Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

round about the throne, were four beasts, Rev 4:6, design for lino cut—coming soon

And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
Revelation 4:6-8

It's almost amusing to read the various commentaries attempting to interpret Revelation, written over centuries by theologians of various schools of thought, assuming, divining, analysing, and rarely agreeing with one another. It rather indicates we are not meant to understand the symbolism in this book, only to keep guessing, to stay curious and bewildered, to always remain in a state of wonderment and not-knowing. I'm good with that. Let each age come and change the meanings of this book; let the richness of storytelling and the personal enlightenment therein take precedence over single definition, over authoritarian finality. The book of Revelation reminds us of how little we know, and how vast is the world of possibility.

Let's take the four beasts—who, even being named "beasts" is today considered controversial, the NIV and the NRSV both replacing the term with "living creatures" a much gentler, less weighted description, but one that loses the power of animalism inherent in the first term, the raw, gutsy sense of life arising. With six wings and full of eyes each beast has the power of movement and the gift of wisdom. These are extraordinary beasts, awe-inspiring teachers, not just a bunch of animals.

The choice of these beasts is itself curious: a lion, a calf, a man and an eagle, in that order.1 My immediate interpretation would be to pair these as wilderness/domesticity and commanding-self/observing-self, which in total describe man's precarious balance in this world and his search for meaning.

Wilderness/domesticity: As members of community we must strike a balance between personal freedom and obedience to the rule of law, each pull requiring it's opposite to create balance. We cannot have a society of anarchists, each doing what is right in their own eyes. The book of Judges showed how disastrous such an approach becomes.2 Neither is it healthy to have total compliance to the rule of law. In that realm lies dictatorship, as was much in evidence during Roman rule at the time this very book was written. Each human must be part lion/part oxen, finely balanced between freedom and compliance, roaring our independence one moment, embracing the safety of the herd the next.

Commanding-self/observing-self: Our human face is our logic, our rationality, our foresight. As the only beasts on earth with these traits there can be found no other animal representation, hence the odd appearance of "man" among the other three beasts. As God's chosen stewards of the earth we must find the balance between attention to detail and a sense of the big picture, between short term gain and long-term sustainability. Needless to say we are doing an appalling job at this, getting worse and worse with each passing decade. Our man-spirit, our short-term gain bias has almost completely taken down our eagle, who it seems can barely fly these days, broken-winged and half blind as we have rendered it.

Where once we were full of eyes before and behind with the ability to learn from the past in order to forge the future, today we are slowly losing our sight, and losing our ability to soar, trapped in the mundanity of compliant consumerism. And yet these beasts are not described as failing in the way we are feeling—and that can fill us with hope. We humans are but a short glitch in the vast magnitude and magnificence of time. Order will one day be restored.

1 These same four beasts were described a few hundred years earlier, in Ezekiel 1.
2 See, for example, my reflection on Judges 21:25, Individualism