The final book of the New Testament whose title in Greek means ‘unveiling’ is written in a genre popular at the time not easily understood today. It uses many symbolic images, some are hard to visualize, and better taken as directed to the mind rather than the eye. One example of this are the four ‘living creatures’ or ‘animals’ first mentioned in 4:7-9 (and later in 7:11, read on All Saints.) They occur in a ‘vision’ of heaven pictured as a regal court, with God on a throne. God is not described directly as beyond human power to express (John 1:18) but the details give a sense of awe and power. He takes natural examples to illustrate supernatural reality. The four creatures around the throne are such hints. They are ‘covered by eyes, before and behind’ – perhaps showing that nothing is hidden from God. The first had a face like a lion, the second like an ox, the third a human face, and the fourth a flying eagle. They each had six wings, and continually sang: ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’
John, the author of the book, does not explain the animals any further, nor give a hint of what they symbolize. I see as one possibility: the lion – which we still call King of Beasts – as the fullness of power, while the strong ox is power at the service of humans. The eagle in its free flight joins earth to ‘heaven’. The man may represent intelligence. These features could be aspects of God as experienced in relationship to humanity. But like all poetry, they are more evocative than explained.
As so much in the Apocalypse, there are echoes or references to books in the Old Testament. God on his throne, the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ and six winged ‘seraphim’ are in Isaiah’s ‘inaugural vision’, 6:21-3. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, which has a lot of apocalyptic passages, his inaugural vision has a more elaborate picture of very similar creatures to John’s, with the wings and eyes and four different faces but with many other features as well. These occur in 1:4-21 and are said to be the ‘chariot’ of God. If you look up this passage, prepare to be confused! The grammar itself is not clear, and the commentator Lawrence Boadt, CSP, suggests the confusion may have been meant to suggest these four are in motion and that may mean not easily discerned. They are all controlled in movement by the One in this strange vehicle.
However bizarre they to moderns, these descriptions would have had some familiarity to people of that time. Winged human headed bulls and lions were huge statues of guardian demigods before the Babylonian/Assyrian temples. Carved reliefs also show eagle headed figures, and wings are common. (Examples of all these may be seen in the British Museum, and some online.) The Hebrews adopted winged creatures as ‘cherubim’ and they were carved for the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple (Exodus 37:7-9). (Our more familiar ‘angels’ are mild descendants of these.) The adapted pagan creatures are, however, not considered by the Hebrews as having supernatural powers of their own; rather they are shown at the service of the one true and truly powerful God.
The four creatures have a later life, as they were used by early Christians as symbols of the four evangelists, based on how each opened his Gospel. Matthew is the man, for he begins with the human genealogy of Jesus. Mark is the lion, for he starts with John the Baptist preaching (‘roaring’?) in wilderness. Luke begins in the Temple, and as the ox was used in sacrifices that represents him. John, whose Prologue starts in ‘the beginning’ with Jesus the ‘Word’ of God, ‘soars’ above the earth as an eagle. These ‘attributes’ have been a gift to artists through the ages. (Wikipedia has some examples.)