the earlier chapters of Revelation, we immediately hit upon the twenty-four elders in the chapter immediately preceding (Rev 19,4-5) - the same twenty-four elders who in Rev 4.4 are found sitting on twenty-four thrones around the throne of God, and who here fall down and worship God on his throne.
And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped God.
Rev 19, 4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures
fell down and worshiped God who sits on the throne saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!" 19,5
And a voice came from the throne, saying, "Give praise to our God, all you His bond-servants,
you who fear Him, the small and the great." Rev 19, 4- 5;
So in view of the fact that we do not find any other group of persons in Revelation
to whom this “they” in Rev 20,4 could possibly refer, we may conclude that it is these same
twenty-four elders who in Rev 20,4 take their seat upon the thrones and to whom the judgment is
given, so that the congregation that has been caught up into heaven and is now standing before the
throne of God, the congregation of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, may be judged in
the judgment of reward. While following this the congregation will remain with God in heaven, the
servants of God, the martyrs of all time and of all peoples will be resurrected in body from the
dead, to reign with the Lord as kings and priests in the Millennium. This is the First Resurrection.
(See also Discourse 07: “The Rapture and the First
Resurrection: a single event?”)
In the judgment of the congregation of Jesus Christ, the judgment of reward, each of
the twenty-four elders will therefore judge his own people, just as at the Last Judgment each of the
twelve apostles who are of Israel will judge the allotted tribe. Those Israelites of the twelve
tribes who have been converted to the Christian faith might then - on the basis of analogy - be
judged by Paul, as one of the twenty-four elders.
Like all the interpretations of other commentators that we have quoted above, this theory can of course only be tentative. But at least here we have been following the principle established by our fathers in the faith, that Scripture must be its own interpretation, and that like must be interpreted in the light of like, through adducing comparable scriptural statements - in this case Mt 19,28 and Rev 7,9, 11,16-17, 20,4 - in support of our interpretation. In the one passage the twelve apostles sit on twelve thrones and judge the tribes of Israel; in the other, the twenty-four elders sit on twenty-four thrones and judge the great multitude “of every nation and tribe and people and tongue”.
Now one might here quite justifiably ask whether the absolute righteousness of God really constitutes the background to those scriptural passages we have quoted earlier. So in order to back up these statements, once again in the light of Scripture, I would like to cite and comment on a highly interesting passage from the Old Testament.
And the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire.
Dan 7,9 "I kept looking Until thrones were set up, And the Ancient
of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow And the hair of His head like pure wool. His
throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire. 7,10 "A river of fire
was flowing And coming out from before Him; Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, And myriads
upon myriads were standing before Him; The court sat, And the books were opened. Dan 7, 9-10;
The throne of God, seen and described by Daniel in the above passage, was also seen in a vision by John (Rev 4,1-9). And Ezekiel too gives us an account of this throne, which he saw twice - once in Eze 1,1-28 on the river Kebar, and then in Eze 10,1-22 in Jerusalem - and he describes the four Cherubim who transport the throne that is above them and the four wheels beside them in the following terms:
And the living beings ran to and fro like bolts of lightning.
Ezk 1,10 As for the form of their faces, each had the face of a man;
all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and all four had
the face of an eagle. 1,11 Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each had
two touching another being, and two covering their bodies. 1,12 And each went straight forward; wherever
the spirit was about to go, they would go, without turning as they went. 1,13 In the midst of
the living beings there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches darting
back and forth among the living beings. The fire was bright, and lightning was flashing from the
fire. 1,14 And the living beings ran to and fro like bolts of lightning.
1,15 Now as I looked at the living beings, behold, there was one wheel on the earth beside the living beings, for each of the four of them. 1,16 The appearance of the wheels and their workmanship was like sparkling beryl, and all four of them had the same form, their appearance and workmanship being as if one wheel were within another. 1,17 Whenever they moved, they moved in any of their four directions without turning as they moved. Eze 1,10-17;
As is to be understood from the context, each of these four Cherubim has four faces.
In the vision on the river Kebar in Eze 1,10 above, Ezekiel describes the faces as follows: “each
had the face of a man; all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the
left, and all four had the face of an eagle”. When he encounters them again in Jerusalem, however,
he corrects the former description (Eze 10,14, 10,20, 10,22) and states that the third face was not
that of a bull but rather that of a Cherub. And each of the creatures is accompanied by a wheel.
(See also Excursus 11: “The throne of God.”)
(See also Table 15: “The throne of God and its
We have an interesting description of the wheels in the above passage (Eze 1,16):
“as if one wheel were within another”.
Taken on its own, this description could lead to all kinds of suppositions - and has
done so in a good many interpretations. The next verse as well (Eze 1,17) -
“Whenever they moved, they moved in any of their four directions without
turning as they moved”
is rather puzzling when taken on its own. It is only when we compare both verses,
and a third verse as well, in a single perspective that a convincing interpretation results. Where
it is stated that these four beings moved “in any of their four directions”, this must mean
their movement is restricted to a right angle: either straight ahead (forwards or backwards) or to
the side (to the right or the left). They are only capable of movement in a straight line, and do
not go in for diagonals or curves. So if something they are trying to reach cannot be arrived at by
moving in a straight line (forwards, backwards, to left or to right), they will have to move in a
zigzag - first in a straight line to the front, then again in a straight line to the side - until
they arrive at their intended destination.
Now it is possible that the peculiar construction of the wheels also has a connection with this unusual form of progress. Their appearance is described in Eze 1,16 in the following terms: “... their appearance and workmanship being as if one wheel were within another”. This does not mean that a smaller wheel has been inserted in a larger wheel in parallel, for verse 1,18 tells us that the wheels’ rims were “lofty and awesome”, and such rims would be bound to cover and conceal the second wheel.
The phrase “one wheel within another” must clearly describe a kind of “cross wheel”. We can picture it to ourselves as two wheels or tires, of approximately the same size, which interlock at a right angle, as if to describe the limits of a notional sphere. With wheels like this it would only be possible to advance in the direction of one or other of the wheels, either forward or backward or sideways, so movement in curves would be ruled out.
These wheels were “on the earth, beside the four living creatures”. This means that they are not located on an axis, but stand independently beside the four beings and follow them, the Cherubim in their turn being directed by the Spirit of God. Taken all in all, then, we can conclude that the throne of God is not a material or mechanical construction, but a spiritual/biological vehicle that the spirit of God directs and controls.
Keeping this idea firmly in mind, let us now look at an earlier verse (Eze 1,14), which has tempted generations of commentators to draw the wildest conclusions. In this verse we are told:
“And the living beings ran to and fro like bolts of lightning”.
And here interpretations range from a suppositious extraterrestrial spaceship with
rocket drive - in such commentators like Erich von Däniken and Shirley Maclaine, who
acknowledge that in biblical interpretation they are only amateurs - by way of the following
“With every movement they made, they lit up like flashes of lightning.
Ezekiel just cannot find the words to describe the radiant, supernatural and divine world” (Gerhard
Meier in “Der Prophet Hesekiel” [“The prophet Ezekiel] - WStB)
right through to interpretations that are wholly abstract and distort the sense
completely, such as the following:
“The glowing coals contained a flickering fire, that ran back and
forth between the living creatures. This seems to be an advance hint of Ezekiel’s message of God’s
burning judgment against Judah.” (J. F. Walfoord in “Das Alte Testament - erklärt und
ausgelegt” [“The Old Testament - explained and interpreted”].
If we remember the interpretation we arrived at earlier, postulating a right-angled
progress of the wheels and of the Cherubim, and bearing in mind the fact that this vehicle, as a
result of the presence of the Lord in his radiant glory on the throne above the Cherubim, looked to
Ezekiel as he saw it on the plain by the river Kebar approaching from the north like “a storm
wind... coming from the north, a great cloud with fire flashing forth continually” (Eze 1,4),
which made him think of “something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it”
(Eze 1,27), then it is not difficult to imagine that it was simply the nature of the chariot’s
movement - in zigzags, that is - that left him with the impression that “the living beings ran to
and fro like bolts of lightning” (Eze 1,14).
Now of course some readers will be liable to ask at this point what on earth this has to do with the justice of God. But if we imprint on our consciousness the fact that our God is absolute righteousness and justice in person, and that this justice cannot endure injustice or deviations from the straight path in any respect, not even the minutest, then we can see a reflection of this in the way in which the throne of God progresses purely in straight lines:
God does not go by crooked paths or travel by oblique routes.
- not even when moving in person from place to place.
Ascribe greatness to our God! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; Righteous and upright is He!
Deut 32,3 "For I proclaim the name of the LORD; Ascribe greatness to our God! 32,4 "The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He. Deut 32, 3- 4;
Good and upright is the LORD; Therefore He instructs sinners in the way.
Ps 25,8 Good and upright is the LORD; Therefore He instructs sinners in the way. 25,9 He leads the humble in justice, And He teaches the humble His way. 25,10 All the paths of the LORD are lovingkindness and truth To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies. Ps 25, 8-10;
The way of a guilty man is crooked, But as for the pure, his conduct is upright.
Prov 21,8 The way of a guilty man is crooked, But as for the pure, his conduct is upright. Prov 21, 8;
The way of the righteous is smooth; O Upright One, make the path of the righteous level.
Isa 26,7 The way of the righteous is smooth; O Upright One, make the path of the righteous level. Isa 26, 7;
For the LORD our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done.
Dan 9,14 "Therefore the LORD has kept the calamity in store and
brought it on us; for the LORD our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has
done, but we have not obeyed His voice. Dan 9,14;
For the ways of the LORD are right.
Hos 14,9 Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; Whoever is discerning, let him know them. For the ways of the LORD are right, And the righteous will walk in them, But transgressors will stumble in them. Hos 14, 9;
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the LORD, make His paths straight’
Mt 3,3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the LORD, make His paths straight’" Mt 3,3;
Make ready the way of the LORD, make His paths straight. The crooked will become straight
Lk 3,4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the LORD, make His paths straight. 3,5 ‘Every ravine will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be brought low; The crooked will become straight, and the rough roads smooth; 3,6 And all flesh will see the salvation of God.’" Lk 3, 4- 6;
Righteous and true are Your ways, King of the nations!
Rev 15,3 And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and
the song of the Lamb, saying, "Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; Righteous
and true are Your ways, King of the nations! Rev 15, 3;
Now although God in his omnipotence and omniscience can hardly be intuited by us
human beings, in his justice we can see perhaps just a trace of his nature. In the judgment of God,
only straight paths will do. Any deviation leads to condemnation. So it is impossible for human
beings to achieve righteousness before God through their own efforts. We have nothing to set against
the justice of God but the grace of God in his Son Jesus Christ, and Christ’s redeeming sacrifice
on the cross for the sake of us sinners.
The living creatures described in Ezk 1,10-17 above, who carry the throne of God, are also found in the New Testament, in Revelation. And there, surprisingly, John makes the same mistake in describing the faces of these four living creatures as Ezekiel did earlier.
And around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind.
Rev 4,6 and before the throne
there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal; and in the center and
around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. 4,7
The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a
calf, and the third creature had a face like that of a man, and the
fourth creature was like a flying eagle.
4,8 And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, "Holy, holy, holy, holy is the LORD God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come." Rev 4, 6- 8;
Just like Ezekiel in his first sighting at the river Kebar, so
too John in his vision of the Last Days sees these four living creatures as
having the face of a lion, that of a young bull or calf, a human face and that
of an eagle.
On his second encounter with the throne of God in the temple of Jerusalem, however (Ezk 10:14; 10:20; 10:22), Ezekiel took a closer look and realized that he had been mistaken the first time and that it was not the face of a bull that he had seen, but the countenance of a cherub.
And these four living creatures did not just have the form of a man, as Ezekiel had stated to begin with (Ezk 1,5), but all four of them were angels, namely cherubim (Ezk 10,5-6). Taken all in all, this is now a characteristic that allows a completely new interpretation of these four cherubim to dawn on us.
The four faces of these four cherubim correspond to the four groups of living beings of the divine creation (see also Carl von Linné, 1707-1778, Systema Naturae):
Lion: The mammals. Among biological creatures, they occupy a preferential position because they – like humans – give birth to their offspring alive (being viviparous, Latin viviparus, “born alive”), and in the very first stage of life are able to feed, i.e. suckle their young by producing milk from the body itself. Besides land mammals, this group also includes whales, dolphins and others.
Eagle: the large group of egg-laying animals (oviparous, Latin oviparus, “egg-born”) includes not only all bird species but also reptiles, fish, insects and worms.
Human being: Although he belongs to the biological creatures, the mammals of this earth, he is connected with the angels by the ability to develop reason. With the other earthly creatures he shares their mortality, and thus the necessity to reproduce in order to preserve the species.
Cherubim: They are the representatives of the angelic world, which makes them beings of the heavenly dimension. They are immortal, hence they do not need to reproduce and are therefore sexless (Lk 20:34-36).
(See also Discourse 141: "Creation
strikes back – an interpretation of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.")
And if we now, with this interpretation in mind, look at what John says about the four apocalyptic horsemen in Revelation, we get a completely new and surprising picture of this prophecy in every respect.
The apocalyptic horsemen and the four living beings.
Rev 6,1 Then I saw when the Lamb
broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures
saying as with a voice of thunder, "Come."
6,2 I looked, and behold, a white
horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went
out conquering and to conquer.
6,3 When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, "Come." 6,4 And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.
6,5 When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, "Come." I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. 6,6 And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine."
6,7 When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, "Come." Rev 6, 1- 7;
Here we can see that it is these four representatives of
creation, the four cherubim, who pronounce the command for the judgments on
humanity at the beginning of the Great Tribulation, with the word Come! This is
terrible, but at the same time completely logical, since it confirms to us that
our God is an absolutely just God and always acts justly.
Just as the Son of God, who as man has lived through all the highs and lows of human life, was appointed by God as Judge in the Last Judgment over all human beings, so here too creation – “nature” – which has been heedlessly exploited by humanity for thousands of years, now receives the power of decision for a just restoration of the balance. And nature brings in a verdict of “Guilty”.
On the “Day of the Wrath of God” as well it is one of these four cherubim who gives the command for the judgments of the bowls, the severest trials to which mankind is exposed in the Great Tribulation.
One of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls.
Rev 15,6 and the seven angels
who had the seven plagues came out of the temple, clothed in linen, clean and
bright, and girded around their chests with golden sashes. 15,7 Then one of
the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full
of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever. Rev 15, 6- 7;
These four living beings, the four cherubim, are servants of God, and in this function they are repeatedly mentioned in Revelation together with the 24 elders discussed in this Discourse:
The living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne.
Rev 4,9 And when the living creatures give glory
and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne,
to Him who lives forever and ever, 4,10 the twenty-four elders will fall
down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever
and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 4,11 "Worthy are
You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created
all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created." Rev 4,
And they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God.
Rev 7,11 And all the angels were
standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures;
and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God. Rev 7,11;
And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders.
Rev14,3 And they sang a new song before the
throne and before the four living creatures and
the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and
forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth. Rev 14, 3;
As we have been able to demonstrate in this Discourse, the 24
elders have a position in relation to the people of God from all nations that is
similar to that of the four living beings for nature. It is therefore also quite
understandable that the 24 elders also have a representative function before
While the four living beings, the four cherubim, represent the entire creation before God, the 24 human elders are the representatives of all believers from all nations of this world before God.
The eternal existence of every human being.
Every individual human being who leaves the amniotic sac
of his or her mother alive in being physically born – who is "born of
water" (amniotic fluid), that is to say (Jn 3:5) – receives a human
spirit (1Cor 2:11) from God (Jn 4:24) with eternal existence (Mt 25:46).
In the first, temporal and earthly part of their existence – in their
life, human beings have the possibility of deciding, in complete freedom,
without any compulsion and with the help of the spirit given them by God (Gen 2:7; 6:3),
whether or not they will give this God, the creator of all life, their
complete trust and entire love.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
1Cor 15,42 So also is the resurrection
of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable
body; 15,43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it
is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 15,44 it is sown a natural
body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is
also a spiritual body. 15,45 So also it is written, "The first MAN,
Adam, became a living soul." (Gen 2,7) The last Adam became a
life-giving spirit. 15,46 However, the spiritual is not first,
but the natural; then the spiritual. 15,46 However, the spiritual is not first,
but the natural; then the spiritual. 15,47 The first man is from the earth,
earthy; the second man is from heaven. 15,48 As is the earthy, so also are
those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly.
15,49 Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image
of the heavenly. 1Cor 15,42-49;
With this body the human being
will then stand at the Last Judgment
before the Son of God, who has been given the task by God (Jn 5:22, 26-27)
of judging every human being on the basis of their earthly deeds and their
decision for or against God while still alive (Rom 2:16).
The Son of God said:
"If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever;
that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know
Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you." Jn 14,15-17;
In the light of this, the well known evangelist and preacher Wilhelm
Busch said to his hearers, "You don’t need to accept the message I am giving
you. You can choose not to convert to Jesus. But just be aware that this means you
are choosing hell! You have complete freedom – it’s your choice!" (People who are unable to believe)
(See also Discourse 22: “Is
there such a thing as the immortality of the soul?”)
For all those who would like to have it short and
The twelve tribes of the people of Israel shown in the following table are taken
from Holy Scripture - from the Old Testament (Num 1,5-15) and from the New Testament (Rev 7,5-8)
The listing of the twenty-four linguistic families of the Gentiles has been based on a summary of the linguistic relationships between the peoples of the earth as they are known today, as shown on http://www.kontressowitz.de/u2/sprachen.htm. This is designed above all to highlight the fact that there actually are around twenty-four linguistic families worldwide, from which all the other languages of the nations have evolved.
The twelve tribes of the people of Israel
The twenty-four linguistic families of the nations
AFRICA / NEAR EAST:
North: Native Americans