The number four and groups of four connect with our sense of place in the horizontal world. Everything around us is in one of four directions: east, west, north, or south. In the worldview of the Old Testament, complete descriptions were often developed in sets of four. When the tax collector Zacchaeus expressed his practical faith in Jesus, he included a promise to “pay four times as much as I owe to those I have cheated in any way” (Luke 19:8). Jesus accepted that commitment as a sign of genuine repentance, symbolic of completeness. And there are four Gospels, a complete picture of the life of Christ.
FOUR AS A LITERARY TECHNIQUE
Notice the various groups of four included by the prophet Isaiah (numbers added for clarity):
This is the kind of fasting I have chosen: Loosen the chains of wickedness, unite the straps of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke.
Share your food with the hungry, take the poor and homeless into your house, and cover them with clothes when you see them naked.
Don’t refuse to help your relatives.
Then your light will break through like the dawn, and you will heal quickly.
Your righteousness will go ahead of you, and glory of the LORD will guard you from behind.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer.
You will cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am!”
Get rid of that yoke.
Don’t point your finger and say wicked things.
If you give some of your own food to feed those who are hungry and to satisfy the need of those who are humble, then your light will rise in the dark, and your darkness will become as bright as the noonday sun. (Isa 58:6-10)
These groupings provide a strong sense of direction covering every facet of life. The examples, listed in groups of four, are intended to symbolize or imply these specifics plus everything in between. This is similar to Amos’s parallelism of “three . . .even . . . four” of a variety of sins (chap 1-2 NIV). God is interested and will engage with us as we seek to follow his leading in every relationship.
FOUR IN APOCALYPTIC PROPHECIES
In the prophetic writings of Scripture-primarily Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation-collections of four make frequent appearances to convey a sense of completeness, whether it has to do with God’s judgment-as in the four horsemen of John’s vision in Revelation 6:1-7 and the four winds of heaven in Daniel 7:2-or God’s saving plan extended to “every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9; read also 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6). The eventual inclusion of representatives from all of humanity is a ringing endorsement of God’s heart for the whole world.
In John’s glimpse of heaven’s throne room, he is mesmerized by the sight of four living creatures, one like a human, and one like an eagle. These creatures see everything and can’t stop giving glory to God. They provide a prophetic echo to Ezekiel’s first vision, which also involved a number of foursomes:
In the center of the cloud I saw what looked like four living creatures. They were shaped like humans, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight, their feet were like those of claves, and they glittered like polished bronze. They had human hands under their wings on each of their four sides. All four of them had faces and wings. (Ezek 1:5-8).
FOUR AS A TEM OF GEOGRAPHICAL COMPLETENESS
When John finally sees “New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven” (Rev 21:2), one of the features about he city that becomes apparent is its shape as a massive cube. “The city was square. It was as wide as it was long. He measured the city with the stick. It was 12,000 stadia long. Its length, width, and height were the same. He measured its wall. According to human measurement, which the angel was using, it was 144 cubits” (Rev 21:16-17).
When God gave the precise instructions to Moses in the wilderness about he structure and components of the tabernacle (worship tent) that would stand in the middle of the Israelite camp, those directions were filled with fours (Exod 25-39). From the four golden rings attached to the ark of the covenant that would hold the carrying poles (25:12) to the four bronze carrying rings on the square altar for burnt offerings (38:5) and the “four posts set in four bronze bases” (38:19) that supported the screen of the outside entrance of the tabernacle, the number four figures prominently. And when God built the New Jerusalem, the jewel of the new heaven and new earth, it’s not surprising that the repetition of four provides a sort of signature of the Designer.