Brandon Smith writes: Who are the seven spirits in Revelation? This question arises in the opening lines of John’s vision in which he refers to “the seven spirits who are before [God’s] throne” (Rev. 1:4). The seven spirits are named again in Jesus’s message to Sardis (Rev. 3:1), as well as twice in the throne-room scenes (Rev. 4:5; 5:6).
Some scholars have argued that the seven spirits are borrowed from Jewish ideas about Yahweh’s seven chief angels, or perhaps the Greco-Roman idea of a plurality of spirits that bring wisdom and knowledge. However, I will argue that the seven spirits represent the Holy Spirit, for three main reasons.
1. John’s Use of the Number Seven
Revelation is an apocalyptic book, which means we should be careful of being too “literal,” especially when it comes to numbers and analogies. The number seven is well attested in the Bible, being used in some form more than 800 times. It’s often viewed as the number of completion or perfection, most notably when seven is associated with the completion of God’s “very good” creation (Gen. 1). Throughout Revelation, John uses the number often—seven spirits, seven churches, seven stars, seven lamps, seven angels, seven cycles of judgment, and so on.
Revelation’s vivid imagery, illustrations, analogies, and use of the Old Testament make interpreting it a tricky endeavor. We shouldn’t exaggerate this point and assume that Revelation is merely a riddle to decode, stripping it of its historical context and theological richness. And yet, taking into account John’s use of seven and its importance in Scripture, it’s safe to say “seven” likely refers to more than a mere number of spirits.
2. John’s Use of Scripture
Part of John’s literary genius is his use of the Old Testament and continuity with the New as he describes his visions. Given his constant quoting of the prophets and the book’s sense of fulfillment of God’s promises, he clearly sees himself in some sense as a prophet who points to God’s final promises coming true. He then creatively uses the visions to show how God is bringing a new creation through Christ and the Spirit. It could be argued that John alludes to the Old Testament in almost every verse, but we’ll mention only a few here.
Zechariah 4:1–14 is one of many key texts for John’s understanding of the Spirit’s role, especially the language of Zechariah 4:6 about the Spirit establishing God’s rule on earth. In a clear allusion to Zechariah 4:10, John equates the “eyes of the LORD” in the Zechariah passage with the seven spirits in Revelation 1:4 and those in 5:6, where the “sevens spirits of God” are sent to be his eyes on earth. This language of God’s eyes having an all-encompassing gaze can also be compared to passages such as Proverbs 15:3: “The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, observing the wicked and the good” (CSB).
In the context of other New Testament writings, John may be thinking of Jesus sending the Spirit to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20; John 14:26), paired with Zechariah’s description of the power of the Spirit rebuilding the temple (Zech. 4:6), which John also describes as God building his temple through the Spirit (Rev. 3:12; 11:1) and which finds its eschatological culmination in the New Jerusalem (21:3, 16, 22). The number seven as a sign of the Spirit’s divine fullness might also allude to the LXX translation of Isaiah 11:2–3, with its sevenfold description of the gifts and activities of the Lord’s Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, godliness, and the fear of God.
In just a few passages listed here, we see how John ties the seven spirits into the being, identity, or activity of YHWH and/or his Spirit, showing that the seven spirits cannot merely be angels or an impersonal force. Instead, we see the way John pulls together other biblical texts to highlight the Holy Spirit’s divine work in the world.
3. John’s Worship Language
Last, but perhaps most notably, John includes these seven spirits in several important worship contexts.
In his opening doxology, the Father, Jesus, and the seven spirits jointly offer grace and peace. Doxologies in the New Testament always include various formulations of the three persons of the Trinity, and these doxologies are recognized as both a phrase of worship and/or a divine blessing to the recipients. If the seven spirits were merely angels, it would be unusual for John to include them as recipients of worship and as givers of divine blessing, especially considering Revelation’s hyper-awareness of the difference between true and false worship. Indeed, angels in Revelation reject worship on multiple occasions (Rev. 19:10; 22:9).
As noted above, the throne-room scenes in Revelation 4–5 show the seven spirits proceeding from the throne as the “eyes” of the Lamb. Whereas every other creature in heaven is turned toward the throne, bowing down and singing praises to God and Christ, we see the seven spirits coming from the throne, indicating that unlike angels or other creatures, they have a place on God’s throne and represent his activity from the throne.
Aside from the doxology and throne-room scenes, we should note that the Spirit brings John into the vision to begin with (Rev. 1:10) and guides him through the visionary journey (4:2; 17:3; 21:10). This being “in the Spirit” and “carried away by the Spirit” actually seems to be the way John receives this prophetic revelation of God, for he is commanded to “write down everything” he sees (1:11). Similar prophetic inspiration is found, for example, in Ezekiel 3:12 and 11:24. Peter’s statement that God spoke through the prophets, by way of the Holy Spirit, to confess the knowledge of Christ comes to mind here as well (2 Pet. 1:16–21).
So, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the “seven spirits” and the phrase “in the Spirit” occur at these key places in the book, showing that at every major turn in the narrative, the Spirit is present and acting as a gatekeeper for John’s heavenly entrance.
Praise God the Holy Spirit
In this brief survey, we have seen that John uses “seven spirits” language to talk about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. While God and Christ are obviously the center of the narrative, the Holy Spirit receives worship and bestows grace, has a place on God’s throne, and acts as the agent of revelation as John enters the heavenly realms.
God the Holy Spirit is far from an overlooked character in Revelation; rather, he is a centerpiece of the entire narrative and is worthy of our praise.
(This piece was first published at the Gospel Coalition site here.)
Brandon D. Smith is assistant professor of theology and New Testament at Cedarville University, editorial director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and host of the Church Grammar podcast. He is author of They Spoke of Me: How Jesus Unlocks the Old Testament. You can follow him on Twitter @brandon_d_smith.
Additional note: I make this argument in my chapter on ‘The Trinity in Revelation’ in The Trinity without Hierarchy ed Michael Bird and Scott Harrower.
Where we might now expect Jesus to be the second agent in the three-fold greeting, we find the ‘seven spirits before his throne’. Craig Koester follows R. H. Charles, E. Schweizer, D. Aune and others in interpreting these as seven angelic beings (against Bauckham, Beckwith, Bousset, Fee, Keener, Osborne, Sweet and others), since the Dead Sea Scrolls uses ‘angels’ and ‘spirits’ as parallel expressions, and because of the existence of ‘angelic spirits’ before the throne of God in Tobit 12:15 and 1 Enoch 20:1–7. But Bauckham had earlier pointed out that this identification is rare in early Christian literature, and that the description of the seven angels ‘who stand before God’ in 8:2 is in quite different terms. There is a large and varied cast of angels throughout the text (most notably in the six arriving as two sets of three in chapter 14) so there is no reason to think that John would slip a further seven in here ‘in disguise’ as it were. And the insertion of this reference between the titular introductions of God and Jesus, who (as we shall see) converge in title, function and authority, has the effect of removing any ambiguity, since ‘grace and peace’ as divine blessing flow from all three.
There are two Old Testament springboards for the language of ‘seven spirits’ which occurs here and in 3:1, 4:5 and 5:6. The messianic text Isa 11:1–9 begins by describing the ‘branch of Jesse’ as anointed with the Spirit of Yahweh which has six attributes (wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of Yahweh). But the grammatical structure of the LXX puts the opening clause ‘Spirit of God’ as the first of what then becomes seven attributes. Combined with the symbolic significance of seven indicating completeness (since in the ancient world there were not only seven days of the week but also seven seas and seven planets), this might lie behind the complex narrative of Zech 4. In Zechariah’s vision, a golden lampstand has seven lamps on it and stands next to two olive trees, which symbolize the two ‘sons of oil’ (Zech 4:14) Joshua and Zerubbabel. The meaning of the vision is given as ‘“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” says Yahweh of hosts’ (Zech 4:6), clearly identifying the seven lamps as the Spirit of God, an understanding John deploys in 4:5.
Zechariah’s later image, the ‘seven eyes of Yahweh that range throughout the earth’ (Zech 4:10) are not immediately connected with the (seven) Spirit(s) in that passage, but John fuses this image with the earlier one in 5:6 by identifying the Lamb’s ‘seven eyes’ with ‘the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth:’ This conjunction has two effects: firstly to identify in some sense the lamb and Yahweh, since the ‘eyes of Yahweh’ have now become the ‘eyes of the lamb’; and secondly to place the Spirit in a subordinate position in relation to both God and the lamb. The situation of the seven lamps ‘before the throne’ is one that is shared by the various members of the assembled throng (including elders, living creatures and angels) and which signifies worship and obedience. The fact that the throne itself belongs to God, but the lamb then occupies it, and the (seven) Spirit(s) being the eyes of both Yahweh and the lamb offers a narrative portrayal which might be later expressed in a different register as the Spirit ‘proceeding from the Father and the Son’.