Although it is impossible, I like to imagine the electrifying terror and joy of ordinary men and women beholding visions beyond the veil. The sudden raising of the ordinary to levels unimaginable, the piercing quality of vision, the wonder which it must be painful to let go–the visions that the prophets experienced intrigue me.
I am teaching Revelation at my synagogue as well as to a home group south of Atlanta. The Apocalypse, as it is also known, is vivid precisely because it is the fruition of the many prophets who came before, so that John’s descriptions are a kind of anthology of Hebrew prophecy.
All of these thoughts led me to the dramatic throne vision of Revelation 4, which begins with the language of experience, “I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door!” I wonder if most readers skip over the aspect of this encounter as a frightening, overpowering event. All of the throne visions have this sense about them.
I am aware of four throne visions in the Hebrew Bible and only one in the New Testament.
The purpose of throne visions in the Biblical literature is to contrast the pride and vainglory of human empires with the truer might and goodness of God. John wrote in the Roman period. The Roman empire, and all its machinery and personnel, took itself very seriously, as human empires do. It took itself as if it were the savior and destiny of man.
Behind John’s throne vision lie four others: that of Micaiah the little-known prophet (1 Kings 22), Isaiah’s famous vision of seraphim (Isaiah 6), Ezekiel’s apparition of the throne-chariot of God (Ezekiel 1, 10, 43), and Daniel’s gaze into the throne of the Ancient of Days above the beast kingdoms (Daniel 7).
I am enamored of the Micaiah vision because this prophet is little known, he pioneers the very idea of a throne vision, and the account of it comes in the colorful narratives of Kings in the section known as the Prophetic Narratives with his fellow wonder-workers and seers Elijah and Elisha. His vision occurred in the days of King Ahab, a king who expanded the kingdom of Israel (and I have seen his building works at Megiddo) but who was a dismal failure in matters of goodness and faith.
Standing before a self-made king, a man with no time to take prophets seriously, Micaiah says, “I saw Hashem sitting on his throne and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right and on his left.” Micaiah’s vision reveals God in opposition to a cruel and pretentious king. Ahab died in that battle.
Isaiah’s insight into the throne of God is better known. It came in the days of the Assyrian threat. The world was justifiably on edge at the thought of Assyrian ranks cruelly dealing with conquered peoples and stories of their brutality would no doubt terrify us even today. In this crisis, Isaiah saw God’s authority so large it filled the temple. Heavenly beings mortals would worship as gods are described living in unending service of the true God whose authority makes even Assyrian emperors pale. Isaiah’s vision of God’s might gives confidence to Judah in a time of fear about wars and shifting kingdoms.
Ezekiel’s complex visions of God’s throne-chariot are infamously difficult and inspired several millennia of Jewish mysticism (readers under 30 are asked not to read Ezekiel in Jewish tradition). This vision, primarily from Ezekiel 1, is the closest parallel to the Revelation 4 vision. It involved four living beings, the chariot bearers of God, cherubs so awesome in appearance, might, and knowledge, we would collapse upon seeing them.
And the throne-chariot of God departs from Zion until Ezekiel 43, a chapter not yet to see the light of historical experience. So Ezekiel’s throne vision is about the sadness of God’s departure from Zion and the joy of his someday return.
Finally, Daniel’s throne vision is a masterpiece of symbolic literature. The beast kingdoms of earth (Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, Rome) are depicted beneath and the throne of the Ancient of Days above. Ten thousand times ten thousand serve in the court of the Ancient of Days. The pomposity of the beast kingdoms is ludicrous in comparison. Even the great Xerxes of Persia or Augustus of Rome held not a candle to the radiant sun of God’s glory.
And to whom does the Ancient of Days give an unending kingdom? He gives it to one like a Son of Man. That is, the human empires exhibit the beast-like savagery of man, but the unending kingdom represents the paragon of humanity. The divinely human grace of the Son of Man’s kingdom contrasts with the brutishness of empires below.
And all this was the background, as John took on Roman empire and the entire future of human vainglory with his aged eyes and shaky pen. The context this time is none other than the precipice of Messianic woes to come upon the world. And before that precipice is left behind, so that history enters a time of pain and loss, John’s vision shows the true might and authority of God. It is the next to last stop before judgment. The last stop will feature the second attribute of God necessary to reconcile the pain of his judgment, which is his redemptive love (Revelation 5).