“And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:8, ESV).
The four living creatures sang or spoke these words in John’s vision of Revelation. Who were they, what did they mean, and why do we say or sing these words in our worship?
Revelation 4:8 in Context
Many writers describe Revelation 4 as a segue “from John's description of things which are — or were, at the time he wrote — to those things which are yet to happen.” John views 24 thrones, an elder at each, and their thrones surround God’s throne.
John’s majestic imagery leads to the depiction of four creatures who utter those words, which one might have heard in Kari Jobe’s Revelation Song: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
Scholars stress that some parts of Revelation are symbolic, others are literal, and still, others are possibly a reduced version of the grand truth.
Who Were the Four Living Creatures?
The four creatures resemble (respectively) a lion, ox, eagle, and only one “had a face like a man” (4:7). Yet their many wings and many eyes (inside and out) are suggestive of insects, blending the features of graceful animals with insectile traits. How could these be angels?
Theologians compare the four creatures of Revelation 4 with those of Isaiah 6. One writer proposed that the creatures “are the same angelic beings. For example, in both passages, the angels proclaim the holiness of God three times, and they have six wings.”
One can argue that the consistency is compelling evidence for the angelic nature of Revelation’s four creatures.
What Were They Saying?
The four creatures continually give glory to God, “Saying Holy, holy, holy, Lord God, the Almighty, who was, who is, and who is to come” (Revelation 4:8).
These words echo Isaiah 6:3, in which the creatures call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Armies, his glory fills the whole earth.” This is their role in heaven both in the Old Testament and the New.
In John’s vision, the angels declare the eternal nature of God — “Lord Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” As the Greek word “hagios” indicates, the Lord Almighty is set apart. The angels or creatures are not like him.
We are not like him. We were made in his image, but to worship and proclaim Him, not ourselves. They were telling the Lord that they submit to him, even though they are formidable creatures in their own right.
Reciting “holy, holy, holy” means the four creatures (and also, those of us who sing these words) show proper reverence because God is “worthy of veneration [...] on account of his incomparable majesty” (Ibid.).
So as the creatures/angels declare, “Holy, holy, holy,” with their eyes uncovered in Revelation 4, they are praising the One who made a way for us to be reconciled to God.
Having looked inwardly with those internal eyes, the creatures could see that they were not like God and not worthy of worship; they embraced the role of worshipers, which was assigned to them.
As they repeated “hagios,” the creatures were saying you are different, God; you are not like us. You alone are worthy to receive all praise.
With Christ’s appearance on earth, all people were invited to see God. Those uncovered eyes and the words they say or sing emphasize that we have access to the One whom it will be our privilege and joy to worship for eternity, all because of Christ’s work on the cross.
The covered eyes of Isaiah 6 recall the “before” of our sinful estate; their open eyes in Revelation mark the “after,” which Christ bought for us with his blood.
And the open eyes are a thematic reminder of a new access to God, which is only offered through Jesus Christ. Without him, we could not look upon the Lord and live.
Why Do We Say Holy, Holy, Holy?
“At least some of these angels have worship as their chief task,” such as the creatures featured in Revelation 4:8 (Ibid.). Their role reminds readers that there will be specific jobs for everyone in heaven and indicates that those jobs will relate to worship.
Notice how the 24 elders are inspired to fall down before God and worship him as the creatures cry “holy, holy, holy.” When a worship team gets on stage to lead a congregation, this is what they are doing — encouraging, exhorting, and inspiring the congregation to praise the Lord.
The angels/creatures of Revelation 4:8 are doing the same thing. As they repeat their chorus, “The twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him [...]. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, or you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’” (Revelation 4:9-11). Their worship leads others into worship with them.
God is to be worshiped, and not in the way that best suits us, but the way that he directs. That “these supernatural beings are given the job of worshiping God continually indicates how seriously our God takes worship. Worship of our holy Creator cannot be an afterthought; it must be of first importance in our lives.”
God has shown us what is good and what he wants, and we can see through John’s visions the fruit of a heart that adores Jesus. We cast our crowns at his feet. We obey him.
The good news about heaven is that contrary to our present battle with pride when we are perfected by Christ in heaven, there will be no more competing loyalties. Sin will have died, and we will want to worship Christ continually.
On earth, Christians “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
In heaven, we will be unified in our goal of praising God eternally, serving him in joy, free from sin, pain, or death. Christ will be set apart as the object of unified worship. We will not be tempted to worship anyone else.
Singing Holy, Holy, Holy
Before Gideon defeated Midian, according to God’s direction given in a dream (Judges 7), Gideon instructed, “When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then blow the trumpets also on every side of all the camp and shout, ‘For the LORD and for Gideon’” (v.18).
When we cry “holy, holy, holy” together, we declare that Jesus has won. We will not be shaken by the spirits of darkness. Christ’s holiness, his set-apartness, and his majesty strike fear into the heart of our enemies.
Every sinner who submits to the Lord and cries, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,” points to the fact that Jesus alone is King. “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Revelation 1:7).
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.