(Rev. 1:4) What are the seven spirits mentioned here?

CLAIM: John writes of “the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (Rev. 1:4). What is he referring to? The Holy Spirit or angels?

RESPONSE: There are two possible options that interpreters hold here:

OPTION #1: This is referring to angels sitting before the throne of God.

On this view, these seven angels would correspond to the seven angels of the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3. Advocates of this view note that “the seven spirits who are before His throne” (1:4) correspond to “the seven angels who stand before God” (8:2). However, this view has a number of problems:

1. It is odd that “grace and peace” (Rev. 1:4) would come from seven angels, rather than from God himself. This seems to contradict the commands against angel worship later in the book (Rev. 19:10; 22:9).

2. Revelation 3:1 seems to differentiate between “the seven Spirits” and “the seven stars.” Of course, the seven stars are angels (Rev. 1:20), but then, who or what are the seven spirits? These two are clearly different.

3. This doesn’t seem to fit with the context. In chapter one, John’s focus seems to be focused on God—not angels. While the later context refers to angels (chapters 2 and 3), the immediate context refers to God the Father and God the Son.

4. John never refrains from mentioning angels in Revelation; in fact, angels are mentioned in almost every chapter of Revelation (with the exception of chapters 4 and 13). If these are angels, why not identify them as such, as he does consistently throughout the rest of the book?

5. The term “spirit” (Greek pneuma) is normally used of demons or fallen angels in the Bible. Walvoord writes, “The word spirit (Gr., pneuma) is commonly used of evil spirits, that is, demons or fallen angels; of the human spirit (cf. Mark 8:12)… Angels are contrasted to spirits in Acts 23:8–9.”[1] Although, this is not always the case. Sometimes angels are called “spirits” (Heb. 1:7, 14).

OPTION #2: This is referring to the Holy Spirit.

Advocates of this view note that it fits better with the context of Revelation 1. The focus here is on God the Father (v.4) and the Son (v.5). Mentioning the Holy Spirit in the midst of this would fit with a complete Trinitarian understanding of God. Moreover, the OT ties the “seven Spirits” with the Holy Spirit. Zechariah receives a vision which sheds much light on this topic (Zech. 4):

Then the angel who was speaking with me returned and roused me, as a man who is awakened from his sleep. 2 He said to me, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold with its bowl on the top of it, and its seven lamps on it with seven spouts belonging to each of the lamps which are on the top of it; 3 also two olive trees by it, one on the right side of the bowl and the other on its left side.” 4 Then I said to the angel who was speaking with me saying, “What are these, my lord?5 So the angel who was speaking with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” And I said, “No, my lord.” 6 Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts.

Here Zechariah equates the seven lamps with the Spirit of God. John also equates the seven lamps with the seven spirits. In Revelation 4:5, he writes, “There were seven lamps of fire… which are the seven Spirits of God.” This is good grounds for understanding the seven spirits as the Holy Spirit. Certainly, the expression “My Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit.

7 ‘What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become a plain; and he will bring forth the top stone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!” ’ ” 8 Also the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house, and his hands will finish it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. 10 “For who has despised the day of small things? But these seven will be glad when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel—these are the eyes of the LORD which range to and fro throughout the earth.”

Here the “eyes of the Lord” are throughout the Earth—not “the eyes of angels.” In Revelation 5:6, we read of “seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth.” This is also synonymous with Zechariah’s vision.

While we find this view favorable, there are a couple of problems which should be considered:

1. It seems odd that the Holy Spirit would be referred to in the plural (Spirits), rather than the usual singular (Spirit). But since the book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, perhaps the number seven is being used as a symbol for perfection. The number seven is often used of completeness or perfection in the Bible, and it is used 54 times throughout the book.[2] Thus John would be equating the Holy Spirit with perfection.

2. Advocates of this view often get warrant for their interpretation by appealing to Isaiah 11:2 which gives seven attributes of the Holy Spirit in the Septuagint (LXX). However, the original Hebrew does not give seven attributes—only six. And, as Thomas notes, “In the Apocalypse little weight is assigned to the LXX.”[3] Therefore, this argument doesn’t carry much weight.

[1] Walvoord, John. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. JFW Publishing Trust. Chicago, IL. 1966. 37.

[2] Walvoord, John. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. JFW Publishing Trust. Chicago, IL. 1966. 28.

[3] Thomas, Robert L. Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1992. 68.