This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the seventh of twenty-six short reflections.
Almost every image in the visions of John in Revelation are derived from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Two of my favourite images are those of the New Jerusalem and the Four Beasts. Let’s deal with the critters today.
Up above are the four beasts from the Sutherland Tapestry in Coventry Cathedral, Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph; I talked about the tapestry two weeks ago in my sermon back then. The four beasts surround the throne of God in the vision that John has in chapter 4, after he finishes addressing the seven churches in epistolary fashion:
1After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! . . .
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
“Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”
This passage refers back to two of the prophets: Isaiah and Ezekiel. Isaiah writes about his calling in chapter six of his book, where he has a vision in the Jerusalem Temple:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The Temple, especially the Holy of Holies, was the earthly equivalent of heaven, and so it is not surprising that Isaiah sees God there. There are four seraphs in the Holy of Holies – two standing over the Ark of the Covenant, and two on the cover of the Ark. Below is one artist’s idea of what it might have looked like this, although I always imagined the seraphim looking a little more Assyrian. You can see their six wings if you look carefully.
The four beasts go back to the calling of Ezekiel.
. . . as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God . . . As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures.
This was their appearance: they were of human form. 6 Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 7 Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: 9 their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved.
10 As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; 11 such were their faces.
Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. . . . 15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. 1the rims of all four were full of eyes all around.
This is pretty weird stuff, but the import of this fantastic image is that the throne of God being carried about by these four creatures. Each with four faces: a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. John in Revelation turns them into four different creatures, each with just one face. In Ezekiel that have only four wings, but Revelation uses the six wings from Isaiah 6.
Christians tried to make sense of what these creatures were in Revelation, and eventually decided that they must represent the authors of the for gospels – Matthew is the human, Mark the lion, Luke the ox, and John the eagle. It is a good answer, but probably not the one John the Divine was thinking of; there is no evidence that John was aware of the four gospels as a set. They may simply represent all creation acknowledging Jesus and worshiping him.
The hymn that the beasts sing comes from Isaiah 6. It is sung in the Eucharist after the preface of the Great Thanksgiving. It also gave rise to this hymn:
1 Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!
2 Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.
3 Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man, thy glory may not see:
Only Thou art holy, there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power in love, and purity.
4 Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! merciful and mighty,
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!
As a child I was part of Bethel United Church in Grand-Mère, Quebec, and we sang the first verse of this every Sunday as an introit. It was written by Reginald Heber, sometime between 1807 and 1823 when he was the Vicar of Hodnet, Shropshire. He was consecrated Bishop of Calcutta in 1823 at Lambeth Palace, and after arriving in India in the autumn of that year he died less than three years later. It may seem strange to us, but hymn singing was not a normal part of Anglican worship in the early 19th century; it was considered a mark of Evangelicalism, and was, strictly speaking, not allowed by the rules of the Church of England. Heber’s advocacy for hymn singing did much to advance this now regular part of our services.
The tune is called Nicaea, written by John Bacchus Dykes for the original Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861. I like the harmony, especially the bass part – put it up a tone or three and it makes for a nice descant. It has an unusual metre – 220.127.116.11 – and apart from the tune Nicaea, I am not aware of any tune to which it can be sung.
Tomorrow I will discuss the New Jerusalem.