THE TWENTY-FOUR ELDERS
AROUND the throne are twenty-four thrones, occupied by twenty-four elders. Just as one of them afterward asks John concerning the vast crowd with palm branches in their hands, we, too are tempted to inquire: "Who are they?" We shall seek to imitate John and endeavor to extract our answer from the Scriptures themselves. We shall gather the significance of their title from its usage. We shall learn who they are from their own acts and utterances.
The almost unanimous consent of expositors that they represent the church in glory has been ably championed, but never satisfactorily settled for those who are acquainted with the place and portion of the ecclesia which is the body of Christ. In this economy, this body is God's means of manifesting His multifarious wisdom to the celestial hosts (Eph.3:10), and in the on-coming eon, in which this vision finds its place, we are to display the transcendent riches of His grace (Eph.2:7). We are not fitted to dispense wrath. It is not in keeping with the character of our calling. It is out of line with the love which He has lavished upon us. But the elders deal out indignation. They preside over the most awful period of wrath in the history of mankind. Before taking our seats around this terrifying judgment throne, let us be sure we are not usurping the place and functions of others more fitted for the execution of God's strange work.
Truly, the saints shall judge the world, and we shall judge angels, but the word judge often means no more than rule, and this section does not deal with the judgment of angels but of the earth.
In our attempt to identify the twenty-four elders, we should bear in mind the character of the vision. It is concerned with a throne and government. We should confine ourselves to creation, for redemption does not enter this scene until the seven-sealed scroll appears. We should enlarge our conceptions to fit the scope of the context.
The universal range of this judgment scene is clearly set forth in the next chapter, which records the doxology of "every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and underneath the earth and on the sea, and those in them all..." (5:13). And it is of the utmost significance that the response to this universal outburst of praise consists of an "amen" by the four animals, and the elders prostrate and worship. The elders and the animals are evidently the representatives of all created beings, except perhaps, the messengers, or angels, who have their own place distinct from the others.
This vision includes the whole realm of creation. The elders stand for the heavenly creatures, the animals for those on earth, while the messengers constitute the link between them. Thus the entire range of intelligent creation is accounted for, and the magnificence and magnitude of the great drama about to be enacted opens up to our gaze. It is no local judgment, limited in its effects, but, as befits the crisis of the eons, the heads of all created beings are concerned to execute the judgment due.
As the opening action of the vision is confined to creation, and the elders and animals and messengers are concrete expressions representing all created beings, we may well inquire whether we cannot corroborate this view by the account of creation in other portions of the Scriptures. One passage especially confirms this interpretation. In the first chapter of Colossians, we learn that in the Firstborn was created the universe in the heavens and on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or sovereignties or authorities (Col.1:16).
In this throne scene, the heads of heavenly government--the thrones and dominions and sovereignties and authorities--are symbolized by the twenty-four elders. The heads of earthly creation are symbolized by the four animals.
From time immemorial it has been the custom to use the comparative form "elder" in the special sense of official position. This is seen in our "alderman," which is simply another form of elder man.
In our Lord's day, they together with the chief priests and scribes, formed the Sanhedrin, which ruled the nation subject to the Roman governor. Again and again, they are associated with the chief priests (Matt.26:47; 27:1) and with the scribes (Matt.26: 57; 27:41; Mark 11:27). Hence we are safe in concluding that the function of the elders in this vision is distinct from both scribe and priest. We are confirmed in this by the fact that the twenty-four elders are never seen in the temple. Yet, before the throne, on one occasion, they perform the functions both of priest and Levite, when they offer the prayers of the saints in golden bowls and play on harps. This, however, seems to be incidental.
Indeed, the ideal priesthood is a royal one. The man who approaches nearest to God is best fitted to rule over others. Thus those who are privileged to have a part in the former resurrection will be clothed in priestly and regal honors. David's twenty-four courses of the priesthood seem to have been copied from the heavenly original which is partly disclosed in this vision. But these were more than priests. They were governors of the sanctuary and of the house (1 Chron.24:5).
The place given to elders in the Pauline ecclesias confirms the conclusion that they are rulers. We read of "the elder who rules (or controls) well" (1 Tim.5:17). He must first be able to control his own house (1 Tim.3:4,5). The control of the ecclesia was evidently in the hands of the elders who were accorded a special standing and dignity. They were not to be rebuked (1 Tim.5), except with two or three witnesses (1 Tim.5: 1,19).
The same officers were common among the ecclesias of the Circumcision. Peter exhorts to submission to the elders (1 Peter 5:5). John calls himself an elder (2 John 1;3 John 1).
If we add to all this the fact that they sit on thrones and are confined almost entirely to the Throne Section of this prophecy, the regal nature of their office is settled beyond question. They are the high hierarchy of heaven, the sovereigns of the celestial spheres.
It is not a mere coincidence that there are just twelve references to these twenty-four elders. Divine administration is ever apportioned thus. We hardly need to mention the fact that the twelve apostles will rule the twelve tribes in the millennial earth. Have we not here the twice twelve dignitaries who rule the heavenly courts subordinate to the Enthroned One?
We shall now examine the twelve occasions on which they are mentioned and the seven utterances which are recorded of them.
Their first appearance is of paramount importance (4:4). Never before do we read of elders occupying thrones, so we are more than confident that they represent the rulers of the realms above. But there seems to be more than this. They are clothed in white. White garments are given as an award of merit. They wear wreaths. Wreaths are for those only who have come off victors in some trial or contest. It is evident that these rulers, like all to whom God confides the duties of state, have won their place in some mighty conflict of which we have hardly more than a hint in the Scriptures.
The second time the elders are mentioned we find them casting their wreaths before Him Who lives for the eons of the eons, and they worship the Creator. Creation has been hymned from the beginning when the sons of God shouted for joy. It is not often that we are allowed to listen to the high worship of heaven.
THE CREATION HYMN OF THE ELDERS
Worthy art Thou, O Lord, our Lord and God,
To get glory and honor and power;
For Thou dost create all,
And because of Thy will they were, and are created (4:11).
The august simplicity of this hymn is matched by its sublimity. In the language of a child, it discloses a secret unknown to the sage. The world's wisest philosophers have groped in darkness to find a fitting First Cause to account for creation. Not one of them has been able to trace its genealogy back to the Creator. And none of them, should they find Him, could tell us why He created. Hence they cannot glorify Him as they should. But the elders know. The universe is not only the work of God, but it originated in the will of God. It is the fruit of His heart's hunger. Love cannot live alone. It must have an object on which to lavish its affection. The universe is the outlet of God's love. It was created through His will. For this, He deserves the glory and honor, and power which the elders ascribe to Him in this hymn of creation.
The word "universe" is simply "all" in the original. God created "the all." It causes great distress to some of His saints to believe this. Should they be asked to join the song of the elders they would surely wish to add "Thou dost create all good." They cannot acknowledge Him as the Creator of "the all."
The third reference is to one of the elders, who comforts John when no one in heaven, nor on earth, nor underneath the earth was able to open the scroll. He gives the first intimation of the royal Redeemer Who will loose the seven seals. Note the regal language and the reference to David.
It is most fitting that the Lord from heaven should have His conquest heralded by a heavenly dignitary, for the earth has rejected Him.
The taking of the scroll by the Lambkin is the most momentous act in this great apocalyptic tragedy. It stirs the whole creation from center to circumference. First, the four animals and the elders join in their new song of praise. Then myriads of messengers take up the strain. And thence it sweeps on until every creature in heaven and on earth and underneath the earth and on the sea join in the universal anthem to the throne-centered Lambkin.
The new song of the elders and animals presents one of the most difficult problems in the whole Unveiling. It has been used to prove that the elders and animals are redeemed sinners, for they sing, according to our versions, "Thou hast redeemed us," and "Thou hast made us . . . kings and priests," and "we shall reign" on the earth. If all these readings are correct, the elders and animals can represent no one else but the saints in Israel, for they alone will be kings and priests and reign on the earth. The elders have golden bowls brimming with incenses, which are the prayers of the saints. How can they be the saints themselves and at the same time offer the prayers of the saints?
A portion of the difficulty is readily solved by the fact that the best manuscripts put all of the latter part of the song in the third person, and read "Thou dost also make them a kingdom and priesthood," and "they will be reigning on the earth." As the principal manuscripts, including Codex Sinaiticus, and all modern editors, follow these readings there is no question of their correctness.
The only reason why this correct reading is not followed by some expositors is well expressed in the following footnote from Seiss' Lectures on the Apocalypse: "Some of the best MSS. read 'them' in place of us; but the sense is not altered by it, or by reading 'they,' as some MSS. do in the next clause instead of 'we;' for the subject is settled by the preceding declaration to be the persons uttering the song, namely, by the phrase 'redeemed US;' the genuineness of which must be considered established since the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus."
On the other hand, Dr. E. W. Bullinger, in "The Apocalypse," takes exactly the opposite view. He says, in a note, "Lachman, Tischendorf, Alford, Wordsworth, Westcott and Hort, and the R. V. omit hëmas, us. Indeed, all the critical authorities are unanimous in substituting the third person for the first in the next verse. But if so, then we must have the third person here and not the first person. MS. authority for this is the Alexandrian MS. in the British Museum (cent. iv). The Sinaitic MS. (cent. iv). The Reuchlin MS. (cent. iv). The Ethiopic Version (cent. iv). The Coptic Version (cent. v.). The Harleian MS. No. 1773 in British Museum. It is quoted without the "us" by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, 248-258, and Fulgentius, a Bishop in Africa, 508-533 so that it was neither in the ancient MSS. from which those versions were made; nor was it in the copies which those two Bishops had before them."
But Seiss gives the evidence for us as follows: "Some critics and expositors have rejected this heemas (US), for the reason that it is omitted in the Codex Alexandrinus, and in the Ethiopic Version: though the latter is not more than a loose paraphrase. The Codex Sinaiticus, however, which was discovered in 1860, and which is of equal antiquity and authority with the Codex Alexandrinus, contains it. The Codex Basilianus, in the Vatican, contains it. The Latin, Coptic or Memphitic, and Arminian, which are of great value, contain it. And so do all other MSS. and versions. And to discredit it, simply and only because it does not appear in that one single Codex of Alexandria, is most unreasonable and unjust to the weight of authority for its retention. Dr. Tregelles, on full examination, was firmly convinced of its right to a place in the text, before the Codex Sinaiticus appeared; and the presence of this heemas in that MS., ought to settle the question of its genuineness forever. The evidence from the context, also argues powerfully for a construction which necessarily embraces it, whether expressed or not. We regard it as indubitably genuine."
An examination of Codex Sinaiticus will show that it does contain this word. This seriously weakens Dr. Bullinger's position. The manuscript evidence is clearly in favor of us in the first part of the song, and even more decided for them and they in the second part. Both of the expositors we have cited claim that it must be the same throughout. If the elders speak of themselves at first then they must continue to do so. If they speak of others at the end then they must have started so. Both reject good readings in order to gain this uniformity.
Difficult as it undoubtedly is, let us strive against the temptation to conform the text of Scripture to our understanding of it. There is no reason or right in changing one part of the song to a supposed conformity with another. The elders sing of themselves at the beginning and of the saints whose prayers they are offering at the close. They speak of two distinct themes. First, they show why He is worthy to take the scroll. Secondly, they foretell the result of His action on the earth. He is worthy because He has bought them by His blood. His opening of the seals will give the saints the kingdom on earth. A translation follows:
THE NEW SONG OF THE ANIMALS AND ELDERS
Worthy art Thou to be taking the scroll and to open its seals,
For Thou wast slain and dost buy us for God by Thy blood.
Out of every tribe and language and people and nation.
Thou dost also make them a kingdom and a priesthood for our God,
And they shall be reigning on the earth (Rev 5:9-10).
Wherein does His worthiness consist? In the redemption of the saints? But the judgments that follow the opening of the seals affect far more than the faithful few who are true to Him. What right has He to visit the earth with vengeance and even drag down Satan from his place in the heavens? The reason is given. Because He has bought the whole creation and paid for it by His blood. Let us rid our minds and hearts of the crude notion that the blood of Christ has no claim on any but those who seek shelter beneath its power. Its value is not exhausted by redemption.
The first occurrence of the word for buy will not only give us the meaning of the word but also illustrate how He buys all creation in connection with the establishment of the kingdom. In the parable of the treasure hidden in the field (Matt.13:44) the saints are represented by the treasure, and "the field is the world" (38). When He finds the treasure He does not confine His efforts to it, but pays the price for the whole field and so gains the treasure. There is no thought of redemption here. He sold all that He had. All that a man has will he give for his soul. The soul is in the blood. The blood of Christ--all that He had--is the price He has paid for the field. The blood of Christ has overpaid creation's value. All creatures belong to Him and should acknowledge Him as their Owner. The false teachers of this very judgment period are accused of "denying the Owner Who bought them" (2 Peter 2:1). It is as the rightful Owner of the universe that the Lambkin takes the seven-sealed scroll and breaks its seals. Redemption leads to liberty, purchase to slavery. The slave who is redeemed is free: the man who is bought is in bonds. It is nowhere said that the elders and animals represent redeemed sinners. This would have no logical bearing on the great question which is uppermost in the vision. The redemption of the saints does not entitle Him to judge sinners. But the purchase of all created beings--saints and sinners, good and bad--invests Him with the Power to redeem His people and judge those who rebel against His authority.
The rendering "redeemed us" is misleading. It should read "bought us." The A. V. translates this word buy twenty-eight times and redeem only here and in the fourteenth chapter. There is a vast difference between buying and redeeming.
Let us remember that, at the time when the elders sing this song, the universe has come to the very climax of evil. This judgment session is convened to deal with a rebellious earth. The man of sin is on the scene, and Satan has marshaled his heavenly hosts. And this is the universe which He created, the offspring of His will! Yet it is just such a universe which will get Him glory and honor and power.
It is no relief to seek to exonerate God, as the gnostics did, by interposing some of God's creatures between Himself and evil. That false faith invented a series of subordinate divinities, the lowest being responsible for evil. So some of His saints seek to shield Him by interposing Adam, and his will, or Satan and his rebellion. Yet Adam was God's creation and Satan himself is His creature. It was not Satan who planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden. Why did not God plant two trees, one for the knowledge of good, and the other for the knowledge of evil? Was it not because the two are inseparable? Can good be known apart from evil, or evil apart from good? Are they not like light and darkness, which we know only by contrast? Never let us doubt God's wisdom in planting one tree for the knowledge of both good and evil. Rather let us rejoice that the knowledge of evil will always constitute the prime ingredient in our appreciation of good when evil itself is no more.
It is true and well to note, that evil is introduced by intermediaries. God did not directly afflict Job. Satan was His instrument. Yet Job was not deceived. Even the dim light in which he lived was sufficient to lead him back to the One Who is the primal Cause of all. He did not say "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil at the hand of Satan?" There would have been much truth in that. He received evil at the hand of God (Job 2:10). Let us learn the lesson Job knew so well and boldly say, "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!" Is this a sin? Is this charging God foolishly? "In all this," we read, "Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly" (Job 1:21,22).
The remaining utterances of the elders confirm the interpretation we have advanced. One of the elders tells John who the vast throng are (7:3):
"And one of the elders answered, saying to me, `These who are clothed in white robes--who are they, and whence came they?' And I declared to him: `My Lord, you are aware.' And he said to me, `These are those who are coming out of the great affliction. And they rinse their robes, and they whiten them in the blood of the Lambkin. Therefore they are before God's throne and are offering divine service to Him day and night in His temple. And He Who enthroned is sitting will be tabernacling over them. They shall be hungering no longer; they shall be thirsting no longer; no, nor may the sun fall on them nor any heat, seeing that the throne-centered Lambkin shall be shepherding them and shall be guiding them to living springs of water, and every tear shall God be brushing away from their eyes.'"
Their last long utterance is characteristic of the part they play and celebrates the consummation of their work. The judgment of the evil is over, the "judgment" or reward of the good is due (11:16-18): "And the twenty-four elders who are sitting on their thrones before God prostrate themselves on their faces and worship God, saying: `We are thanking Thee, Lord God Almighty, Who art and Who wast, seeing that Thou hast taken Thy great power and dost reign. And the nations were angered, and Thy indignation is come, and the era for the judgment of the dead, and for giving wages to Thy slaves the prophets and to the saints and to those who are fearing Thy name, the small and the great, and to blight those who are blighting the earth.'"
The seventh and last utterance concerns the judgment of great Babylon. Both the elders and the animals join in the jubilation over her doom. After the vast throng in heaven has voiced its approbation of God's judgment, they assent with an "Amen! Hallelujah!"
In closing, we must once more express our thankfulness that our ministry is so far above that of the twenty-four elders. They appear upon the scene for the execution of judgment against the ungodly. We are His chosen channel of grace. Often do his dear saints give vent to a thoughtless "Hallelujah!" little dreaming of its true import. It is never found except in connection with God's strange work. It is always used in praising Jah for His stern inflictions. It never finds a place in the responses of grace. O, that the saints of this transcendent economy of God's unforced favor would drink so deeply of the delicious drought of grace that all desire for the lower spheres of blessing would vanish! It is not ours to choose, but, if it were, who would part with the priceless privilege of revealing the transcendent riches of God's grace to these celestial sovereigns, in order to usurp their place and power in righting a rebellious earth.
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