The Revelation of St. John the Divine
With Commentary by W. Boyd Carpenter
Edited by Charles John Ellicott
The New Testament Commentary
Cassell And Company, 1910
[Spelling selectively modernized. Bible citations converted to all Arabic numerals. Notes moved into their places of citation within square brackets. Run-on sentences divided where suitable. Index omitted for web.]
1. The Author.
2. The Date and Time of the Writing
3. Schools and Principles of Interpretation
4. General Scope of the Book.
I. The Author. – The general opinion of the Church of Christ has accepted the Apocalypse as the work of John the Apostle, but this general opinion has been called in question. Our space can only allow us to lay before our readers a brief resume of the reasons which have been urged on either side. For convenience it will be as well to ask the following questions: –
(1) Was the Writer’s name John? – At first sight it would seem that there could be but one answer to this question. The book announces itself as written by a person whose name was John. Four times over does the name occur (Rev. 1:1, 4, 9, 22:8).
Is there any reason for questioning the witness thus given by the book itself? It has been asserted that the writer does not claim to be John, but only “gives a report of a revelation which John had received” (Scholten). It is perfectly true that a writer might thus dramatically represent the Apostle John as the seer of the revelation; but such possibility is no proof that it was so, and certainly cannot be entertained in the total absence of all proof. The reiteration of the name four times is out of harmony with this conjecture; and the theory would not, as Gebhardt has remarked, be applied to any other book of the New Testament. Would any serious reply be “thought necessary should it occur to someone to reject the First Epistle to the Corinthians, because from such passages as 1 Cor. 1:13, it does not follow that the author identifies himself with Paul, but gives (1 Cor. 1:1–2), after the manner of an introduction, a report of an Epistle which the Apostle wrote?”
We may assume, then, that the writer’s name was John.
(2) Was the Writer John the Apostle? – It is round this question that we meet the most serious conflict.
(a) It is admitted on all hands, even by those who oppose the apostolic authorship of the book, that the great consensus of early opinion regarded the writer as St. John the Apostle. “From the time of Justin Martyr to that of Irenaeus and the great Fathers, the Apocalypse was recognized as a production of the Apostle.” Such is the opinion of Keim (Jesu v. Nazura). “We find the Revelation unhesitatingly attributed to him (St. John) by the Fathers from the middle of the second century downwards; by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and others” (Black). The opinion of the third century was the same. Origen, whose opposition to millenarianism adds value to his testimony, Cyprian, Lactantius, and others, acknowledge the Apocalypse as the work of St. John.
Setting aside the opinion of Marcion, and of the unimportant sect of the Alogi (see Introduction to the First Epistle to St. John), doubts respecting the apostolic authorship seem to have commenced with Dionysius of Alexandria. These doubts which were echoed hesitatingly by Eusebius, were based not on historical or critical, so much as upon doctrinal grounds. The dread of millenarianism created a wish to discredit the book which appeared to lend such weight to the disliked doctrine. It is needless to follow the history of this controversy; it is enough to notice that the first breach of this continuous early opinion in favour of the apostolic authorship grew out of doctrinal prejudice rather than candid examination.
(b) In later years, the controversy has been fought from different bases of operation. The conflict respecting the authorship of the Fourth Gospel (see Introduction to St. John’s Gospel) has complicated the dispute. It seemed to some impossible to believe that the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse proceeded from the same pen. The divergence in style and language was, in their view, too great to admit of their being written by the same man, even though that man were an Apostle. If the Gospel was the work of St. John, the Apocalypse could not be. The generally accepted opinion that St. John wrote the Apocalypse was assailed by those who, in their wish to preserve their faith in the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel, were ready to sacrifice the Book of Revelation. This was substantially the view adopted by Neander, Lucke, Ewald, Block, Dusterdieck, and others. In opposition to these, others were ready to adopt the other hypothesis: they accepted the view that the two books could not have been the work of one and the same writer; but they preferred to sacrifice the Gospel: the Apocalypse was the work of St. John; the Gospel, therefore, could not be. Such was the view of those who, like Baur, aimed at discrediting the Fourth Gospel, or who wished to support the theory of a designed antagonism between the school of St. John, and that of St. Paul. Neither of these parties – those who would sacrifice the Apocalypse to the Gospel, and those who would sacrifice the Gospel to the Apocalypse – represent the most recent phase of the controversy. Another class of thinkers arose who felt that the witness which the Fourth Gospel and the Revelation alike gave to the Person of Christ was too strong to be allowed the authority of an Apostle by those who had formed other and lower conceptions of the Jesus of the Gospels. They saw no glimpses of His heavenly glory and majesty in the synoptical Gospels. They found that the Book of Revelation was full of them. The Christ of the Apocalypse was the Word of God, the King of Kings; the Christ of the Gospels was One who came not to be ministered to, but to minister. The portrait given in the Gospels of “the loving and amiable Son of Man,” as the Divine Son of God was patronizingly styled, was not to be found in the Apocalypse; such a book could not have been written by one who personally knew the gentle and self-sacrificing Prophet of Galilee – least of all, perhaps, by the beloved disciple. Such is the view of the more recent critics, and advanced with varying power and arguments by Volkmar, Hoekstra, and Scholten. The book was a forgery, or at best the composition of some other John – not of John the Apostle. Besides, it was urged, the Apostle could not have been the author, for it is clear that the writer lived in Asia Minor, whereas the Apostle John never was in Asia Minor at all.
Such is, perhaps, the most recent phase of the controversy.
(c) We have not space to do more than touch but briefly, and only upon a few of the arguments advanced against the apostolic authorship of the book. It will, perhaps, be best to specify three or four.
(1) St. John the Apostle, it is said, never resided in Asia Minor. He could not, therefore, have been the author of a book which is undoubtedly the work of one resident there.
It is proverbially difficult to prove a negative: it is increasingly difficult when only negative evidence can be adduced, and this is all that can be appealed to. The argument, if argument it can be called, runs thus: the residence of St. John in Asia Minor is not mentioned by those whom we might have expected to mention it: therefore, St. John did not reside there. To use the words of a modern critic (Mr. Matthew Arnold), “But there is the rigorous and vigorous theory of Prof. Scholten that John never was at Ephesus at all. If he had been, Papias and Hegesippus must have mentioned it. If they had mentioned it, Irenaeus and Eusebius must have quoted them to that effect. As if the very notoriety of John’s residence at Ephesus would not have disproved Irenaeus and Eusebius from advancing formal testimony to it, and made them refer to it just in the way they do. Here, again, we may be sure that no one judging evidence in a plain fashion would ever have arrived at Dr. Scholten’s conclusion; above all, no one of Dr. Scholten’s great learning and ability” (Contemporary Review, vol. xxv., p. 988).
To this also we may add Gebhardt’s words: – “No one in the second century could believe that the Apostle John was the author of the Apocalypse, without at the same time believing that he lived in Asia Minor; and in like manner, the acknowledgment of the Apocalypse as the Apostle’s from the time of Justin Martyr downwards, made prominent by Keim, is an acknowledgment of his residence in Asia Minor, and inferentially at Ephesus.”
(2) There are, it is stated, traces of non-apostolic authorship in the book.
(a) The manner in which the Apostles are spoken of (see 18:20 and 21:14) is thought to be inconsistent with the opinion that the Apostle wrote it. The Apostles are mentioned with a degree of objectivity, and are assigned a prominence which is unlikely if an Apostle were the writer. But with regard to the last, if St. John describes the foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem as bearing the names of the twelve Apostles, St. Paul speaks of the Church being built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20). The imagery is distinctly apostolic; and if the Apostles are mentioned with “objectivity” in the Apocalypse, are they not mentioned with an equal, if not greater, degree of objectivity by St. Matthew? (Matt. 10:2–4.)
(b) But, it is argued, there is no hint given throughout the book that the writer is an Apostle. If St. John were the writer, would he not betray himself somewhere as the beloved disciple? Should we not have some allusion to his intimacy with his Master, or to some circumstance connected with the life and ministry of Christ? In reply, it is enough to remark that the nature of the book would not lead us to expect such allusions. He writes as a Prophet, not as an Apostle. It would be as idle to expect some allusion to the circumstances of Milton’s political life in the Paradise Lost. “The Apocalypse declares itself not to be the work of an Apostle in the same sense as Schiller’s poetry declares itself not to be the work of a professor at Jena” (Gebhardt).
But it may be further urged that there are not wanting certain characteristic allusions which reveal the writer. The allusions to the piercing of the Saviour’s side (1:7; comp. John 19:34), and to the washing, or cleansing (1:5, 7:13–14, 22:14 – see Note there – John 13:8–10), are not to be overlooked; and more than these may be detected by a careful student.
(c) There is no trace of Apostolic authority.
If we are not to expect personal reminiscences, we surely should expect the air of official authority. But the answer is, Do we not find this? The language is surely that of one who does not doubt that his name will carry a guarantee with the book. (Comp. Prof. Davidson’s article in Kitto’s Biblical Cyclopaedia.)
(3) The Christology of the book is described as non-apostolic. The picture which the Apocalypse gives of Jesus Christ is not that of the Gospels. In the Gospels we have the loving and gentle Son of Man; in the Apocalypse we have the Word of God, whose eyes are as a flame of fire, and whose mouth a sharp sword, etc. Is not the whole conception of the kingly Christ thus portrayed the product of a later age? “The picture of Christ which here comes before us seems to presuppose a conception so perfectly free, that it can only belong to a later Christianity” (Scholten). “The apotheosis of Christ is too strong to be ascribed to a contemporary and disciple of Jesus” (quoted in Gebhardt).
Such objections as these arise from a fundamental misconception of the character and work of Jesus Christ. The Christ of the Gospels is not the colourless creation which has been evolved out of the thought of men living eighteen centuries afterwards. The Christology of the Apocalypse is distinct enough, but it does not differ from the Christology of St. Paul; and it is in complete harmony with the lofty and divine utterances of our Lord Himself even in the synoptical Gospels. Time and space would fail us in illustrating this position; it will suffice to refer to two or three passages, which might be multiplied: Matt. 25:31, 26:13; Luke 5:20, 7:8–9, 23, 33, 9:41, 10:16–20.
(4) The divergence in style between the Revelation and the Fourth Gospel demands a few words. We have spoken of those critics, who, in their desire to preserve the authority of the Gospel, have been willing to throw overboard the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse. Is it necessary to do this? It has been shown that the external evidence is in favour of the apostolic authorship. In the language of Prof. Davidson, “With the limited stock of early ecclesiastical literature that survives the wreck of time, we should despair of proving the authenticity of any New Testament book by the help of early witnesses, if that of the Apocalypse be rejected as insufficiently attested.” Is there any reason in the internal character of the book sufficient to reverse this verdict? Or, in other words, assuming (and the stormy controversy has rather increased than diminished the right to the assumption – see Introduction to St. John’s Gospel) the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel, is there any ground for believing that the Apocalypse could not have proceeded from the same writer? There are no doubt strongly marked differences. We have not space to touch on the whole question. One or two points call for notice. There are differences of language; there are “anomalies,” “awkward dispositions of words,” “peculiar constructions”; the Greek is molded by the Hebrew tendencies of the writer.” This is no doubt largely the case, but there has been often a want of appreciativeness at the root of seine criticisms like these. Some violations of grammatical construction have been set down to ignorance on the part of the writer, when it is clear that they were intentional. Notably, the language of Rev. 1:9 is beyond all doubt designedly ungrammatical. Indeed, as Bishop Lightfoot has pointed out, were it not so, the writer would not have possessed sufficient literary power to construct a single sentence. Nor has sufficient weight been allowed to the different characters of the two books, or the interval of time which elapsed between their writing. The highly wrought rapture of the seer, when beholding the visions of the Apocalypse, indicates a mental state in which volitional control is at the minimum, and the automatic action of the mind is left free. At such a time the images and associations which have been originally imbedded in the memory are those which rise uppermost to clothe the thoughts. Thus the strong Hebrew colouring is precisely what we should expect from one who, of ardent temperament, has spent the whole of his earlier life in Palestine, and among those who were constantly talking over Messianic hopes and prophecies. (Comp. John 1:38–41.) The force of this is not invalidated by saying that the seer did not write the visions as he saw them, but recorded them afterwards. In the first place, it is merely an assumption to affirm this; in the next, even were it true, the man who records such visions must recall the whole mental condition in which he was at the time of the vision, and would preserve in his record the characteristics of such a state of mind. Nor can much stress be laid upon the fact that the writer was not young. The visions of God are given to the old as well as to the young. The loftiest revealings were given to Moses when he had passed fourscore years: and, even from a merely human point of view, it is possible for a man of sixty to retain the fire and warm imagination of youth. Even in modern life, when the faculties are too often drudged into imbecility by forced and premature development, and deprived of their full and ultimate power by being made reproductive when they ought to be remaining receptive, we may find the powers of imagination survive the strain and incessancy of toil; indeed, in some cases the imaginative powers have gathered force till the line of the threescore years has been passed. Edmund Burke was sixty when he wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France, and none will condemn him for deficiency in imagination. It was not in the ardour of youth that Dante wrote the Divine Comedy. The conditions of ancient and Eastern life were probably much more favourable to the preservation and quiet ripening of the powers of thought and imagination. The truth is that there is nothing so deceptive as the comparison between the ages and powers of different writers. There is no standard which can be used as a measure. Some men of sixty are, in mental force, more nearly allied to men of forty than to those of their own age; and the addition of twenty or five-and-twenty years brings them to the mellow and quiet autumn time of their life.
The Apocalypse may be “sensuous,” full of “creative fancy,” “objective,” and “concrete”; the Gospel may be “calm,” “mystic,” “spiritual,” and delighting in “speculative depth”; but differences equally great may be found in the works of other writers. Literature supplies numberless instances of such varieties. “It is strange,” wrote Lord Macaulay, “It is strange that the Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, and the Letter to a Noble Lord should be the productions of one man”; yet no one has been found to doubt that they were both written by Edmund Burke. The writings of De Quincey supply examples. Let anyone compare the Autobiographic Sketches, or The Confessions of an Opium Eater, with one of the little flights of fancy – such as the Daughter of Lebanon – written under different conditions, and he will find how much diversity may be found in the works of the same writer. And, not to go beyond the Gospels, might it not be said that there is a great separation in tone and thought between our Lord’s discourses in Matt. 23–25 and the Sermon on the Mount? We have, then, in the two books – the Gospel and the Apocalypse – different subject matter, vision instead of history; a wide interval of time – some twenty or twenty-five years; and, with this interval of time, a changed atmosphere of associations and influences, Greek instead of Hebrew: these in themselves would account for divergences greater even than we find.
If we can thus account for the divergences we meet with, we have to remember that there are resemblances in the two books which can scarcely be accidental, and which, found in two independent books, would have suggested to some shrewd critic the theory of a common authorship. There is a strong resemblance in language and imagery: both books delight in the words “witness” (martyr), “to overcome,” “to keep” (the word of God), “sign” (semeion), “dwell,” or tabernacle (in this last case the coincidence is lost sight of in the English version, because the word “dwell” is used instead of tabernacle, or “tent”), “true” (alethinos), (John 1:9, 19:35; Rev. 3:14, 19:9).
There is a similarity in the terms used to describe our Lord. He is the Word (John 1:1–3, Rev. 19:13); the Lamb (John 1:29, Rev. 5:6); the Shepherd (John 10 throughout, Rev. 7:17); the Bridegroom (John 3:29, Rev. 19:7, 21:2); similar images are used – the Living Water (John 4:10, 7:38, and Rev. 7:17, 21:6, 22:17); the Hidden Food, bread, or manna (John 6:32–58, Rev. 2:17); the Harvest (John 4:34, 38; Rev. 14:15). The same incident – the piercing of our Lord’s side – is referred to, and the word employed, both in the Gospel and in the Apocalypse, is singularly not the word used in the LXX version of the prophet Zechariah. There, is besides, a similar disposition towards a seven-fold arrangement of subjects in the Gospel and the Revelation. (See Introduction to St. John’s Gospel.)
Further resemblances might be pointed out. These, however, will suffice to show that Prof. Davidson, in his candid, impartial, and valuable article (see above), says no more than truth when he writes: “After every reasonable deduction, enough remains to prove that the correspondences between the Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel are not accidental. They either betray one author, or show that the writer of the one was acquainted with the other. These cognate phenomena have not been allowed their full force by Lucke, Ewald, De Wette, and Dusterdieck.”
To conclude. The author represents himself as John in a way, and at a time, that would naturally suggest that he was either John the Apostle and Evangelist, or wished to pass as such. The general consensus of early opinion believed that the Apostle was the writer. The doubts grew out of doctrinal prejudice; there is no reasonable ground for disputing the residence of the Apostle in Asia Minor. There are not wanting traces of personal reminiscences such as the beloved disciple would have cherished. The portrait of Jesus Christ is in complete harmony with apostolic teaching; and the difficulties which beset the theory that there were two Johns – one who wrote the Gospel, and the other the Apocalypse – are greater than those which surround the theory of a common authorship.
It is only necessary to add the attesting language of various and independent critics. “The apostolic origin of the Apocalypse is as well attested as that of any other book in the New Testament” (Davidson). “The testimony has been pronounced more absolutely convincing than can be adduced in favour of the apostolic authorship of any of the books of the New Testament” (Edinburgh Review, October, 1874).
II. The Date and Time of Writing. – The evidence for determining the date of the Apocalypse is in many respects conflicting. Any conclusion on the matter should be given with caution and hesitation, and with the full admission that the arguments which can be brought on the other side are entitled to consideration. It has been too much the practice among the supporters of different theories to insist with unwise positiveness upon their own view. Briefly, there are practically only two opinions between which the reader must decide. The book was either written about the year A.D. 68 or 69, or about a quarter of a century later (A.D. 96), in the reign of Domitian.
The later date was that which was accepted almost uniformly by the elder theologians. In favour of this early tradition has been appealed to. The most important witness (in some respects) is Irenaeus, who says that “the Apocalypse was seen not long ago, but almost in our own age, towards the end of the reign of Domitian.” Other writers have been claimed as giving a support to this view by their mention of Patmos as the place of St. John’s banishment; and it is plain from the way in which Eusebius quotes the mention of the Patmos exile by Clement of Alexandria, that he associated it with the reign of Domitian. On the other hand, it must be remembered that neither Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, or Jerome, state that the banishment took place in the reign of Domitian. Tertullian, indeed, represents Domitian as recalling the exiles; and other writers affirm that the banishment took place much earlier. Theophylact, for example, declares that the Apostle was in Patmos thirty-two years after the Ascension; and the preface to the Syriac version of the Apocalypse affirms that the revelation was given to St. John in Patmos, whither he was banished by the Emperor Nero. Another tradition assigns the writing to the reign of Trojan. Epiphanius, in a passage of doubtful value, places the exile in the reign of Claudius.
On the whole, then, there is not any very certain conclusion to be drawn from the external evidence. The exile in Patmos receives ample support, but the date of the exile is hardly settled by early tradition.
Will the internal evidence help?
The advocates of the later date rely much upon the degenerate state of the Asiatic churches, as described in the Epistles to the Seven Churches. The Epistles to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon were written during the captivity of St. Paul at Rome, about the year A.D. 63. If, then, the Apocalypse was written in A.D. 69 or 70, we have only an interval of six or seven years to account for a striking change in the spiritual condition of the Asiatic churches. Can we believe that a Church which is so forward in love as that of Ephesus (Eph. 3:18) can have in so short a time left its first love? Can it be believed that the Laodicean Church – whose spiritual condition in A.D. 63 can be inferred from that of Colossae (Col. 1:3–4) – can have, in six brief years, forsaken their “faith in Christ Jesus, and their love to all the saints,” and become the “lukewarm” Church (Rev. 3:15–16) of the Apocalypse?
It may be noticed in passing that the above argument assumes that the (so-called) Epistle to the Ephesians was really addressed to the Church at Ephesus; and this is by no means certain. The weight of evidence appears to incline the other way. But allowing this to pass, and, for the purpose of argument, assuming that the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians afford indications of the spiritual condition of these and kindred Asiatic churches, it does not seem to the writer that the above argument can be sustained. The two propositions on which its force depends are the following: –
(1) It is impossible that churches could change much for the worse in six years.
(2) A comparison between the Apocalypse and the Letters of St. Paul show a great change for the worse.
From these two propositions it is inferred that the interval must have been more than six years: a generation at least being required to account for such degeneracy. “It bespeaks a change of persons, the arrival of a new generation” (Hengstenberg).
It is believed that neither of the two propositions mentioned above can be sustained. (1) It needs no long time for the first ardour of young converts’ zeal to cool. The New Testament gives us examples of such rapid changes: the “evil eye” of a perverted teaching bewitched the Galatians (Gal. 3:1), so that the Apostle marveled that the disciples were so rapidly turning away to another gospel (Gal. 1:6). Changes quick and real soon sweep over a religious community, especially in districts where the natural temperament is warm, impressible, and vivacious. It is not impossible that six years may make changes in the religious condition of churches.
But (2) it is more important to consider the second proposition, and to ask whether it is so certain that any such great change had taken place in the instances before us. A comparison of the Epistle to the Colossians and that to Laodicea rather leads to an opposite conclusion. Professor (now Bishop) Lightfoot has shown that the same truths need enforcing (comp. Col. 1:15–18, and Rev. 3:14), the same practical duties are taught (Col. 3:1, and Rev. 3:21), the same lukewarmness is the subject of caution (Col. 4:17, and Rev. 3:19), the same denunciations are heard against the pride of life, in wealth or intellect (Col. 2:8, 18, 23, and Rev. 3:17–18). “The message communicated by St. John to Laodicea prolongs the note which was struck by St. Paul in the Letters to Colossae. An interval of a very few years has not materially altered the character of these churches. Obviously the same temper prevails, the same errors are rife, the same correction must be applied” (Bishop Lightfoot, Epistle to the Colossians, pp. 41–44).
A similar comparison might be made between the two Ephesian Epistles. The impression left from a perusal of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, whether addressed to that Church or not, is that he was not without a fear that the warm love which prevailed among the Christians addressed might soon change. It is a love above the accidents of time and the powers of change which he desires may be theirs (Eph. 6:24, Rev. 2:4). The area of comparison between this Epistle to the Ephesian and the Epistles to the Seven Churches becomes much wider when we regard it, in harmony with probability, as a circular letter addressed to the Asiatic churches. Then the resemblances become more plain, and the so-called great change in spiritual condition disappears. It will be sufficient to mention the following: Eph. 1:18, Rev. 3:18; Eph. 2:6, Rev. 3:21; Eph. 3:8, Rev. 2:9; Eph. 3:17–19, Rev. 2:4.
Enough has been said to show that the argument from the spiritual condition of the churches lends little or no support to the later date, but fairly strengthens the earlier.
The advocates of the earlier date adduce other internal evidence. They lay great weight upon inferences drawn from chapters 11, 13, and 17. They argue that the measuring of the Temple and the treading down of the Holy City, described in 11:1–2 is a token that Jerusalem had not yet fallen. This argument does not seem to the present writer satisfactory. The measuring of the Temple is symbolic, and it is unsafe to ground an argument upon it. The aim of the vision seems to us to point out the safety of the germ-Church during the times of desolation. The external frame work, the old Jewish polity, might be swept away (11:2, comp. Heb. 8:13): the true spiritual germ would never die, but spring forth in fuller and freer vigour. Such a vision might indeed have preceded the fall of Jerusalem, but it might also have been given as a consolation and an instruction afterwards.
Hardly more convincing is the argument from chapters 13 and 17. In the account of the seven-headed wild beast we read of seven kings, five of whom are fallen. The seven kings are said to be the emperors of Rome. The five fallen are Augustus, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, Nero; the one that is, is Galba. The force of this depends upon the truth of the interpretation. If the seer meant the seven kings to represent seven emperors of Rome, then the date of the Apocalypse is fixed to the age of Galba; or to that of Nero if we begin to reckon with Julius Caesar. The former is the most correct method of reckoning. To make the sixth head Vespasian, as some would do, is, as Dr. Davidson has remarked, quite arbitrary. There is no reason for omitting Galba, Otho, and Vitellius from the reckoning. But the force of the argument for the date here depends upon the truth of the interpretation; and the foundation passages in the prophecy of Daniel, from which the Apocalyptic seer drew so much of his imagery, describe under the emblem of the wild beasts, kingdoms, or world powers, rather than individual monarchs. Still, of course, it is possible that there may be a double interpretation – one more local, the other more general – here as well as elsewhere. But the requisite interpretation does not seem to be sufficiently clear for the purpose of argument.
Nor can the argument from silence be accepted. There is no allusion to the fall of Jerusalem in the book, but it is scarcely safe to infer that the book was therefore earlier than that catastrophe.
One other internal (so called) argument respecting date maybe noticed here. Lucke cites 18:20, where the Apostles and prophets are invited to rejoice because they have been avenged on Babylon, to prove that St. John the Apostle was dead when the book was written. This is one of those prosaic errors into which even the most learned and trustworthy of literary experts are betrayed by their own acuteness.
There yet remains another class of evidence: that of language and style. Assuming the common authorship of the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse (see Introduction to the Gospel, and section on the Author above), we shall have very little doubt that the general probability is in favour of the Apocalypse having been written first. Not only is the Gospel marked by the sententiousness of age, and the Apocalypse by the warm colouring of earlier life, but the influence of Jewish Associations is more strongly marked in the latter; while Greek influences are more distinctly traceable in the former.
The evidence on this head inclines to the earlier date, but it is not absolutely conclusive. The prevalence of Hebraic influences noticeable in the Apocalypse might well fit in with the later date. The influences of youth often reassert themselves with startling rigour in declining years. The provincialisms and accent of boyhood have been resumed by men in the evening of life, after having been kept long in abeyance by the joint powers of control and culture. Illustrations of this will occur to the reader. But, in the instance before us, the probability seems to lie the other way. In the Apostle’s case the Hebraic influences did prevail during the early life. The Greek influences were present during his later life; and we may well believe that the Apocalypse “marks the Hebraic period of St. John’s life which was spent in the East, and among Aramaic-speaking populations”; and that the Gospel was written twenty or thirty years afterwards, at the “close of the Hellenic period during which St. John lived in Ephesus, the great center of Greek civilization.” (See Bishop Lightfoot’s Article on “Supernatural Religion,” Contemporary Review, vol. xxv., p. 859.)
To conclude this brief summary, we may say that the general weight of evidence is in favour of the earlier date, and certainly this supposition fits in best with all the circumstances of the case.
III. Schools and Principles of Interpretation. – Before entering upon the general meaning of the book, it is desirable to lay before the reader a brief account of the different schools of Apocalyptic interpretation.
(1) Schools of interpretation. – It is well known that there are three main systems of interpretation. These are called, from their special tendencies of thought, the Preterist, the Futurist, and the Historical.
The Preterist in general maintains that the visions of the Apocalypse relate to events and circumstances which are past: the prophecies of the book – at least in their primary intention – have been fulfilled. Among the advocates of this view may be reckoned the names of Grotius and Hammond, the learned and eloquent Bossuet, Eichhorn, Ewald, DeWette, Lucke, Dusterdieck, Professor Moses Stuart of America, and in this country the late lamented Professor Maurice, Prof. Davidson, and Mr. Desprez.
The Futurist is at the opposite pole of interpretation, and maintains that the fulfillment of the book is still future, when our Lord will come again. Professor Davidson has separated the Futurists into two classes – the simple Futurist and the extreme Futurist: the difference between these classes being that the simple Futurist believes that the prophecies of the book are future in fulfillment, while the extreme Futurist holds that even the first three chapters are prophetic. Among those who have maintained the more moderate Futurist view may be mentioned De Burgh, Maitland, Benjamin Newton, Todd, and the devout Isaac Williams. The extreme Futurist view has been supported chiefly by some Irish expositors.
The Historical school holds a sort of middle place between the Preterist and Futurist. Its advocates believe that in the Apocalypse we have a continuous prophecy, exhibiting to us the main features of the world’s history. The visions therefore are partly fulfilled, partly they are in course of fulfillment, and a portion still remains unfulfilled. This view has been sustained by men of conspicuous ability. It was the interpretation which commended itself to many of the Reformers, and was favoured by Wiclif, Bellinger, Bale, and others. It was upheld with more systematic power by such distinguished writers as Mede, Vitringa, Daubuz, Sir Isaac Newton, Whiston, Bengel, and Bishop Newton. More recently it has been advocated by Hengstenberg, Ebrard, Auberlen, by Elliott and Faber, by Bishop Wordsworth and the late Dean Alford, by Barnes, Lord, and Glasgow.
It is, of course, to be understood that there are many varieties of interpretation even among those who belong to the same school of interpreters: but it would quite exceed the limits at our disposal to speak of these varieties.
Against these schools of interpretations it is not difficult to find objections. It is hard to believe, with the Preterist, that the counselling voice of prophecy should have spoken only of immediate dangers, and left the Church for fifteen centuries unwarned; or, with the Futurist, to believe that eighteen centuries of the eventful history of the Church are passed over in silence, and that the whole weight of inspired warning was reserved for the few closing years of the dispensation. Nor, on the other hand, can we be thoroughly satisfied with the Historical school, however ably and learnedly represented. There is a certain nakedness about the interpretations often advocated by this school; the interpreter is too readily caught by external resemblances, and pays too little heed to inner spiritual and ethical principles. A mistake into which this system falls is that of bringing into prominence the idea of time. According to them, the visions of the book are pictures of occurrences to take place at a certain fixed date. Now it must never be forgotten that the question of time – the time when this or that was to happen – was one which our Lord steadily put on one side. It was not for His disciples to know the times and the seasons. The knowledge of the time of an event is insignificant compared with the knowledge of the forces, elements, and laws which combine to produce it. This seems to be our Master’s teaching to His followers all through time. Our study is to know what are the foes we have to contend against, what combinations they are likely to make, in what power they are to be confronted, what difficulties are likely to arise, what certainty there is that all difficulties will be surmounted and every foe overthrown. It matters not for us to know when these things shall be. It may be at the first watch, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing. The time is a matter of no ethical importance. It is thus St. Peter treats it: “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” It is but the echo of his Lord’s warning. It may take a long time or a short time for the moral laws and moral forces at work in the world to bring forth a crisis period. To take St. Peter’s words as laying down a kind of prophetical “time measure” is to fall into that fatal source of error, the conversion of poetry into prose. We are not, then, to look for any indications of time in the visions of the Apocalypse; and what might have made this very plain is the employment of proportional numbers to denote the prophetic epochs in the book. These carefully selected numbers, always bearing a relationship to one another, and so selected that a literal interpretation of them is almost precluded, are beyond doubt symbolic, and thus in harmony with the whole character of the book. “Most numbers in the Revelation should not be taken arithmetically, but indefinitely, because they are part of the poetic costume borrowed from the Old Testament” (Davidson). The anxiety respecting the “times and seasons” has led many interpreters into voluminous errors, and has created a Thessalonian restlessness of spirit in many quarters. Infinitely more important is it to notice the moral and spiritual aspects of the book, the evil and the good principles which are described in conflict, and the features which in different ages the combat will assume.
But, though the time interpretation of the book is thus to be placed in the background, it must not be so done as to imply that the book has no reference to occurrences which will happen in time. If some of the Historical school of interpreters have so forced the question of time into prominence as to ignore the more important ethical bearings of the book, it is no less true that critics on the other side have erred in removing the application of the book wholly out of the sphere of history, and giving it only the force of a fairy tale with a possible and doubtful moral. This is to set aside the value of the book to the Church of Christ as she moves across the vexed and stormy sea of this world’s history. The visions of the book do find counterparts in the occurrences of human history. They have had these, and they yet will have these, fulfillments; and these fulfillments belong neither wholly to the past, nor wholly to the future. The prophecies of God are written in a language which can be read by more than one generation. What was read here helped the early Christian to whom imperial Rome was the great Babylon which absorbed to herself the wealth, and the wickedness, the power and persecuting spirit of the world, to whom the emperor may have seemed as a wild beast, savage and relentless, rising out of the tumults of peoples and nations, fickle and ruthless as the sea. No less have the visions of this book consoled the mediaeval saint or poet, who felt that the most influential seat of the Church had become the metropolis of worldliness when “The Prince of the New Pharisees” was seated in St. Peter’s chair, and when out of a professedly Christianized Society had arisen a power aspiring to some religious culture, but fierce, wild, and wanton as the wild beast of ancient days. (Comp. Dante, Inf. xxvii. 85; and Rosetti’s Antipapal Spirit of the Italian Poets – passim.) Nor is the force of the consolation exhausted. In the future, the visions of this book, showing the certain triumph of all that is good and true, in the final consummation of Christ’s kingdom, may hereafter serve to console men and women groaning under a tyranny of ungodliness more terrible and more specious than any which have preceded it, because built up of a pride which worships physical laws, while it treads under foot all moral laws, and spurns contemptuously all spiritual laws. In the past, the book has had its meaning. In the future, its meaning may grow fuller and clearer, but in the present also there is no doubt that it has its practical value for all who will reverently and patiently hear and keep the sayings of this book.
We are disposed to view the Apocalypse as the pictorial unfolding of great principles in constant conflict, though under various forms. The Preterist may, then, be right in finding early fulfillments, and the Futurist in expecting undeveloped ones, and the Historical interpreter is unquestionably right in looking for them along the whole line of history; for the words of God mean more than one man, or one school of thought, can compass. There are depths of truth unexplored which sleep beneath the simplest sentences. Just as we are wont to say that history repeats itself, so the predictions of the Bible are not exhausted in one or even in many fulfillments. Each prophecy is a single key which unlocks many doors, and the grand and stately drama of the Apocalypse has been played perchance out in one age to be repeated in the next. Its majestic and mysterious teachings indicate the features of a struggle which, be the stage the human soul, with its fluctuations of doubt and fear, of hope and love – or the progress of kingdoms – or the destinies of the world is the same struggle in all.
(2) The Principles of Interpretation. – It will have been seen that the writer does not feel at home under the leadership of any of the three great schools of prophetical interpretation. The Church of Christ owes much to all of them, though the cause of truth has suffered much from many who have sought to be Prophets when at the most they could aspire to be interpreters. But the result even of the errors of interpreters has been the slow formation of sounder views, and therefore an advance towards a clearer, because a more modest, system. There are certain principles which seem to be now very generally accepted as essential to the right understanding of the book. It is not, indeed, to be supposed that the acceptance of these principles will enable the student to unlock every mystery, or expound every symbol, but it will certainly save him from following “wandering fires”. Of these principles the chief seem to be the following: – (l) the root passages in the Old Testament prophecies must be considered; (2) the historical surroundings of the writer are to be remembered; (3) the fact that the book is symbolic must never be forgotten; (4) the obvious aim of the book to be a witness to the triumph and coming (parousia) of Jesus Christ must be recognized. These principles are simple enough, but their neglect has been only too fatally evident. The difficulty, indeed, lies rather in the application of these principles than in their acceptance. It is, perhaps, not too much to say that the Preterist school has been apt to ignore the first of these principles; the Historical school has not adequately recognized the second; and the Futurist school is in constant danger of forgetting the third; while partial views in all schools have violated or weakened the value of the last principle.
The “coming of Christ,” viewed from the human side, is a phrase which is not always to be held to one meaning: it is, in this respect, analogous to the “kingdom of God”. “Holy Scripture, beyond all doubt, recognizes potential and spiritual, as well as personal, ‘comings’ of the Lord.” [The whole note from Bishop Waldegrave’s Bampton Lectures is worth quoting. “Holy Scripture, beyond all doubt, recognizes (1) potential and spiritual, as well as personal, ‘comings’ of the Lord, See, for potential ‘comings,’ Matt. 10:23, John 21:22–23, Rev. 2:5, 15–16, 22–25; 3:3, 10. … See, for spiritual ‘comings,’ Psa. 101:2, John 14:18, 21–24; Rev. 3:20. In like manner Holy Scripture recognizes (2) a potential and spiritual, as distinct from a personal, ‘presence’ of Christ with His people. See Matt. 18:20, 28:20; Mark 16:20; 2 Tim. 4:17. Now such potential and spiritual comings and presence will naturally, when translated, if I may so speak, into the language of imagery, assume the outward appearance of a personal and visible coming and presence. And this fact will abundantly account for the use of language (expressive of potential and spiritual comings) like that in Psa. 102:13–16, Isa. 19:1, 16, 19–21; 40:10, 59:20; Zech. 2:10–12 (expressive of potential and spiritual presence) like that in Psa. 135:21, Isa. 12:6, 24:23, 60:13; Ezek. 34:23–24, 41:22, 43:1–9, 44:1–2; Joel 2:27, 3:17, 20–21; Micah 4:7, Zeph. 3:14–15, Zech. 6:12–13; 8:3, without expecting a personal reign of Christ upon earth as its only adequate counterpart.”] “There are many comings of Christ. Christ came in the flesh as a mediatorial Presence. Christ came at the destruction of Jerusalem. Christ came, a spiritual Presence, when the Holy Ghost was given. Christ comes now in every signal manifestation of redeeming power. Any great reformation of morals and religion is a coming of Christ. A great revolution, like a thunderstorm, violently sweeping away evil to make way for the good, is a coming of Christ” (Robertson, Sermons, Fourth Series, p. 73). It is thus that the sacred writers speak as of Christ’s coming always at hand: “The judge standeth at the door”; “The coming of the Lord draweth nigh.” So, also, our Lord speaks: “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.” Thus, viewed from one aspect, the “coming of Christ” has various applications; but viewed from another aspect, it will be seen to be a phrase expressive of a simple thought, and free from all perplexing ambiguity. The coming of Christ, viewed from the divine side, is as a single act in which all subordinate applications are included. There is no past or future with God. All that is being done is, in one sense, done. God’s dealings, as seen by human eyes, are, as it were, projections on the page of history. An illustration may help. A telegraph cable, whether cut straight through or on the slope, will present to view exactly the same combination of copper and iron wire, gutta-percha and tarred yarn; but in the elliptical section the elements will appear in more extended order than in the circular section: so the same features, which to us appear separate and successive, when viewed from the higher level of heavenly thought may be seen as forming parts of one act. The various advents of Christ may thus be viewed as forming elements in one Advent, which is progressive from one side, but complete from another. The morning spreads itself in every direction over the forehead of the sky, and yet is but one morning. All the varying scenes from the First Advent to the Second are but the beatings of the wings of God’s new day. “It is,” as the prophet expressed it in language of glorious paradox, “It is one day, known to the Lord, neither clear nor dark, but one day, at whose eventide it shall be light.”
If this be true, there is no necessity for leaping to the conclusion that, when the sacred writers warned their hearers that the coming of the Lord was near, they were mistaken, or that they sought to sustain the fainting hopes of the early Church by expectations which have proved false. Doubtless some did not understand the full and deep meaning of the words employed. Doubtless many still clung to their carnal conceptions. But the apostolic language, whether from the pen of a St. Paul, St. Peter, or St. John, expresses the wider and truer thoughts of the coming of Christ. We find them anxious to remind those to whom they wrote that the idea of an immediate visible personal coming of Christ must not be allowed to gain possession of the mind. There were forces at work which must have their way before the end would come. Seeds had been planted, and these must grow. The sowing and the harvest are linked together as one in the law of growth, and are yet separate. Thus the spirit of willfulness and impatience is rebuked when men grasp the true thoughts of God. Yet it must not be supposed that the waiting Church of Christ will be disappointed of her hope, or that the heavenly Bridegroom will not come. He will come again; and all the preliminary and subordinate advents in judgment and in comfort will then be seen to have been earnests of the fullness of His coming. The interpreters are as men who stand upon a plain to watch the sunrise. When the first veil of night is withdrawn, and the starlight is somewhat paled, the more ardent than the rest will cry, “The dawn!” but the rest answer, “Not yet.” Then when the mountain peaks begin to flame, another will cry, “The dawn!” and the rest will still reply, “Not yet.” And when the landscape around catches its true colours, another will cry, “The dawn!” but only when the great and glorious orb leaps into view will all be one in crying, “The dawn! the dawn!” So is the coming of Christ. Some look upon the faint lightening in the moral atmosphere, and say, “Christ comes!” Others look to the reflected lights of truth proclaimed in the high places of the world, and say, “Christ comes!” Others look to the general diffusion of knowledge, and say, “Christ comes!” They are right, and they are wrong. Right, for it is indeed Christ who is thus enlightening the world. They are wrong, for there is a coming greater than these, when He will, in fuller manifestation of Himself, tabernacle with His people as their everlasting light.
IV. General Scope of this Book.
(1) Its Aim. – What is the aim of this book? The answers given, though various, have much in common. Some see in it a prediction of the overthrow of Paganism. Others carry it further, and see the destruction of Papal Rome. Others read in it the rise and fall of some future Antichrist. Thus far the opinions vary. but in one respect there is agreement. The Revelation aims at assuring the Church of the advent of her Lord. It is the book of the Coming One. Every school of interpretation will admit this. Some indeed will say that the expectation raised was never fulfilled, but all appear to unite, in regarding the Apocalypse as the book of the advent. We may take this as a key to its meaning: it proclaims Christ’s coming and victory. But is it the victory of Christ over Paganism, or over degenerate forms of Christianity, or over some final and future antichristian power or person? The true answer appears to be, It is the victory of Christ over all wrong-thoughted-ness, wrong-heartedness, and wrong-spiritedness. The pictures given in the visions find their counterpart not in one age only, but gather their full-fillment as the ages advance. The fall of Paganism is included in the visions, as the downfall of the world power of Imperial Rome is included. But the picture prophecy is not exhausted, and will not be till every form of evil of which Pagan and Imperial Rome, of which the wild beast and Babylon are types, has been overthrown. The ages are seen in perspective; the incidents separated from one another in historical sequence, are gathered into one prophetical scene, and the Apocalypse presents us with a variety of these prophetical scenes, which depict the salient features of the conquest of evil, the triumph and advent of Christ – “He comes” is the key. He comes when Paganism falls – He comes when brute world force is cast down; He comes when worldliness falls – He comes, and His coming is spreading ever over the world, shining more and more unto the perfect day. Clouds may gather, and make the epochs which are nearest the full day darker than those which preceded them, but still in every epoch leading up to the golden day. The line of conflict may advance and recede from time to time, but it is a triumphant battlefield which is pictured. It is thus the book of the advent and victory of Christ.
But is it a book affording false hopes? Is it an echo of the wish of the early Christian Church, or is it a revelation from Christ to the waiting and perhaps impatient Church? I believe it is the latter. So far from the book giving colour to the expectation of an immediate personal coming of Jesus Christ, it seems distinctly to caution the early Christians against cherishing mistaken notions: “that day shall not come except there come a falling away first,” was the caution of St. Paul; the caution of St. John, though expressed in pictorial form, is none the less emphatic. Let anyone bear in mind the eager impatience of suffering Christians in early days, and let them read the Apocalypse, and they will learn that its undertone is, “Not yet, not yet,” but still surely is He coming; not as you think, but as He thinks well, so is He coming. Let the seals furnish an illustration: the first shows an ideal conqueror; Christ, or the gospel of Christ, goes forth to conquer – it is the picture of the Church’s hope; the vision tells her that her hope is right, Christ will conquer; but it is the prelude of visions which tell her that her expectation is wrong if she expects that the kingdom of Christ will be established without conflict, pain, suffering, and revolution. The succeeding seals are the pictures of the things which must needs be: the wars, the persecutions, the sorrows which will afflict the world because she will not accept her King; the parable of Luke 19:11–27, and the emphatic warning language of Christ Jesus in Matt. 24:4–14, are not forgotten in the Apocalypse. In it we are bidden to remember that, though the victory is sure, the victory is through suffering. We are shown scenes which betoken the prolonged sorrows of the faithful, the obstinate tenacity of evil, its subtle transformations, and the concealed powers by which it is sustained. We are thus, as it were, shown the world’s drama from a heavenly viewpoint, not in continuous historical succession, but in its various essential features. It is in this dramatic – that it does not tell its story right on, but groups its episodes round convenient centers, bringing into special prominence successively the principles of God’s world government. It is thus an apocalypse enfolding in symbolic forms the characteristic features of the struggle between good and evil, when the power of the gospel enters the field. It is the revelation of the coming (parsousia) of Christ, because it shows not only that He will come, but that He does come: that He who has been revealed is being revealed, and will yet be revealed.
(2) The Form. – It is the symbolic form which hinders many in the right understanding of the book. “I am a man of the earth,” wrote Goethe; “I am a man of the earth, earthy. To me the parables of the unjust steward, the prodigal son, the sower, the pearl, the lost piece of money, etc., are more divine (if aught divine there be about the matter), than the seven messengers, candlesticks, seals, stars, and woes.” This is only saying that symbolism employed in the one case was simpler than that employed in the latter – simpler, that is to say, to Western minds; for it may perhaps be doubted whether the symbolism, which to the Teutonic mind seemed so strange, may not have been simple enough to those who were accustomed to Hebrew symbolism. But however this may be, the general symbols of the book are not so difficult as might appear. There is not space at our disposal to enter upon a discussion of this in detail. Certain features, however, are worthy of notice. The geographical imagery needs attention. Jerusalem stands as the type of the good cause, Babylon as the type of the metropolis of the world power. Jerusalem is thus the Church of Christ (this symbolism is in complete harmony with St. Paul and other apostolic writers, (comp. Gal. 4:24–31, Heb. 12:22–23). Babylon is the emblem of Pagan Rome, but not only of Pagan Rome, for the Babylon type remains to this day. There are inspiring powers on the side of the heavenly Jerusalem – God is with her; she shall not be moved. The metropolis of evil has the assistance of evil powers: the dragon, the wild beast, and the false prophet are for a time with her. The family of evil bears a marked parallel to the family of good throughout the book. There is a trinity of evil powers on the side of Babylon the harlot, as the blessed Trinity are with the bride, the heavenly Jerusalem. (See Excursus B: The Wild Beast.) The scenes in the great conflict range themselves round the members of these families of good and evil. The general features and elements of this struggle are depicted. There are numerical symbols: seven is the number of perfection, six of man’s worldly perfection without God, four of the universe, three and a half of a limited period. There are seals, trumpets, and vials. The seals of the book which could only be opened by Christ betoken that the direction of earth’s history and its explanation can be found only in Christ. The trumpets are the symbols of God’s war against all forms of evil. The vials are the tokens of the retribution which falls upon those who turn not at the divine summons to righteousness. The strong symbolism of the book has a twofold advantage: when the applications of the visions are not to be exhausted in one age, the pictorial form is the most convenient to embrace the manifold fulfillments. Again, the author has clothed his thoughts in the “variously limiting, but reverential and only suitable drapery of ancient sacred language and symbolism, in the conviction that the reader would penetrate the veil and reach the sense” (Gebhardt).
(3) The General Structure. – The majority of critics see a sevenfold structure in the book. The commentators differ, as might be expected, as to the way in which this seven-foldedness of structure shows itself; but most of them arrange the different parts of the book in a sevenfold fashion. This is worthy of note, as the Fourth Gospel (see Introduction to St. John’s Gospel) has been shown to have a similar sevenfold arrangement. When we notice the fondness of the seer for such an arrangement in the subordinate visions, it is not to be wondered at that the whole book should fall into seven groups; but we must be careful not to be carried away by our love of symmetry. The charts and maps of Apocalyptic interpretation are often very Procrustean. The general structure of the book, however, may be noted.
1. The Preliminary Chapters. – Christ and His Church.
(1) The Vision of the Christ, chapter 1.
(2) The Messages to the Churches, chapters 2–3.
2. The Visions.
(1) The Vision of the Throned One, chapter 4.
(2) The Visions of the Conflict, in two main sections.
(a) The conflict seen from the world side, chapters 6–11:
(a) The seven seals, chapters 6–8:1.
(b) The seven trumpets, chapters 8:2–11).
(b) The conflict seen from the heavenly side, chapters 12–20.
(a) The spiritual foes, chapters 12–14.
(b) The seven vials of retribution, chapters 15–16.
(c) The fall of foes, chapters 17–20.
(3) The Visions of Peace, chapters 21–22:1–6).
3. The Epilogue, chapter 22:6–21.
It will be seen that there is a moving onward from the more external to the deeper and more spiritual aspects of earth’s story. The earlier visions (the seals, for example) show the ordinary phenomena of the world’s story – war, famine, death, revolution. The next series (the trumpets) show us that there is another, even a spiritual war, going forward in the world, and that changes and revolutions are often tokens of the inner spiritual battle in life. These visions, however, are, so to speak, all in the sphere of earth. In the next series we are shown that the war carried on here is one which has its heavenly counterpart. The conflict is not simply between good men and bad, but between principalities and powers. (See an interesting article on “The Ideal Incarnation,” by Dr. S. Cox, in the Expositor, Vol. II., p. 405.) There is a heavenly viewpoint of all things on earth: there are spiritual forces, the ideal Church, the unseen strength of God, and the hidden inspirations of evil. In this struggle all evil will be vanquished. The earthly manifestations of evil, as well as the unearthly inspirations of it, will fall. The great and arch-enemy will be overthrown. The true spiritual, eternal rest be reached, and the golden age be realized. We are thus taught, in this ever-deepening spirituality of the book, to look beneath the phenomena, to trace the subtle and unmasked principles which are at work, to separate between the false and the true, to believe in ideals which are not mere ideas, but the true thoughts of God, which will one day be made real in the eyes of men, and which are even now real to the eye of faith. Thus does the Book of Revelation become the unfolding of a dream which is from God. In it are painted the scenes of earth’s history: the thirst of a nation’s life and its passing groan; the tears and prayers of the unreckoned holy ones of earth; the agony of half-despair which even the best have felt in the night of conflict, that has so often been the eve of triumph; the sustaining faith which has transfigured the weakling into a hero, and nerved the heart of a solitary saintship to do battle alone against a degenerate Church or a persecuting world; the silent victory of truth, or the unperceived growth of worldliness and falsehood. The book is thus a help and stay – not as yielding fruit to curiosity. It is not a manual of tiresome details: it is not meant to be a treasure house of marvels for the prophetical archaeologist: it is a book of living principles. It exhibits the force and fortune of truth as it acts upon the great mass of human society. It shows the revolutions which are the result. It shows the decay of the outward form, the release of the true germ, which will spring up in better harvests. It shows us how the corn of wheat may fall and die, and so bring forth much fruit. It shows us how evermore, from first to last, Christ is with us – encouraging, consoling, warning, helping, and leading us onward through conflict to rest.
V. Literature of the Apocalypse. – It is perfectly hopeless to touch so vast a subject as this. The mere list of works on the Apocalypse given in Darling’s Cyclopaedia Bibliographica, published in 1859, occupies fifty-two columns. A history of various interpretations is given in Lucke, Einleitung in die Offenbarung Johannis; a similar sketch is given by Bleek, Lectures on the Apocalypse; and Elliott‚ Horae Apocalypticae, vol. iv.) has presented us with an exhaustive and impartial account, History of Apocalyptic Interpretations, followed by A Critical Examination and Refutation of the Three Chief Counter-schemes of Apocalyptic Interpretation; and also of Dr. Arnold’s General Prophetic Counter-theory. Dean Alford’s article (Greek Text.) on “Systems of Interpretation,” is lucid and compact.
Of Commentaries, leaving unnoticed earlier expositions, those of Vitringa, De Wette, Ewald, Bleak, Hengstenberg, Meyer, Ebrard, Auberlen, and Dusterdieck; of Hammond, Bishop Newton, Elliott, Alford, Bishop Wordsworth, Cunningham, Woodhouse, Moses Stuart, De Burgh, I. Williams, besides the works of Faber, Maitland, and Prof. Birks, are well known; and Dr. Currey’s Notes on Revelation, in the Christian Knowledge Society’s Commentary, add much to the value of a really useful work.
Of lectures, the late Professor Maurice’s Lectures are full of thought and interest; and many are indebted to Dr. Vaughan (now Dean of Llandaff) for his Lectures on the Revelation of St. John, which are models of what expository lectures ought to be. Gebhardt’s Lehrbegriff der Apokalypse, now accessible to English readers in Clarke’s Foreign Translation Library – (Gebhardt’s Doctrine of the Apocalypse) is a valuable addition to the literature of the subject; it contains a close and careful comparison between the doctrine of the Apocalypse and that of the Gospel and Epistles of St. John. Of other books may be mentioned – Rev. S. Garratt’s Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, considered as the Divine Book of History; Prophetical Landmarks, by Rev. H. Bonar; Dr. J. H. Todd’s Donnellan Lectures; and Bishop Wordsworth’s Hulsean Lectures. The Apocalypse, by Rev. Charles B. Waller; The Parousia, a Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of our Lord’s Second Coming; The Life and Writings of St. John, by Dr. J. M. Macdonald, of Princetown. On special points the following works may be noted: – On the Epistles to the Seven Churches, in addition to Archbishop Trench’s indispensable work, and to Stier’s well-known one, a valuable contribution has been given by Prof. Plumptre. On the Millennium: Bishop Waldegrave s “New Testament Millenarianism” (Bampton Lectures), and the Rev. Dr. Brown’s work, entitled Christ’s Second Coming: will it be pre-Millennial? On the Babylon of the Apocalypse: Bishop Wordsworth’s Rome, the Babylon of the Apocalypse. On the types and symbols: Fairbairn’s Typology of Scripture; Rev. Malcolm White’s Symbolical Numbers of Scripture; and the essay on “The Formal Elements of Apocalyptics” prefixed to Lange’s Commentary on Revelation. Of this last book, which has not been mentioned above, it is to be regretted that, with much that is most valuable, it should be disfigured by pedantry of style.
The Revelation of St. John the Divine.
1:1 – The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
1. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. – The book is a revelation of the things which are and the things which shall be. “John is the writer, but Jesus Christ is the author,” says Grotius; and consistently with this the action of Christ is seen throughout. It is Christ who bids John write to the seven churches. It is Christ who opens the seven seals (6:1), who reveals the sufferings of the Church (6:9), who offers the prayers of the saints (8:3), and delivers the little book to John (10:1–11). Thus it is seen that though the rise and fall of earth’s history is included in the revelation, it is a revelation also of a living person. It is not the dull dead onward flow of circumstances, but the lives of men and nations seen in the light of Him who is the light of every man and the life of all history; and thus we learn that “only a living person can be the Alpha and Omega, the starting point of creation and its final rest.” The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of this prophecy, as of all others. The Father gives this to the Son whom He loves, and shows Him all things that Himself doeth.
Shortly. – On this word much controversy has turned. Its force, “speedily,” affords a groundwork, and, it must be admitted, a plausible one, to the preterist school of interpreters, who hold that the whole range of Apocalyptic predictions was fulfilled within a comparatively short time after the Apostle wrote. The truth, however, seems to be that the words of God are of perpetual fulfillment: they are not only to be fulfilled; they have not only been fulfilled; but they have been and they are being fulfilled; and they yet will be fulfilled; and the principles which are enunciated by the Prophet, though “shortly” fulfilled, are not exhausted in the immediate fulfillment, but carry still lessons for the succeeding generations of mankind.
John – i.e., the Apostle and Evangelist. The arguments in support of this identification are admitted even by the most captious critics to be conclusive. “The Apocalypse, if any book can be traced to him, must be ascribed to the Apostle John” (Supernatural Religion). (See Excursus A.) To many it will seem natural that John, the beloved disciple, should be the recipient of this revelation. Those who have been nearest to God learn most of His will. Such are friends, not servants, for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth; and thus, as in the Old Testament to Abraham, the friend of God, and to Daniel, a man greatly beloved, so in the New Testament to the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ bosom, are shown the things which God was about to do. “Mysteries are revealed unto the meek. The pure in heart shall see God. A pure heart penetrateth heaven and hell” (Thomas a Kempis).
“More bounteous aspects on me beam,
Me mightier transports move and thrill;
So keep I fair through faith and prayer,
A virgin heart in work and will.” – Sir Galahad.
1:2. – who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
2. Who bare record. – Elsewhere as well as here. And he tells us of what he bore record – of the Word of God. The writer declares that the substance of his testimony and witness had been this Word of God. We have here an indication of what the general character of his teaching had been. It evidently had been a teaching laying stress on that aspect of truth which is so forcibly set before us in the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles bearing the name of John. (Comp. 19:11, John 1:1, 14; 1 John 1:1, et al. Note also that the words “record,” “testimony,” “witness,” found in this verse, recur in the Gospel and Epistles. Comp. John 5:31–40, 19:35, 21:24.)
1:3. – Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
3. Blessed is he that readeth ... prophecy. – Any declaration of the principles of the divine government, with indications of their exemplification in coming history, is a prophecy. Sometimes the history which exemplifies these principles is immediate, sometimes more remote; in other cases (as, I venture to believe, is the case with the predictions of this book) the events are both immediate and remote. The prophecy gives us the rule, with some typical application illustrative of its method of working; after-history affords us the working out of various examples. We, then, as living actors in the world, have not only to read and hear, but to keep – keep in mind and action those principles which preside over the development of all human history (James 1:22). The word “keep” is in itself a proof to me that the whole fulfillment of the Apocalypse could not have been exhausted in the earliest times, nor reserved to the latest times of the Church’s history, but that its predictions are applicable in all eras.
The time is at hand. – In the apostolic mind this was always true, though the restless idleness of the Thessalonians was blamed (2 Thess. 2:2, and 3:11–12). The spirit of vigilance and of ever-readiness for both the providential advents and the final advent of the Christ was enjoined. (Comp. Rom. 13:12, James 5:9; 2 Peter 3:8–9.)
1:4. – John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace from him which is, [Ex. 3:14.] and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
4. John to the seven churches (or, congregations) which are in Asia. – It is needless to observe that the Asia here is not to be regarded as coextensive with what we know as Asia Minor. It is the province of Asia (comp. Acts 2:9–10, 16:6–7), which was under a Roman proconsul, and embraced the western portion of Asia Minor. In St. John’s time it consisted of a strip of seaboard some 100 square miles in extent. Its boundaries varied at different periods, but roughly, and for the present purpose, they may be regarded as the Caycus on the north, the Maeander on the south, the Phrygian Hills on the east, and the Mediterranean on the west.
Seven churches. – It has been maintained by some (notably by Vitringa) that the epistles to the seven churches are prophetic, and set forth the condition of the Church in the successive epochs of its after-history. The growth of error, the development of schisms, the gloom of superstition, the darkness of mediaeval times, the dawn of the Reformation, the convulsions of after-revolutions, have been discovered in these brief and forcible epistles. Such a view needs no formal refutation. The anxiety for circumstantial and limited fulfillments of prophecy has been at the root of such attempts. When we read God’s words as wider than our thoughts, we stand in no need of such desperate efforts at symmetrical interpretations; for the truth then is (seen to be that words addressed to one age have their fitness to all; and that these epistles are the heritage of the Church in every epoch. In this sense the churches are types and representatives of the whole family of God. Every community may find its likeness here. This much is admitted by the best commentators of all schools. “The seven churches,” says Chrysostom, “are all churches by reason of the seven Spirits.” “By the seven,” writes St. Augustine, “is signified the perfection of the Church universal, and by writing to the seven he shows the fullness of one.” And the words, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches,” are, as has been well observed, a direct intimation that some universal application of their teaching was intended.
Grace be unto you, and peace. – Three apostles, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John, adopt the same salutation. Not only is this a kind of link of Christian fellowship between them, but its adoption by St. John, after St. Paul had first used it, is a slight token that the Apocalypse cannot be regarded (as some recent critics would have it) as an anti-Pauline treatise. As the Christian greeting, it transcends while it embraces the Greek and Hebrew salutations. There is no tinge of the sadness of separation. It is the greeting of hope and repose, grounded on the only true foundation of either, the grace of God, which is the wellspring of life and love.
From him which is, and which was, and which is to come (or, which cometh). – The phrase presents a remarkable violation of grammar; but the violation is clearly intentional. It is not the blunder of an illiterate writer. It is the deliberate putting in emphatic form the “Name of Names.” “Should not,” says Professor Lightfoot, “this remarkable feature be preserved in an English Bible? If in Ex. 3:14 the words run, ‘I AM hath sent me unto you,’ may we not also be allowed to read here, from ‘HE THAT IS, AND THAT WAS, AND THAT IS TO COME’?” The expression must not be separated from what follows. The greeting is triple: from Him which is, and which was, and which cometh; from the seven Spirits; and from Jesus Christ – i.e. from the Triune God. The first phrase would therefore seem to designate God the Father, the self-existing, eternal One, the fount and origin of all existence. Professor Plumptre suggests that the phrase used here may be used in allusion and contrast to the inscription spoken of by Plutarch, on the Temple of Isis, at Sais: “I am all that has come into being, and that which is, and that which shall be; and no man hath lifted my vail.” The heathen inscription identifies God with the universe, making Him, not an ever-being, but an ever-becoming, from whom personality is excluded. The Christian description is of the personal, everlasting, self-revealing God – who is, who was, and who cometh. We should have expected, after “is” and “was,” “will be”; but there is no “will be,” with an eternal God. With Him all is; so the word “cometh” is used, hinting His constant manifestations in history, and the final coming in judgment. This allusion to the Second Coming is denied by Professor Plumptre, but as he admits that the words, “He that cometh,” used in the Gospels, and applied by the Jews to the Messiah, may be designedly employed here by the Apostle, it is difficult to see how the Advent idea can be excluded. The word appears to imply that we are to be always looking for Him whose “comings” recur in all history as the earnests of the fuller and final Advent.
From the seven Spirits. – The interpretation which would understand these seven Spirits to be the seven chief angels, though supported by names of great weight, is plainly untenable. The context makes it impossible to admit any other meaning than that the greeting which comes from the Father and the Son comes also from the Holy Spirit sevenfold in His operations, whose gifts are diffused among all the churches, and who divides to every man severally as He will. For corresponding thoughts in the Old Testament, compare the seven lamps and seven eyes of Zechariah (3:9, 4:2, 10), “the symbols of eternal light and all-embracing knowledge.” It may not be inappropriate to note that Philo speaks of the number seven in its mystical import as identical with unity, as unity developed in diversity, and yet remaining one. This unity in diversity is the thought St. Paul seems anxious to keep before the minds of the Corinthians, lest their gifts should become the source of division. All work that one and self-same spirit (1 Cor. 12:11). The after-recurrence in this book of the number seven is, I think, selected to support this thought of completeness and variety. The dramatic unity is preserved, though the scenes which are unfolded are amply diversified; and the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven vials, are not three successive periods, but three aspects of one complete period presided over by that one Spirit whose guidance may be seen in all ages, and in diverse ways. The Spirits are before the throne. This reference to the throne gives a touch of authority to the description. The Holy Spirit who pleads with men is the Spirit from God’s Throne.
1:5. – and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead,[1 Cor. 15:20, Col. 1:18.] and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, [Heb. 9:14.]
5. From Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten (or, firstborn) of the dead, and the prince (or, ruler) of the kings of the earth. – The triple title applied to Christ corresponds to the three ideas of this book. Christ the Revealing Prophet, the Life-giving High Priest, and the real Ruler of mankind.
The faithful witness. – There may be a reference here, it has been suggested by Professor Plumptre, to the bow in the cloud, which is described in Psa. 89:37 as the faithful witness. The coincidence of expression is remarkable: “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth; he shall stand fast as the sun before me, and as the faithful witness in heaven.” The idea of testimony and witness is a favourite one with St. John, who records its use by our Lord Himself. (Comp. John 3:32, 5:36, 18:37. See also Rev. 19:10, 22:18. Comp. also the work of the Only Begotten as stated in John 1:18.)
The prince (or ruler) of the kings of the earth. – The message does not come from One who will be, but who is the true ruler of all earthly potentates. The disposition to dwell on the future and more visibly recognized reign of Christ hereafter has tended to obscure the truth of His present reign. It is instructive to notice that this book, which describes so vividly the manifestations of Christ’s kingdom (11:15, 12:10), claims for Him at the outset the place of the real King of kings. Such was the Apostle’s faith. “Above all emperors and kings, above all armies and multitudes, he thought of the Crucified as ruling and directing the course of history, and certain in His own due time to manifest his sovereignty” (Prof. Plumptre). “What are we to see in the simple Anno Domini of our dates and superscriptions, but that for some reason the great world history has been bending itself to the lowly person of Jesus” (Bushnell). “‘A handful read the philosophers; myriads would die for Christ; they in their popularity could barely found a school; Christ from His cross rules the world” (Farrar, Witness of History). Such is a real kingship.
Unto him that loved us, and washed us. – Instead of “washed us,” some MSS. read, “loosed us”. There is only one letter’s difference in the two words in Greek. The general tone of thought would lead us to prefer “washed” as the true reading. On a solemn occasion, which St. John remembered clearly, our Lord had said, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.” The thought of the “cleansing blood,” intensified by the recollection of the water and blood which he had seen flowing from Christ’s pierced side, often recurred to his mind (7:13–14; 1 John 1:7, 5:6–8).
1:6. – and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; [1 Peter 2:5] to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
6. And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion forever (or, unto the ages). – The symbol of washing in the last verse naturally leads on to the thought of consecration, accompanied by blood sprinkling, to the work of the priest (Ex. 19:6, 10; 24:8; Heb. 9:21). The book will declare the kingship and priesthood of the children of God – a sovereignty over human fears and sufferings – their priesthood in their lives of consecration, and their offering of themselves even unto death.
“And all thy saints do overcome
By Thy blood and their martyrdom.”
The doxology here is twofold: glory and dominion. The doxologies in which the Redeemed Church takes part grow in strength in the earlier chapters of this book. It is threefold in 4:9–11, fourfold in 5:13, and it reaches the climax of sevenfold in 7:12.
1:7. – Behold, he cometh with clouds; [Matt. 24:30.] and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: [Zech. 12:10, John 19:37.] and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
7. Behold, he cometh with clouds. – Better, with the clouds. The reference to Christ’s words (Mark 14:62) is undoubted. In the “clouds” St. Augustine sees the emblem of the saints of the Church, which is His body, who spread as a vast fertilizing cloud over the whole world.
Every eye shall see him, and they also which (they were who = “whosoever”) pierced him. – Here again is a reference to the incident of the piercing of Christ’s side (John 19:34), recorded only by St. John.
Shall wail because of him. – Or, shall wail over Him. The prophecy in Zech. 12:10 is the suggesting one of this. But the passage in Zechariah describes the mourning of grief over the dead. The passage here is the mourning towards one who was dead, and is alive. He towards whom they now direct their sorrow is the One over whom they should have wailed when He was laid in His tomb.
1:8. – I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
8. The beginning and the ending. – These words are of doubtful authority. They are in all probability taken from 22:13, and interpolated here. The description of the verse applies, with little doubt, to our Lord, and the words are a strong declaration of His divinity.
The Almighty. – The word thus rendered is, with one exception (2 Cor. 6:18), peculiar to this book in the New Testament.
1:9. – I John, who also am your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
9. I John, who also am your brother … – More literally, I John, your brother and fellow partner in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus, ... because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. He was a fellow sharer of tribulation with them, and he shares that patience which brings experience, because it is a patience in Jesus. It is not patience for Christ, like 2 Thess. 3:5, nor patience of Christ, but rather patience which draws its life and energy of endurance from Him.
Patmos. – Professor Plumptre notices how little the scenery of Patmos colours the Apocalypse. “The vision that follows is all but unaffected by the external surroundings of the seer. At the farthest, we can but think of the blue waters of the Mediterranean – now purple as wine, now green as emerald, flushing and flashing in the light as the hues on the plumage of a dove.” The position of the Apostle in Patmos was probably that of an exile, free to roam where he would within the limits of the island. There was at any rate no limit of chains or guard, as in the case of St. Paul (Acts 28:16, 20). He tells us what was the cause of his exile. It was his faithfulness in proclaiming, as we know he loved to do, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. “St. John, proclaiming the Word of God, who was before all worlds, who had been made flesh and dwelt among men, who was the King of kings and Lord of lords, struck a blow at the worship as well as the polity of the Roman empire. He opposed the God-man to the man-god” (Maurice on the Revel., p. 20). The contest is incessantly the same. False creeds ever aim to deify man. “Ye shall be as gods” is their motto and their bible. “Emmanuel,” is the motto of the true faith –
“The Lord was God, and came as man; the Pope
Is man, and comes as God.” – Harold.
The crucified, suffering Saviour, God in Christ, very God, and one with man in sorrow, was the stumbling block in the past, and is the ideal which offends many now. (See Bp. Alexander’s Bampton Lectures, p. 30, et seq.) The terms of the conflict remain unchanged through the ages. (Comp. 6:9.)
1:10. – I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
10. I was (or, I became) in the Spirit. – The mind, drawn onward by the contemplation of things spiritual, is abstracted from the immediate consciousness of outward earthly forms of life. In great natures this power is usually strong. Socrates is related to have stood rapt in thought for hours, and even days, unconscious of the midday heat, or the mocking wonder of his comrades. To high-souled men, set upon the spiritual welfare of the race, this power of detaching themselves from the influence of the outward is the result of their earnestness. The things spiritual are to them the real; the things seen are temporal. It is the Holy Spirit alone which can give the power of this spiritual abstraction, but it is through the ordinary use of means that this power is bestowed. In St. John’s case it was on the Lord’s Day that this spiritual rapture was vouchsafed.
The Lord’s day. – There is no ground whatever for the futurist interpretation that this expression refers to the “Day of the Lord,” as in 2 Thess. 2:2. The phrase in this latter passage is totally different. The phrase here is, on te kuriake hemera. The adjective is applied by St. Paul (perhaps coined by him for the purpose) to the Lord’s Supper. From the Supper it came to be applied to the day on which Christians met for the breaking of bread. The day is still called κυριακε (kuriake) in the Levant. On the Lord’s Day the vision came to the Apostle. It was the hour of sweetest, closest communion, when the memories of Christ risen, and the fellowship he had enjoyed at Ephesus, would work on his spirit, and aid in raising him in highest adoration, like St. Paul (2 Cor. 12:2–4). When so rapt, he heard a voice, strong, clear, and resonant as a trumpet. The Apostle’s voice could not be heard among his beloved flock at Ephesus; but there was a voice which would reach from the exile at Patmos, not to Ephesus and its sister churches, but to all churches and throughout all time. The mouth which persecution closes God opens, and bids it speak to the world. So St. Paul, through the Epistles of his Captivity, still speaks. Luther, by his translation of the Bible, spoke from his confinement at Wartburg; and Bunyan, by his divine allegory, shows how feeble were the walls of his cell at Bedford to silence the voice of God. If speech be silvers and silence golden, it is also true in the history of the Church that from the captivity of her teachers she has received her most abiding treasures.
1:11. – saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.
11. I am Alpha and Omega. – In this verse we pass from St. John to Him who was the Word, of whom St. John gave testimony. He who is the faithful witness now speaks. “What thou seest, write,” etc. The previous words, “I am Alpha,” etc., are not found in the best MSS. The words “which are in Asia,” are also omitted.
The seven churches. – There were more than seven churches in Asia Minor; but the number selected indicates completeness. Thus, though having special reference to the conditions of those churches, the epistles may be regarded as epistles conveying ever appropriate lessons to the churches of succeeding ages. The names of the seven churches are enumerated, as they would naturally be by a person writing from Patmos. “First, Ephesus is addressed, as the Asiatic metropolis, and as the nearest church to Patmos; then the other churches on the western coast of Asia; then those in the interior” (Wordsworth).
1:12. – And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
12. Seven golden candlesticks. – Comp. the vision in Zech. 4:2–11. It has been observed that there is a difference in the two visions. In Zech. as in Ex. 25:31–32, the seven branches are united, so as to form one candlestick. Here there are said to be seven candlesticks; and from this supposed difference it is argued that we have a hint of the variety of the Christian churches, as distinguished from the singleness of the Jewish Church. But is it not more probable that what St. John saw was the old familiar seven-branched candlestick, identical in form with that which has been rendered familiar to all by the Arch of Titus, but that as the mention of the seven churches was then fresh in his mind, his eye fell rather upon the seven limbs and seven lights than on the whole candlestick, especially if, as Professor Plumptre suggests, the figure of the Christ concealed part of the main stem? Thus to his view the separate individuality of the churches, and their real union in Him who was the Light, would rather be symbolized. Thus, too, the external teachings of the earlier symbols are not disturbed: the new revelation illumines the types and shadows of the older. “These symbols were intended to raise them out of symbols. The truths were to throw light on the parables, rather than the parables on the truths. Men were to study the visions of an earlier day by the revelations of that day” (Maurice, Apocalypse, p. 22).
1:13. – and in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
13. In the midst of the seven candlesticks (the word “seven” is omitted in some of the best MSS.) one like unto the Son of man. – “He who kindled the light to be a witness of Himself and of His own presence with men was indeed present.” He was present the same as He had been known on earth, yet different – the same, for He is seen as Son of Man; the same as He had been seen on the Resurrection evening; the same as he appeared to Stephen; the same Jesus, caring for, helping and counselling His people: yet different, for He is arrayed in the apparel of kingly and priestly dignity. He is robed to the foot with the long garment of the high priest. St. John uses the same word which is used in the LXX version of Ex. 28:31, to describe the robe of the Ephod. (Comp. Zech. 3:4.) It has been understood by some, however, to indicate the “ample robe of judicial and kingly power”. There is in the vision a combination of both thoughts. He is the King-Priest who is seen by the Evangelist, the Melchisedec whom the Epistle to the Hebrews had so gloriously set forth (Heb. 5:9–10, 6:20; especially 7:1–17). He is girt about the breasts with a golden girdle. The girdle is not around the loins, as though ready for action and toil (Luke 12:35), but it is worn as by one who rests from toil in the “repose of sovereignty”. So, according to Josephus (Ant. iii. 7, § 2), the Levitical priests were girdled. The girdle is of gold, not interwoven with gold, as was the high priest’s girdle (Ex. 28:8), but pure gold, the emblem of a royal presence. (Comp. Isa. 11:5, Dan. 10:5, Eph. 6:14.)
1:14. – His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
14. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow. – The whiteness here is thought by some to be the token of the transfiguration in light of the glorified person of the Redeemer. “It is the glorious white which is the colour and livery of heaven.” This doubtless is true; but it appears to me a mistake to say that there is no hint here of age. It is argued that the white hair of age is a token of decay, and that no such token would have place here; but surely this is straining a point, and making a mere emblem an argument. Age and youth alike have their glories. The glory of young men is their strength. The hoary head, too, the token of experience, dignity, authority, is the glory of age. Physically, white hair may be a sign of decay; typically it never is, else the effort to produce the appearance of it in the persons of monarchs and judges would never have been made. The white head is never in public sentiment other than the venerable sign of ripe knowledge, mature judgment, and solid wisdom; and as such it well betokens that full wisdom and authority which is wielded by the Ancient of Days, who, though always the same in the fresh dew of youth, is yet from everlasting, the Captain of salvation, perfect through suffering, radiant in the glorious youthhood of heaven, venerable in that eternal wisdom and glory which He had with the Father before the world. (Comp. Dan. 7:9.) “He was one,” Saadias Gaon beautifully says, “with the appearance of an old man, and like an old man full of mercies. His white hair, His white garments, indicated the pure, kind intentions He had to purify His people from their sins.”
His eyes were as a flame of fire. – Comp. 19:12; Dan. 10:6. The eyes of the Lord, which are in every place, beholding the evil and the good, are here described as like unto fire, to express not merely indignation (He had looked once on the Jewish rulers in indignation) against evil, but determination to consume it; for our God is a consuming fire, purging away sin from those who forsake sin, and consuming in their sin those who refuse to be separated from it. (See 20:9; Dan. 7:9–10, Jude, verse 7.)
1:15. – and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
15. His feet like unto fine brass. – The feet, like the feet of the ministering priests of Israel, were bare, and appeared like chalcolibanus (fine brass). The exact meaning of this word (used only here) is not certain. The most trustworthy authors incline to take it as a hybrid word, half Greek, half Hebrew – chalcos, brass, and laban, white, to whiten – and understand it to signify brass which has attained in the furnace a white heat. “Such technical words were likely enough to be current in a population like that of Ephesus, consisting largely of workers in metal, some of whom – if we may judge from the case of Alexander the coppersmith (Acts 19:34; 2 Tim. 4:14) – were, without doubt, Jews. I believe the word in question to have belonged to this technical vocabulary. It is at any rate used by St. John as familiar and intelligible to those for whom he wrote” (Prof. Plumptre in the Epistles to Seven Churches, in loco).
His voice as the sound (better, voice, as the same word – phoni – is used twice, and translated first “voice” and then “sound” in our English version) of many waters. – Daniel described the voice of the Ancient of Days as the voice of a multitude (Dan. 10:6); but the voice of the multitude was in earlier Hebrew writings compared to the sound of the waves of the sea, which the voice of the Lord alone could subdue (Psa. 65:7, 93:4). This image the Evangelist adopts to describe the voice of Christ – strong and majestic, amid the Babel sounds of earth. That voice, whose word stilled the sea, sounds as the waves of the sea, which St. John heard Him rebuke.
1:16. – And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
16. And he had (or, having) in his right hand seven stars. – The stars are explained later on (verse 20) to be the emblems of the angels of the seven churches. They are described as stars in His right hand. They, perhaps, appeared as a wreath, or as a royal and star-adorned diadem in His hand. (See Isa. 62:3.) It expresses their preciousness in Christ’s sight, and the care He takes of them. A similar emblem is used of Coniah (Jer. 22:24), where he is compared to the signet upon God’s right hand.
And out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword. – There need be no doubt about the meaning here. The imagery of the Bible elsewhere is too explicit to be mistaken. It is the sword of the Spirit, even the word of God, which is here described. It is that word which is sharper than any two-edged sword, and which lays bare the thoughts and intents of the soul (Eph. 6:17, Heb. 4:12. Comp. Isa. 49:2). This is the weapon with which Christ will subdue His enemies; no carnal weapon is needed (2 Cor. 10:4). Those that take any other sword in hand than this to advance His kingdom will perish with the weapon to which they have appealed (13:10; Matt. 26:52), but those who arm themselves with this will find it mighty through God. With this weapon of His word He Himself fights against His adversaries (2:12, 16; 19:16, 21). With this He lays bare the hidden hypocrisies of men, cuts off the diseased members, and wounds that He may heal.
“The sword wherewith Thou dost command,
Is in Thy month, and not Thy hand.”
It is a two-edged sword. It has the double edge of the Old Testament and the New; “the Old Testament, cutting externally our carnal; the New Testament internally our spiritual sins” (Richard St. Victor). It has the double edge of its power to rebuke sin and self-righteousness; the evil of wrong-doing and the evil motives which wait on right-doing; the two edges of which will cut off sin from man, or else man in his sin. (Comp. Isa. 11:4 and 2 Thess. 2:8.) The Greek word here rendered “sword” is used six times in this book, and only once (Luke 2:35) elsewhere in the New Testament.
His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. – It is the spiritual truth which gives the splendour to such descriptions as these. The dazzling glory of Him who is the Sun of Righteousness is intolerable to human eyes. There is no marvel in this when we remember that He is the brightness of His Father’s glory, and that the Father dwells “in that light which no man can approach unto; whom no man bath seen, nor can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). It is the luster of holiness and righteousness which is here signified, and which “the eye of sinful man may not see,” but of which saints and angel messengers may catch a faint reflection; so that the angel’s face may look like lightning (Matt. 28:3), and “the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43). (Comp. the shining of Moses’ face, Ex. 34:29.)
1:17. – And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: [Isa 41:4 & 44:6.]
17. I fell at his feet as dead. – At the sight of Him, the Evangelist fell as one dead. “Was this He whom upon earth St. John had known so familiarly? Was this He in whose bosom he had lain at the Last Supper, and said, ‘Lord, which is he that betrayeth Thee?’ When I saw Him thus transformed, thus glorified, I fell at His feet as one dead. Well might such be the effect, even upon the spirit of a just man made perfect – and St. John was still in the body – of such an open revelation of the risen glory of Christ” (Dr. Vaughan). It was pity, and the pang felt at the severity of retribution which overtook sin, which made Dante fall as a dead body falls (Inferno, v,). It is the felt consciousness of unworthiness which seems to have overcome the Evangelist. This consciousness has its witness outside the Bible as well as in it. “Semele must perish if Jupiter reveals himself to her in his glory, being consumed in the brightness of that glory.” (Comp. Ex. 33:18, 20, “Thou canst not see My face; for there shall no man see Me and live.”) For every man it is a dreadful thing to stand face to face with God. Yet the consciousness of this unworthiness to behold God, or to receive a near revelation of His presence, is a sign of faith, and is welcomed as such. Of him who said, “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof,” Christ said, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matt. 8:8–10).
He laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not. – The words “unto me” should be omitted. The gesture is designed to give the assurance of comfort. The hand which was raised up to bless (Luke 24:51), which was reached forth to heal the leper, to raise the sinking Peter (Matt. 14:31), and to touch the wounded ear of Malchus, is now stretched out to reassure His servant; and the words, like those which John had heard upon the Mount of Transfiguration, and when toiling against the waves of the Sea of Galilee, encourage him not to be afraid. (Comp. Dan, 10:10.)
I am the first and the last. – The “last” must not be taken here to mean the least and lowest, as though it referred to our Lord’s humiliation. The last points forwards, as the first points backwards. He was before all things, and so the first; and though all things change, folded up as a vesture, yet His years shall not fail, and so He is the last. “The first, because all things are from Me; the last, because to Me are all things” (Richard of St. Victor). (Comp. Col. 1:16–18, Heb. 1:11–12.) This preeminence of first and last is thrice claimed for the Lord Jehovah in Isaiah (41:4, 44:6, 48:12), and thrice for the Lord Jesus in this book (in this passage, in 2:8, and 22:13).
1:18. – I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
18. I am he that liveth, and was dead. – Better, and the living One (omit the words “I am”); and I became dead; and, behold, I am alive (or, I am living) unto the ages of ages (or, for evermore). “Amen” is omitted in the best MSS. This verse must be carefully kept in connection with the preceding, as the description should go on without pause. He is the living One – not merely one who once was alive, or is now alive – but the One who has “life in Himself, and the fountain and source of life to others, John 1:4, 14:6; the One who hath immortality,” 1 Tim. 6:16 (Trench). Yet He became dead. There are two wonders here: the living One becomes dead, and the dead One is alive for evermore. It is another form of the glorious truth and paradox of which the Apostles were so fond (Phil. 2:8–9, Heb. 2:9). Comp. Christ’s words, Luke 9:24, and 13:43, which contain promises which He only could make who could say, “I have the keys of death and of Hades.” The order of these words has been transposed in our English version. The true order is the more appropriate order, “For Hades is the vast unseen realm into which men are ushered by death; dark and mysterious as that realm was, and dreaded as was its monarch, our risen Lord has both under His power. The keys are the emblems of His right and authority.” (Comp. 3:7–8.) It is not of the second death that He speaks; our Lord is here seen as the conqueror of that clouded region, and that resistless foe which man dreaded. (Comp. John 11:25, Heb. 2:15.) Comp. Henry Vaughan’s quaint poem, “An Easter Hymn” –
“Death and darkness get you packing,
Nothing now to man is lacking;
All your triumphs now are ended,
And what Adam marred is mended;
Graves are beds now for the weary,
Death a nap to wake more merry.”
Christ had spoken before of the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18), and of the keys (Comp. also 1 Peter 3:19). The key of the grave was one of the four keys which the Eternal King committed to no ministering angel, but reserved for himself (so Targum and Talmud). The whole verse affirms the undying power and inalienable authority of our Master, and is a fitting prelude to a book which is to show the inherent divine tenacity of Christianity. The Church lives on because Christ its head lives on (John 14:19). The resurrection power which the Lord showed is to be reflected in the history of His Church. “The greatest honour is due to Christianity,” says Goethe, “for continually proving its pure and noble origin by coming forth again, after the great aberrations into which human perversity has led it, more speedily than was expected, with its primitive special charm as a mission ... for the relief of human necessity.”
1:19. – Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;
19. Write the things which thou hast seen (better, sawest). – It is well to notice the small connecting word “then,” which has been omitted in the English. It gives the practical thought to the whole of the previous vision. This vision is to be described for the benefit of the Church of Christ, that she may never forget Him who is the foundation on which she rests; the true fountain of her life; and in whom she will find the source of that renewing power to which the last Note alludes. In the history of the faith it will be always true that they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength (Isa. 50:28–31). Lest, then, at any time the saints of God should be tempted to cry that “their judgment was passed over from their God,” the Evangelist is bidden first to detail this vision of Him who is the Life and Captain of His people. He is also to write the things which are – those eternal principles and truths which underlie all the phenomena of human history; or the things which concern the present state of the churches – and the things which are about to be after these things – those great and wondrous scenes of the fortunes of the Church and of the world which will be unfolded.
1:20. – the mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches,
20. The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand. – Having bidden him write the meaning of this mystery, or secret, He gives to St. John an explanatory key: “The seven stars are angels of seven churches (or congregations): and the seven candlesticks” (omit the words “which thou sawest”) “are seven churches.” The angels have been understood by some to be guardian angels; but it is difficult to reconcile words of warning and reproof (as in 2:4–5), and of promise and encouragement (as in 2:10), with such a view. More probable is the view which takes the angel to be the ideal embodiment (so to speak) of the Church. The more generally adopted view is that the angel is the chief pastor or bishop of the Church. The description of them as stars favours this view. Similar imagery is applied elsewhere to teachers, true and false (Dan. 12:3, Jude 13. Comp. Rev. 8:10, and 12:4). It is stated that the word “angel” was applied to the president in the Jewish synagogue. See, however, Excursus A.
2:1. – Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write: These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
1. Unto the angel of the church of (literally, in) Ephesus. – On the word “angel,” see Note on 1:20, and Excursus A. Adopting the view that the angel represents the chief pastor or bishop of the Church, it would be interesting to know who was its presiding minister at this time; but this must be determined by another question, viz., the date of the Apocalypse. Accepting the earlier date – i.e., the reign of Nero, or (with Gebhardt) of Galba, – the angel is no other than Timothy. Some striking coincidences favour this view. Labour, work, endurance, are what St. Paul acknowledges in Timothy, and which he exhorts him to cultivate more and more (2 Tim. 2:6, 16; 4:6). Again, against false teachers he warns him (1 Tim. 1:7). Further, there is “a latent tone of anxiety” in the Epistles to Timothy. The nature with which he had to do was emotional even to tears, ascetic, devout; but there was in it a tendency to lack of energy and sustained enthusiasm. “He urges him to stand up, to rekindle the grace of God, just as here there is a hint of a first love left.” (See Prof. Plumptre, Ep. to Seven Churches.)
Ephesus. – The chief city of Ionia, and at this time the most important city in Asia. It possessed advantages commercial, geographical, and ecclesiastical, and, in addition, great Christian privileges. It was a wealthy focus for trade. It reached out one hand to the East, while with the other it grasped Greek culture. Its magnificent temple was one of the seven wonders of the world; the skill of Praxiteles had contributed to its beauty. The fragments of its richly-sculptured columns, now to be seen in the British Museum, will convey some idea of its gigantic proportions and splendid decorations. But the religious tone induced by its pagan worship was of the lowest order. Degrading superstitions were upheld by a mercenary priesthood. The commercial instinct and the fanatical spirit had joined hands in support of a soul-enslaving creed, and in defense of a sanctuary which none but those devoid of taste could contemplate with admiration. But its spiritual opportunities were proportioned to its needs. It had been the scene of three years’ labour of St. Paul (Acts 20:31), of the captivating and convincing eloquence of Apollos (Acts 18:24), of the persistent labours of Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:26). Tychicus, the beloved and faithful, had been minister there (Eph. 6:21). Timothy was its chief pastor.
These things saith he … – The titles by which Christ is described at the opening of the seven epistles are mainly drawn from chapter 1. The vision is found to supply features appropriate to the needs of the several churches. The message comes in this Epistle from One who “holdeth” firmly in His grasp (a stronger word than “He that hath” of 1:16), and walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. The Church at Ephesus needed to remember their Lord as such. The first love had gone out of their religion. There was a tendency to fall into a mechanical faith, strong against heresy, but tolerant of conventionalism. Their temptations did not arise from the prevalence of error, or the bitterness of persecution, but from a disposition to fall backward and again do the dead works of the past. There was not so much need to take heed unto their doctrine, but there was great need that they should take heed unto themselves (1 Tim. 4:16). But when there is danger because earnestness in the holy cause is dying out, and the very decorum of religion has become a snare, what more fitting than to be reminded of Him whose hand can strengthen and uphold them, and who walks among the candlesticks, to supply them with the oil of fresh love? (Comp. Zech. 4:2–3, Matt. 25:3–4.)
2:2 – I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
2. I know thy works. – This phrase is probably common to all the epistles. See, however, Note on verse 9. It expresses the way in which all actions are naked and open before the eyes – those flame-like eyes (1:14) – of Him with whom we have to do (Psa. 11:4–5, 139:11–12, Heb. 4:13). The veneer of a formal faith might impose on the world, but it would not escape His scrutiny (Acts 1:24). He knows, too, and lovingly accepts, the unmarked and unrequited acts of true love (Matt. 10:42, 26:13): and appreciates, amid all its failures, genuine loyalty to Him (John 21:17).
And thy labour (or, toil), and thy patience. – The same things which St. Paul had pressed on Timothy (2 Tim. 2:25–26). The first word signifies labour carried on unto weariness. The “patience” is more than passive endurance. It is, as Archbishop Trench says, a beautiful word, expressing the brave and persistent endurance of the Christian. But though thus possessed of endurance, He commends them that they could not endure evil men. In one sense, the lingering of this grace among them is the green leaf betokening better things; they have not lost the power of hating evil (Comp. Rom. 12:9). No man loves God truly who cannot hate evil (Psa. 101:3).
And thou hast tried (literally, didst try) them ... and hast found them liars. – St. Paul had warned the Ephesian elders of the appearance of false teachers (Acts 20:28–31). Zeal for pure doctrine characterized the Ephesian Church. It is commended by Ignatius in his Epistle (ad Eph. 6). The false apostles here spoken of are not, I think, to be identified with the Nicolaitanes of verse 6; that verse is introduced as a further ground of commendation, mitigating the censure of verses 4 and 5. The claims to be considered apostles, which the Ephesian Church had disposed of, affords additional evidence of the early date of the Apocalypse. Such a claim could hardly have been put forward at a later date. But at the earlier periods such troublers of the Church were only too common (2 Cor. 2:17, 11:14–15; Gal. 1:7, 2:4; Phil. 3:2–3).
2:3. – and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
3. And hast borne. – This verse needs some change to bring it into harmony with the best MSS. It should stand, And hast (or, hadst) patience, and didst bear for My name’s sake, and didst not weary. In this last word there is a recurrence to the word (kopos) translated labour or toil in verse 2. They had toiled on to very weariness without wearying of their toil (Gal. 6:9), just as they could not bear the evil and yet had borne reproaches for Christ’s sake. “There is toil, and patience, and abhorrence of evil, and discernment, and again patience, and endurance, and unwearied exertion. What can be wanting here?” (Dr. Vaughan.)
2:4. – Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
4. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee. – Better, I have against thee that thou didst let go. This is the fault, and it is no trifle which is blamed, as the word “somewhat” (which is not to be found in the original) might be taken to imply; for the decay of love is the decay of that without which all other graces are as nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3), since “all religion is summed up in one word, Love. God asks this; we cannot give more; He cannot take less” (Norman Macleod, Life, i., p. 324). Great as the fault is, it is the fault which love alone would have detected. “Can anyone more touchingly rebuke than by commencing, ‘Thou no longer lovest me enough?” It is the regretful cry of the heavenly Bridegroom recalling the early days of His Bride’s love, the kindness of her youth, the love of her espousals (Jer. 2:2. Comp. Hosea 2:15). It is impossible not to see some reference in this to the language of St. Paul (which must have been familiar to the Ephesian Christians) in Eph. 5:23–33, where human love is made a type of the divine.
2:5. – Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
5. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and do the first works. – It is argued that we have here evidence that the later, or Domitian, date of the Apocalypse is the true one, since it describes a fall in spiritual life which might have occurred in thirty years, but would hardly have taken place in the few years – ten at the utmost – which elapsed between the visit of St. Paul (Acts 20:29–30) and the reign of Nero. But greater changes than a decay of this kind have passed over communities in equally short periods. We have seen nations pass from imperialism to republicanism, from the fever heat of radicalism to the lethargy of conservatism, in shorter space. Has not the past decade shown marvelously rapid movements in the Church of our own land? The change, moreover, in the Ephesian Church was not so great as the advocates of the later apocalyptic date would describe. There is at present little outward sign of decay. They have resisted evil and false teachers. They have shown toil and endurance; but the great Searcher of hearts detects the almost imperceptible symptoms of an incipient decay. He alone can tell the moment when love of truth is passing into a noisy Pharisaic zealotism; when men are “settling down into a lower state of spiritual life than that which they once aimed at and once knew.” Such a backsliding is “gentle, unmarked, unnoticed in its course”. Further, it must not be forgotten that the Apostle did express his presentiments of coming danger, and specially warned the elders (Acts 20:28) to take heed unto themselves; and in his Epistle (Eph. 6:24) he gives in his closing words the covert caution that their love to Christ should be an incorruptible, unchanging love: “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in incorruption” (“sincerity,” English version). The advice now given is, “Repent, and do the first works.” The advice is threefold: remember, repent, reform. Remember the love of the past peaceful hours. “How sweet their memory still!” “There are ever goads,” says Archbishop Trench, “in the memory of a better and a nobler past, goading him who has taken up with meaner things and lower, and urging him to make what he has lost once more his own.” (Comp. Luke 15:17, and Heb. 10:32.) So Ulysses urges his crew to further exertions.
“Call to mind from whence ye sprung:
Ye were not formed to live as brutes,
But virtue to pursue and knowledge high.” – Inf. xxvi.
Remember, but also repent, and repent in true practical fashion; for love will recognize no repentance but that which is confirmed in the doing of the first works. It must be a repentance whereby we forsake sin. “Christ does not say, ‘Feel thy first feelings,’ but ‘Do the first works.’” “An ounce of reality,” says a modern novelist, “is worth a pound of romance.”
Or else I will come ... – Better, Or else I am coming unto (or, for thee, in a way which concerns) thee, and (omit “quickly,” which is wanting in the oldest MSS.) will remove thy candlestick out of its place, unless thou shalt have repented – i.e., unless the change shall have come before the day of visitation. The “now they are hid from thine eyes,” is not yet spoken for Ephesus.
2:6. – But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.
6. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds (better, works) of the Nicolaitanes. – The Nicolaitanes were, as has been expressed, the Antinomians of the Asiatic Church. The life and conduct were little thought of, and the faith professed was everything. Some have thought that they were a sect who derived their name, under some colourable pretext, from Nicolas the Proselyte. Others hold that the name is purely symbolic, signifying “destroyer of the people,” and that it is no more than the Greek form of Balaam. (See Notes on verses 14, 15, below.) The existence of a sect called Nicolaitanes in the second century is attested by Irenaeus, Tertullian, arid Clement of Alexandria.
2:7. – He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
7. He that hath an ear ... Or, Let him that hath an ear, hear. These words – an echo from the Gospels – recur in all the seven epistles. In the first three, however, they are placed before the promise; in the remaining four they follow it. The heart which is hardened is the precursor of the ear that is deaf (Jer. 6:10, and John 12:37–40). The “spiritual truth” needs a spiritual organ for its discernment. These are truths, then, only heard
“When the soul seeks to hear; when all is hushed,
And the heart listens.” – Coleridge, Reflection.
To him that overcometh (or, conquereth) will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. – The reference to conquering is a prominent feature of St. John’s other writings. The word – used but once in the three Gospels (Luke 11:22), and but once by St. Paul (Rom. 12:21) – is found in John 16:33; 1 John 2:13–14, 5:4–5; and occurs in all these epistles to the churches. The promise of the tree of life is appropriate (1) to the virtue commended: those who had not indulged in the license of Nicolaitanes shall eat of the tree of life; (2) to the special weakness of the Ephesians: to those who had fallen, and lost the paradise of first loving communion and fellowship with God (Comp. Gen. 3:8, and 1 John 1:3), is held out the promise of a restored paradise and participation in the tree of life. (Comp. 22:2, 14; Gen. 3:22.) This boon of immortality is the gift of Christ – I will give. It is tasted in knowledge of God and of His Son (John 17:3). It is enjoyed in their presence (22:3–4).
2:8. – And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
8. Smyrna, the modern Ismir, now possessing a population of about 150,000. Its mercantile prosperity may be measured by its trade. In 1852 the export trade amounted to £1,766,653 – about half of this being with England. The imports in the same year were £1,357,339. It has always been considered one of the most beautiful cities in Asia. It was situated in the ancient province of Ionia, a little north of Ephesus – next it, as Archbishop Trench says, in natural order, and also in spiritual. Its position was favourable for commerce. In olden times, as now, it commanded the trade of the Levant, besides being the natural outlet for the produce of the Hermus valley. The neighbourhood was peculiarly fertile. The vines are said to have been so productive as to have yielded two crops. There are indications that intemperance was very prevalent among the inhabitants. Servility and flattery may be added, for the people of Smyrna seem to have been astutely fickle, and to have been keen in preserving the patronage of the ruling powers. In one of their temples the inscription declared Nero to be “the Saviour of the whole human race”. The city was specially famed for its worship of Dionysos. Games and mysteries were held yearly in his honour. Its public buildings were handsome, and its streets regular. One of its edifices used as a museum proclaimed, in its consecration to Homer, that Smyrna contested with six or seven other cities the honour of being the birthplace of the poet.
The angel of the church in Smyrna. – We have no means of determining certainly who was the person hero addressed. Many who accept the Domitian date of the Apocalypse argue that Polycarp was at this time the bishop or presiding minister at Smyrna. Even on the supposition that this is the true date, it seems exceedingly doubtful that this was the case. It can only be true on the supposition that the episcopate of Polycarp extended over sixty years. Polycarp was martyred A.D. 156. We know from Ignatius, who addresses him in A.D. 108 as Bishop of Smyrna, that his ministry lasted nearly fifty years. It seems too much to assume that his episcopate commenced eight or ten years before. Of course, if we adopt the earlier date of the Apocalypse, the Epistle must have been written before Polycarp’s conversion – probably before his birth. But though we are thus constrained to reject the identification which we would willingly adopt, it is well to remember that Polycarp is the living example of the language of the epistle, and that, as Professor Plumptre has said, “In his long conflict for the faith, his steadfast endurance, his estimate of the fire that can never be quenched, we find a character on which the promise to him that overcometh had been indelibly stamped.”
The first and the last, which was dead, and is alive. – Or better, who became dead, and lived again. From 1:17–18, we have selected the title most fitted to console a church whose trial was persecution. In all vicissitudes, the unchanging One (Heb. 7:3 and 13:8), who had truly tasted death, and conquered it even in seeming to fail, was their Saviour and King. Some have seen in these words, “dead and lived again,” an allusion to the story of the death and return to life of Dionysos – a legend, of course, familiar to Smyrna.
2:9. – I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
9. I know thy works. – Some would omit the word “works”; but the phrase “I know thy works” is admitted to be genuine in five out of the seven epistles; and it certainly seems natural to conclude that it was intended to be common to all, and to remind the Christian communities that whatever their state, it was known to Him whose eyes were as a flame of fire. “We go from one hour to another, from one day and year to another, and what is once fairly past in our doing and omitting and suffering is scarcely regarded by us anymore; it is like water that has flowed away. But into the omniscience of Christ all things are taken up” (Bengel).
Tribulation. – If persecution brought upon them poverty, it was the means also of unfolding to view their possession of the “true riches”. They were rich in honour, in that they were counted worthy to suffer. They would also grow rich in the graces which sufferings bring (Rom. 5:3–6, James 1:2–4).
Blasphemy. – They had to endure reviling as well as tribulation and poverty; and, harder still, to hear some who blasphemed that worthy name by which they were called.
Jews. – The Jews were foremost in this. “It was in the synagogue that they heard words which reproached them as Nazarenes, Galileans, Christians, Disciples of the Crucified” (Plumptre). Comp. James 2:7. It is interesting to notice that this characteristic hostility of the Jews was illustrated in the martyrdom of Polycarp. The Jews, “as was their wont,” were foremost in bringing logs for the pile.
Synagogue of Satan. – The word “synagogue” is only once used to describe the Christian assembly (James 2:2); and even there it is called “your synagogue,” not the “synagogue of God”. In all other instances “the word is abandoned by the Jews.” With the “synagogue of Satan” here, compare “the throne of Satan” (2:13), “the depths of Satan” (2:24).
2:10. – Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
10. Fear none of those things. – Though Christ proclaimed His yoke to be easy, He also said that His followers must expect tribulation (John 16:33). He never conceals the difficulties or dangers of His service. (See Matt. 10:16–31, Acts 9:16.) So here he proclaims, “Behold, the devil shall cast some …”
The devil. – The LXX translation gives this name to Satan, regarding him as the “accuser”. (See Job 1:6, Zech. 3:1–2; and comp. Rev. 12:10, where he is described as the “accuser of the brethren.”)
Tried. – On the part of the adversary, the intention was that they might be tempted from their allegiance to Christ. The real effect would be that they who endured would come forth tested and approved. The suffering would be for “ten days”. This is variously explained. Some think it applies to the periods of persecution. Others understand it to mean a long persecution of ten years. Others take it literally. Others again view it as expressing completeness: the test would be thorough. The exhortation, “Be thou faithful (even) unto death,” seems to favour this last; while the mention of “ten days” was perhaps designed to remind them that the period of trial was limited by Him who knew what they could bear, and would be but a little while when compared with the life with which they would be crowned.
A crown of life. – Rather, the crown of life. A crown was given to the priest who presided at the Dionysian Mysteries, which were celebrated with great pomp at Smyrna. A crown was also given at the Olympian Games, which were held at Smyrna. If there is any allusion to either of these, the latter would be the most natural. Some hold, however, the crown – though the word is stephanos, not diadema – is rather that of royalty than of victory. It is interesting to note that the narrative which tells of the death of Polycarp closes with words which it is difficult not to believe to be an allusion to this promise – “By his patience he overcame the unrighteous ruler, and received the crown of immortality” (Smyrna. Ep.).
2:11. – He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
11. He that overcometh (or, conquereth) shall not be hurt. – The words used are precise, and give certainty to the promise.
The second death. – This phrase is a new one in Bible language. It is said that Jews were familiar with it through its use in the Chaldee Paraphrase. It clearly points to a death which is other than that of the body. It stands in contrast with the crown of life. The expressions of 20:14, and 21:8, exclude the idea that a cessation of conscious existence is intended. The life of the spirit is the knowledge of God (John 17:3). The death of the spirit, or the second death, is the decay or paralysis of the powers by which such a knowledge was possible, and the experience of the awfulness of a life which is “without God”.
2:12 – And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges: [Isa. 11:4, 49:2; Eph. 6:17.]
12. Pergamos. – Unlike Ephesus and Smyrna, Pergamos was not distinguished as a commercial city. Its importance was due to other causes. A striking cone-shaped hill rose from the plain which bordered the northern banks of the Caicus. The hill was considered sacred. Its value as a strong natural fortress was early recognized, and it was used as a keep and treasury where local chieftains deposited their wealth. Its greatness as a city dated from Eumenes II, who was given by the Romans a large surrounding territory, and who fixed Pergamos as his royal residence. Under his auspices a splendid city – rich in public buildings, temples, art galleries, and with a library which rivalled that of Alexandria – rose into being. It has been described as a city of temples, “a sort of union of a pagan cathedral city, an university town, and a royal residence.” It retained its splendour even after it passed by bequest to the Roman Republic, and was declared by Pliny to be a city unrivalled in the province of Asia.
Sharp sword with two edges. – See Note on 1:16. The appropriateness of this language to the state of the church in Pergamos will best appear afterwards. (See Note on verses 15, 16.)
2:13. – I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.
13. I know thy works. – Here, as in verse 9, some MSS. omit “thy works,” and read, “I know where thou dwellest – even where Satan’s seat is.” The word is translated elsewhere “throne,” and should be here, “Where the throne of Satan is.” But why should this preeminence in evil be assigned to Pergamos? The answer is difficult. Some leave it unsolved, saying that in the absence of any historical notice, it must remain one of the unsolved riddles of these epistles. Prof. Plumptre suggests that the general character of the city, its worship and customs, in addition to the persecutions which the Christians had encountered, may well account for the description. Aesculapius was worshipped as the “Preserver,” or “Saviour”. The symbol of the serpent must have been conspicuous among the objects of adoration in his temple. Curious arts were practiced. Lying wonders were claimed. Persecution had extended to death. Such evil in such a city may have led to its being regarded as the very headquarters of the enemy.
Hast not denied. – Better, Thou didst not deny My faith in the days in which Antipas My faithful witness, was slain, etc.
Antipas. – Short for Antipater. (Comp. Lucas and Silas, short for Lucanus and Silvanus.) Nothing is known of Antipas. There are later traditions respecting him, but these are probably fancy-drawn.
2:14. – But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, [Num. 24:14, 25:1, 31:16.] who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
14. But I have a few things against thee. – The word “few” is not to be taken as though the ground of rebuke was a trifling one. The little leaven might leaven the whole lump; and those who had been brave unto death in the days of persecution had been less temptation-proof against more seductive influences. The church tolerated without remonstrance men holding [the word is the same as that used in commendation (verse 13),”Thou holdest (fast) My name”] “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel; (namely) to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication.” Israel could not be cursed, but they might be made to bring a curse upon themselves by yielding to sin; so the counsel of Balaam was to tempt them through the women of Midian, and “Behold, these caused the children of Israel to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord” (Num. 31:16). A similar temptation was endangering the Pergamene Church.
2:15. – So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.
2:16. – Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
15. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes – i.e., thou, as well as those of old, hast such teachers. There is little doubt that this is the connection between the verses, but opinions are divided whether we are on this account to identify the Balaamites with the Nicolaitanes; and to suppose that both names point to the same sect. The simplest meaning of the passage seems to be that the temptation to which the Israelites were exposed is used to illustrate the temptations of the Pergamene Church, through the teaching of the Nicolaitanes. Both temptations lead in the same Antinomian direction. Such a tendency was early seen (comp. Rom. 6:4, Gal. 5:13, Jude 4), and is not extinct now. “Is there not,” writes Dr. Vaughan, “a vague, unavowed, unrealized idea that the Atonement has made sin less fatal, that even sin indulged and persisted in, may yet not work death?” To such and all who countenance them the warning is, “Repent; but if not, I am coming for thee, and will war with thee (note the change of person and number) with (literally, in – i.e., armed with) the sword of My mouth.”
2:17. – He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
17. To him that overcometh. – The promise should run thus: – To him that conquereth will I give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name graven, which no man knoweth, but he who receiveth it. On this promise we may notice (1) that it is appropriate: those who refused to indulge the fleshly appetite are promised gratifications far higher, and hidden from the gaze of sense; (2) the allusions are not all easy to understand. That to the manna is indeed obvious. Israel ate manna in the wilderness, and died. The Father gives the true bread from heaven that a man may eat thereof and not die. The Son is that Bread of Life. He that eateth Him, even he shall live by Him (John 6:35, 48, 57) – live, even though like Antipas he die; for a man’s life consists not in the abundance of things which he possesses, but in the moral qualities which go to make up his character; and spiritual gifts are the food of these moral qualities, and these gifts are through Christ. But the promise is of hidden manna. Is the allusion to the pot of manna which had been laid up in the ark? There is no doubt that the Jews long cherished the belief that the ark and sacred treasures of the Temple had not perished. There was a fondly held tradition that they had been buried by Jeremiah in a safe and secret spot on “the mountain where Moses climbed and saw the heritage of God, until the time that God shall gather His people again together, and show them His mercy” (2 Macc. 2:4, 7). This “hidden manna,” so longed for by an afflicted race, may have suggested the use of the word “hidden”; but the sacred writer would become anxious to bring out the spiritual truth that the fountains of Christian life are hidden (Col. 3:3), the world knoweth us not. Like the fire in the Interpreter’s house, men may try to quench it, but a hidden hand pours in secretly the food of the fuel. More difficult is the meaning of the white stone, graven with the new name. Some see in it an allusion to the Urim and Thummim; and therefore take it to indicate the “priestly dignity of the victorious Christian”. In favour of this, it may be noted that it gives unity to the blessing. Manna and the precious stones worn by the high priest are both wilderness and Jewish illustrations. Against it, however, must be set the fact that the word here rendered “stone” is never so applied, a different word being used both in the LXX and in this book to denote a precious stone. Another suggestion, which is perhaps less encumbered with difficulty, is that the reference is to the stone or pebble of friendship called tessera hospitalis, graven with some legend or device; and which gave to its possessor a claim of hospitality from him who gave it. Some such tickets admitted those invited into the heathen temples on festival days, when the meat which had been offered as a sacrifice formed part of the feast. The stone is called white; but the word does not imply that it is a stone of white colour, but that it is shining, glistering white. On the stone is graven a new name. The giving of new names is not uncommon in the Bible: for example, Abraham, Israel, Boanerges, Peter. The new name expressed the step which had been taken into a higher, truer life, and the change of heart and the elevation of character consequent upon it. Such are known in the world by their daily life, their business, their character. They are known above by the place they hold, and the work (the real character of which is quite unknown to the world) they are doing in the great war against evil. No man knoweth the characteristics of the growth of the character, the spiritual conflict in which the work is done, and the features of that change which has been, and is still being wrought, except he who experiences the love, the grace, and the tribulation by which his spirit-life has grown.
2:18. – And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass;
18. Thyatira was situated between Pergamos and Sardis, a little off the main road which connected these two cities. It was a Macedonian colony, founded by Alexander the Great after the overthrow of the Persian empire. The Macedonian colonists appear to have introduced the worship of Apollo, honoured as the Sun-god, under the name of Tyrimnas. It has been thought by some that the description here given of Christ – “the eyes of flame” – was selected in allusion to this worship of the Sun-god, under the form of some dazzlingly ornamented image. Certainly close commercial intercourse connected the daughter colony with its mother city. There seem to have been various mercantile guilds in the colony – bakers, potters, tanners, weavers, and dyers. The dye trade was, perhaps, the most important. Lydia, the seller of purple, was in all likelihood connected with the guild of dyers; and her appearance in Philippi is an illustration of the trade relations of Macedonia and Thyatira. To her the Christian community at Thyatira may have owed its beginning. “She who had gone forth for a while, to buy and sell, and get gain, when she returned home may have brought home with her richer merchandise than any she had looked to obtain” (Trench). The population was of a mixed character, and included, besides Asiatics, Macedonians, Italians, and Chaldeans. The message which is sent to the Christians dwelling among them is from “the Son of God”. This is noteworthy, when we remember how persistently the other term, “Son of Man,” is used throughout the Book of Revelation, and that here only is the phrase “ Son of God” used; but it well suits, as indeed does the whole description, the message which breathes the language of sovereignty and righteous sternness. The “eyes of flame” will search the reins and the hearts (verse 23); the “feet of fine brass” will tread down the enemies, and smooth the path before them, who will have power over the nations.
2:19. – I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.
19. Thy works, and charity. – In the words of commendation we find two pairs. We have the Christian community commended for charity and service, the outward ministrations which manifest the inner principle of love; their labour of love, or their work and love (Heb. 6:10) in general. In the second pair, faith and patience; the patience is the token of the faith (Rom. 2:7, Heb. 11:27).
And the last ... – Read, and thy last works more than the first. Besides their faith and love, they are commended for their progress in good works – the last are more than the first.
2:20. – Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, [1 Kings 16:31, Rom. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9.] which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
20. A few things. – The Sinaitic MS. has, “I have much against thee”; but the reading, I have against thee that thou lettest alone, etc., is to be preferred.
Jezebel. – Some adopt the reading, “thy wife, Jezebel”. From these words it has been thought that there was some personal influence at work for evil in Thyatira. Whether in the household of the “angel” or not is at least doubtful. The sin alleged against her is the same for which the Nicolaitanes are condemned – fornication, and the eating of things sacrificed to idols. If the above view be right, the leader of the exorcists is a woman – regarded by her followers as a prophetess, as one with a real message from God; but viewed by the Lord of the Churches as a very Jezebel, teaching and seducing the servants of God. For letting her alone, for being timid, paying too much deference to her spiritual pretensions, for failing to see and to show that the so-called “deep things” of these teachers were depths of Satan, the chief minister is rebuked. A large number of respectable critics regard Jezebel as a name applied to a faction, not as belonging to an individual. It seems best to view the name as symbolic, always remembering that the Jezebel spirit of proud, self-constituted authority, vaunting claims of superior holiness, or higher knowledge, linked with a disregard of – and perhaps a proud contempt for – “legalism,” and followed by open immorality, has again and again run riot in the churches of God.
2:21. – And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.
21. And I gave her space. – Read, and I gave her time to repent, and she will not (or, is not willing to) repent of her fornication, or, to repent out of – i.e., so as to forsake her fornication. Here, as before, we are reminded that true repentance is a repentance whereby we forsake sin. (Comp. 2:5 and 3:2.)
2:22. – Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.
22. I will cast her into a bed. – The chamber of voluptuousness will become the chamber of sickness. The spot of the sin shall be the scene of punishment. (Comp. 1 Kings 21:19.)
2:23. – And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: [Jer. 11:20, 17:10.] and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.
23. Her children. – This is to be understood of her followers. The so-called prophetess led the way in looseness of morals, under the pretense of some deeper knowledge. She had her associates and their disciples. The evil and the evil consequences would grow. The disciples outrun their teachers, and more than tribulation – death – is their penalty.
2:24. – But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden.
2:25. – But that which ye have already hold fast till I come.
24. But unto you I say (omit “and unto “) the rest, etc.,
The depths. – Or, the deep things. These teachers, as was the case with the Gnostics, professed to have a deeper insight into mysteries, the deep things of God. They may have garnished their speech with this very phrase, borrowed – in sound though not in sense – from 1 Cor. 2:18, and may have even boasted of their knowledge of Satan. But such knowledge was purchased too dearly. Better off were they who were simple concerning evil. They have a burden, but it is not the burden of judicial tribulation. It is the burden only of resisting the evils of those troublers of the Church. The allusion may be to the decree of Acts 15:28; the same word for “burden” is used. They must not abandon their duty of witnessing for purity, and so for Christ. This burden they must take up, and hold fast till He come.
2:26. – And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
2:27. – and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; [ch. 22:16, Num. 24:17, Psa. 2:9, Matt. 2:2, Luke 1:78] as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my father.
26, 27. Power (or, authority) over the nations: and he shall rule them (or shepherd them) with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers. – The promise is of authority (“the might of right, not the right of might”) to share in the shepherd-like sovereignty of the anointed King. (Comp. the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 2.) Those who refused to stoop to the customs around them, and to gain influence by crushing or ignoring their convictions – those who, like their Master, refused to win power by doing homage to wrong (Matt. 4:8–10), would share the nobler sway which He now established. Wherever the Church has illegitimately grasped at power, she has lost it. “The wretched power which she had wrenched and stolen from the nations has been turned against her; she has been obliged to crouch to them, and beg their help, and they have justly spurned her. She has chosen to exalt herself like Lucifer, and she has fallen like Lucifer. If she had trusted her Lord, He would have given her the morning star. She would have derived from Him what she claimed independently of Him. She would have dispensed light to the world.”
2:28. – And I will give him the morning star.
28. The morning star. – The pledge of the coming day, both for the waiting witnesses, and for the ungodly, who loved darkness because their deeds were evil: the earnest of the sovereignty of light over darkness, when the children of the day would be manifest, and shine as the stars forever and ever (Dan. 12:3).
2:29. – He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
3:1. – And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.
1. Sardis. – The modern Sart – now a mere village of paltry huts – once the capital of the old Lydian monarchy, and associated with the names of Croesus, Cyrus, and Alexander. It was the great entrepot of dyed woolen fabrics, the sheep of “many-flocked” Phrygia supplying the raw material. The art of dyeing is said to have been invented here; and many coloured carpets or mats found in the houses of the wealthy were manufactured here. The metal known as electrum, a kind of bronze, was the produce of Sardis; and in early times gold dust was found in the sand of the Pactolus, the little stream which passed through the Agora of Sardis, and washed the walls of the Temple of Cybele. It is said that gold and silver coins were first minted at Sardis, and that resident merchants first became a class there. An earthquake laid it waste in the reign of Tiberius. A pestilence followed, but the city seems to have recovered its prosperity before the date of this epistle. The worship of Cybele was the prevailing one. Its rites, like those of Dionysus and Aphrodite, encouraged impurity.
The writer is described in words similar to those in 1:4, as – the one who hath the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars; but there is a difference. There Christ was seen holding the stars in His right hand. Here it is said He hath the seven Spirits and also the seven stars. In this language it is difficult to overlook the unhesitating way in which Christ is spoken of as owning or possessing that Holy Spirit who alone can make angels of His Church to shine as stars. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9, 11). His promise is, “I will send the Comforter unto you” (John 15:26), as possessing all power in heaven and earth. “He is able,” to use the language of Professor Plumptre, “to bring together the gifts of life, and the ministry for which those gifts are needed. If those who minister are without gifts, it is because they have not asked for them.” This the angel of the Sardian Church had not done. His faith and the faith of the Church around him had sunk into a superficial, though perhaps ostentatious, state. Here, then, lies the appropriateness of the description given of Christ, as the source of life and light to His Church.
A name that thou livest. – It is only needful to mention, and to dismiss the fanciful conjecture, that the name of the angel was Zosimos, or some parallel name, signifying life-bearing or living. It is the reputation for piety possessed by the Church of Sardis which is referred to. Living with the credit of superior piety, it was easy to grow satisfied with the reputation, and to forget to keep open the channels through which grace and life could flow, and to fail to realize that the adoption of habits of life higher than those around them, or those who lived before them, was no guarantee of real spiritual life; for “the real virtues of one age become the spurious ones of the next ... The belief of the Pharisees, the religious practice of the Pharisees, was an improvement upon the life of the sensual and idolatrous Jews whom the prophets denounced. But those who used both the doctrinal and moral improvements as the fulcrum of a selfish power and earthly rank, were the same men after all as their fathers, only accommodated to a new age” (Mozley). Self-satisfaction, which springs up when a certain reputation has been acquired, is the very road to self-deception. The remedy is progress – forgetting the things behind, lest looking with complacency upon the past, moral and spiritual stagnation should set in, and spiritual death should follow.
3:2. – Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
2. Be watchful. – Rather, become wakeful. It will not do simply to rouse and sleepily grasp at their spiritual weapons, or even to stand for once at arms. You must become of wakeful habit. Strengthen the remaining things which were (when I roused you) about to die; for I have not found thy (or, any of thy) works perfect – completed or fulfilled, fully done in weight and tale and measure – before my God.
3:3. – Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, [1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10.] I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
3. Remember therefore how (or, after what sort) thou hast received and heard (or, didst hear – the tense changes). – Remembering that the words are addressed primarily to the angel himself, the change of tense may have been designed to point him back to some particular period of his life, such as the time when he was set apart to his ministerial work. The further expectation is to hold fast, or keep – i.e., as an abiding habit. It has been noticed that this counsel is identical with that given to Timothy to “keep the good thing which had been committed to his charge” (2 Tim. 1:14; comp. also 2 Tim. 2:2). “Repent” is the closing word. Combined with the exhortation to hold fast, it reminds us that formal tenacity of truth and a fruitless inactive regret are alike useless. There must be the sorrow for the past, and a sorrow which shows itself in action – a repentance whereby sin is forsaken. (Comp. 2:5, 21.)
If therefore thou shalt not watch. – Better, If thou shalt not watch (or, have been awake), I will come (omit “on thee”) as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. The warning is an echo from the Gospels (Matt. 24:42–43, Luke 12:39–40). The coming of Christ to judge His Church would be in an hour unlooked for. What kind of hour he would so come was unknown, the sound of His approaching footsteps unheard. Shod with wool, according to the ancient proverb, stealthily as a thief, the Judge would be at the door. Yet they could not plead that they had been in darkness (1 Thess. 5:4).
3:4. – Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.
4. The best MSS. commence this verse with “But,” or “Nevertheless”. The case of the Sardian Church was bad, yet the loving eyes of the faithful witness would not ignore the good. There were a few who had not defiled their garments. These had not succumbed to the oppressive moral atmosphere around them. The words cannot, of course, be understood of absolute purity. Their praise is that, in the death-like, self-complacent lethargy around, they had kept earnest in the pursuit of holiness, and had not forgotten Him who could cleanse and revive. (Comp. 7:14.)
They shall walk with me in white. – This “white” is not the white of the undefiled robe; it is the lustrous white of glory, as in the promise in the following verse. (Comp. also 2:17.)
3:5. – He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, [ch. 13:8, 20:12, 21:27; Phil. 1:3.] but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
3:6. – He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
5. He that overcometh. – The promise is repeated to all who overcome; all, not who have never fallen, or failed, but who conquer, shall be clothed in glistening white raiment. On this glistering appearance comp. Dante’s words, “robed in hue of living flame,” and the description so frequent in the Pilgrim’s Progress – “the shining ones”. Trench, who reminds us that this glistening white is found in the symbolism of heathen antiquity, says: “The glorified body, defecated of all its dregs and impurities, whatever remained of those having been precipitated in death, and now transformed and transfigured into the likeness of Christ’s body (Phil. 3:31), this, with its robe, atmosphere, effluence of light, is itself, I believe, the white raiment which Christ here promises to His redeemed.” Professor Lightfoot thinks (see his Epistle to Col., p. 22) that there may be a reference to the purple dyes for which Sardis, as well as Thyatira, was celebrated.
I will not blot out ... – The negative is emphatic, “1 will in no wise blot out.” This figure of speech – a book and the blotting out – was ancient. (See Deut. 32:32, Psa. 69:21, Dan. 12:1; comp. also Luke 10:20, Phil. 4:3.) The name shall not be erased from the roll or register of the citizens of heaven. “A process of erasure is ever going on, besides the process of entering. When the soul has finally taken its choice for evil, when Christ is utterly denied on earth and trodden under foot, when the defilement of sin has become inveterate and indelible, then the pen is drawn through the guilty name, then the inverted style smears the wax over the unworthy characters; and when the owner of that name applies afterwards for admittance, the answer is, ‘I know thee not; depart hence, thou willing worker and lover of iniquity’.” (Dr. Vaughan).
But I will confess his name. – Another echo of Christ’s words on earth (Matt. 10:32–33, Luke 12:8–9).
3:7. – And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;
7. Philadelphia. – The town of Philadelphia derived its name from Attalus Philadelphus, the king of Pergamos, who died B.C. 138. It was situated on the slopes of Mount Tmolus, in the midst of a district the soil of which was favourable to the cultivation of the vine. On the coins of the town are to be found the head of Bacchus. The town was built on high ground – upwards of 900 feet above the sea level. The whole region, however, was volcanic, and few cities suffered more from earthquakes. The frequent recurrence of these considerably reduced the population. But its favourable situation and fertile soil preserved it from entire desertion. And of all the seven churches, it had the longest life as a Christian city. “Philadelphia alone has been saved ...; among the Greek colonies and churches of Asia, Philadelphia is still erect, a column in a scene of ruins.” Such is the language of Gibbon referring to its later history. As a light in the world at the present day, we must look to no Eastern Philadelphia. The hand of William Penn kindled a light in its great namesake of the West.
These things saith he that is holy ... – Better, These things saith the Holy, the True, He that hath the key of David, that openeth, and no man shall shut, and He shutteth, and no one shall open.
Holy. – The main idea of the word here used is that of consecration. It is used of what is set apart to God. It does not assert the possession of personal holiness, but it implies it as a duty. It becomes, therefore, preeminently appropriate to Him who was not only consecrate, but holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. Prof. Plumptre thinks there may be a reference here to the confession made by St. Peter (John 6:69), where the right reading is, “Thou art the Christ, the holy One of God.”
True. – A favourite word with St. John, and expressing more than the opposite of “false”. It implies that which is perfect in contrast with the imperfect; the reality in contrast with the shadow; the antitype in contrast with the type; the ideal which is the only real in contrast with the real which is only ideal; –
“The flower upon the spiritual side,
Substantial, archetypal, all aglow
With blossoming causes”
in contrast with the flower that fadeth here. Christ, then, in calling Himself the True, declares that “all titles and names given to Him are realized in Him; the idea and the fact in Him are, what they can never be in any other, absolutely commensurate” (Trench). In some MSS. the order of these words, “the Holy,” “the True,” is inverted.
The key of David. – Some early commentators saw in this key the key of knowledge which the scribes had taken away (Luke 11:52), and understood this expression here as implying that Christ alone could unloose the seals of Scripture, and reveal its hidden truth to men. In support of this they referred to 5:7–9. The fault of the interpretation is that it is too limited. It is only a corner of the full meaning. He who is “the True” alone can unlock the hidden treasures of truth. But the use of the word “David,” and the obvious derivation of the latter part of this verse from Isa. 22:22, points to a wider meaning. Jesus Christ is the true steward of the house of David. (Comp. Heb. 3:2, 5–6.) The faulty, self-seeking stewards, the Shebnas of Jerusalem and Philadelphia, vainly claimed a right of exclusion from synagogue or church, where Jesus, the God-fixed nail in the sure place, upon which the bundle of earth’s sorrows and sins might securely be suspended (Isa. 22:23–26), the Eliakim of a greater Zion, had the key of the sacred and royal house. In this, the chamber of truth was one treasure, as the chamber of holiness, the chamber of rest, the chamber of spiritual privileges, were others. In other words, though in a sense the keys of spiritual advantages are in the hands of His servants, “He still retains the highest administration of them in His own hands.” The power of the keys entrusted to Apostles gave them no right to alter the “essentials of the gospel, or the fundamental principles of morality”. The absolution given by them can only be conditional, unless the giver of it possesses the infallible discerning of spirits. The reader of Dante will remember how the cases of Guido di Montefeltro (Inf. xxvii.) and of his son Buonconte (Purg. v.) illustrate the belief which sustained so many illustrious spirits (John Huss, Savanarola, Dante), and in times of unjust oppression, tyrannical ecclesiasticism, and which this passage sanctions, that
“Nought but repentance ever can absolve;
And that though sins be horrible; yet so wide arms
Hath goodness infinite, that it receives
All who turn to it.”
3:8. – I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.
8. I know thy works: behold, I have set (better, given) before thee an open door (better, a door opened). – A reference to the passages (Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:8–9; 2 Cor. 2:12–13; Col. 4:3) in which a similar expression is used reminds us that the open door was not simply a way of escape from difficulties, but an opening for preaching the gospel, an opportunity of doing good, as well as an abundant entrance into the kingdom.
For thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. – The tenses used point back to some epoch in the history of this Church when some heavy trial or persecution arose, which tested the sincerity, fidelity, or Christian love of the faithful. “The reward then of a little strength is a door opened” (Dr. Vaughan).
3:9. – Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
9. Behold, I will make. – Better, Behold, I give some. There is no word to express this in the original, but as a word must be supplied to complete the sense, it is better to adopt “some” than the “them” of the Authorized version, as it is not a promise that all of the synagogue of Satan should come.
Of the synagogue of Satan. – We have here a reappearance of the same troubles which afflicted the Church of Smyrna. The fixed and contemptuous exclusiveness of the Judaizing party was their trial. But there was a time coming (perhaps the hour of temptation spoken of in the next verse) when these faithful ones, now abused and excommunicated by the fanatical synagogue, would be courted, acknowledged – nay, their aid invoked.
I will make them to come and worship before my feet, and to know that I have loved thee. – Some see in this a hint that the power of a large-hearted party to protect the Judaizers would be derived from the influence of the Gentiles, whose presence in the Church had been a stumbling block to the Jewish party. This may have been, and doubtless was, often the case. But the promise seems to have a higher fulfillment. The course of events would show that the so-called latitudinarian was the nearest to Christ; time would transform the suspected into the respected. The Amorites would come, and the disinherited Jephthahs would be brought to the head of Gilead. In days of such trouble their strongest opponents would become their warmest supporters. An illustration of this will occur to the mind of the reader in the marvelous support which has been given to the growth of Christianity by Jews with the tongue, with the pen, with the harp and organ. Let the names of Neander, Rossini, and Mendelssohn stand for hundreds more.
3:10. – Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
10. Because thou hast kept (better, didst keep) the word of my patience. – The one who keeps God’s word is kept. Such is “the benign a talis of the kingdom of God,” as Archbishop Trench calls it. The promise does not mean the being kept away from, but the being kept out from the tribulation. The head should be kept above the waters. They should not be ashamed, because they had kept the word of patience. It is through patience, as well as comfort of the Scripture that we have the hope which maketh not ashamed. (Comp. Rom. 15:5, and verses 3–5.)
3:11. – Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
11. Behold, I come. – Omit “Behold.” Better, I am coming quickly; hold fast; continue your race as those who are striving for a garland (1 Cor. 9:24).
3:12. – Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.
12. Will I make a pillar. – A pillar, and an unshaken one. There may be reference to the frequent earthquakes which had shaken down buildings in their city. Those who overcome will prove real supports to the great Christian temple. (Comp. Gal. 2:9.)
Write upon him. – Or, grave upon it. On the sides of the four marble pillars which survive as ruins of Philadelphia inscriptions are to be found. The writing would be the name of God, the name of the heavenly Jerusalem and (omit the repetition, “I will write upon him”) the new, unknown name of Christ Himself. The allusion is to the golden frontlet inscribed with the name of Jehovah. (Comp. 22:4.) He will reflect the likeness of God; and not only so, he will bear the tokens – now seen in all clearness – of his heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20, Heb. 12:22–23). And a further premise implies that in the day of the last triumph, as there will be new revealings of Christ’s power, there will be unfolded to the faithful and victorious new and higher possibilities of purity. Thus does Scripture refuse to recognize any finality which is not a beginning as well as an end – a landing stage in the great law of continuity. (See 2:17, and 19:12.)
3:13. – He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
3:14. – And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans [Or, in Laodicea.] write; These things to saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
14. Laodicea. – Situated halfway between Philadelphia and Colossae, and not far from Hierapolis. It received its name from Laodice, wife of Antiochus, the second king of Syria, by whom it was rebuilt and beautified. It had borne in earlier times the names of Diospolis and afterwards Rhoas. It shared with Thyatira and Sardis in the dye trade; the woods grown in the neighbourhood were famous for their quality and the rich blackness of their colour. Prosperity in trade had so enriched the population that when their city suffered in the great earthquake (A.D. 60) they were able to carry on the work of rebuilding without applying, as many of the neighbouring towns were compelled to do, to the Imperial Treasury for aid. The language of St. Paul (Col. 1:5–8) suggests that the churches of Colossae and the neighbourhood first received Christianity from the preaching of Epaphras, though it seems strange that so important a city, lying hard upon the great Roman road from Ephesus to the east, should have been passed over by St. Paul in his journeyings throughout Phrygia (see Acts 16:6 and 18:23); yet, on the other hand, Phrygia was a vague term, and the language of Col. 2:1 is most generally understood to imply that the Apostle had never personally visited either Colossae or Laodicea. (See note on Col. 2:1.) But it was a Church in which St. Paul took the deepest possible interest. The believers there were constantly in his mind. He knew their special temptations to the worship of inferior mediators, and to spiritual paralysis springing from worldly prosperity and intellectual pride. He had great heart conflict for those of Laodicea (Col. 3:1), and in proof of his earnest solicitude he addressed a letter to them (Col. 4:61), in all probability the epistle we call the Epistle to the Ephesians. From the Epistle to the Colossians we may gather that when St. Paul wrote the Christians at Laodicea assembled for worship in the house of Nymphas (Col 4:15), probably under the presidency of Archippus (verse 17).
Unto the angel of the church (or, congregation) of the Laodiceans. – Better, in Laodicea. By the angel we understand the presiding pastor. There is some ground for identifying him with Archippus. It is too much to dismiss this as a baseless supposition. (See Note in Trench.) It is a well-supported view which understands the passage (Col. 4:17) to mean that Archippus was a minister or office bearer in the church at Laodicea.
These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness. – The “Amen” used only here as a personal name. It is the Hebrew word for verily, and may have some reference to Isa. 65:16; but more certainly it seems chosen to recall the frequent use of it by our Lord Himself. He who so often prefaced His solemn utterance by “Verily, verily,” now reveals Himself as the source of all certainty and truth. In Him is Yea and in Him Amen (2 Cor. 1:20). In Him there is no conjecture or guesswork; for He is (and the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew Amen are used following) the faithful and true witness who speaks what He knows, and testifies what He has seen (John 3:11). “Faithful” is to be taken here as meaning trustworthy. The word sometimes means trustful (John 20:27, Acts 14:1), at other times, trustworthy (2 Tim. 2:22; 1 Thess. 5:24). In the Arian controversy, the application of the word to Christ was used as an argument against his divinity. It was enough to show in reply that the same word was applied to God, and expressed His faithfulness to His word and promise (1 Thess. 5:24). “True” – He is not only trustworthy as a witness, but He combines in Himself all those qualifications which a witness ought to possess. The same word is used here as in verse 7, where see Note. Trench suggests the three things necessary to constitute a true witness. He must have been an eyewitness of what He relates, possess competence to relate what He has seen, and be willing to do so.
The beginning (better, the origination) of the creation of God. – This title of our Lord does not occur in the Epistles to the other churches, but very closely resembles the language used by St. Paul in writing to the Colossians (Col. 1:15–18). The “beginning,” not meaning that Christ was the first among the created, but that He was the origination, or primary source of all creation. By Him were all things made (John 1:1–3, comp. Col. 1:15, 18), not with Him but by Him creation began. In short, the word “beginning” (like the word “faithful”) must be understood in an active sense. He has originating power (Acts 3:14) as well as priority of existence. The appropriateness of its use will be seen when we remember that the Laodicean Church was exposed to the temptation of worshipping inferior principalities. (See Col. 1:16, 2:15, where the plural of the word here rendered “beginning,” or origin, is used, and is translated “principalities”.)
15. – I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
16. – So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
15–16. Neither cold nor hot. – The “heat” here is the glowing, fervent zeal and devotion which is commended and commanded elsewhere (Rom. 12:11). It is not, however, the self-conscious, galvanized earnestness which, in days of senile pietism, passes for zeal. It is an earnestness which does not know itself earnest, being all too absorbed in its work. It is self-forgetful, and so self-sacrificing, rather than ambitious of self-sacrifice. It is, in short, kindled of God, and sustained by converse with the Divine One (Luke 24:32), and restored by intercourse with Him (see verse 20; comp. 1 John 4:15–20). The “cold” describes the state of those who are as yet untouched by the Gospel of Love. An intermediate state between these is the “lukewarm”; such are neither earnest for God nor utterly indifferent to religion. They are perhaps best described as those who take an interest in religion, but whose worship of their idol of good taste, or good form, leads them to regard enthusiasm as ill-bred, and disturbing; and who have never put themselves to any inconvenience, braved any reproach, or abandoned any comfort for Christ’s sake, but hoped to keep well with the world, while they flattered themselves that they stood well with God; who were in danger of betraying their Master, Judas-like, with a kiss. With the denunciation of “lukewarmness” here we may compare the exhortation to greater ministerial earnestness addressed to Archippus (Col. 4:17).
I would ... – The wish is not that they might grow cold rather than remain in this lukewarm state. It is more a regret that they are among those who are in a condition which is so liable to self-deception. Such a state is “both to God displeasing and to His foes.” And this is expressed in startling language, “I am about (such is the force of the words) to spue thee …
3:17. – Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
17. I am rich. – The verse means more literally, Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have grown rich, and in nothing have need, and knowest not that thou art the wretched (such is the emphasis) one, and the pitiable one, and beggarly, and blind, and naked. Thou art “the type, the embodiment of wretchedness.” The words should, I think, be taken, as an amplification of the reason for their rejection. Christ was about to reject them for being in that tepid state which, beginning with self-satisfaction, led on to self-deception. They were rich in worldly goods (unlike the Church in Smyrna), but their very wealth led there into a quiet unaggressive kind of religion. They were proud also of their intellectual wealth, self-complacent because in comfortable worldly circumstances, and became puffed up with a vain philosophy. They learned to be satisfied with their spiritual state, and to believe the best of themselves, and then to believe in themselves. Hypocrites they were, who did not know they were hypocrites. They thought themselves good; and this self-deception was their danger. “For,” to use Prof. Mozley’s words, “why should a man repent of his goodness? He may well repent, indeed, of his falsehood; but unhappily the falsehood of it is just the thing he does not see, and which he cannot see by the very law of his character. The Pharisee did not know he was a Pharisee. If he had known it, he would not have been a Pharisee. The victim of passion, then, may be converted – the gay, the thoughtless, or the ambitious; he whom human glory has intoxicated; he whom the show of life has ensnared; he whom the pleasures of sense have captivated – they may be converted, any one of these; but who is to convert the hypocrite? He does not know he is a hypocrite; he cannot, upon the very basis of his character; He must think himself sincere; and the more he is in the shackles of his own character, i.e., the greater hypocrite he is, the more sincere he must think himself” (University Sermons, p. 34).
3:18. – I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.
18. I counsel thee to buy. – There is, perhaps, a touch of irony here. How could the poor and naked buy? But the irony has no sting, for the counsel but recalled the invitation of the prophet to buy “without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1).
Gold – i.e., golden coin, “tried,” or, fired out of fire, and so free from alloy or dross. Trench suggests that “gold” here stands for faith. Does not, however, the self-deceiving state of this Church rather point to love as the missing grace? The Laodiceans were as those who had many graces in appearance. They were not unlike one who had gifts, tongues, understanding, liberality, but lacked that fervent love without which all was as nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3); or to use Trench’s own image, they were lacking in the only grace accepted as currency in the kingdom of God.
“O merchantman at heaven’s mart for heavenly ware,
Love is the only coin which passes there.”
But the possession of this love would bring their zeal out of the tepid into the fervent state. Such love, pure and fervent, could only spring from God who would shed abroad His love in their hearts (Rom. 5:5).
White raiment. – The putting on of apparel and the stripping of it off were tokens of honour and humiliation. (See 2 Sam. 10:1, Isa. 67:2–3, 9; Hosea 2:3, 9; Zech. 3:3–5, Rev. 16:15, Luke 15:22.) The wedding feast was at hand. The unclad would then be put to shame (Matt. 22:11–13). Let them be prepared against this by putting on Christ (Col. 3:10–14) and His righteousness (Phil. 3:9) that the shame of their nakedness do not appear – or, much better, be not made manifest.
Eyesalve. – They were blind. They were proud of their intellectual wealth. They boasted of their enlightenment. (Comp. Col. 2:8.) Self-deceived, they thought like the Pharisees that they saw. (Comp. John 9:40–41.) Better would it be for them that they should receive the anointing of the Holy One (1 John. 2:20), which would teach them all things, and especially reveal to them their self-ignorance. This anointing might be painful, but “the eyes of their understanding would be enlightened” (such is the remarkably parallel thought in the Epistle to the Ephesians), and they would be enabled to see and appreciate things spiritual. (Comp. John 9:7, 25; 1 Cor. 2:10–14, Eph. 1:18, 5:19).
3:19. – As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: [Prov. 3:11, Heb. 12:5.] be zealous therefore, and repent.
19. I rebuke and chasten. – The first word is that used in the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), and signifies to bring conviction; it is not empty censure. The second word signifies to educate by means of correction. The pronoun is emphatic, “I,” and calls attention to the fidelity of Christ’s love in comparison with the weak partiality seen in human love. (Comp. Heb. 12:6.)
Be zealous. – Or, be in a constant zealous state; and now, once for all, repent.
3:20. – Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
20. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock. – It is difficult not to see an allusion in this image to Cant. 5:2–6. Perhaps, also, the memory of the first night spent by St. John with his Master and Friend (John 1:39) may have been strong in his mind. Indeed, the life of Christ on earth teems with illustrations which may well have suggested the image (Luke 10:38, 19:5–6, 22:11–13, 24:29–30).
3:21. – To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my father in his throne.
21. To him that overcometh … – He will share Christ’s throne as Christ shared His Father’s throne. Here are two thrones mentioned. My throne, saith Christ: this is the condition of glorified saints who sit with Christ in His throne. “But my Father’s (i.e., God’s) throne is the power of divine majesty.” Herein none may sit but God, and the God-man Jesus Christ. The promise of sharing the throne is the climax of an ascending series of glorious promises, which carry the thought from the Garden of Eden (2:7) through the wilderness (2:17), the temple (3:12), to the throne. The promise bears marked resemblance to the language of St. Paul to the Ephesians (2:6). This crowning promise is made to the most unpleasing of the churches. But it is well that thus the despondency which often succeeds the sudden collapse of self-satisfied imaginations should be met by so bright a prospect. Though their religion has been proved an empty thing, there is a hope which may well drive away despair. “The highest place is within the reach of the lowest. The faintest spark of grace may be fanned into the mightiest flame of divine love.”
3:22. – He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
In this chapter we pass from the sufferings and temptations of the churches below to the unsullied glory above. The vision of the Almighty here described is thought to be interposed here to remind us that all decrees respecting the future “rest with God, and come from Him through Jesus Christ.” This is no doubt true, but there is another reason. From the world below, and the struggling churches, we are brought to see the Eternal who is ruling over all. A vision like this must dwarf our sense of life’s sorrows and temptations, and is a fit preparation for the scenes of conflict, failure, and persecution, which are about to be unfolded. Whatever painful sights the seer is called upon to behold, this vision of Him who rules “over all from the beginning” will remain in the background as the constant witness that in all the changes and chances of this mortal life, in all the vicissitudes of the Church’s history, God is her refuge. Therefore she will not be moved though the earth be removed. It is the vision of eternal strength so often vouchsafed to the sad. As to Ezekiel “among the captives by the river of Chebar” (Ezek. 1:1), and to Isaiah mourning over the gloom which was settling on Judah (Isa. 6:1); so now to the exile in Patmos, and through him to all who, in their life-conflict, need “everlasting consolation and good hope.” “You see how distress and solitude and sorrow favour communications between a man and his God.”
4:1. – After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.
4:1. After this (better, these things) I looked (literally, I saw; not “I looked,” as though the prophet turned his gaze then towards it), and, behold a door was opened (or, set open) in heaven. – He did not look and see a door opening; he saw, and lo! the door stood open. There are differences as well as similarities between this vision and others where glimpses into heaven were given to prophets and saints. In Ezekiel’s vision, and in the scene of Matt. 3:16 (comp. also Acts 7:56 and 10:11), the heavens divide; in this a door stands open. The way into the presence of God lies open (Heb. 10:19–20). All who have faith may enter. In the minds of such the thoughts of the heavenly will mingle with the sorrows of the earthly, and the calm of security will be theirs (Psa. 46:5). But the scenes of earth’s troubles will always be dispiriting to those who cannot reach the heavenly viewpoint.
And the first voice (or, behold, the first voice) which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; (even one) which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee (the) things which must be hereafter. – The first voice here spoken of is the voice which the Apostle had heard in the opening vision (1:10). He heard and recognized that trumpet-like voice again. It is strange that any should have maintained that this is not the voice of Christ. It is admitted that it must be the same as the voice of 1:10; but it is said that the voice of Christ is heard afterwards (1:16), not as a trumpet, but as the voice of many waters. The answer is simple: the voice of Christ has many tones, and the voice like a trumpet said, “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” (See 1:10–13.)
4:2. – And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.
2. And immediately I was in the spirit. – Comp. 1:10. The mind and soul were absorbed in the vision of things celestial. (See 2 Cor. 12:1–4.)
“Words may not tell of that transhuman change; . . . . .
If I were only what Thou didst create,
Then newly, Love! by whom the heaven is ruled,
Thou know’st, who by Thy light didst bear me up.”
– Paradise, i. 68–73.
And, behold, a throne was set (i.e., not that the seer saw the throne being set, but when he saw it was already set) in heaven, and one sat on the throne. – Comp. Micaiah’s speech (1 Kings 21:19). The enthroned One is not named. Have we here a touch of the Jewish reluctance to name Jehovah? or is it that the descriptive phrase, “He that sat on the throne” is used here, and kept before us in the whole book to remind us that the great world drama moves forward ever under the eyes of the ruling One? (Comp. 5:1, 7; 6:15, 20:11, 21:5.)
4:3. – And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
3. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone. – In determining the significance of these emblems, we must be guided partly by the analogy of Bible imagery elsewhere, and partly by our knowledge of precious stones. The sardian, or sardine, is admitted to be a stone of fiery red colour. The emerald, to which the bow round the throne is compared, is almost certainly a bright green. the hue of the jasper is the difficulty. The jasper – the last stone in the high priest’s breastplate, and first of the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem (Ex. 28:20, and Rev. 21:19) – is described by the best authorities as a dark, opaque green. Such a colour is quite in harmony with the colours of the other stones in the breastplate, and particularly with the foundation stones, which seem to be arranged in shades of colour (see Notes on 21:19 et seq.); but the dark opaque green would be an ill combination with the red sardius and the green emerald in the vision of the present chapter. Is there no further light? We have a jasper stone spoken of in 21:11, 18, with the descriptive phrase, “clear as crystal!” Does not this point to a stone somewhat different in appearance from that spoken of simply as jasper? Such a clear crystal stone would be the most natural companion to the sardine, and the combination of the sparkling brightness and fiery red suits the union of brightness and flame which appears elsewhere in the Bible (comp. 1:14, 11:1; Ezek. 1:4, 8:2; Dan. 7:9), and is best understood of the holiness and righteousness of God. The latter half of this verse shows us these surrounded by the emerald coloured bow, the evident symbol of the divine mercy. The allusion to the bow in the cloud (Gen. 9:12–16) is obvious. The bow completely encircled the throne, as mercy encompassing judgment. It was a covenant token, bearing witness to God’s faithfulness in dark times, God’s care for the ark of His Church, and His mercy shining forth after storm.
4:4). – And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.
4. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats (or, thrones), and upon the seats (or, thrones) I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold – Perhaps the wish to give its due preeminence to the thought of Him who sat on the throne caused our translators to describe the elders as sitting on seats; but the same word throne is used of both, and these who are now seated on thrones are called (5:10) king and priests. In the similar vision in Ezekiel no human beings are seen. Their appearance here is significant. They are the representatives of Christ’s Church and people, of those whom Christ calls His friends, and who are admitted to know what their Lord doeth (John 15:15). Various reasons have been suggested why they should be described as twenty-four in number. They are the twelve tribes doubled, to signify the union of the Gentile with the Jewish Church. They are the two sets of twelve, to represent the two Testaments. They are the twelve Patriarchs cojoined with the twelve Apostles. It will be seen that these were all different forms of the same thought, that the twenty-four elders represent the complete Church of God in the past and in the future, in the Jewish and Gentile worlds; and as such the true spiritual successors, as priests to God, of those twenty-four courses (1 Chron. 24:1–19) arranged by David, and which some have thought gave rise to the use of the number twenty-four in this passage. It is the great united Church. The same thought is touched upon in the double song of Moses and the Lamb (15:3), and in the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem (21:12, 14).
4:5. – And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices; and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God.
5. And out of the throne proceeded (rather, proceed; there is a change in the tense used) lightnings and thunderings and voices. – These are viewed by some as the indications of approaching judgments. Perhaps it is better to view them as the tokens of God’s power of judgment than as hints of immediately approaching judgments. The scene at Sinai (Ex. 19:16) was no doubt in the prophet’s mind. There the clouds and lightnings were not so much tokens of coming judgment as the symbols of that righteous power which can show itself in judgment. “Clouds and darkness are round about Him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne” (Psa. 97:2). They are the constant tokens of that power of God
“Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone,
But in the darkness and the cloud
As over Sinai’s peaks of old.”
And there were seven lamps (or, torches) of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. – See 3:1. The Spirit of God in His manifold powers is thus described under emblems of fire. Not merely as a fire of judgment. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a baptism of fire (Matt. 3:11–12). The flaming presence purges the spirit from sin. The Holy Spirit consumes evil. It is an unquenchable fire against all evils, whether in men’s hearts or in men’s lives, or in the world. (Comp. 1 Cor. 3:13, and Heb. 12: 29.) May there not be allusion to the covenant with Abraham, which was ratified by fire? Lamps, or torches, of fire (lampades puros, LXX, same as in this passage) went between the divided pieces of the heifer and the she-goat. If this be correct, the vision of this chapter reminds us that God is ever mindful of His covenant. The rainbow, the token of the covenant with Noah; the flaming torches, tokens of the covenant with Abraham; and the thunderings and lightnings, the tokens of the covenant at Sinai, are ever with Him. (Comp. also Ezek. 1:4.)
4:6. – And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.
6. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal. – There is a sea before the throne of God. The woman appareled in purple splendour sits upon many waters (17:1). The waters are explained (17:15) to be “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” Her throne rests on the fickle and stormy sea of world opinion, fashion, and passion. The waters represent the unguided, unreasoning, and unprincipled thoughts of men. By analogy, the calm glass-like sea, which is never in storm, but only interfused with flame (15:2), represents the counsels of God, those purposes of righteousness and love, often fathomless, but never obscure; always the same, though sometimes glowing with holy anger (15:1). (Comp. the Psalmist’s words, “Thy judgments are like the great deep,” Psa. 36:6, Prayer Book version. See also Psa. 77:19, and Rom. 11:33–36.) The position of the crystal sea is analogous to that of the molten sea in front of Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron. 4:9–10).
And in the midst of the throne – i.e., between the seer and the throne. The Apostle saw the crystal sea, and beyond it the living creatures encircling the throne – four living creatures (or, living beings) full of (or, teeming with) eyes before and behind.
4:7. – And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.
7. And the first beast (better, in each case, living being) was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf (comp. Ezek. 1:7, 10), and the third beast had a face as a man (or, its countenance as of a man), and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. – These are living beings, not “beasts,” as in the Authorized version. The rendering “beasts” introduces confusion of thought, and violates the laws of Apocalyptic, indeed of Bible, imagery. The evil powers are described under the emblem of wild beasts; for thus brute force, and unrestrained passion, and self-will, etc., are symbolized. (See 11:7, 13:1–2, 16:2, 17:3, 7; 19:19–20, 20:10.) But these “living beings “ do not represent the evil element in the world. They are representative of animated nature. They are four in number – as there are four beings which hold a primacy in the world: among created beings, man; among birds, the eagle; among cattle, the ox; among untamed animals, the lion. The characteristics of these four chiefs of creation unite to make a perfect picture of the spirit of true service, which should be brave as the lion, patient as the ox, aspiring as the eagle, intelligent as man. It may here be noted that the number “four” in the Apocalypse is almost always associated with the earth. (See 7:1.) We need only call to mind the four quarters, four elements, four seasons, to see its fitness. (Comp. 21:13, 16.) The living creatures are “full of eyes”. This strong expression is used again in the next verse. Twice used, its meaning must be significant. The same idea is found in the later prophets of the Old Testament. The wheels of Ezekiel and their tires (Ezek. 1:18, and 10:12) were full of eyes. The stone of Zechariah had seven (the perfect number) eyes (Zech. 3:9). The thought is emphasized again in 5:6, where the Lamb is said to have seven eyes. Multiplicity of eyes may symbolize vitality and vigilance. Some have thought, inappropriately enough, that it signifies the unceasing praise of God’s works. A better interpretation is given by Dr. Currey. “The power of nature is no blind force. It is employed in the service of God’s providence, and all over it the stamp of reason is impressed.” (See Speaker’s Commentary on Ezek. 1:18.) May we not add that the force of nature is always observant of God’s will? Its myriad eyes are fixed on Him, as the eyes of a servant on his master (Psa. 123:2); doing His commandment, hearkening unto the voice of His word (Psa. 103:20–21); the eyes too of all creation wait on God, who gives them meat in due season (Psa. 104:27, Prayer Book version) –
Is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed.
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
4:8. – And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not [Gr. They have no rest.] day and night, saying, Holy, [ch. 1:4, 8; Isa. 6:3.] holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
8. And the four beasts (or, living beings) had each of them (literally, one by one of them) six wings about him; and they were full of (or, teeming with) eyes. – The last verse spoke of the living beings teeming with eyes; this tells us that neither the dropping nor the raising of their wings hindered their view.
And they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. – The resemblance to Isaiah’s vision (Isa. 6:1–4) may remind us that the voice of God’s creation has in every age proclaimed His eternal holiness. The word “holy” is repeated eight times in the Sinaitic version. The “six wings” are taken to express reverence, for with twain (Isa. 6:2) he covered his face; humility, for with twain he covered his feet; and obedience, for with twain he did fly. Some have understood these living beings to betoken rather the creative power of God than the actual creation. There is much to be said for this, but the analogy of the passage suits better the view here adopted. The twenty-four elders represent, not the regenerating power of God, but the regenerate Church. The new creation in Christ Jesus join in praise with all created things. The doxology in verse 11 favours the interpretation, “Thou hast created all things.”
4:9. – And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever,
4:10. – the four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
9–10. And when those beasts – Better, And whensoever the living beings shall give (the future is used) glory and honour and thanks to Him who sitteth upon the throne, to Him who liveth to the ages of ages, the four-and-twenty elders shall (as is their wont) fall down before Him who sitteth on the throne, and worship Him that liveth into the ages of ages, and shall (as is their wont) cast their crowns before the throne, saying … . It is not to Him who sat upon the throne, but to Him who sitteth there, as he liveth to the ages of ages, that this homage is paid. The future tense (shall give glory, etc.) implies the eternal repetition of the act. The connection between the praise given by creation, and the consequent homage of the twenty-four elders, expresses a truth. The Church of Christ does not always hear the voice of praise from created things. Often the creation groaneth and travaileth; but her chorus of praise rises when she perceives that “everything that hath breath praiseth the Lord.” The converse of this thought – the earth bringeth forth her fruit when the people praise God – is hinted in Psa. 67:5–6, “the earth ceases her travail when the sons of God are made manifest” (Rom. 8:19–21).
Crowns. – The crowns are not royal crowns, but the crowns of conquerors. These are laid down before the throne by those who overcame, not in their own might, but through the blood of the Lamb (12:11; comp. 7:14).
4:11. – Thou art worthy, [ch. 5:12.] O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
11. The doxology is threefold. (See Note on 1:6.) It should run –
“Worthy art Thou, O Lord and our God,
To receive the glory, and the honour, and the power,
Because Thou didst create all things,
And through (or, owing to – i.e., because of)
Thy will they were (not ‘are’) and were created.”
The existence of all things was owing to the will of God, as also was the creation of all things, which was the realization or manifestation of that will.
The Sealed Roll. – The vision of the previous chapter remains. The scenery does not shift, but the attention of the seer is now directed to one feature – the book, or roll, which was on the hand of the Throned One. This roll none in heaven, earth, or under the earth could open; but the Lamb takes the roll to open it, or to unfold its purport to the waiting world and Church; the Church and world praise Him who is the Light, revealing to them all they need to know.
5:1. – And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, [Isa. 20:11, Ezek. 2:9–10, 32:15; Dan. 12:4.] sealed with seven seals.
1. And I saw in the right hand ... – Better, And I saw on (not “in”; the roll lay on the open palm of the hand) the right hand of Him that sitteth upon the throne a book written within and behind, fast sealed with seven seals. The book is, of course, in the form of a roll. It lies on the open hand of the Throned One. It was not His will that the book should be kept from any. It is written, not on the inside only, as was the usual way, but, like the roll of the book which Ezekiel saw (Ezek. 2:9–10), it was written within and without. Some have thought that there are two divisions of predictions – those written within the roll, and these written on the outer side. This is merely fanciful; the passage in Ezekiel which supplies a guidance to the meaning might have shown the erroneousness of the thought. Clearly the “lamentation and mourning and woe” inscribed all over Ezekiel’s roll indicate the filling up of sorrows. Here the same overflowing writing indicates the completeness of the contents. There was no room for addition to that which was written therein. But what is meant by the book? Numberless interpretations have been offered: it is the Old Testament; it is the whole Bible; it is the title deed of man’s inheritance; it is the book containing the sentence of judgment on the foes of the faith; it is the Apocalypse; it is part of the Apocalypse; it is the book of God’s purposes and providence. There is a truth underlying most of these interpretations, but most of them narrow the force of the vision. If we say it is the book which unfolds the principles of God’s government – in a wide sense the book of salvation (Comp. Rom. 16:25–26) – the interpretation of life, which Christ alone can bestow (see verses 3–6), we shall include, probably, the practical truths which underlie each of these interpretations; for all – Old Testament and New, man’s heritage and destiny, God’s purposes and providence – are dark, till He who is the Light unfolds those truths which shed a light on all. Such a book becomes one “which contains and interprets human history,” and claims the kingdoms of the earth for God. The aim of all literature has been said by a distinguished critic to be little more than the criticism of life. The book which Christ unfolds is the key to the true meaning of life. The roll is not the Apocalypse so much as the book of those truths which are exemplified in the Apocalypse, as in a vast chamber of imagery. The roll was fast sealed, so that even those who were wise and learned enough to read it, had it been unrolled, could not do so (see Isa. 29:11). There are things which are hidden from the wise and prudent, but revealed unto babes.
5:2. – And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?
2. And I saw a strong (better, mighty) angel proclaiming with (or, in) a loud voice, Who is worthy ... – We must not let the word “worthy” pass as though it were simply equivalent to “strong enough”. It seems to imply moral fitness (comp. Rom. 1:4), which is the true strength in the heavenly world. It was not lack of intellectual capacity so much as the taint of moral unworthiness which hindered the reading of the book. This is in harmony with what we have noticed before. “To commune with God, there is need of no subtle thought, no foreign tongue, no newest philosophy ‘the pure in heart shall see Him’: and Foxe and Bunyan can more truly make Him known than ‘masters of sentences’ and ‘angelic doctors’.” Those who are willing to do God’s will know of God’s doctrine. This thought corresponds, too, with the stress which is laid (in verse 5) out the victory of Christ. It is not simply as divine Son of God, but also as victorious Saviour and King of His people, that He opens the book. His worthiness has been established in conflict and temptation (John 14:30, Heb. 2:9, 4:15).
5:3. – And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.
3. And no man ... – Or, better, no one (for it is of more than mankind that the Apostle speaks) was able, in the heaven, nor on the earth, nor under the earth, nor even (still less?) to look thereon. The looking on the book is usually understood of the look cast on the book of one who would read the contents. If so, the thought is, none could open, still less read, the roll. It may, however, be that all who attempted to take the book were unable to face the glory in which it lay. When Christ revealed Himself to Saul he could not see for the glory of that light.
5:4. – And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.
4. And I wept much because no man (better, no one) was found worthy to open … the book (omit “and to read”). – The Apostle is not ashamed to call attention to his tears. I, indeed, for my part (the “I” is emphatic) wept much. It was not a failure of faith. It was the outburst of an earnest heart, to which the knowledge of God and the destinies of his fellow men were very dear. Those who have longed to see the end of oppression, fraud, and sorrow on the earth, to know something of the laws which govern the present, and of their issue in the future, will understand these tears. “The words, ‘I wept much,’ can only be understood by those who have lived in great catastrophes of the Church, and entered with the fullest sympathy into her sufferings. … Without tears the Revelation was not written, neither can it without tears be understood.”
5:5. – And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, [Gen. 49:9, Heb. 7:14.] the Root of David, [Isa. 11:1, 10; 53:2; Zech. 6:12.] hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.
5. And one of the elders … – Better, And one from erect the elders saith unto one, Weep not; behold, the Lion, which is of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, conquered (so as) to open the roll, and the seven seals thereof. The position of the word “conquered” is emphatic, and should receive greater prominence. The verse has been translated, “Behold, one conquered, (even) the Lion ...” The right to open the roll is thus made to turn, as we noticed before, not merely on the divine Sonship of our Lord, but upon His victory. He conquered, and so opens the secret purposes of God to His Church. The thought is exactly parallel with other scriptures which give emphasis to the work of redemption. It is “for the suffering of death” that Christ is clothed “with glory and honour” (Heb. 2:9). Similarly St. Paul traces the exaltation of Christ as the outcome of His humiliation, “wherefore (i.e., in consequence of His humiliation) God also hath highly exalted Him” (Phil. 2:9). Thus Christ, who in conquest is seen to be the power of God, in revealing the true philosophy of history is seen to be the wisdom of God.
The Lion of the tribe of Juda. – The lion was the ancient symbol of the tribe of Judah. Jacob described his son as “a lion’s whelp” (Gen. 49:9); the standard of Judah in the Israelitish encampment is said to have been a lion. It was the symbol of strength, courage, and sovereignty.
The Root of David. – The Lion is also the representative of the royal house of David. “Christ cometh of the seed of David” (comp. Mark 12:35 with John 8:42). The prophets have described Him as the Branch, which would spring from the ancient stock (Isa. 11:1, Zech. 6:12). But there seems also a reference to the deeper thought that He who is the Branch is also the Root (comp. Isa. 11:10). He is the one who was David’s Lord (Matt. 22:41–45), and “the true source and ground of all power” to David and David’s tribe, and of all who looked to Him, and not to themselves for strength.
5:6. – And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.
6. And I beheld, and lo … – Better, And I saw (omit “and lo”) in the midst of the throne, and of the four living beings, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb (or, a little Lamb), standing as if having been slain. The position of the Lamb is described from the seer’s point of view. The Lamb is not on the throne, but in the middle front of it, and so apparently between the living creatures, and in the midst of the circle formed by the twenty-four elders. The passage is most striking. The Evangelist is told of the Lion which will open the seals. He looks, and lo, it is a Lamb! yes, a little Lamb – for the word is diminutive. There is deep significance in this. When we read of the Lion, we think of power and majesty, and we are right. All power in heaven and earth is Christ’s, but it is power manifested in seeming weakness. The waters of Shiloah are mightier than the Euphrates (Isa. 8:6–8); righteousness and purity, meekness and gentleness are greater than carnal weapons (comp. 2 Cor. 6:6–7, Eph. 6:11, et al.); the Lamb mightier than the roaring lion which goeth about seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). But it is a Lamb as if it had been slain. The wound marks are there, but it is not dead. It is standing, for it represents Him who, though he died, is alive for evermore; but the signs of suffering and death are visible, for it is not the Lamb, but the suffering Lamb, which is exalted. It is not the Christ, but the Christ crucified, which is the power of God. The Christ lifted up from the earth draws all men unto Him (John 12:32, 1 Cor. 1:23–24). The corn of wheat which dies brings forth fruit (John 12:24). As such He is the worship of the Church and the world which He has redeemed. (See verses 8–9; comp, 7:14.) The reference to earlier Scriptures (Ex. 12:46, Isa. 53:7, John 1:29, 36; 1 Cor. 5:7–8) is not to be overlooked. From the tokens of suffering the seer passes to the tokens of strength and wisdom which he saw in the Lamb. He describes it as “having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent forth (or, which are being sent forth) into all the earth.” The horn is the strength of the animal which carries it. It is so used in the blessing of Joseph: “His horns are like the horns of a wild bull” (“unicorns” in Authorized version); “with them shall he push the people together,” etc. (Deut. 33:17; comp. Psa. 89:24, 148:14). The seven horns denote completeness or fullness of strength. The seven eyes, like the seven lamps (4:5), represent the Holy Spirit in His manifold gifts of grace; but as they are described as eyes of the Lamb, they betoken His omniscience who is in heaven and yet by His Spirit, everywhere (Matt. 28:20); whose eye is on all events, great and small; whose eyes beheld the children of men. Note also, that the seven spirits are ascribed to the Son as well as to the Father. (Comp. John 14:26, 15:26.) The seven spirits are said to be “sent”. The word is from the same root as the word “ apostle”. There is an apostolate of the Spirit as well as an apostolate of the Church; and if we adopt the version here which gives the present participle, this spiritual apostolate is being continually exerted. The seven spirits are in process of being sent out by Him who says to this one “Go,” and he goeth; and to the twelve, “Go ye into all the world,” and who sends His Spirit to bestow upon His people grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.
5:7. – And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.
7. And he came. – Better, And He came, and He has taken (omit the words “the book,” and supply) it (i.e., the roll) out of the right hand of Him that sitteth upon the throne. There is a change of tense (“came,” “has taken”), which seems to be due to the rapt attention of the seer, whose narrative trembles with his own intensity of feeling. He wept a while ago; now he need not weep. The Lamb conquered; He came; He has taken the roll. He is the wisdom of the Church, among all preeminent. All things will be reconciled in Him. The purpose and meaning of all life’s mysteries and sorrows will be made plain in Him. (Comp. 1 Cor. 1:24, Eph. 1:9–10, Col. 1:18.)
5:8. – And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, [or, incense] which are the prayers of the saints.
8. And when he had taken. – Better, And when He took the roll, the four living beings and the twenty-four elders felt before the Lamb, having each a harp, and golden vials (or, censers) full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (or, the holy ones). It is not the Church alone which is interested in the revelation which will throw light on life’s mysteries and the delay of the kingdom. The whole creation groaneth, waiting for the reign of righteousness; and therefore the four living beings, who represent creation, join with the elders, who represent the Church, in the adoration of the Lamb who holds the secret of life’s meaning in His hand. The vials (which seem to be censers, as they hold the incense) and the harps, it is perhaps more natural to suppose, were in the hands of the four-and-twenty elders, and not of the living creatures. Here, then, we have the praises (represented by the harps), and the prayers (represented by the censers) of the worldwide and agelong Church of Christ. The comparison of prayer with incense is in strict accordance with Old Testament language. “Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense” (Psa. 141:2). The incense held a conspicuous place in the ritual of the Temple. The greatest care was to be taken in the composition of the incense, and the same compound was not to be used anywhere but in the sanctuary. These precautions suggest its typical character. The true odours are the heart prayers of God’s children. “Of these three sweet ingredient perfumes,” says Archbishop Leighton, alluding to the composition of the Temple incense, “namely, petition, confession, thanksgiving, is the incense of prayer, and by the divine fire of love it ascends unto God, the heart and all with it; and when the hearts of the saints unite in joint prayer, the pillar of sweet smoke goes up the greater and the fuller.” Every prayer which broke out in sob from an agonizing heart, every sigh of the solitary and struggling Christian, every groan of those groping God-ward, mingles here with the songs of the happy and triumphant.
5:9. – And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;
5:10. – and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
9–10. And they sung a new song, saying ... – Better, And they sing a new song saying. The use of the present (“sing”) is another example of that intensity of interest of which the change of tense in the last verse afforded an instance. As he records his vision, he sees it anew. He describes the action as though it were even now taking place, and he still hears the notes of praise. He who knows what it is to have the strains of some rich melody haunt him for days will understand how the prophet would bear the glad chorus burst forth afresh in his ears when he recalled the vision. The new song; the chorus of the redeemed –
“Worthy art Thou to take the roll,
And to open the seals thereof;
For Thou wast slain,
And didst buy to God in Thy blood
Out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation,
And didst make them a kingdom and priests,
And they reign upon the earth.”
The English version, “hast redeemed,” and “hast made,” weakens the reference to the completed character of Christ’s redeeming work. It is the great victory in suffering and death which inspires the song, and makes them sing, “Thou art worthy”; and so they speak of that work of Christ as a work truly done: “Thou didst buy (omit “us”) out of every tribe, etc., and didst make them,” etc. The suffering Saviour has died, has broken the bond of the oppressor, has claimed, by right of purchase, mankind as His own; and the price was His blood. It is well to notice the harmony between this passage and the statements of other Apostles: “Ye are not your own”; “bought with a price”. (See 1 Cor. 6:20, 7:23; 1 Peter 1:18–19; 2 Peter 2:1.) Observe also the four terms (tribe, tongue, people, nation), employed as if to give emphasis to the universality of redemption, for four is the number of extension in all directions. With this compare Rom. 5:15–19, Col. 3:11, Heb. 2:9. We have a right to teach all to say, “He redeemed me and all mankind.” It is instructive to dwell on the climax “they reign,” in contrast with “Thou wast slain.” It is like an anticipation of the now familiar words –
“Thine the sharp thorns, and mine the golden crown;
Mine the life won, and Thine the life laid down.”
“Didst make them a kingdom and priests.” (See 1:6.) This kingdom and reign is the outcome of Christ’s work. “Every precept of Christianity is quickened by the power of the death and resurrection of Christ. It is by the presence of this power that they are Christians, and it is as Christians that they conquer the world” (Westcott). “They reign on the earth.” Such is the best reading; the tense is present. It is not, I think, to be explained away as a vivid realization of the future. It is a simple statement, which is as true as that the followers of Christ are “a kingdom and priests”. They reign with and in Christ, but they also reign on the earth. Christ gives them a kingship, even sovereignty over themselves – the first, best, and most philanthropic of all kingships. He gives them, too, a kingship on the earth among men, for they are exerting those influences, promoting those principles, and dispensing those laws of righteousness, holiness, and peace, which in reality rule all the best developments of life and history. All who traverse these laws are merely intruders, or transitory tyrants, who exert only a phantom power. They are not kings: they may govern, but they do not reign. (Comp. 1 Cor. 3:21–23, Eph. 2:6.)
5:11. – And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, [Dan. 7:10, Heb. 12:23.] and thousands of thousands;
11. And I beheld … – More literally, And I saw, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, and the living beings, and the elders; and the number of then was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands. The chorus of the redeemed is followed by a chorus of angels; for “that which is the highest act of love, towards whatever persons it was manifested, from whatever calamities it saved them, must be the highest manifestation of the divine character and will; therefore must be the cause of delight to all creatures, fallen or unfallen. If the Revelation is true, there can be no breach in the sympathies of any part of God’s voluntary and intelligent universe.” It is needless to observe that the numbers here used are not to be taken literally. They are simply employed in a figurative sense to express the countless throng of that “innumerable company of angels” (Heb. 12:22) which raised the song –
“Loud as from numbers without number, sweet
As from blest voices, uttering joy.”
– Paradise Lost, iii. 346, 317.
5:12. – saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
12. Saying with a loud voice ... – The second chorus: the chorus of angels –
“Worthy is the Lamb,
That hath been slain,
To receive the power,
And riches, and wisdom, and might,
And honour, and glory, and blessing.”
The doxology is sevenfold. We have noticed (1:6) the increasing strength of the doxologies in which the redeemed take part. This, though a sevenfold one, does not interrupt that advance of praise; for in this chorus the redeemed do not take part. The definite article is prefixed to the word “power” only; in the doxologies of 4:11 and 7:12 it stands before each word. This has led some to view the single article as prefixed to all that follows, and to regard all the words as though they formed one word. May it not, however, be used to give emphasis to the “power”? None, above or below, was “able” (same word as “power” here) to open the book (verse 3); but the Lamb has conquered to open it, and the chorus proclaims the Lamb worthy of that power. Some have thought that the seven terms of the doxology refer to the seven seals which the Lamb is about to open. This seems strained. The notion of completeness is common to this sevenfold blessing and the seven seals; this is the only connection between them.
5:13. – And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.
5:14. – And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.
13–14. And every creature ... – The third chorus: the chorus of the universe. The song of the redeemed, echoed by the hosts of angels, is now merged in the utterance of all. “Every creature which is in the heaven and upon the earth, and beneath the earth, and upon the sea, am’ all the things that are in them, heard I saying –
“To Him that sitteth upon the throne,
And to the Lamb,
(Be) the blessing, and the honour,
And the glory, and the might,
To the ages of the ages.”
The song of praise rises from all quarters, and from all forms of creation. The whole universe, animate and inanimate, joins in this glad acclaim. To limit it to either rational or animate creation is to enfeeble the climax which this third chorus forms to the two preceding ones, and is to denude the passage of its fullness and of its poetry. The Hebrew mind delighted in representing every bird and every grass blade as joining in God’s praise. “Mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars, beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying fowl,” as well as kings of the earth and all people, were called on to bless the name of the Lord. Christian poets have told us that “Earth with her thousand voices praises God.”
“Nature, attend! join every living soul,
Beneath the spacious temple of the sky,
In adoration join’d; and, ardent, raise
One general song! To Him, ye vocal gales,
Breathe soft, whose Spirit in your freshness breathes.
* * * And thou, majestic main,
A secret world of wonders in thyself,
Sound His stupendous praise, whose greater voice
Or bids you roar, or bids your roaring fall,
Soft roll your incense, herbs, and fruits, and flowers,
In mingled clouds to Him whose sun exalts,
Whose breath perfumes you, and whose pencil paints.”
– Thomson, Hymn to Seasons.
The Apostle who pictured all creation as waiting in eager expectation for the full redemption – the redemption of “the body” (Rom. 8:23), looked forward to the time when “the whole universe, whether animate or inanimate, would bend the knee in homage and raise its voice in praise” (Phil. 2:10). The doxology which thus rises from the universe is appropriately fourfold: the definite article (omitted in the English version) must be supplied before each word (“The blessing,” etc.). The two preceding songs were in honour of the Lamb. In this last the praise is addressed to the Throned One and to the Lamb. This linking of the Lamb with God as the Throned One is common throughout the book. Here they are linked in praise. In 6:16 they are linked in wrath. In 7:17 they are linked in ministering consolation. In 19:6–7, they are linked in triumph. In the final vision of the book the Lord God and the Lamb are the temple (21:22) and the light (21:23), the refreshment (22:1) and sovereignty (22:3), of the celestial city.
And the four beasts ... – Better, And the four living beings said, Amen (or, the Amen). And the elders (omit “four and twenty”) fell down and worshipped. The remaining words of this verse are wanting in some of the best MSS., and they spoil the graphic force of the description. The “Amen” rises from universal nature; the Church of Christ falls down in silent adoration. Thought and feeling assert themselves above all language. There are times when silence is the most eloquent applause; there are times when it is also the most real worship. “Let thy prayers be without words, rather than thy words without prayer,” was a wise precept of an old divine. An English and an Italian poet have given expression to the same feeling of the weakness of words. “O speech!” sang Dante, when telling his final vision – “How feeble and how faint art thou to give Conception birth.” – Parad. xxxiii. Thomson takes refuge in silence from the overwhelming thoughts of the divine glory:– “I lose Myself in Him, in light ineffable. / Come, then, expressive silence, muse His praise.” Here the inspired seer describes the chorus of praise as dying into a silence born of awe and gratefulness and love.
The Vision of the Seals. – The relation of Christianity to great universal evils. The extinction of war, disease, death, persecution will not be immediate. The mission of Christianity is not to abolish them at once and by compulsion, but to undermine them; for her work is not coercion, but conviction, and is primarily to individuals, but only secondarily and indirectly to nations.
It is at this chapter that our most difficult work commences. We now enter upon the vexed sea of multitudinous interpretations. In the Introduction will be found a brief account of the principal schools of apocalyptic interpretation. It will be sufficient here to indicate the general view which appears the most simple and freest from difficulties. The seals which are opened by the Lamb seem to speak a double message. To the world they say, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” To the Church they say, “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” There are two lines of thought in the Bible, and these give rise to two apparently contradictory sets of pictures. There are the pictures of what would be the state of the world were the principles of Christ fully and universally accepted; and there are the pictures of the world as it will be because men do not fully accept them. The first set are the ideal, and include the abolition of war, social injustice, poverty, when the golden age and reign of righteousness shall dawn. When, however, we speak of this as ideal, we do not imply that it is visionary. It is the sober statement of what would actually take place were the rule of Christ admitted in the hearts and lives of men, and what will take place whenever they do so. But between this grand possibility and its realization stands the wayward, and tortuous, and weakened human will, which either rejects or fatally but half adopts the teachings of God. This will of man, seen in a world which is directly hostile to Christ, and in a Church which is but half faithful to Him, must he convinced ere the true ideal of Christ shall be attained, and the fullness of His kingdom made manifest. Thus the ideal pictures are postponed, and the world, which might have been saved by love speaking in gentleness, must be saved by love speaking so as by fire. Now in the earlier Christian times the hope of an ideal kingdom, soon to be realized in the immediate establishment of Christ’s kingdom, was very strong. The first disciples yearned to see it immediately set up. “Wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom?” The golden light of hope lingered long in their minds. They lived in the memory of these prophecies which foretold the cessation of war, sorrow, pain, and death. They thought, now that Christ had come, the Messianic kingdom in its utter gladness must immediately appear. They forgot the Prince’s visit to the far country. They forgot the citizens who hated Him, and rejected His rule. They forgot the session at God’s right hand till His enemies were made His footstool. They thought the day of the Lord, in the sense of the perfecting of His reign, was at hand. They forgot that the Heavenly Bridegroom must gird His sword upon His thigh, and that His arrows must be sharp in the heart of the King’s enemies (Psa. 45:3, 5). The vision of these seven seals is the repetition of the warning against such forgetfulness. The ideal Kingdom might come if mankind would receive it, but it must be established by conviction, not by coercion. And so the actual history of the growth of the Kingdom would be different from the ideal. The Church, like her Master, must be made perfect through sufferings. Where He was, His servant must be. Through much tribulation the Kingdom must be entered. The seals unfold, then, the general aspects of the world’s history after Christ’s ascension. Certain features would continue; war, famine, disease, death would remain. They might, indeed, have been abolished had Christ’s own received him; but as it was, the fact of the world’s will being in opposition to God’s will opposed the manifestation of the peaceful Kingdom. Thus the scenes which the seals unfold are but the pictorial statement of Christ’s own utterances in Matt. 24:6–7. “Ye shall hear of wars; there shall be famines and pestilences.” It will be seen, then, that the seals tell the seer that these troubles will exist till the times of the end. The Church through him is warned to prepare for her mission of suffering; and in this way the vision stretches on till the close of earth’s history.
But this is not all. The visions of the book may have preliminary applications, because the principles on which they are constructed are eternal ones. Our Lord’s own language in Matt. 24 is our guarantee that we may look for such preliminary applications. The story of the overthrow of many a nation presents these features of war, famine, misery, convulsion. The fall of Jerusalem, as well as that of the Roman Empire, was preceded by such. On this principle, other interpretations of the vision have a truth in them, as long as they are confined to broad, general principles. The mischievous affection for trivial details has been the bane of more than one school of interpreters.
It is perhaps worthy of notice that these seals are not to be regarded as being fulfilled one after another. In point of fact, the horseman of war and the horseman of pestilence have often ridden together. Yet it is true that there is a tendency in one to produce the other. War does lead to famine; famine does produce pestilence. There is, perhaps, also an application of these seals to the history of the Church. Her first era is that of purity and conquest. Her next is that of controversy – the war of opinions. The age of controversy gives rise to the age of spiritual scarcity, for men intent upon controversy forget the true Bread, which came down from heaven, and a famine of the word of God succeeds; and out of this there emerges the pale horse of spiritual death, the parody of the victorious rider – the form of godliness without the power, the age of irreligious ritualism. The hidden ones of Christ may then be revealed, crying “How long?” and finally the age of revolution comes to overthrow the old order and give birth to the new.
6:1. – And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
1. And I saw when the Lamb (the diminutive form of Lamb is still used) … – The words “and see” are doubtful. They are found in some MSS. and omitted in others. The authority for their omission and for their retention is about equally divided. Under these circumstances we may fairly be guided by the context. To whom is the summons addressed? Who is bidden to come? If it was taken to be addressed to the seer, we can understand why some copyist should add the words “and see”. But are they addressed to the seer? It seems difficult to see the purpose of such a command. He was near already. He had seen the Lamb opening the seal. There was no object in his drawing near. Are the words, then, addressed, as Alford supposes, to Christ? It is difficult to believe that the living creature would thus cry to the Lamb, who was opening the scroll. The simplest way of answering the question is to ask another: Who did come in obedience to the voice? There is but one answer – the horseman. The living beings cry “Come,” and their cry is responded to by the appearance of the several riders. What is the spiritual meaning of this? The living beings represent, as we have seen, animated nature – that nature and creation of God which groans and travails in pain, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God. These summon the emblems of war and pestilence to come on the scene, for these things must needs be, and through these lies the way for the final coming of God’s Christ, for whom creation longs. They bid the pains and troubles come, because they recognize them as the precursors of creation’s true King. Thus their voice has in it an undertone which sighs for the advent of the Prince of Peace, who is to come.
6:2. – And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
2. Conquering, and to conquer. – Better, conquering, and that he might conquer. One version has, “and he conquered.” All commentators seem to be agreed that this rider represents victory. The emblems – the crown and white horse – are obviously those of victory. The crown (stephanos) is the crown of triumph. The horses used in Roman triumphs were white. On the white horse of triumph the crowned rider goes forth conquering, and that he might conquer. But who or what is here represented? Some take it to be a mere emblem of conquest, or victory, as the next rider represents war. There is then a harmony of interpretation: the horseman reveal to the seer that the after-history will be marked by conquests, wars, famines, pestilences. The description, however, seems to demand something more. The expression, “that he might conquer,” carries our thoughts beyond a mere transient conqueror. The vision, moreover, was surely designed to convey an assured happy feeling to the mind of the seer. No picture of mere Roman conquests or world victory would have conveyed this. Is not the vision the reflex of the hopes of early Christian thought? It is the symbol of Christian victory. It was thus their hopes saw Christ: though ascended He went forth in spiritual power conquering. They were right in their faith, and wrong in their expectation. Right in their faith: He went forth conquering, and He would conquer. Wrong in their expectation: the visions of war, famine, death must intervene. It was through these that the conqueror would be proved more than conqueror. It is, perhaps, significant of this intervening period of trouble and suffering that the rider is armed with a bow. The arrows of His judgments (war, famine) would be sharp among those who refused the sword of His word. For those who will not turn He hath bent His bow and made it ready. His arrows are ordained against the persecutors.
6:3. – And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
6:4. – And there went out another horse that was red: [Zech. 1:8, 6:2.] and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
3, 4. And when he had opened ... – Better, And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living being, saying, Come. And there came forth another horse, red; and to him that sat on him wase given to take peace from the earth, and that they (i.e., the inhabitants of the earth) shall kill one another, and there was given to him a great sword. This seal is the distinct and unmistakable declaration to the Church that they must look for wars, even after the Prince of Peace has come. The advent of the highest good does not work peace, but only because the hindrance is in man. Man’s resistance to good turns the gospel of peace into an occasion for the sword. So our Lord declares, “I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The reign of peace, the beating of swords into ploughshares, is not yet. The vision may help to fix the Christian position about war. It is to be expected; it is an evil, but often an inevitable evil. Those who take part in war are not condemned; those who occasion offences are. It is as much a mistake to condemn soldiering as a profession as it is to deny that Christianity aims at the suppression of war. She admits the soldier to be a soldier of Christ, even while she keeps before her the ideal age when nations shall learn war no more. We expect wars, even while we believe that the day will come when war will be reckoned as absurd as dueling is now. The vision says, “It must needs be that wars will come”; and war, even when roused by the passions of men, is a judgment of God, for God’s judgments are mostly formed out of man’s vices. The seal puts in pictorial form the warning of Christ that wars and rumours of wars would be heard of. How true the warning the after-history shows – wars in the empire, wars among nations, controversies, and often fratricidal wars in the Church of Christ.
6:5. – And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
6:6. – And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure [The word choenix signifieth a measure containing one wine quart, and the twelfth part of a quart.] of wheat for a penny, [Gen. 41:49, Lev. 26:26, Ezek. 4:10, 16.] and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
5, 6. When He had opened. – Better, When he opened. The words “and see” are to be omitted here, as in the other seals. And I saw, and behold a horse, black, and he that sat on him having a balance in his hand. And I heard as it were a voice in the midst of the four living beings, saying, a choenix of wheat for a denarius (penny), and three choenixes of barley for a denarius (penny), and the oil and the wine do thou not hurt. “Balance”: There is scarcely a doubt that a balance, or pair of scales, is intended (the Greek word also means a yoke); but the whole imagery of the seal harmonizes with the balance, and the passage from Ezekiel (Ezek. 45:10), cited by Alford, in which there is a “righteous balance” (the LXX using the same Greek word as here) seems conclusive. It is the emblem of scarcity; food is not weighed out thus in times of abundance. (Comp. Ezek. 4:16, “Behold I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem, and they shall eat bread by weight and with care.”) The choenix (“measure” in English version) was the amount of food sufficient to support a man for a day. “A choenix is the daily maintenance” (Suidas, quoted by Alford). The denarius (“penny” of English version here and in Matt. 18:28, and Mark 12:37) amounted to between sixpence and sevenpence of our money, and was the usual daily pay of the labourer, and of the soldier. (See especially Note on Matt. 20:2.) It is difficult to speak of this as other than terribly high prices for food. The whole of a man’s pay goes for food, and even the coarser bread is so expensive that it takes a whole day’s wages to supply food for three adults. It has been thought that the voice calls to the rider to check his devastations, lest the growing famine should exterminate the whole human race. This may be, but the check is at a point which has already wrought the highest misery. The extent of the misery may be imagined by imagining what wretchedness would be entailed were a man obliged to pay three or four shillings for bread sufficient to keep him nourished for a day. Or we may measure it by the estimate of the disciples (Mark 6:37) that two hundred pennyworth of bread would give a short meal to upwards of five thousand people. At the price in this seal, the cost of bread would have so risen that the two hundred pennyworth of bread would not suffice to feed one thousand. But what is meant by the words, “the oil and wine do thou not hurt”? They were not, like the bread, necessary to life, but among its luxuries and superfluities. There is a kind of irony in times of straitness, when the necessaries are scarcely to be had, and the luxuries remain comparatively low in price. The splendors and comforts of life are held cheap, when hunger is showing that the life is more than the dainty meat, and the body than raiment. The seal then tells the seer that in the ages the Church of Christ must expect to see famines and distress in the world, and luxuries abounding in the midst of straitness. Is it not true that the contrast, which is so ugly, between pampered opulence and indolent pauperism, is the result of the prevalence of world principles? Wealth, self-indulgent and heartless, and poverty, reckless and self-willed, are sure tokens that the golden rule of Christ is not understood and obeyed. There is a similar experience in the history of the Church. The red horse of controversy is followed by the black horse of spiritual starvation. In the heat of polemical pride and passion for theological conquest is developed that love of barren dogmatics which forgets the milk of the word and the bread of life, which are the needed food of souls.
6:7. – And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
6:8. – And I looked, and behold a pale horse and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them [Or, to him.] over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
7, 8. The fourth seal. And when He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living being, saying, Come. And I saw, and behold, a horse, pallid (or, livid), and he that sat upon him his name was Death, and Hades was following with him; and there was given to them power over the fourth part of the earth to kill with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth. The colour pallid, or livid, is that deadly greenish hue, which is the unmistakable token of the approach of death. The rider is Death – not a particular form of death, but Death himself. Attending him, ready to gather up the slain, is Hades. The fourth seal is the darkest and most terrible. Single forms of death (war and famine) were revealed in the earlier seals. Now the great King of Terrors himself appears, and in his hand are gathered all forms of death – war, famine, pestilence (for the second time the word “death” is used. It must be taken in a subordinate sense, as a particular form of death, such as plague, or pestilence. We may compare the use of the word “death” thus applied to some special disease, in the case of The Death, or Black Death), and wild beasts. These forms of death correspond with God’s four sore judgments – the sword, and famine, and pestilence, and the noisome beasts of Ezek. 14:21. The seal, therefore, gathers up into one all the awfulness of the past seals. It is the central seal, and it is the darkest. It is the midnight of sorrows, where all seems given up to the sovereignty of death. The middle things of life are often dark. Midway between the wicket gate and golden city Bunyan placed his valley of the shadow of death, following the hint of the Psalmist, who placed it midway between the pasture and the house of the Lord (Psa. 23). Dante, perhaps working from the same hint, found his obscure wood and wanderings midway along the road of life: – “In the midway of this our mortal life / I found me in a gloomy wood, astray.” The darkest periods of the Church’s history were those we call the Middle Ages. By this, however, it is not meant that there is any chronological signification in the seal. The vision deepens in its central scene, like the horror of darkness in the dream of Abraham. The history of the Church has not unfrequently presented a sort of parallel. The age which follows the ages of barren dogmatism and of spiritual starvation is often an age of sham spiritual life. The pale horse of death is the parody of the white horse of victory. The form of godliness remains, the power is gone.
9–11. The fifth seal differs from the four earlier seals. It is not introduced by the voice of the living beings, and the cry “Come”. The voice which is now heard is not the cry of the groaning world, but of the oppressed and troubled Church. In the fourth seal the climax of world sorrow seemed to be reached in the accumulation of war, famine, pestilence, and noisome beasts. It declared to the evangelist that there were evils which would continue and even increase in the world. “Ye shall hear of wars; nation shall rise against nation.” Social troubles, war, poverty, and privation would still exist. Religious troubles, evil men and seducers would wax worse and worse. Worldly policy, selfishness, and the untamed passions of mankind would still trouble humanity. Then if such troubles and disorders remain, what has the Church been doing? Where is the promise of that early vision of victory? The answer is given in the fifth seal. The Church has been following her Lord. As the vision of Bethlehem and the angel song of “peace on earth” passed, and made way for the agony of Gethsemane, the cross of Calvary, and the cry “My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” so the glowing dream of a quick conquest over all evil passes away, and the picture of an agonizing, persecuted Church takes its place, and the voice of its anguish is heard, “How long, O Lord!” The Church has her Bethlehem, her Nazareth, her Gethsemane, her Calvary, her Easter morn; for Christ said, “Where I am there shall also My servant be” (John 12:26). The seals, then, are not merely visions of war, famine, etc. They are the tokens that the victory of Christ’s Church must, like her Lord’s, be a victory through apparent failure and certain death. The four seals proclaim her apparent failure. She has not brought peace and social and political harmony to the world. The fifth seal shows her suffering. The witness of the servants of Christ has been rejected; in the world they have tribulation (John 16:33).
6:9. – And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: [Gen. 4:10, Phil. 3:10, Col. 1:24; 1 Peter 4:13.]
9. I saw under the altar ... – Read, when He opened, and, instead of “were slain,” etc., had been slain because of the Word of God, and (because of) the testimony which they held. The seal indicates that the mission of the Christian Church can only be carried out in suffering. An altar is seen, and at its foot tokens of the martyrs who had laid down their lives upon it. The word “souls” is to be taken as the equivalent of “lives”. The vision tells that their lives had been sacrificed. The blood of the victims was in the temple service poured out at the foot of the altar. St. Paul makes use of the same imagery – “I am now ready to be poured out” (“offered” in English version). In union with Christ Christians are called upon to suffer with Him, even to carry on to its great end the work of Christ in the world, and so fill up that which is lacking of the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24). The word “souls” has been made a resting-place for an argument respecting the intermediate state. There is no ground for this. It is quite beside the object of the seal, which simply exhibits the sufferings of Christ’s people as the necessary accompaniment of the progress of the gospel. These sufferings are because of the Word of God and the testimony which they held. It was because of the Word of God and the testimony that the sacred seer himself suffered (1:9). The words here remind us that the same issue which St. John fought, the suffering ones of after-ages would be fighting. Their witness and his was the God-man. To this testimony they clung. They were not ashamed of Christ, or of His words, and they suffered for their courage and fidelity.
6:10. – and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
10. How long ... ? – Better, Until when, O Master (the word is the correlative of “servant,” see verse 10) the Holy and True, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood from (on) those who dwelt on the earth? By a dramatic figure the persecuted and slain ones are represented as crying for retribution on their oppressors. It is not the Christians themselves (Luke 23:34, and Acts 7:60) who cry for vengeance, any more than it was Abel himself who cried from the ground to God. It was the blood of Abel (Gen. 4:10), the earth disclosed her blood, and refused to cover her slain. The forgotten or ignored wrongs of generations come forth from oblivion and cry for vengeance. It is a poetical description, but it is not fiction. The righteous blood shed does fall upon the world in retribution. The laws of God avenge themselves, though the victims do not live to behold the reward of the ungodly. On the epithets Holy and True, see Notes on 3:7.
6:11. – And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
11. And white robes were given ... – The victims, however, are not forgotten. There was given to them (each) a white robe. The white robes, the glistening apparel of the saints (comp. 3:4–5), shall be theirs; each shall receive it. They are robes of righteousness (19:8). They are robes of honour (4:4), for those who wear them are like God, seeing Him as He is, reflecting His image. They are acknowledged to be His, as they have acknowledged Him to be their God. Persecuted on earth, they are honoured in heaven. There is also a sense in which a white robe is given to them in the eyes of men. Those whose names have been cast out as evil have been honoured by a repentant posterity with the robe of tardy praise. After-generations garnish the sepulchers of the righteous whom their fathers slew. The excommunicated in one age are often the canonized of the next, for the dull world learns slowly, and its purest honours are posthumous. But however this may be, for the suffering saints there is the heavenly robe and the heavenly rest.
It was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed (better, who are to be slain) as they were, should be fulfilled (or, shall have fulfilled their course). – They are to “rest”. This does not mean that they are to cease their cry for vengeance, for the saints have never cried for this: but they are to rest, as the souls of the faithful after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, in joy and felicity. But this rest is yet a waiting for a little while till fellow servants and fellow sufferers have achieved their work also. To every disciple a work is given in service and suffering; and till these have borne their witness and fulfilled their course (comp. 2 Tim. 4:7–8, and Acts 13:25), the departed must wait for their perfect consummation and bliss both in body and soul.
12–17. The sixth seal. – The seals follow the lines laid down by our Lord in Matt. 24. There He tells His disciples that wars (verse 6), famines, and pestilences (verse 7), and persecutions (verse 9) are to be expected. These are necessary features in the history of the world. But these features are described by our Master as preliminary to His Coming and the end of the world (Matt. 24:3); and that when these had wrought their work, then the Coming of the Son of Man would take place (verses 29–31). With this guide, it is impossible for us to deny that the opening of this sixth seal has reference to the Coming of the Son of Man, and finds its final and ultimate fulfillment in the day when He will come to gather His elect from the four winds. But it is not to be forgotten that our Lord wished us to regard certain great culminating epochs as in a secondary sense His advents. The eagles which swept down upon the carcass of any corrupt nationality were certain proofs of His reign and true shadows of His coming. The features indicated in the seals have a sequence which has been frequently reproduced in the history of nations and churches. The promise of good; the breaking forth of the spirit of violence and anarchy; the time of social misery, want, disease; the oppression of the good; revolution – these have repeated themselves in Jewish, Roman, French, and other histories; and the prophecy is not exhausted yet.
6:12. – And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
6:13. – and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, [Or, green figs.] when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
6:14. – And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; [Isa. 34:4.] and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
12–14. And I beheld ... – Better, And I saw when he opened the sixth seal, and (omit “lo!”) a great shaking took place, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon all became as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its winter figs when shaken by a great wind, and the heaven departed like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. It is well to keep in mind the parallel imagery of the Old Testament. The shaking (“earthquake,” is hardly an adequate rendering, as the shaking extends to heaven as well as earth) was spoken of by Haggai: “Yet once for all” (not “once more,” as in the English version) “shake I not the earth only, but also the heavens. And this word ‘Once for all’ signifieth the removing of these things that are shaken” (Hag. 2:6, and Heb. 12:26–27). Sun black as sackcloth: Joel has a similar thought – “the sun shall be turned into darkness” (Joel 2:30–31); and Isaiah, “I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering” (Isa. 50:3). The moon as blood is repeated from Joel 2:30–31. The falling of the stars of heaven has its parallel in Isa. 34:3–4, “All the host of heaven shall be dissolved.” As a fig tree is an echo of Isa. 34:4. It will be seen by these passages how closely the writer of the Apocalypse has kept to the Old Testament imagery; and that events, such as great calamities, changes, and revolutions in the world’s history, are described by emblems similar to those used here. St. Peter, for example, illustrates the great spiritual revolution of the Day of Pentecost by the passage from Joel, “The sun turned into darkness and the moon into blood.” Hence it seems right to regard the language here as figurative, and to bear in mind that, though its fullest application belongs to the final advent, there may be many anticipatory advents. The judgment is often rehearsed before the day of judgment. The ages of oppression end in a day of catastrophe and confusion in which the righteous laws of a righteous King avenge themselves on the lawbreakers. The old lights and landmarks are for a time obliterated, and feeble, but pretentious, religionists are swept off as autumn figs from the fig tree, and the proud and mighty are dismayed. Things come to a crisis, and men “are proven by the hour” of that judgment. The unripe or untimely fruit drops off, as those who have no root in themselves fall away, and as the feebly founded house fell in the tempest (Matt. 7:26–27). If this be so in the minor and preliminary crisis of the world, how much more so in the final crisis, which will try all? “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” The untimely figs, or unripe figs, are the grossos, or winter figs, which grow under the leaves, and do not ripen at the proper season, but hang upon the trees till the winter. They are a fit emblem of those who have not used the opportunity and season to ripen for God. Like the unwise virgins, they have not replenished their lamps with oil; or, to use the unique expression of St. Luke, they bring no fruit to perfection (Luke 8:14). The crisis thus puts the feeble, timid, and negligent to the test, and also proves the vanity of those who make any world power their confidence. As the day of the Lord of which Isaiah spoke was upon everyone that was proud and lifted up, upon the cedars and oaks, upon the towers and fenced walls, upon the loftiness and haughtiness of men, in like manner does the Apocalyptic seer behold the dismay which falls upon every form of vaingloriousness, pretense, and pride.
6:15. – And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
6:16. – and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, [Luke 23:30.] and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
6:17. – for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?
15–17. And the kings … – Translate, And the kings of the earth, and the magnates, and thee commanders of hosts, and the wealthy, and the strong, and every man, bond and free, hid themselves (going) into the caves and into the rocks of the mountains; and say to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the day, the great (day) of His wrath came (or, is come); and who is able to stand? In the list of the great ones here we may notice the descending order – kings, magnates, or statesmen, generals, rich men, strong men, bond and free men. The terror strikes into every class: monarchs and their advisers, the statesmen and diplomatists, the commanders of troops, the merchant princes, the men of ability, as well as the obscurer orders of society. Neither royalty nor rank, nor force of arms, nor opulence, nor talent, nor strength, either of intellect or frame, avail in that crisis; neither does insignificance escape in that day when God brings to light the hidden things. The tests of God are spiritual, as the weapons of God’s war are not carnal. Men who have relied upon wealth, rank, or power, have prepared themselves against one form of trial, but find themselves unarmed in the day of spiritual testing. Like Macbeth, they are unable to tight with the unexpected shape which haunts them. They would much rather meet the bodily foe, “who would dare them to the desert with a sword.”
Thus in the final day of judgment the revealing of the spiritual order of all life will confound men whose minds have been blinded by their entire absorption in world splendors and world powers. Nor is it merely the unveiling of the forgotten spiritual order which will confound them. The advent is of a Person. It is more than the manifestation of the kingdom of Him who all this while had been King on His throne, and whom they had forgotten – it is the revealing of the Son of God from heaven. It is not without some significance that He is described as the Lamb. In that day of His wrath, it is not merely as a Judge who has laid aside the tokens of His humiliation and suffering: but it is likewise as the Lamb. He whom they now shrink from is He who came meek as a lamb, gentle, pure, and suffering on their behalf. He whom they now behold with dismay is He whom they treated with neglect, and whose love they spurned.
17. Who shall be (or, is) able to stand? – The thought is derived from Mal. 3:2, which spoke of a coming of the Lord. Every advent of Christ is the advent of one whose fan is in His hand, and who will thoroughly purge His floor. Whether it be His advent in the flesh, He tested men; or whether one of His advents in Providence – such as the fall of Jerusalem, the overthrow of Pagan Rome, the convulsions of the Reformation and Revolution epochs of history – He still tests men whether they are able to abide in faith and love the day of His coming; and much more, then, in the closing personal advent, when these visions will receive their fullest illustration, will He try men. “Who is able to stand?” It is the question of questions. Christ’s answer is: “Apart from Me ye can do nothing.” “Let your loins be girt about and your lights burning, and ye yourselves like to men that wait for their Lord’s coming.” And parallel is St. Paul’s advice: “Wherefore take unto you (not the weapons on which men rely, but) the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” This anxiety that his converts should be ready for the day of testing is continually appearing in his Epistles. Comp. the recurrence of “the day of Christ” in Phil. 1:6, 10, and the Apostle’s wish that the Philippians might be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; and St. John’s desire that Christians should not “be ashamed before Him at His coming,” and “may have boldness in the day of judgment” (1 John 2:28, and 4:17). “Who is able to stand?” The question is answered in the next chapter. They shall stand who are sealed with the seal of the living God.
The sixth seal does not give us a completed picture. We see the great and awe inspiring movements which are heralds of the day of wrath. The whole world is stirred and startled at the tread of the approaching Christ, and then the vision melts away. We see no more, but we have seen enough to be sure that the close of the age is at hand. Yet we are anxious to know something of those who have been faithful, pure, and chivalrous witnesses for truth and right, for Christ and God. In that day, that awful day, the whole population of the world seems to be smitten with dismay. The trees, shaken with that terrible tempest, seem to be shedding all their fruit. The trembling of all created things seems to be about to shake down every building. Are all to go? Are none strong enough to survive? We heard that there were seven seals attached to the mystic book which the Lion of the tribe of Judah was opening; but this sixth seal presents us with the picture of universal desolation. What is there left for the seventh seal to tell us? The answer to these questions is given in the seventh chapter, which introduces scenes which may either be taken as dissolving views, presented in the course of the sixth seal, or as complementary visions. And those scenes show us in pictorial form that the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation: that in the midst of the time of the shaking of all things, when all might, majesty, strength, and genius of men is laid low, and every mere earthborn kingdom is overthrown, there is a kingdom which cannot be shaken. The germ of life was indestructible, and ready to break forth in fruit again: an ark, which sheltered all that was good, moved ever secure over the desolating floods: –
“I looked: aside the dust cloud rolled,
The waster seemed the builder too;
Upspringing from the ruined old
I saw the new.
“’Twas but the ruin of the bad –
The wasting of the wrong and ill;
Whate’er of good the old tine had
Was living still.”
7:1. – And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.
1. And after these things … – Better, And after this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding fast the four winds of the earth, that there might not blow a wind upon the earth, nor upon the sea, nor upon any tree. In the sixth seal the winds had blown, and had shaken violently the fig tree, causing its untimely figs to drop off. The untimely or winter figs represented those whose religious life was unequal to the strain of trial, and who failed in the crisis to which they were exposed. But is all the fruit shaken off? No; Christ had said that “if a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch”; but that these who abode in Him, purged by their trials, would bring forth more fruit, and the fruit which these bore was not a fruit easily shaken off, but fruit that should remain (John 15:6, 5, 16). They would not be as winter figs, easily torn from the boughs, for their strength was in God. Before the stormy winds of manifold trials had blown, they had been sealed with the seal of the living God. This is the scene which is brought before us in this chapter. In it the care of God, who restrains from violence the winds, that they should not shake too soon the immature fruit, the tokens by which the sealed are known and the meaning of their sealing are set forth. The chapter, in fact, answers the solemn question of the last chapter: “Who is able to stand?” The winds are clearly emblems of days of trouble or judgment; as the winds sweep away the chaff and clear the atmosphere, so do judgments try the ungodly, who are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. The storm of God’s judgments shakes the mountains and the wilderness, and strips the oaks of the forest. (Comp. Psa. 29.) These winds of judgment are ready to blow from all quarters (four corners of the earth), but they are restrained till the servants of God are sealed. For passages where winds are used as emblems of judgment, see especially Jer. 49:36–37, “Upon Elam I will bring the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will bring evil upon them, even My fierce anger, saith the Lord.” Comp. also Dan. 7:2, “I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea.” But those tempests would not arise or shake a single leaf till the securing of God’s servants was accomplished.
7:2. – And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea,
7:3. – saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.
2–3. And I saw another angel ... – Translate, And I saw another angel going up from the rising of the sun, having a seal of the living God, and he was crying with a great voice to the four angels to whom it was given to injure the earth and the sea, saying, Injure ye not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads. The angels appear as carrying out the purposes of God. This angel rises into view from the door of the dawn. In the midst of the dark symptoms of coming storm and judgment there springs up a light for the righteous and joyful gladness for such as are true hearted. They need not be afraid of evil tidings whose hearts stand fast believing in the Lord. This angel carries a seal of the living God. The seal is the emblem of security. The seal was placed on our Lord’s sepulcher to keep the tomb safe from invasion. The king’s seal was, in the same way, placed on the stone which was laid at the mouth of the den in which Daniel was imprisoned. “The king sealed it with his own signet” (Dan. 6:17). The entrusting of the seal into the hands of others was the token that royal authority had been for the time delegated to man. So Jezebel “wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal” (1 Kings 21:8). Esther obtained the use of the king’s seal to protect her countrymen from the mischief devised by Haman: “for the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse” (Esth. 8:8). There is also a seal of the living God. St. Paul tells us that this seal bears two legends. “The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, ‘The Lord knoweth them that are his,’ and ‘Let everyone that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity’” (2 Tim. 2:19). On the one side, it is dependence on and communion with God; on the other side, it is holiness of life. The sealed are found in Christ, not having their own righteousness, but the righteousness which is of God by faith (Phil. 3:9). For this is the righteousness which will endure to the end, and which is found in them who are “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:13–14). God’s image and superscription is impressed on such; just as afterwards we are told of all the servants of God, “His name shall be in their foreheads” (22:4). This token is a true safeguard and talisman, as the sprinkled blood on the lintel protected the house from the destroying angel at the first Passover. It is a token also of those who have not conformed to the evil world. They are like those whom Ezekiel saw in Jerusalem, when the Lord sent the man with the inkhorn “to set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done” (Ezek. 9:4). There has been much misapprehension respecting this act of sealing. It has been said that it implies security, and assures God’s servants of protection in the coming judgments. This is, in a sense, true. But the sealing, as will have been seen by the passages quoted above, is that sealing of the Spirit, that root of heavenly life in the soul, which is the pledge of the soul’s union with God; and the terms of the charter of their protection are, Who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? In the Bible idea, sin, or moral defilement, is the only real evil. All other things work together for good. The breastplate which turns aside the fiery darts is the breastplate of righteousness. Those who, escaping the corruptions which are in the world through lust, become partakers of the divine nature are in consequence victorious over all the evil. They are not exempt from the vicissitudes and tribulation of life. The winds are let loose to blow, but they are sealed, and they cannot be shaken; for what and who can separate them from the love of Christ? They are sealed by the Holy Spirit. They have an earnest of that Spirit in their hearts (Eph. 4:30, and 2 Cor. 1:22), and the pledge of His power in their lives. St. John gives the same twofold test as St. Paul (2 Tim. 2:9): (1) “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13); and (2) “Hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). The sealing is on the forehead: it is God’s mark, but it is where all may see it. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The cry of the angel is, Injure not the sea nor the trees. Doubtless the sea and trees are mentioned as these are the objects which would be most disturbed and injured by a storm of wind. Trees are used as emblems of real and of pretended religionism. The true hearted in faith are described as trees planted by the waterside, whose fruit does not wither; and it is singular that St. Jude, who pictures the Antinomian teachers of his day under the image of autumn trees (not trees whose fruit withereth, as in English version) without fruit, immediately adds an expression which almost suggests the sudden uprising of a testing storm: the fruitless trees are “plucked up by the roots” (Jude, verse 12).
7:4. – And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
7:5. – Of the tribe of Juda were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand.
7:6. – Of the tribe of Aser were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Nepthalim were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand.
7:7. – Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand.
7:8. – Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.
4–8. And I heard the number of them … – Translate, And I heard the number of the sealed: there were a hundred and forty and four thousand sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel. There are two or three questions which these verses suggest. What are we to understand by the number twelve thousand from each tribe? Who are these who are drawn from the tribes of Israel? Why is there a change of the order and names of the tribes? It may help us to clearer thoughts to take the second of these questions first.
(1) Who are these one hundred and forty-four thousand? An answer to this has been partly anticipated in our previous comments, but perhaps a fuller consideration is needed. Some have thought that the sealed ones must be Jewish Christians: i.e., they are disposed to take the twelve tribes literally. The scope of the previous verses seems decisive against this view. The time of judgment and trial is drawing near; we have seen the tokens of the coming storm in the opening of the sixth seal; our wish is to know the lot of the saints of God; this chapter answers this wish: they are safe, having the seal of God. Now, to limit the answer to the Israelitish Christians is to break in abruptly upon the general flow of thought with a bold literalism. The sealed ones are explained to be the servants of God. The description which follows proclaims them to be the “Israel of God”. It would be a strange leap away from the subject to introduce a sudden limitation of thought. Nor is there any necessity for doing so. Israelitish and Jewish names are freely adopted by the sacred writers, and used in a spiritual sense without any explanation of such usage; and the Apostle most emphatically laid down the principle that “he is not a Jew which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, but he is a Jew which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter” (Rom. 2:28–29); and the principle he applies by affirming that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28). The Christian Church absorbs the Jewish, inherits her privileges, and adopts, with wider and nobler meaning, her phraseology. She has her Jerusalem, but it is a heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22): a Jerusalem from above (Gal. 4:26): a new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2; see 3:12); and to that Jerusalem of God the true Israel of God, the chosen generation and royal priesthood of every age, turn the eye of faith. It is needless to say that this view does not rob, as it has been said, the Jew of God’s promises. It only intensifies those promises by showing the growth of that Church in which the Jew may yet find the truest consummation of his holiest and highest hopes, and into which God is yet able to graft them in again (Rom. 11:23, 25–26), and in which he may yet play a part loftier than men dream of.
(2) How are we to understand the numbers? As we cannot adopt the literal interpretation of the tribes of Israel, still less can we admit a literal interpretation of the numbers here mentioned. But they are not on this ground to be looked upon as meaningless numbers. There is an appropriate symbolism in the numbers of the Apocalypse. Twelve is used as the number of those who in every age have been called out to witness for some truth which the world needed. Thus the twelve tribes of Israel were the appointed witnesses of a pure theology and a pure morality in the days of idolatry and license; and later, the twelve Apostles became the inheritors of a similar, though higher, spiritual work in the world. The number twelve, then, stands for a world witness of divine truth, and the fruits of this world witness is a wide and sustained success. The twelve multiplied by the twelve a thousandfold – “the native and not degenerate progeny of the Apostles apostolically multiplied” (Mede, quoted by Dr. Currey). The skeleton organization is twelve, the college of the Apostles; the one hundred and forty-four thousand represent the growth into full numbers of the choice ones of God.
(3) Does the change in the order and names of the tribes symbolize anything? The alterations are not without significance. They are briefly these: The tribe of Dan is omitted, and the name of Ephraim does not appear, but the number is made up to twelve by two representatives of Joseph: Manasseh, who stands sixth in order, and Joseph (superseding the name, but representing the tribe of Ephraim), who is placed eleventh on the list. The number twelve is maintained to show that in all changes God’s purposes stand. The omission of one tribe and the changed name of another are designed to show that in the Church, as in Israel, the most splendid opportunities may be lost. Dan, once a tribe, and not an insignificant tribe, which had reared its heroes, gradually lapsed into idolatry and immorality, dwindled in numbers and importance, and at length disappeared, and as a tribe became extinct. Its omission in this list is a silent but emphatic comment on the sacred warnings: “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” “Begin not to say, We have Abraham to our father: God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” Similarly, Ephraim, as has been suggested by a thoughtful writer, who exalted himself in Israel, is now lost in the greater name of Joseph. (Comp. Hosea 13:1, 10:11; Luke 18:14.) The order of the names is altered. Reuben no longer stands first: Judah has taken the firstborn’s place; and Levi, though named, does not occupy the third, the place of his birthright, but the eighth place. Here, again, the changes have their teachings. The unstable Reuben, with all his splendid advantages – the firstborn, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power – failed to hold his own among his brethren. The fatal instability of his character accompanied his history, and weakened his otherwise preeminent powers. Yet weak and erring, the type of the brilliant and vacillating, he is not an outcast altogether, but finds place, and high place, among the servants of God. Judah, lion-like, resolute, and strong, wins the foremost place. From him springs the true Ruler, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, to unfold the counsels of God, and to rule the world with a righteous scepter. Levi’s subordinate position is thought to be due to the fact that the Mosaic ritual and Levitical priesthood are at an end. This may be so; the changes are the result of the actual history of the tribes, and illustrate how in the Christian Church, as in the Jewish, privileges may be lost, opportunities seized or cast away, offices and functions used for a time, and then laid aside when their work is accomplished. But in all, and through all changes, God’s unchanging purpose runs onward to its certain close. The grouping of the tribes is, as has been pointed out, in the order of closest kinship. “We find not one violent separation of those who are naturally united, where both are truly members of the Israel of God” (Rev. C. H. Waller, Names on Gates of Pearl).
7:9. – After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
9. After this I beheld ... – Better, After these things I saw, and, behold! a great multitude which no one was able to number, out of every nation, and (all) tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches in their hands. “A great multitude”: We have just had the picture of the sealing of a multitude which could be numbered. Now we have the picture of a countless throng. Who are these? Are they the same as the one hundred and forty-four thousand, or are they others? Our answer must be that this vision gives the climax of the previous one. The sealing represented the Passover of the Church. This vision represents its Feast of Tabernacles. The sealing assured us that in the midst of the severe times of testing there would be those who, wearing God’s armour, would come forth unscathed. This vision shows us the fruition of their labour and their rest after conflict. The sealing assured us that God’s hidden ones would be safe in trouble. This tells us that they have come safe out of it – they are those who have come out of the great tribulation (verse 14). But how can the numbered of the one vision be the same as the numberless of the next? They are numbered in the first vision, as it is one of the assurances of their safety. In that vision the idea of their security in trial and danger is the main one. The servants of God are safe, for they are sealed and numbered. They are among those sheep of Christ whom He calls by name, whose very hairs are numbered. They are those whose reliance is not on self, but on their shepherd, and the sealing is the echo of Christ’s words, “they shall never perish.” They are the servants of God, known by Him, and recognized by Him. But in the next vision, the expanding prospects of the Church and her dual repose are shown to us. The idea of victory and peace, not so much safety in danger as freedom from it is set forth, and then countless multitudes are seen. The numbered are found to be numberless. Countless as the sand by the sea and as the stars in heaven, they are yet in the reckoning and knowledge of Him who “telleth the number of the stars and calleth them all by their names.” The numbering must not be understood to imply limitation. We have seen that it is a number which symbolizes expansive energy and extensive success. It implies the real security and widespread growth of the Church of God. It has no limits; it gathers from every nation and people; it welcomes all; where there is neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Seythian, bond nor free; its gates are open all night and all day to every quarter of the world –
“From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl stream in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
The multitude are clothed with white robes, and carry palm branches in their hands. It has been thought that these are the emblems of victory. They doubtless are tokens of a triumph; it is the sacred rejoicing of the Israel of God. The imagery is drawn from the Feast of Tabernacles. Just as the sealing reminded us of the protecting sign on the lintels of the houses of Israel in Egypt, so do these palm branches and songs of joy recall the ceremonies of the later feast. No imagery would be more natural to the sacred seer, and none more appropriate to his subject. The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated Gods care over them in the wilderness, and their gratitude for the harvest. The people forsook their houses and dwelt in booths. The streets were full of glad multitudes who carried branches of palm, and olive, and myrtle. Everywhere the sounds of rejoicing and singing were heard; “there was very great gladness” (Ex. 23:16, Lev. 23:43, Neh. 8:14–17). The vision here shows us a far greater feast. “The troubles of the wilderness are ended, the harvest-home of the Church is come,” and God tabernacles (verse 15) among His servants.
7:10. – and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
10. And cried with a loud voice … – Better, And they cry with a loud vice, saying, The salvation to our God who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb. Their cry, uttered with a loud voice, is the acknowledgment that their salvation – the salvation which they now taste – is due not to themselves, but to their God and to the Lamb. The salvation here must, I think, be taken in its most comprehensive sense, including every deliverance – from the curse of law, from the power of sin, and from the perils of life. The explanation in verse 14 confirms this. (Comp. Gal. 3:13, Phil. 3:9.) This is “the voice of rejoicing and salvation which is in the tabernacles of the righteous,” when the Lord, who is their strength and song, “has become their salvation” (Psa. 118:14). Note the recurrence of “the Lamb”. They are before the throne and before the Lamb; their salvation is ascribed to God, and to the Lamb.
7:11. – And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,
7:12. – saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.
11–12. And all the angels … – Translate, And all the angels were standing round the throne, and the elders, and the four living beings ... saying, Amen. The great concourse of angels – those among whom there has been joy in heaven when a sinner has repented – now add their “Amen” to the cry of the redeemed, and then raise the sevenfold ascription of praise –
The ‘blessing, and the glory, and the wisdom,
And the thanksgiving,
And the honour, and the power, and the strength,
(Is) Unto our God
Unto the ages of the ages.
The sevenfold form of the doxology, which implies a divine completeness, is appropriate to this vision, which shows us the close of the Church’s agony, and is in itself a slight indication that the view which would limit the seals to some short period of Church history is incorrect, as it is assuredly inadequate.
7:13. – And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
13. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me. – The seer had asked no question, but the elder answers the wondering thoughts and questionings which fill his mind. Perhaps this scene was in Dante’s mind when he described himself in Paradise:
“Silent was I, yet desire
Was painted in my looks; and thus I spake
My wish more earnestly than language could:
– Paradise, iv. 10–12.
The elder asks the question which he knows St. John would fain ask. These wise are clothed in white robes, wise are they, and whence came they? The question brings the white robes into prominence. Is it, as has been suggested, that the wonder of the seer is excited more by the emblem of holiness and innocence than anything else? He recognizes the multitudes as men and women out of every nation and tribe of sinful humanity, and he sees them clothed in the garb of holiness. Who are these countless throngs of holy ones?
7:14. – And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
14. And I said unto him ... – The form in which the answer of the seer is given shows how completely the elder had anticipated his thoughts, for he describes his reply as instantaneous. And I have said, My Lord – the language is that of reverent regard, but not of worship (see 19:10 and 22:8–9) – thou knowest – i.e., it is for thee to tell me: thy knowledge and thy viewpoint is higher than mine; thou knowest: it is thine to speak, and mine to hearken.
And he said to me ... – Read, And he said to me, These are they who come (the present tense is used: these are those coming) out of the great tribulation. They are those who come, not all at once, but gradually. The saints of God are continually passing into the unseen world, and taking their place among the spirits of just men made perfect. They come out of the great tribulation. Are we to limit the expression to the special and peculiar afflictions of the last great trial? There is no doubt about the emphasis which the definite article (unfortunately, ignored in our English version) gives. It is the great tribulation. But while there may yet be in store for the Church of Christ trials so great that they may be called, in comparison with those which went before, the great tribulation, it yet seems out of harmony with the spirit of the Apocalypse and the complexion of this vision to limit the phrase to some special season of trial. Is not the great tribulation the tribulation which those must encounter who are on the side of Christ and righteousness, and refuse to receive the mark of worldliness and sin on their heart, conscience, and life? In all ages it is true that we must through much tribulation enter the Kingdom of God; and the vision here is surely not of those who will come safe out of some particular trials, but of the great multitude from every age and every race who waged war against sin, and who, in the midst of that protracted conflict, endured the great tribulation which is to continue until Christ’s return. And they washed (not “have washed,” for the washing was done during their earthly life) their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. The imagery is to be found in the Gospel and in the Epistle (John 13:8–11, and 1 John 1:7). Its use here and in 1:5 (if the reading washed is to be preferred to loosed) points to a common authorship. The emblem of the blood which washes white, or cleanses, is not used with such distinctness elsewhere in the New Testament. It is, in St. John’s lips, but a following out of the twice-repeated words which he quotes from John the Baptist at the opening of the Gospel, when he proclaimed Christ to be “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In that Lamb of God those who came out of great tribulation found the forgiveness and the spiritual power which gave them confidence and hope in the midst of life’s war and life’s weariness; for the man who knows that he is forgiven and that he is being helped to holiness is the man who thinks no fiery trial strange, but rejoices in the knowledge that his salvation is of God.
7:15. – Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. [Isa. 4–6, ch. 21:3.]
15. Therefore are they before the throne ... – Better, On this account are they before the throne of God – i.e., because they so washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Comp. 22:14, where a well-supported reading is, “Blessed are they that wash their robes, that they may have right to the tree of life,” etc.) They are before the throne; they are like Him, for they see Him as He is (1 John 3:2), and serve Him day and night in His temple, and He that sitteth upon the throne shall tabernacle over them. The life is not simply one of joy or safety; it is one also of service. (Comp. 22:3.) Those who were made priests to God here carry on their service in His temple. Yet it is to be remembered that this can only be figurative language, for in the heavenly city there is no temple (21:22). It serves to teach us that the servant will find his fitting work of service there as well as here. He that sitteth upon the throne shall tabernacle over them. It is worth noticing how persistently St. John keeps up the phrase, “He that sitteth upon the throne” (4:2; 5:1, 7, 13; 7:10). Tabernacle, or dwell as in a tent: The rendering “shall dwell” among them does not do justice to this word, and at the same time obscures the allusion which the seer has in his mind. The allusion is to the Shechinah, the symbol of the Divine Presence, which rested over the mercy seat. “The idea that the Shechinah, the σκηνή (skene), the glory which betokened the Divine Presence in the Holy of Holies, and which was wanting to the sacred temple, would be restored once more in Messiah’s days, was a cherished hope of the Jewish doctors during and after the Apostolic ages.” The expected and wished-for glory would be seen among God’s saints. God’s tabernacle shall be with them (21:3), and with them so as to stretch over them. He will tabernacle over (or, upon) them. With this we may compare St. Paul’s expression in 2 Cor. 12:9 (“that the power of Christ may tabernacle” – “rest” in the English version – “upon me”), where Professor Lightfoot (whose words have just been quoted) thinks that there is a similar reference to the symbol of the Divine Presence in the Holy of Holies. (Comp. Isa. 4:5–6, Ezek. 37:27, and John 1:14.) There seems also to be a carrying on of the imagery derived from the Feast of Tabernacles. As there were the palm branches of the harvest joy, so there will be the booth, or tabernacle, of God’s presence among them. He shall be their pavilion, their shelter. “There shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge and for a covert from storm and from rain.”
7:16. – They shall hunger no more, [Isa. 49:10.] neither thirst anymore; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.
16. They shall hunger no more ... – Better, They shall not hunger anymore, nor yet thirst anymore; neither at all shall the sun light upon them, nor any heat. The negatives are emphatic, and rise in force as the verse proceeds. None of the privations which they have endured for Christ’s sake shall trouble them. None of the dissatisfactions and weariness of life shall afflict them; for hunger, thirst, and fatigue will be no more, for the former things are passed away (21:3–4). And then, too, shall that blessed hunger and thirst – the hunger and thirst for righteousness – be appeased. Christ’s benediction will then be realized in its fullness: Blessed are they who so hunger, for they shall be filled. And as they will receive inward strength and satisfaction, so also will they be kept from the outward trials which wear down the strength of the strongest. The sun shall not light on them. The Eastern sun, in its fierce and overpowering intensity, was a fit emblem of those trials which dry up the springs of strength. The sun, risen with a burning heat, devoured the beauty of the flower (James 1:11). The rootless growth on the stony ground was scorched when the sun was up (Matt. 13:5–6). Man’s beauty of wealth and talent, man’s resolutions of better things, all fade away before the testing beams of this sun. But the time of trial is past, the pains and temptations of life are over, the sun in that land will not scorch, for there is no longer need of these burning beams. The city has no need of the sun, for the glory of God lightens it, and the Lamb is the light thereof (21:23). No sun, and no heat, no burning hot wind like the sirocco, will spread withering influence there.
7:17. – For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes. [ch. 21:4.]
17. For the Lamb … – Translate, Because the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall tend them, and shrill lead them to fountains of waters of life (or, life-springs of waters); and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes. The Lamb is described as “The Lamb in the midst of the throne.” The writer told in 5:6 that he had seen a Lamb in the midst of the throne. When he looked towards the throne, he saw the Lamb as the central object immediately in front of it. He who would draw near to the throne must pass the Lamb. The position which the Lamb held was one of significance, and is therefore repeated. here. The Lamb will tend His people as a shepherd tends his flock (the word translated “feed” has this force), and will lead them to the springs of the water of life. The twenty-third Psalm rises at once to our minds. The Lord who was David’s shepherd (Psa. 23:2), who was the Good Shepherd who sought and brought home the lost for whom He died (Luke 15:4, John 10:11), does not forget the shepherd’s work in heaven. He who made His people to drink of the brook in the way (Psa. 110:7), who gave to those who came to Him the water which alone would quench their thirst (John 4:13–14, and 7:37–39), leads them now to the springs of the living water, and makes them drink of the river of His pleasures (Psa. 36:8). Significantly enough the springs of this living water are in the throne itself (22:1). Ezekiel saw the stream issuing forth from the Temple (Ezek. 48:1); but in the city where there is no temple, we are carried to the very throne of God, to find the wellspring of every gladness. In this emblem of the water we have another allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles. Among the ceremonies observed at the feast was that of the drawing water; the priest drew a vessel of water from the brook of Siloam, and poured it out in the temple court by the altar of burnt offering, and the people sang the words, “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isa. 12:3). Here the Lamb, who is also the High Priest, leads His people to the springs of the water of life. Joy, too, is theirs, for God shall wipe away every tear from (or, out of) their eyes (Isa. 25:8, Rev. 21:4). In Isaiah it is said God shall wipe away tears from off all faces: here it is every tear. Thus shall all sorrow be removed from all. No tears shall gather in any eye, for the sources of sorrow will be cut off in the land where there is no more sin. None can weep again when it is God who wiped away their tears. Blessed are they that mourn, said Christ – blessed indeed in this, that God becomes their comforter. Only those who have wept can enjoy this consolation. Who would not shed life’s tears to have God’s hand to wipe them away!
8:1. – And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
1. And when he had opened the seventh seal ... – Translate, And when he opened the seventh seal there took place a silence in heaven as it were for half an hour. It is greatly to be regretted that this verse should have been prefixed to this chapter. The section of the book with which it is connected is that which goes before, not that which follows. The second verse of this eighth chapter introduces a new series of visions: the first verse gives the close of the visions which follow the opening of the seals. But what is the meaning of this verse which describes a half-hour’s silence in heaven? It is a disputed point whether the book, or roll, fastened with the seven seals (5:1–2) is ever really unrolled to view. Some have thought that as each seal is opened a portion of the roll is displayed, unfolding the vision of the seal. Others have regarded the visions as mere accompaniments of the opening of the seals, and quite distinct from the writing on the roll. Those who take this view are disposed to think that the roll never is read; for that when the last seal is broken, and all are expecting to hear what is written in the book, no reading takes place, but only a silence ensues. It does not seem to me that this latter view is altogether tenable. It appears a singularly harsh interpretation to say that the contents of the roll are never disclosed. The book of God’s purposes was seen in the hand of Him who sat on the throne. The Evangelist longed to know something of its contents. Vain efforts were made to open it. The Evangelist wept with disappointment. He was then comforted in his sorrow by hearing that the Lion of the tribe of Judah had conquered to open the book; but then, after all this, not a line or word of the book, it is said, is ever revealed. The servant is waiting to hear the divine word; the seer is waiting to record what is unfolded. But though the seals are opened, we are told that the words he waits for never came. St. John himself gives no hint of so disappointing a conclusion. Later on (10:4) he is told not to record the utterances of the seven thunders, but there the concealing of the utterances is clearly commanded. Here he evidently associates the visions of the seals with the contents of the roll. It is only a spirit in bondage to foolish literalisms which will ask how the visions can be the writing in the roll. The book represents God’s purposes and principles of His government in relation to the world history. The seals show us some typical scenes in that world history, and if not seen on the parchment of the roll, are yet unfoldings of principles and truths in the book. But it does not follow that all that is in the roll is ever unfolded. Such portions are made manifest as the seer could hear, and as the Church of Christ needed; and thus it may well be that the half-hour’s silence is significant that all God’s purposes and revelations are not exhausted – that there is something behind which it is not well that we should know – that prophecy as well as knowledge is partial. But the stillness of this half hour, if it reminds us of what is yet untold, yet proclaims to us a time of deep, unbroken tranquility, when the cries and groans of the earth, and even the grateful doxologies of heaven are hushed into calm. It is the silence which tells us that sorrow is ended, and eloquently tells us of heart peace. It is the rest of the troubled on the breast of God. All the earth, with her strife of tongues, is still. All the cries of men (6:15), of trafficker and warrior, of struggling wise, and suffering good, are stilled; all flesh keeps silence before Him: He gives His people peace.
“O earth, so full of dreary noises!
O men with wailing in your voices!
O delved gold, the wailers heap!
O strife, O curse, that o’er it fall!
God strikes a silence through you all,
And giveth His beloved sleep!”
Only those who have been carried away by an over-refined philosophy or morbid sentimentalism can see anything selfish in longing, out of earth’s cares and injustices, for such a rest as this. It is surely not ignoble to pray –
“Vouchsafe us such a half-hour’s hush alone,
In compensation for our stormy years:
As heaven has paused from song, let earth from moan.”
8:2. – And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
2. The Visions Introduced by the Sounding of Seven Trumpets. – The series of visions which is now introduced extend to the close of the eleventh chapter. There are some features which may be noticed here. There is a marked correspondence of arrangement between these and the visions of the seals. As there, so here, there are introduced two subordinate visions towards the end of the series. The sixth seal was followed by the vision of the one hundred and forty-four thousand and the countless multitude: the sixth trumpet is followed by the vision of the little book and the seven thunders and the measurement of the temple of God (chapters 10 and 11:1–14). The general intention of these interposed visions is similar. In both cases they seem designed to give us an insight of the life within the life of Christ’s Church. The main visions give us more external aspects. The interposed visions show the inner and more spiritual aspects. Thus the seals show the great outer features of world and Church history – the war, controversies, the famine and barren dogmatism, the death and deathlike externalism, the persecutions and sorrows and revolutions of our coming history. The interposed visions of chapter 7 show us the calm and strength and the victory of the children of God. So also with these visions of the trumpets. The main visions give us the trumpet voices of God’s manifold providences summoning the world to surrender to Him. The subsidiary visions point to the witness and work of the true children of God in this world, and the more secret growth of the Church of Christ. Another similarity between the seals and the trumpets is to be found in the separation between the first four and the last three. The first four trumpets, like the first four seals, are grouped together. The first four seals are introduced by the cry “Come”. The first four trumpets are followed by judgments on natural objects – the earth, the sea, the rivers, the lights of heaven – while the last three have been described as woe trumpets, being introduced by the thrice repeated cry of “Woe” (see verse 13). There is thus a correspondence of arrangement in the two series of visions, but their general import is very different. We reach in the seventh seal the eternal quiet of God’s presence. Through a series of visions we have been shown that the way to rest is not easy, that we must be prepared to see the great features of earth’s troubles remain till the close, and that the children of God must through tribulation and even persecution enter into the kingdom of God’s peace. The seals answer the question, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom?” But the kingdom will be restored. The Church may find her way a way of difficulty, delay, danger, but it will be a way to triumph. The kingdoms of the world will become the kingdoms of the Lord. Let the people of God go forward Let their prayers be set forth as incense. Let them blow the trumpet, and summon men to repentance. They are not alone. The Lord still fights for His Israel. This is the assurance which we gather from the trumpets. In all the wondrous providences which the history of the world discloses, we may hear the trumpet voice which heralds the kingdom of Christ, to which the Church is bearing constant and sufficient witness (11:3–4). The seals close with peace. The trumpets close appropriately with victory (11:15). The visions are not scenes of events which chronologically succeed one another. The one set shows us the way through trouble to rest; the other shows the way through conflict to triumph. The one set shows us the troubles which befall the Church because of the world; the other shows us the troubles which fall on the world because the Church advances to the conquest of the world, as Israel to the possession of the land of promise.
And I saw the seven angels ... – Better, And I saw the seven angels which stand (not “stood”) before God; and there were given to them seven trumpets. “The seven angels”: Who are these? The usual answer is that they are seven angels (or, according to some, archangels) distinguished among the myriads round the throne. The passages referred to in support of this view are two – one from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One” (Tobit 12:15); the other, the well-known passage from St. Luke, “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19). This may be true, and the emphatic article (the seven angels) gives the view some support. But seeing that the number seven is to be taken throughout the book as symbolic, and not literal, it is perhaps better to view the seven angels as representatives of the power of God over the world. They are the seven, the complete circle of God’s power in judgment. For as we do not take the seven spirits to be literally seven spirits, but, symbols of the complete and manifest influence of the one Holy Spirit, the third person in the glorious Trinity, so neither need we infer from the mention of the seven angels here that they are literally seven preeminent angelic personages, but rather regard them as symbols of that complete and varied messenger force which God evermore commands.
Seven trumpets. – It will help our understanding of the symbol here employed to recall the occasions on which the trumpet was used. It was used to summon the people together, whether for worship, or festival, or war, “for the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps.” “When they shall blow with them (the trumpets), all the assembly shall assemble themselves to thee (Moses) at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation” (Num. 10:4–8). For journeying an alarm was to be blown (Num. 10:6). “And if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the Lord your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies” (verse 9). And as for war, so also on festival days the trumpets were blown: “Also in the day of your gladness, and in your solemn days, and in the beginnings of your months, ye shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; that they may be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the Lord your God.” The reader will remember other illustrations. When the people were assembled to hear the Ten Commandments, the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder (Ex. 19:19). The feast held on the first day of the seventh month was “a day of blowing the trumpets” (Num. 29:1) among the people who would blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed on their solemn feast day (Psa. 81:3). At the siege of Jericho seven priests bore before the ark seven trumpets of rams’ horns, and on the seventh day the priests blew with the trumpets (Josh. 6:4–5). For assembling, for journeying, for war, the sound of the trumpets was heard. The judgments which follow the blowing of the trumpets in this series of visions are the trumpet-toned calls of God, summoning mankind to assemble to the true tabernacle, bidding His people go forward, and announcing the overthrow of His adversaries. Every judgment, on earth, or sea, or river, by war, or by invasion, is a call which bids men listen to the still small voice, which they have neglected, perhaps resisted. Every judgment should rouse the true servant to greater vigilance and further advance. It is an alarm sounded on the great battlefield of life. Miracles have been called the alarm bells of the universe. No less are the strange and startling events of the world’s history the alarm notes blown by God’s angels across the world, to remind us of the war in which every citadel of evil must inevitably fall. It is mainly, then, as an alarm of war that these angel trumpets are sounded. The land of promise is to be rescued from the tribes and peoples who corrupt it. As the Canaanites of old were swept away lest their wickedness, increasing beyond measure, should spread abroad a moral death, so are the judgments of these trumpets sent to undermine, purge away, and finally to destroy all evil powers which destroy the earth (11:18). We may hear, then, in “each blast of the symbolic trumpet a promise and instalment of the victory” for which the groaning and travailing creation yearns, and which will be the banishment of earth’s destroyers, and the manifestation of the sons of God.
8:3. – And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers [Or, add it to the prayers.] of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
3. And another angel came and stood at (or, over) the altar, having a golden censer. – The appearance of this other angel has given rise to some questioning, and some strained explanations. Some have thought that by this other angel we are to understand Christ Himself. This is very doubtful: the designation “another angel” (see 7:2) is against this view. There is really no need to ask who the several angels are. The book is symbolic. The angels are not particular personages, but symbolic of those agencies – whether personal, or natural, or supernatural – which are employed by him who sitteth on the throne. The angel stood at the altar. The altar mentioned in 6:2 corresponded with the altar of burnt sacrifice, which stood in the open court in front of the tabernacle or temple. The symbolism of the Apocalypse being so largely built up out of Jewish materials, we need not be surprised to find the altar of incense introduced here. This altar was of gold, and was situated in the holy place. Here the priest was wont to burn incense, while the people outside were praying. We have an example of the custom in the history of Zacharias (Luke 1:8–11). The scene described by St. Luke bears a close resemblance to this, and gives a key to the symbolism. The prayers of the people and the smoke of the incense are ascending together. The angel has a golden censer. The word here rendered censer is used sometimes for the incense, but the epithet “golden” shows that it is the vessel to hold the incense which is intended. The censer is of gold, as was the altar, and as are so many things in the Apocalypse. (See 4:4, 5:8, 15:6–7, and 21:15, 21.)
And there was given unto him much incense ... – Literally, And there was given to him much incense that he might (not “offer it with,” as English version, but) give it to the prayers of all the saints upon the golden alter which was before the throne. The incense was to be mingled with the prayers of the saints. The incense was added to give a fragrance to the prayers of the saints, and render them acceptable before God. The action of the angel has been spoken of as though it might give countenance to the erroneous doctrine of the mediatorship of saints and angels. It is only when we persist in viewing symbols as literal facts that there is any danger of such an inference. Dogmas, whose only foundation is in the incidental symbolism of a prophetic book, are ungrounded. It is a safe canon that doctrinal inferences from metaphors are always to be suspected. The angel here is a mere symbol of a divinely appointed agency. No personal angel actually ever did what is described here: how could incense mix with prayers? The whole is symbolic of the truth that the prayers of all the saints need to be rendered acceptable by the infusion of some divine element. The best prayers of the best saints are weak, and polluted and imperfect at the best. The incense which is added to the prayers is not supplied by the angel. It is first given to him, and he then mingles it with the prayers of all saints. It is hard to forget here Him whose offering and sacrifice became a savour of sweet smell (Eph. 5:1–2). The altar is described as the golden altar – i.e., the altar of incense, as noted above. It is well for us to remember Dean Alford’s caution that we must not attempt to force the details of any of these visions into accordance with the arrangements of the tabernacle. “A general analogy in the use and character of the heavenly furniture is all that we can look for” (Alford, in loco).
8:4. – And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.
4. And the smoke of ... – Better, And there went up the smoke of the incense for (or to, i.e., designed for, and to give fragrance to) the prayers of the saints, out of the hand of the angel before God. The emblem of the rising column of smoke, in which incense and prayer now mingled, is the token that the prayers of the saints now rendered acceptable, and no longer premature, are about to be answered. These prayers of God’s people, weak and imperfect as they are, are yet invincible weapons in the hands of Christ’s soldiers, and will be found mightier than any carnal weapons. As Jericho fell without Israel needing to strike a blow, so now the Israel of God will be seen to be omnipotent through true and faithful prayer. The charter of the Church’s power is in the words of Christ: “If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:7). The judgments that follow are not indeed specifically prayed for by the Church of Christ, but they are the results of their prayers, and prove the might of all prayer.
8:5. – And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into [Or, upon.] the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.
5. And the angel … – Translate, And the angel has taken (or, took) the censer, and he filled it from the fire of the altar, and cast it (i.e., the fire or hot ashes which filled the censer) upon the earth. The prayers have gone up, and the sprinkling of the ashes earthward is the symbol of the answer descending from heaven. We may recall the similar action of Moses before Pharaoh, when he took ashes of the furnace and sprinkled it towards heaven, but it descended towards earth as a symbol of the plague about to fall upon the land (Ex. 9:8–10). The hot ashes are the tokens of the corning judgments. As in the parallel vision in Ezekiel (10:2), when the man clothed with linen is bidden to “go in between the wheels, even under the cherub, and fill his hand with coals of fire from between the cherubims, and scatter them over the doomed city”; so here the ashes fall – the judgments are at hand.
And there were voices … – Or, And there took place thunders, and voices, and lightnings, and an earthquake. There is some variety among the MSS. in the order of the words here used. Some place “lightnings” before “voices”. These signs and sounds herald the approach of judgments. God has arisen in answer to the cry of His people. “The earth shook and trembled. There went up a smoke and a fire: coals were kindled at it. At the brightness that was before Him His thick clouds passed, hailstones and coals of fire. The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave His voice, hailstones and coals of fire. Yea, He sent out His arrows, and scattered them: He shot out lightnings and discomfited them ... He delivered me from my strong enemy” (Psa. 18:4–19). It is a solemn thought that we may send up prayers, and the answer may come down a judgment; for often it is only through judgment that true lovingkindness can make her way.
8:6. – And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.
6. And the seven angels ... – Translate, And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves that they might sound. The angels raised their trumpets to their mouths, ready to blow. The sounding of the trumpets introduced the series of startling events (or providences, as we sometimes call them) which serve to arrest men’s attention, and remind them that there is a kingdom which cannot be shaken. Such events are landing stages in the great advancing progress of Christ’s kingdom. It may be well to remind those who are desirous of actual and limited historical fulfillments which correspond with the features of the several visions, that the aim of the visions seems to be to give the seer, and through him the Church at large, some idea of the general kind of events which ever mark the decay of the kingdom of wrong and the growth of the kingdom of our Lord. It is to this consummation the visions of the trumpets lead us. We are to see the destruction of those who destroy the earth, and the establishment of the kingdom of Him who will reign in righteousness (11:15–18). This great consummation is to be achieved by slow and painful steps. “Wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom?” is the question answered by the seals. “How wilt thou restore the kingdom?” is the question answered by the trumpets. In both cases the answer is similar. These great results are not and cannot be attained in the quick ways human impatience would suggest. The history of the world is not to be folded up in a hurry, for that history is a development and a discipline. It is not only the consummation which is to be desired. The steps to that end are salutary, though painful. The chastisement which is not joyous, but grievous, may be the best means of bringing to the world the peaceable fruits of righteousness; –
“And man, unfriended, faltering on the way,
Must learn to weep before he learns to pray,
And this wholesome lesson of tears must be taught the world, in the slow and bitter progress of a human history marked not by one judgment but by many. The fulfillment, then, of these prophetic visions is not exhausted in one event, however nearly its features may correspond with the character of the vision.
8:7. – The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth; and the third part of trees was burnt up and all green grass was burnt up.
7. The first angel … – Better, And the first sounded, and there took place hail, and fire mingled in blood, and it was cast upon the earth; and the third part of the earth was burnt up, and the third part of the trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up. The reference to the Egyptian plagues is obvious: “There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous … and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field” (Ex. 9:23–25). This resemblance to the history of Israel in Egypt gives us the hint of the true meaning. It carries us back to the past, and asks us to remember the mighty works of God in old times. It reminds us that He who bade Joshua cause the trumpets to be sounded by the walls of Jericho, and who delivered His people from the tyranny of Pharaoh, is the same God, mighty to save Hie people, to break the fetters of ignorance, and to cast down the high walls of pride and sin. But it is needful to observe the variation as well as the resemblance. This plague differs from the Egyptian in the introduction of blood. This variation carries it out of the possibility of literal interpretations. We begin to think of the strongly figurative language of Joel: “the blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke” (Joel 2:30); and we call to mind that St. Peter announced that the fulfillment of this prophecy of Joel commenced with the Pentecostal effusion of the Holy Spirit. Then the war trumpet of deliverance had been sounded. Then the process of the earth’s emancipation had begun. Then commenced the series of sorrows and judgments which the obstinate love of men for darkness rather than light would bring upon themselves; and through the operation of these the kingdom of Christ would be established. The first judgment falls upon the trees and grass. Beneath its touch the grass withereth, the flower fadeth. Thus the day of the Lord is upon the cedars of Lebanon that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan; upon every one that is proud and lofty (Isa. 2:12–13; and 1 Peter 1:24). It matters little in what way this humbling of human pride takes place. The world is full of illustrations. The loftiness of Jerusalem was lowered when the weakness of her self-sufficient religiousness was revealed, and her Pharisaic pride was exposed. The loftiness of Rome was humbled when the Gothic invaders, like a storm of hail (so they were described by Claudian), devastated the empire. These are illustrations, but the prophecy is for all time; for the day of the Lord is upon “all that are proud”. We must not press the phrase “the third part” too closely. It clearly is designed to remind us that in wrath God remembers mercy; and that while He humbles all, He does not utterly destroy. (Comp. Zech. 13:8.) Is this the baptism of fire which withers the florid, pretentious, but fruitless religions of mankind?
8:8. – And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;
8:9. – and the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.
8–9. And the second angel ... – Translate, And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea, and the third part of the sea became blood; and the third part of the creatures that were in the sea died, those which have lives; and the third part of the ships were destroyed. The sea becoming blood reminds us again of the plagues in Egypt (Ex. 7:20–21), but we must once more note the variation. It is not an uplifted rod like that of Moses which produces this result. It is the casting into the sea of a huge mass, as it were a great mountain, burning with fire. Professor Stuart calls this image appropriate or peculiar to St. John. The prophet Jeremiah, however, in a chapter which in many particulars is parallel to this and the following chapter (comp. Rev. 11:18), makes use of a very similar image: “Behold, I am against thee, O destroying mountain, with the Lord, which destroyest all the earth; and I will stretch out mine hand upon thee, and roll thee down from the rocks, and will make thee a burnt mountain” (Jer. 51:25). The mountain was the emblem, in Jeremiah’s prophecy, of the strong consolidated power and institutions of Babylon. Not only must the loftiness of man be brought low, but the mountains which they made so strong for themselves. The power of God’s advancing cause would hurl the rooted mountains from their base. The power of faith, Christ declared, would suffice to do this (Matt. 21:21); and it is at least a singular coincidence that this saying of the Lord’s respecting the overthrow of a mountain should occur in His own comment on the destruction of the fig tree, just as, in this chapter, the vision of the mountain overthrown follows that of the destruction of tree and grass life. Our Lord encourages the faith of His disciples: “Your power will not only expose the pretentious religionisms of the world, as My word has shown the worthlessness of this tree, but you will overthrow also the long-established usages, and evil customs of nations which corrupt the world.” The powers which seemed strong as the great mountains would be seen to be but evil powers, burning, poisoning, destroying; but its power to destroy is checked: it is cast into the sea. Yet no great institution, or nationality, or evil principle is overthrown without some corresponding disadvantages. The falling mountain carries evil even in its fall: the sea becomes blood, the ships are destroyed. The fall of a great nation – a Babylon – is always fraught with unavoidable miseries to the world and its nations. Doubtless, the interests of commerce and shipping suffer; but this is not, it seems to me, the point of the vision. The symbolism is only weakened by supposing an allegorical mountain to fall into a literal sea and to destroy literal ships. The force of the vision is that certain gigantic forms of evil will be overthrown, but the overthrow will be accompanied with the development of new evils. The advance is made, but the step forward unveils the subtle force of evil. Every corrupt institution is destroyed with the risk of the evil elements diffusing themselves elsewhere, just as the political victory of Christianity was followed by the infusion of certain Pagan elements into the Church. The vanquished always manage to impose some laws on the victor. Even the advance of the Church is accompanied by some such experience.
8:10. – And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters,
10. And the third angel ... – Translate, And the third angel sounded, and there fell out of the heaven a great star burning (or, kindled – the light is not inherent, but borrowed) as a torch (or lamp – same word as in 4:5), and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the springs of the waters. The flaming star seems to symbolize the fall of a potentate. The trumpet blast proclaims that the mighty who have been as luminaries, admired, and perhaps worshipped, will fall. The advancing progress of Christianity is to be marked by many such a fall. The rulers of earth, burning with lust of conquest or with pride of fanaticism, will be plucked from their elevated seat among the stars (Obad. verse 4); but their fall is unfortunately accompanied, as in the last instance, with many miseries to others. The fountains and rivers are smitten, the sources of health and joy, the streams of prosperity, are injured.
8:11. – and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
11. And the name of the star. – Translate, And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many of mankind died from the waters, because they were embittered. The bitter, nauseous plant known as wormwood (apsinthos) is used to represent troubles and calamities. In Jer. 9:15 we have an example of this: “Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.” It is worth noticing that the Israelites are warned against idolatry as “a root that beareth gall and wormwood” (Deut. 29:18); and we may recall the symbolic act of Moses, who ground the golden calf to powder, cast the powder in the brook, and made the children of Israel drink (Ex. 32:20). Some have thought that this falling star signified some false teacher, whose evil influence poisoned the pure currents of the gospel, and perverted the minds of men of original genius, who are represented here as fountains. The passages cited above favour the thought, and it may be included in the general meaning of the vision; but the main point seems to be to give us hints of those stages which will mark the advance of Christianity. The fall of the great men, the rulers and leaders, will take place, and their fall will bring misery to mankind. Doubtless, the appearance of false teachers in the Church is one of the evidences and an unavoidable accompaniment of a progressing faith (Matt. 13:26). But all such false lights shall fall before Him who is the true Light and Morning Star, and who will heal all embittered waters of life. (Comp. Ex. 15:23 and 2 Kings 2:19.)
8:12. – And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise.
12. And the fourth angel. – Translate, And the fourth angel sounded, and there was smitten the third part of the sun, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; that the third part of them might be darkened, and the day might not appear as to its third part, and the night in like manner. The dimness which thus falls on the lights of heaven carries us back to the plague of darkness (Ex. 10:21–23); but yet there is this difference; there the children of Israel had light in their dwellings while all the rest of the land suffered the darkness that might be felt. Here, however, the darkness is only such as results from the withdrawal of the third part of the light of the sun by day, and of the moon and the stars (so much more brilliant and needful in Eastern lands than in our own) by night. It is a day of the Lord, in which the light is not clear nor dark – not day nor night (Zech. 14:6–7). There will be periods in which the lights which guide men will give forth uncertain glimmers. Upon the earth there will be distress of nations, men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth; for the powers of heaven shall be shaken (Luke 21:25–26). Such times of darkness and sorrow there necessarily must be. It is through seasons such as these, when the lights of human wisdom and of spiritual guidance seem alike obscured, that the Church must go forward. The chaos precedes creation, and it is through chaos again that the Church of Christ must pass to the new heaven and new earth. These trumpet visions, if read by the side of the story of Genesis, seem like the undoing of creation; the vegetation is smitten, the earth and sea are intermingled, the lights of the heavens are darkened, the living things in seas and streams are destroyed; but “Fresher life the world shall draw / From their decay.” The pulling down must of necessity precede the building up. The removing of the degenerate is one step in the way to the regeneration which follows.
Introduction to the Last Three, or Woe, Trumpets. An Eagle Utters the Threefold Woe.
8:13. – And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!
13. And I beheld ... – Better, And I saw, and I heard a single eagle (not “angel,” as in English version) flying in mid-heaven, saying with a mighty voice, Woe, woe, woe, to these that dwell upon the earth by reason of the remaining voices of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound! The best MS. authority is against the reading “angel,” and in favour of eagle. It is, then, an eagle, a solitary eagle that moves across the heaven, and utters the warning Woe! It flies through the meridian sky, and is thus visible to the very horizon. It was an appropriate emblem. High-soaring as the spirit of the seer, the eagle glance scanned the borders of the earth, and caught sight of the coming troubles, and gave warning. Swift and strong as the judgments of God, its very form gave emphasis to the warnings of its voice (Deut. 28:49, Hosea 8:1, and Matt. 24:28). And yet the emblem must bring to the minds of God’s children the care of Him who led Israel, instructed him, and kept him as the apple of His eye, and cherished him as “an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, and beareth them on her wings” (Deut. 32:11). Is it not also a precursor of those eagle-like judgments which fall upon the carcass of dead nations or a dead society?
The resemblance in arrangement of the visions of the trumpets and the visions of the seals has already been noticed, but the warning cry, Woe, woe, woe! has no parallel in the seals. The trumpets which follow are fraught with woe and judgment to the dwellers upon the earth.
9:1. – And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.
1. And the fifth angel ... – Translate, And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star out of the heaven fallen (not “fall,” as in English version; the seer saw not a falling, but a fallen, star) upon the earth. The emblem of a fallen star is used elsewhere in the Bible. Isaiah (14:12) speaks of Lucifer fallen from heaven. Christ described Satan as lightning falling from heaven. Some great power or ruler is represented, then, by this fallen star. He is, moreover, said to have fallen from heaven, and he is represented as having been given the key of the abyss. Does not this lead us to expect the working of some evil spirit and diabolical agency? The 11th verse confirms our expectation. We may compare 12:8–12, where Satan is described as defeated, cast down to the earth, and filled with wrath. To understand this fallen star as the representative of a good angel seems hardly possible.
And to him was given ... – Literally, and there was given to him (i.e., to the being represented as a fallen star) the key of (not “the bottomless pit”) the pit of the abyss. The abyss is the same word rendered “the deep,” in Luke 8:31, where the demons besought our Lord not to send them into the abyss, or deep. It is the word which describes the abode of the evil spirits. The verse before us suggests the picture of a vast depth approached by a pit or shaft, whose top, or mouth, is covered. Dante’s Inferno, with its narrowing circles winding down to the central shaft, is somewhat similar. The abyss is the lowest spring of evil, whence the worst dangers arise. (Comp. 11:7, 17:8, 20:1–3.)
9:2. – And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.
2. And he opened … – Translate, And he opened the pit of the abyss; and there went up smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun was darkened, and the air by reason of the smoke of the pit. The first result of the opening of the pit is the diffusion of such a dense smoke that light and atmosphere are darkened. In the previous vision there was an obscuration of light arising from the smiting of the luminaries; in this the obscuration arises from causes external to the luminaries. In that the light-giving power was enfeebled; in this the light is not enfeebled, but hindered. This must be remembered. The interpretation of these visions is most difficult; but we must bear in mind that they are descriptive of that great war which the Church is waging with the world, which good is waging with evil, but the end of which, we are assured, is the victory of good. The kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of the Lord, and of His Christ (11:15). But during the progress of the war the issue will often appear doubtful. Nay, even the triumph may seem to be in the hand of the enemy; but faith disregards the backflowing waves, for she knows the tide is coming in. We have seen that the advance of Christianity is marked by the manifestation of evils as well as the establishment of good. Christianity does not create evils, but the very intense honesty of her principles reveals the hidden force of unsuspected corruption. Thus the faith of Christ is come to give light unto the world, but in her progress many lights fall – the false lights of world power, world wisdom, false religionism, and heresies. The enemy, too, is at work, and seeks to obscure her light by the diffusion of dark and lowborn thoughts. The smoke of the pit blackens the light and confuses the atmosphere. Now, this obscuration is surely the diffusion on earth of evil thoughts and ideas, the spirit of falsehood and hate, hostility to truth, and enmity against God and man. The bright, clear air made gladsome by the sun is darkened; “all forms that once appeared beautiful become hideous.”
9:3. – And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.
3. And there came … – Better, And out of the smoke there came forth locusts upon the earth; and there was given to them power, as the scorpions of the earth (? land scorpions) have power. The outcome of the gloom is the power of devastation and pain. We still have reference to the Egyptian plagues – this time to the locusts (Ex. 10:12–15): “They covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened.” Similarly, Joel describes the darkening of the land through the plague of locusts (Joel 2:3–10): “The sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining.” But the locusts of our vision are armed with the power of scorpions, to sting and to torture (verse 5): the scorpions are called scorpions of the earth. Some have thought that this expression is equivalent to land scorpions, in contradistinction from so-called sea scorpions. This hardly seems likely or necessary. Their power to torment men is the prominent idea. The locusts are not literal locusts: this scorpion-like power given to them is enough to convince us of this, even if the next verse did not clearly show it. The scorpion-like power seems to depict a malicious energy, as the locusts depict a devastating multitude.
9:4. – And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.
4. And it was commanded ... – Translate, And it was commanded them that they shall not injure the grass of the earth, nor yet any green thing, nor yet any tree; but only (or, except) the men whosoever have not the seal of God on their foreheads. The locusts which are sent not to injure the vegetation are clearly not literal locusts, and the security of those who have the seal of God in their foreheads (those who were described as sealed, and so assured of safety against the tempest blast: see 7:1–3, et seq.) may confirm us in this view. Whatever the plague be, it is one which cannot injure God’s children. “ Nothing,” Christ has said, “shall by any means hurt you. I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10:19). It is interesting and suggestive to notice that this promise of our Lord was given immediately after the saying, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven,” as the safety of the sealed ones is mentioned here after the vision of the star fallen from heaven. The coincidence is hardly undesigned. At least, the sense in which we understand the danger from which Christ promised His disciples protection may afford us a guiding meaning here. Now, none have maintained that Christ promised His disciples entire freedom from danger, pain, and death. He said, “They shall persecute you and kill you; ye shall be hated of all men for My name’s sake; but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.” No real injury can happen to them. Pain and death might be encountered, but all things work together for their higher good. They have a joy which no pain or peril can take away. They have a joy in this (it is the same chapter as above – Luke 10), that their “names are written in heaven.” For such, death has no sting, the grave no victory. They meet famine and nakedness, and peril and sword; but in these they are more than conquerors. No plague can hurt those who have the seal of God in their foreheads. A plague from which those whose way is through tribulation are exempt can hardly be a physical one.
9:5. – And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.
5. And to them ... – Better, And it was given to them that they should not kill them (i.e., those who had not the seal of God in their foreheads), but that they should be tortured five months. The general period of a locust plague is about five months: “as the natural locusts commit their ravages only for five months, so the ravages of these symbolic ones will be only for a short period” (Stuart). Their power is to inflict torment, and not death. The next verse tells us that men would consider death preferable to this torment, but the relief of the grave is denied them.
And their torment ... – Literally, and the torture of them (i.e., the torture inflicted by them) is as the torture of a scorpion when it has stricken a man. The wound of a scorpion occasions intense suffering. We have in it the symbol of the malicious cruelty of the merciless. The emblem is used in Ezekiel, the rebellious and malicious opponents of the prophet being compared to scorpions (Ezek. 2:6). We may compare the similar imagery of the bee for the Assyrian power (Isa. 7:18), and the Psalmist’s complaint that his enemies came about him like bees – a swarm irritating him with wing and sting. The tenth verse tells us the way in which the injury was inflicted: there were stings in their tails.
9:6 – And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.
6. And in those days ... – Translate, And in those days men shall seek death, and shall not find it; and they shalt yearn to die, and death flees from them. The change of tense from the future (“shall seek – shall yearn”) to the present (“death flees”) gives graphic force to the description. Men will seek for death in vain. They will long to die, and lo! death is seen fleeing from them. We can see an age in which death will be regarded as a sweet respite from the tormenting trials of life. Men will stretch out their hands to death as to a welcome deliverer, but behold! death is seen fleeing from them. The word translated “desire” in our English version is a strong word; it has been rendered vehemently desire: it is a passionate longing, as the yearning of the soul after one we love. There have been ages in which men have thus pined for death, in which light and life seem but mockeries to the miserable, and men “long for death, but it cometh not; and dig for it more than for hid treasures” (Job 3:20–21). Such times ere those which have been well called reigns of terror.
9:7. – And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.
7. And the shapes … – Translate, And the shapes (or, forms) of the locusts were like horses made ready for war. The resemblance of the locust to the horse (especially in the head) has been remarked upon by travelers, and has found expression in the Italian and German names cavalletta and heupferd. The resemblance is more distinct when the horses are made ready for battle, the hard shell or scales of the locust having the appearance of armour. Hence it has been thought that the sacred writer here alludes to this horse-like appearance of the locust. It seems a little doubtful that this is the case, or that in this or any of the descriptions here there is any reference to the anatomical features of the locust. (See Note on verse 10.)
And on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. – Here again there has been a desire to find some physical appearance in the locust to suggest the crown of gold. The antennae, the rugged elevation in the middle of the thorax, have been imagined to have some resemblance to a crown; and the face of the locust, it has actually been said, bears under ordinary circumstances a distant (the adjective is most needful) resemblance to the human countenance.
9:8. – And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.
9:9. – And they had breast plates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.
8–9. And they had hair ... – Translate, And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions, and they had breastplates as iron breastplates; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of (having, i.e., drawn by) many horses, running to war. The hair: It is said that some locusts are hairy, and the passage in Jeremiah (51:27) has been quoted as evidence (the rough caterpillars here spoken of being said to be “locusts bristling with hair”). But the application of the passage is uncertain. The rough caterpillar may be the locust in the third stage, when the wings are still enveloped in rough horny cases which stick upon their backs. Others think the idea of the womanlike hair has its basis in the antlers of the locust. The teeth like those of the lion is a description the origin of which is found in the prophet Joel, in his prediction of the locust plague: “a nation cometh upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek-teeth (or, grinding teeth) of a great lion.” The terrible destructiveness of the locusts, and their strong, ceaseless, and resistless voracity, were thus described. Their breastplates are taken as descriptive of their thoraxes, which in the vision seemed strong as iron. The comparison of the sound of the wings to the thunderous sound of chariots and horses rushing into battle is repeated from Joel 2.
9:10. – And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
10. And they had tails ... – Better, And they have tails like to scorpions, and stings, and in their tails is their power to hurt men five months. In this verse the secret of their power is mentioned. They have tails like scorpions’ tails, and stings which wound and so cause agony to men. On the period of five months, see verse 5. In the exposition of this passage it is utterly vain to look for features of the ordinary natural locust corresponding to the several particulars set forth by the sacred seer. This is admitted even by those who seem anxious to fine such counterparts. “We must regard the comparison as rather belonging to the supernatural portion of our description.” The rule is a good one. Like the description of the Divine Presence in chapter 4, most of the visions of the book are incapable of pictorial realization without incongruities which would be grotesque and profane; nor need we be surprised, since the principles and truths are the main points with the writer. This general rule must be kept in mind if we would avoid the danger of dwelling too much on the bearing of details. It is not in the locust that we shall find even the suggestive basis of the details in the description here. The smoke rises from the pit of the abyss. The heaven is darkened, and out of the smoke emerges the pitchy cloud of locusts. The seer then adds certain characteristics of this locust plague, partly drawn from the earlier prophets, but, as his custom is, with some original additions. They are locusts, but they have the malice of scorpions. They advance like horse soldiers to battle. They wear crowns. They bear a resemblance to men. There is something womanlike also in their appearance, and in their voracity they are as lions. The exigencies of the symbolism are quite beyond the features of the ordinary locust. The sacred writer shows us a plague in which devastation, malice, kinglike authority, intelligence, seductiveness, fierceness, strength, meet together under one directing spirit to torment men. Some parts may be purely graphic, as Alford says, but surely the vision shows us a great symbolic army multitudinous as locusts, malicious as scorpions, ruling as kings, intelligent as men, wily as womanhood, bold and fierce as lions, resistless as those clad in iron armour. The symbolism of course must not be pressed too closely, but its meaning must be allowed to widen as new elements are added, especially when those elements are not suggested by anything in the locust itself, but are additions clearly designed to give force to the symbol employed. The locust-like army has characteristics partly human, partly diabolical, partly civilized, partly barbarous. They have been variously interpreted. The historical school have seen in them the Saracens under Mohammed, who gave to them a religion which was “essentially a military system”. Others are inclined to refer them to “the hordes of Goths and others whose unkempt locks and savage ferocity” resemble this locust host. There is a good ground for taking the vision to prefigure the hosts of a fierce invading army. Even these who believe that Joel’s prophecy foretold a plague of literal locusts, yet acknowledge that these “may in a subsidiary manner” represent “the northern, or Assyrian enemies of Judah” (Introduction to Joel, Speaker’s Commentary). But, as the writer there says, these were “themselves types of still future scourges”; so may we see here a vision which neither the history of the Zealots, nor that of Gothic hordes, nor of Saracens, have exhausted, but one which draws our thoughts mainly to its spiritual and moral bearing, and teaches us that in the history of advancing truth there will come times when confused ideas will darken simple truth and right, and out of the darkness will emerge strange and mongrel teachings, with a certain enforced unity, but without moral harmony, a medley of fair and hideous, reasonable and barbarous, dignified and debased, which enslave and torment mankind. The outcome of these teachings is oftentimes war and tyrannous oppression; but the sacred seer teaches us distinctly that those who hold fast by the seal of God are those who cannot be injured, for he would have us remember that the true sting of false conceptions is not in the havoc of open war, but in the wounded soul and conscience. Nor is it altogether out of place to notice (by way of one example) that the power of Mohammed was more in a divided and debased Christendom than in his own creed or sword. The smoke of ill-regulated opinions and erroneous teachings preceded the scourge. Here, as in other parts of the book, we may notice that subtle, plausible errors pave the way for dire troubles and often sanguinary revolutions. Falsehoods and false worships that have been diffused over the world become “the forerunners and foretellers of a conflict between the powers of good and evil.” Yet as the trumpet sounds, we know that every battle is a step towards the end of a victorious war.
9:11. – And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon. [That is to say, A destroyer.]
11. And they had a king ... – Better, They have over them as king (not “the angel,” as in English version) an angel of the abyss; his name (is) in Hebrew Abaddon, and in the Greek he has a name, Apollyon. There is more than one point in which the seer wishes us to mark the contrast between these symbolic and the natural locusts. Locusts have no sting; these have. Locusts have no king (Prov. 30:27); these have a king. The movements of the invading locusts are conducted with wonderful precision and order, yet no presiding monarch arranges their march; but here there is a directing and controlling head. The great movement is no mere undesigned or instinctive one, but the offspring of a hidden, spiritual force. The great battle is not on the surface only. The invasions, revolutions, tyrannies, which try and trouble mankind, involve spiritual principles, and are but tokens of the great conflict between the spirit of destruction and the spirit of salvation, between Christ and Belial, God and Mammon, the Prince of this world and the Prince of the kings of the earth. The king of these locust hordes is named in Hebrew Abaddon, or Perdition, a name sometimes given to the place or abode of destruction (Job 26:6). “Destruction (Abaddon) hath no covering” – i.e., before God. (Comp. Prov. 15:11.) In Greek his name is Apollyon, or Destroyer: The Spirit of the destroyer is the spirit that inspires these hosts. It is a great movement, but its end is destruction, as its inspiring genius is from beneath, from an angel of the nether world. It is not necessary for us to seek some great historical personage for the fulfillment of this portion of the prophecy, any more than we ought to accept any great historical event as an exhaustive fulfillment of the vision. The picture is vivid and forcible, and its full and certain meaning will be plain hereafter. But it at least should draw our minds from the curiosity which seeks for historical or personal counterparts to the self-vigilance which fears lest our own spirit should be injured by the prevalence of any form of evil. It should teach us to remember always the vehement, earnest way in which the sacred writers describe the subtle, venomous power of all sin, and the merciless destructiveness of its work. It is not of any invading hosts, or signal and special forms of evil, but of the terrible and usual influence of all sin, that the Apostle St. Paul writes when he describes the worldwide devastations of sin in language partly borrowed from the Old Testament, but singularly reminding us of the vision before us. “There is none that doeth good: no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulcher; the poison of asps is upon their lips; their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace have they not known; there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:12–18). It is perhaps well to notice that at this fifth trumpet the unseen spiritual powers of darkness appear taking part in the conflict. There is a time when the obstinate resistance of mankind (yes, and of individual men and women also) to better things becomes fortified by an evil spirit, and they are no longer passive resisters of good, but they become active antagonists of good, hating and obscuring the light of truth, and wounding the spirits and consciences of men. Alas! many walk of whom the Apostle could only say with tears, “they are the enemies of the cross of Christ” (the emblem of salvation), “and whose end is destruction” (Phil. 3:18–19).
9:12. – One woe is past; and behold, there come two woes more hereafter.
12. One woe is past … – Better, The one woe has passed; behold there cometh (the verb is in the singular) yet two woes after these things. Here is the patience and faith of the saints. The troubles which pass only yield place to more. The rest and the victory are not yet. The powers of evil have not exhausted themselves. The iniquity of the social and spiritual Amorites is not yet full.
9:13. – And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God,
9:14. – saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates.
13–14. The Sixth Trumpet – The Second Woe Trumpet. – The first point which will strike the reader is that the plague under this trumpet resembles the last, though it is one of much more aggravated nature. Again we have vast hosts, with the powers of the horse, the lion, and the viper, at command, but the destructive elements are increased, the multitudes are more numerous, the horses’ heads grow lion-like. With the mouth breathing forth threatening and slaughter, as well as with the tail armed with deadly fangs, they can deal forth, not torment only, as in the last vision, but death itself, to a vast proportion of the human race. To aid in this new desolation new forces are released. The four angels bound near the Euphrates are loosed. The next point to notice is that, even more directly than before, we are reminded that the moral and spiritual aspect of these visions should claim our thought. The aim of the plague is to exhibit the death-working power of false thoughts, false customs, false beliefs, and to rouse men to forsake the false worships, worldliness, and self-indulgence into which they had fallen (verses 20–21). The Psalmist has told us that great plagues remain for the ungodly. Here, whatever special interpretations we may adopt, is an illustration of the Psalmist’s words. The enemy against whom these foes are gathered is the great world lost in false thoughts, luxurious ways, dishonest customs; that world which, in the very essential genius of its nature, is hostile to goodness and the God of goodness. But the hosts which come against this sin-drowned world are not merely plagues, as famine and pestilence. They are plagues which are the results of the world spirit, and are to a great extent, therefore, the creation of those who suffer. For there are evils which are loosed upon the world by the natural action of sin and sinful customs. As the evil spirit mingled for the first time in the plague of the fifth trumpet, so from all quarters (typified by the four angels) new powers of misery arise. Nor must another feature be overlooked: the historical basis of the Apocalypse is the past history of the chosen people. God’s dealings with men always follow the same lines. The Apocalypse shows us the same principles working in higher levels and in wider arena. The Israel of God, the Church of Christ, with its grand opportunities, takes the place of the national Israel. Its advance is against the world, and the trumpets of war are sounded. Its progress is, like Israel’s, at first a success. It gains its footing in the world, but the world spirit which infects it is its worst and bitterest foe. It becomes timid, and seeks false alliances. It has its Hezekiahs, men of astonishing faith in hours of real peril, and of astonishing timidity in times of comparative safety, who can defy a real foe, but fall before a pretended ally, and who in mistaken friendliness lay the foundation of more terrible dangers (2 Kings 20:12–19). The people who are victorious by faith at Jericho lay themselves open by their timid. worldliness to the dangers of a Babylonish foe. The plague which falls on the spirit of worldliness does not spare the worldliness in the Church. The overthrow of corrupted systems bearing the Christian name is not a victory of the world over the Church, but of the Church over the world. He who mistakes the husk for the grain, and the shell for the kernel, will despair for Christianity when organizations disappear. But he, who remembers that God is able to raise up even of the stones children to Abraham, will never be confounded. He knows the vision may linger, but it cannot come too late (Heb. 2:3). With all this section the prophecy of Habakkuk should be compared, especially 1:6–11, 14–15; 2:1–14, 3:17–19. The history of Israel is in much the key to the history of the world.
And the sixth angel ... – Translate, And the sixth angel sounded: and I heard a (single) voice out of the (four) horns of the golden altar, which is before God, saying to the sixth angel, him who had the trumpet (or, O thou, who host the trumpet), Loose the four angels which are bound at the greet river Euphrates. There are one or two verbal points worthy of notice. The Sinaitic MS. omits the words “single” and “out of the four horns,” and thus reads, “I heard a voice out of the golden altar.” It was the same altar from which the incense ascended mingled with the prayers of the saints. (See 8:3.) Where the prayers were, thence the voice comes. It reminds us that the prayers are not ineffectual, that still they are heard, though the way of answering may be in strange and painful judgments. The voice is heard as a single voice out of the midst of the horns of the altar. It is very doubtful whether the word “four” ought to be retained. The voice is represented as rising from the surface of the altar, at the corners of which were the four projections known as horns. The command is to loose the four angels bound at the Euphrates. What are these? Their number – four – represents powers influencing all quarters. They are angels (that is, messengers, or agencies) employed for the purpose. They are at or near the river Euphrates – that is, the spot whence the forces would arise. What is meant by the Euphrates? Are we to understand it literally? This can hardly be, unless we are prepared to take Babylon and Jerusalem literally also, and to deny all mystical meaning; but this is what only few will be disposed to do. The two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem, are the types of two radically different sets of ideas, two totally antagonistic views of life; and the meaning and mystical import of the River Euphrates must be determined by its relation to these two cities. It has been, indeed, argued that we are not bound to take the name Euphrates mystically because the remainder of the vision is mystical, since is Scripture we often find the literal and the allegorical intermingled. For example, there is an allegory in Psa. 53:8 and 11, “Thou host brought a vine out of Egypt,” etc. It is quite plain that the vine is used mystically to represent Israel; but the word Egypt is not mystical – it indicates the literal fact that out of Egypt Israel was brought. This is no doubt true, but it hardly meets the question here. No one will dispute that a distinct, literal fact or name may be introduced in a passage otherwise allegorical; but do we ever meet with a passage in which names of places are introduced, some of which were to be taken literally and some mystically? And such would be the case here. The whole tenor of the Apocalypse keeps before us Jerusalem, the temple, and its surroundings (11:1, 8), and Babylon, with its might and opulence, as two opposing cities; and it is out of all scriptural analogy to interpret Jerusalem allegorically, and Babylon allegorically, and then to claim the privilege of understanding Euphrates literally. In fact, the inconsistency and arbitrariness of interpreters is tested by these three names, Babylon, Jerusalem, Euphrates. Some will have Jerusalem to be literal, and Babylon and Euphrates mystical. Others will have Babylon mystical, and Jerusalem and Euphrates literal. Surely those who hold all three to be literal are more consistent. But if Babylon be mystical and Jerusalem mystical, it is hard to see why Euphrates should not be so also. I am far from denying that those who consistently hold all three to be literal may not be right. There are not wanting tokens that a revival of the East may change the whole political center of gravity of the world. But no such literal fulfillment would annul the infinitely more important mystical aspect of the Apocalypse. The conflict between a literal Babylon and a literal Jerusalem either in the past or the future can never vie in interest with the prolonged and widespread conflict between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of Belial, between God and Mammon, which is waged along the whole line of history over the arena of the whole world, and plants its battleground in every human heart. In every man, and in the whole world, the war is waged, as the carnal and spiritual contend with one another. It is in this war between the mystical Jerusalem and the mystical Babylon that the great river Euphrates is to play an important part. Twice (here and in 16:12) the river Euphrates appears, and each time in connection with some warlike demonstration or invasion. The basis of interpretation, as with Jerusalem and Babylon, must be sought in the history of Judah and Israel. Babylon is the great foe of Israel, and the Euphrates was the great river or flood which formed a natural boundary between them. “The other side of the flood” (i.e., Euphrates) was the phrase which pointed back to the early life of Abraham before he had entered upon the life of pilgrimage and faith. The Euphrates was the Rubicon of his spiritual history. The Euphrates was the great military barrier also between the northern and southern nations. It occupied a place similar to the Rhine and the Danube in modern history. The advance of the Egyptian army to the banks of the Euphrates threatened the integrity of the Assyrian empire (2 Kings 23:29). The battle of Carchemish established the supremacy of the Chaldean power to the west of the Euphrates (2 Kings 24:7). Such a preponderance of Babylonish influence threatened the safety of Jerusalem. The loosing of the four angels (or powers) bound at the Euphrates can only signify changes analogous to disturbances on the great frontier line, as the drying up of the Euphrates signifies the annihilation of the protecting boundary. Such a frontier line between the spiritual city and the world city does in practice exist. There is a vast stretch of intervening territory which neither the Church nor the world really possesses, but over which each desires to possess power. There is a great neutral zone of public opinion, civilized habits, general morality, which is hardly Christian, hardly anti-Christian. When Christianized sentiments prevail in this, there is comparative peace; but when this becomes saturated with anti-Christian ideas, the Church suffers. And it is out of this that the worst aspects of trouble and danger arise; for out of it arise those forces which bring into acute form the great war between the world spirit and the spirit of Christ. The loosing of these four angels, then, seems to indicate that the issues at stake have become more distinct, that the conflict which has gone on under veiled forms begins to assume wider proportions and to be fought on clearer issues. The issues have been somewhat confused. The world spirit has crept into the Church, and against the world spirit, wherever found, the trumpet blast declares war.
9:15. – And the four angels were loosed which were prepared for [Or, at.] an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.
15. And the four angels ... – Better, And there were loosed the four angels who had been made ready unto (or, for, i.e., ready for) the (not “an hour,” but the) hour, and day, and month, and year, that they should slay the third part of mankind. The English version reads as though the hour, day, month and year were to be understood as the length of time over which this plague of war should last. This idea has been adopted by many of the historical school of interpreters, and great ingenuity has been exercised to find some period which exactly corresponds with this, and during which disastrous wars prevailed. But the expression (“made ready unto the hour,” etc.) is not to be taken to imply that such was the duration of the plague. It implies that the loosing of the angels would take place at a definite period, the year, month, day and hour of which were known. The expression corresponds somewhat with our Lord’s words, “Of that day and hour knoweth no man.” It reminds us that there is a period – an unknown period, but nevertheless a certain period – at which the latent powers of retribution wake and begin to avenge themselves, at which the restraints which have withheld the long-deserved scourges are removed. Men and nations little think of this. Peace, they cry, where there is no peace, for they have been by their sins mining the ground under their feet, or dwelling in that abode of false security which Bunyan might have called the city of Meanwell, and that abode is built on the sands; and when the angels of judgment are loosed, and the restraining influences of public opinion broken, the tempest is abroad, the frail house of formal religion falls, and the time of testing leaves its inmates unsheltered. Happy only are they who are ready for the hour of the Lord’s return. The angels are made ready that they should kill the third part of mankind. The way in which this slaughter is to take place is explained in verses 17–18. It is a wide and devastating slaughter carrying away a large portion of the human race.
9:16. – And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.
16. And the number … – Translate, And the number of the armies of the cavalry was two myriad of myriads. I heard the number of them. The writer heard, perhaps from some herald angel, the number of this vast army of horsemen. It was twice ten-thousand times ten thousand – i.e., two hundred millions. The number is like an echo from Psa. 68:17 – “The chariots of God are twenty thousand (two myriads) even thousands (or, thousands of thousands) of angels.” This utterly bewildering number might have been sufficient to keep interpreters from looking for some slavishly literal fulfillment. It simply stands for an immense host, and may serve to point out the prolific powers of retribution – the harvest of sin is misery, multiplied thirty, sixty, one hundredfold.
9:17. – And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.
17. And thus I saw ... – Better, And after this manner saw I the horses in the vision, and those who sat upon them, having breastplates fiery and jacinth-like, and brimstone-like, and the heads of the horses were as heads of lions; and out of their mouths goeth forth fire and smoke and brimstone. The seer proceeds to describe the general appearance of the horses and horsemen. After this fashion were they: the horses and horsemen were armed with breastplates of triple hue (corresponding to the threefold destructive stream which goes forth from their mouth), the hues of flame, and dark purple (jacinth), and brimstone. The jacinth colour seems to be the dark purple or blue so often seen in smoke. The Poet Laureate uses the word “azure” to describe the colour of ascending columns of smoke (“azure pillars of the hearth arise to thee”). The colour here would be darker, the smoke not arising from peaceful dwellings, but generated among death-giving elements. The army is mainly of horsemen, and they are described as resolute and relentless. We are reminded of somewhat similar features in the Chaldean armies spoken of by Habakkuk, “I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation: they are terrible and dreadful: their horses also are swifter than leopards,” etc. (Habak. 1:6–10).
9:18. – By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths.
9:19. – For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt.
18–19. By these three ... – Better, From these three plagues were the third part of mankind slain, by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which goeth forth out of their mouths. For the power of the horse is in their mouth, and in their tails, for their tails were like serpents, having heads, and with these they hurt (or, injure). The destructive power in this vision is in mouth and tail. In the last trumpet vision it was in the tail only (verse 10). The devastating power is increased. The foes come swift as horsemen, strong as lions, venomous as serpents, breathing forth elements that blind and burn with deadly power. We have, then, forces which are mighty, malicious, and relentless, and which are bidden forth against mankind for their sins of worldliness. (See verses 20–21.) It is not once only in the history of the world that such powers have been let loose. The desolations wrought by invading hordes – the force and ferocity of Turkish power establishing itself in Europe and threatening the power of Christendom – the widespread terror and slaughter promoted by the outbreak of the spirit of unrestrained violence in France, followed by reckless war, may illustrate such a vision as the present. But the main teaching of it is the never-failing truth that the spirit of worldliness provokes its own punishment, wherever it may exist, and its retribution is in a form which serves to reveal what latent power of destruction lurks behind every sin, and what hidden spiritual foes there are to intensify human passions and to increase human misery.
9:20. – And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, [Psa. 115:4 & 135:15; Isa. 46:7, Jer. 10:5, Dan. 5:23.] and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk:
9:21. – neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.
20–21. And the rest … – Translate, And the rest of mankind who were not slain in these plagues did not even repent of (or, out of – i.e., so as to forsake) the works of their hands, that they should not worship the demons (evil spirits), and the idols of gold, and of silver, and of brass, and of stone, and of wood; which can neither see, see hear, nor walk: and they did not repent of (or, out of) their murders, nor of (or, out of) their sorceries, nor out of their fornication, nor out of their thefts. These verses make one or two points clear. First, they show us that, whatever the nature of the plagues might be, they were afflictions designed to bring about repentance, and to rouse men, whether nominally Christian or not, from the lethargy into which long indulged sin had plunged them. Those terrible revolutions which are the growth of years, and which startle men with their apparent suddenness and violence, are the great appeals of God, asking men to see the meaning of sin. They are the trumpet blasts calling to repentance. But we are told more: the remainder of the godless did not repent. We are not, indeed, told that they did not feel terror, or remorse, or momentary qualms and misgivings, but that they did not show that which alone is regarded as genuine repentance, the repentance out of sin, the repentance which turns away from sin. We need always that wholesome caution. We need it most in times when hysterical and emotional religionism is fashionable, and it is forgotten that true repentance is a repentance whereby we forsake sins. These men repented not out of their sin. And their sins are enumerated, and the enumeration again takes us back to the history of Israel as to the historical basis which the sacred seer enlarged and vivified; for the sins are just those against which Israel was warned and into which Israel fell (Deut. 4:28, Psa. 106:34–40, Acts 7:41). The sins are demon worship and idolatry: “They served idols: they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils.” (Comp. 1 Cor. 10:20; 1 Tim. 4:1.) It is needful to trace these sins in the history of Israel, as it has been argued that these are heathen sins, and that therefore these plagues must be plagues which fall on those who are literally heathens. But if we bear in mind that the series of visions describe features which will accompany the advance of Christianity in the world, we shall remember that it is against worldliness, wherever found, idolatries of whatever kind, murders and thefts, called by whatever name, that the true genius of Christianity makes war. Christ is king, and king of righteousness, and in righteousness does He make war; and the heathenisms which are called Christianity are as much the objects of His displeasure as the most obvious Paganism. It is needful to remember that Jews are addressed as if they were heathen, aye, very habitues of Sodom (Isa. 1:10), and that the Christian Church is warned against sins which are little else than idolatries. Covetousness, the very essence of worldliness, is by St. Paul twice over called idolatry (Col. 3:5, and Eph. 5:5). It seems, therefore, to be foreign to the purpose to try and limit these plagues only to the non-Christian world. To do this is to get a narrow, improbable (may we not say an impossible?) interpretation; for the greatest strength of the world power would be left untouched. It is true that the visions are not showing us the plagues which fall on apostasy and fornication within the Church; but it is true that we are beholding visions which show how terribly the world spirit avenges itself on all who harbour it, whether called Christian or not. Gross sins, gigantic frauds, complacent familiarity with crime, followed by blunted, moral sense, are heathenish, whether found in Pagan or Christian society. Heavy woes must inevitably await the society which tolerates such works; but the worst omen of the coming doom is seen when society has lost the power to repent because it has lost the power to hate evil. Such an incapacity is invariably significant of advanced moral decay. It is the climax in the growth of sin which the Psalmist noticed where men lose the sacred abhorrence of evil (Psa. 36:4). To such repentance is becoming impossible.
The Interposed Visions. The Witness Against Evil (10:1–11:14). – As between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals there was interposed a two-fold vision – the sealing of the hundred and forty-four thousand and the glimpse of the great multitude (chap. vii.) – so is a two-fold vision interposed here between the sounding of the sixth and seventh trumpets. The similarity of situation of these interposed visions (episodes, as they have not very accurately been called) suggests that there must be some corresponding value in their interpretation. This appears to be found in the answer to the question which rises spontaneously as the visions of the seals and of the trumpets draw to a close. We see the scenes which the seals disclose, and we learn how war, pestilence, death, persecution, revolution, are to continue, and we ask, What becomes of the Church, the bride of Christ? Where are the true servants of God during these trials? We are answered by the interposed visions of the seventh chapter that they are sealed, and they will be safe. Similarly, the scenes disclosed by the trumpets are spread before us, and we see the features which mark the advance of Christianity in the world; we see the pain, the confusion, the devastations and slaughters, the bringing to light of hidden evils, which are the necessary accompaniments of this prolonged war; we see, as it were, amid smoke and flame and sword, the advancing and receding line of battle, and we learn that the powers of evil are subtle and self -multiplying, and, like the dragon in the den of error, leap into new and multiform life, though smitten by the sword of the Red Cross Knight. And amid these confusions of war we almost lose sight of the Church, or gain only a few hints which show that she is not unharmed in the conflict; and again the question is forced from us, What becomes of the Church, the bride of Christ? Where is her work and the tokens of her advance? To this the interposed visions of the present section are designed to give an answer; and that answer is again a reminder to us that the work of God in the world is not work on the surface of history merely: the waves catch the eye, and men measure progress by the force of these, but the ebb of the tide is unseen. So also is there a work of God which is more potent than the conspicuous work on which men love to look. The work of the Church is not to be measured by results now. It does achieve results, but her best work is the work of which she knows not now but will know afterwards; and there is a Church within the Church which is carrying on this work. There are witnesses of God against the beast-power and the world-power, who, though persecuted, are faithful – though dying, live – ihough chastened, are not killed; who, through evil report and good report, triumph over faithlessness and fear.
The interposed vision is two-fold. In the first part, contained in chap. x., another mighty angel descends with a little book open in his hand. This book the sacred seer, as the type of all those who will witness truly for God in the world, is commended to eat; from sweetness it turns to bitterness, in token that the very fidelity and love he had to God would be the occasion of sorrow, for he would have to be the witness of unpalatable truths to the potentates of the earth; but he has heard celestial thunders, and he knows that the end and victory are near. Such is the preparation of him who will be a true witness for Christ when many false witnesses and false Christs are abroad. The second part expands the same thought under different imagery. There is a holy of holies in the Church, where the true witnesses are lightened with celestial fire for their work of noble peril.
First Scene of the Interposed Vision
10:1. – And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:
10:2. – and he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth,
10:1–2 – And I saw ... – Translate, And I saw another might angel descending out of the heaven, clothed with a cloud, and the (not “a”) rainbow upon his head, and his face as the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire, and having in his hand a little book (or, roll) open. Many have thought that this angel can be none other than Christ Himself. It must be acknowledged that the description is such that we might well hesitate to apply it to any but our Lord; but nevertheless, the words, “another mighty angel,” afford serious difficulty. Our Lord might indeed appear as an angel, but it is scarcely conceivable that He would be called “another mighty angel”: an expression which seems to associate this angel with those others who have taken part in these visions. Remembering this, we must separate from our thoughts the idea of personal angelic beings. Such are employed by God, but in the mechanism of these visions the angels are not necessarily such, any more than the stars are literal stars. They are typical, representative angels, as we speak of the Angel of Peace, the Angel of War; so we have the Angels of Time, of Death, of Life, as in the Apocalypse. The angel here, even if he does not represent Christ Himself, descends with the evidences of Christ’s power. He comes to remind the secret ones of God that Christ is with them always, and that He will not hide His commandments from those who are living as strangers and pilgrims upon earth (Psa. 119:19; 1 Peter 2:11); for he bears a little book open in his hand. The value of this vision is best seen by calling to mind the vision of the Fifth Trumpet. There, for the first time, the plagues seemed to gather supernatural power. The key of the abyss was given to the star that fell, and the locust host were led by the angel of the abyss. As an answer to this comes this angel, bearing the witnesses of Christ’s power. When the troubles come that darken and confuse, the messenger from heaven will come to give light, teaching, and strength to the faithful – so does this angel first give assurance of the power of Christ. He comes clothed with a cloud, the token always of the Divine Presence (Ex. 12:21, Ezek. 1:4, Matt. 17:5, Acts 1:9). The, not “a” rainbow, but the rainbow (i.e., the rainbow of 4:3), the token of covenant and of love, glowed round his head; his face, like Moses’, had caught the unutterable light, the sun-like light of Christ’s presence (1:16); and his feet were like pillars of fire to tread the earth, strong in the power of purification and judgment. Some call this the Angel of Time, because of his utterance in verse 6; but is it not rather the typical representative of the Angel of the New Testament, coming with the tokens of covenant truth, and power and love? He had in his hand a little book open. Our memories are carried back to the other book, or roll, displayed in 5:1–5, and two contrasts strike us. That roll, or book, was sealed, and none were found worthy to open it; this book is open – that book was larger; this one being described as a small book. Do these contrasts help us to the meaning? One thing they seem to tell us: the book contains none of those secret things which were the contents of the former book. The closed, sealed book pointed to the hidden springs of future history; this points to what is open to all. That book was comparatively large, and filled with writing, as the visions of oncoming history were great. This book is small, and contains what all may master. These considerations forbid the idea that the book is a repetition in brief of what was in the sealed book, “or that it was the revelation of some remaining prophecies,” or of some “portion or section of prophecy”. The vision is a representation that he who comes armed with the witnesses of Christ’s presence comes also with that ever open proclamation of God’s love and righteousness. The little open book is that gospel which is the sword of the Spirit, the weapon of the Church, that Word of God, open to all, hidden only from those whom the god of this world hath blinded. The fallen powers may bear the key, and let loose darkening clouds of confused thought and unworthy teaching. The outer courts of the Church may be overcast. But unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness, and God’s Word has risen with new light and power upon the bewilderments and glooms of the age. “Three books are associated in the Apocalypse. The first is the book of the course of this world (5:1); ... the last is the Book of Life (20:15, 21:27) … between these two comes” another book, which is the link between the other two, the ever open book of God’s promises and the witness of God’s righteousness and power. Elliott regarded this little roll as the Bible opened anew to mankind at the period of the Reformation. The period affords many magnificent illustrations of the vision, but it does not exhaust its truth, since in every age the reverent study of the Word of God has given freshness and strength to forgotten truths, and has saved men from the bondage of traditional notions. From among such students have arisen God’s witnesses.
And he set .... – The attitude of the angel, with one fiery foot planted on the sea and the other on the land, is that of a conqueror taking possession of the whole world. There is a power, then, by which the Church and children of God may possess the earth. It is not the power of pride or worldliness. The true weapons are not carnal: the sword of the Spirit is the word of God, and the meek-spirited (meek to be taught, and meek in life) shall possess the earth.
10:3. – and cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.
3. And cried with a loud voice … – Better, And he cried with a loud voice, even as a lion roareth. Another token of the presence of Christ with the Church. The voice is the voice of a courage and strength derived from Him who is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.”
And when he had cried … – Translate, and when he cried, the seven thunders (notice, not “seven thunders,” but “the seven thunders”) spake their own voices. The thunders are called the seven thunders to bring them before us as another order of sevens, and into harmony with the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven vials. Thus, we have four sets of sevens. It was not a sevenfold peal of thunder, but seven thunders which spake forth distinctly their own voices. This marked language brings the seven thunders, though their utterances are never revealed, into prominence as a portion of the Apocalyptic system. But what were these thunders? Were they more terrible judgments still? and did the sealing of them signify the shortening of the days of judgment, as Christ had said (Matt. 24:22)? It may be so. One thing seems certain – the guesses which have been hazarded (such as that they are identical with the trumpets; that they are the seven crusades) can hardly be admitted. Whatever they were, they were perfectly intelligible to the Evangelist. He was on the point of writing down their utterances. Will this fact help us to understand the general object of their introduction here?
10:4. – And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not.
4. And when the seven ... – Translate, And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write: and I heard a voice out of the heaven, saying, Seal up the things which the seven thunders spoke, and write them not. He could have written down their utterances. It was no mere thunder-like sound he heard. The thunders spoke; and he would have continued his writing as he had been commanded (1:11), had not the voice out of heaven forbidden him. The utterances, then, are for those who hear them; they are not to be made generally known. Is it not the solemn, sacred, divine voice not to be known by all, but by those who have ears to hear when “the God of glory thundereth?” “Lo! He doth send forth His voice, yea, and that a mighty voice” (Psa. 68:33). Mankind may hear the thunder. Only those whose ears God has opened can hear the utterances and the inspiriting messages which they bring. So was it once in our Lord’s life. The people said it thundered; some thought an angel spake; but there were articulate words which He who came to do God’s will, in whose heart was God’s law, heard, and to Him that thunder-like voice promised to “glorify His name” (John 12:28–29). Similarly here, the Evangelist (who is in this but a type of the true witnesses for God), who is to prophesy before peoples and kings (verse 11), hears words spoken by the divine voice which make him strong for his mission. It is so evermore. Dull ears there are who hear thunder, but never God’s voice. Dim eyes there are which see no trace of the divine craftsman in all nature, though – “Earth’s crammed with God, / And every common bush aglow with Him.” The thunders are not to be written down; they are for those who have ears to hear.
10:5. – And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven,
10:6. – and swear by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:
10:7. – but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.
5–7. And the angel ... – Translate, And the angel whom I saw standing upon the sea and upon time earth lifted his right hand to the heaven, and swore in (or, by) Him who liveth unto the ages of the ages, who created the heaven, and the things in it, and the earth, and the things in it, and the sea, and the things in it, that time (i.e., delay, or postponement) should no longer be: but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, whenever he is about to sound (his trumpet) was finished the mystery of God, as he evangelized his servants the prophets. There is a change of tense which sounds strange: he says, then (not “will be,” but) was finished. In thought he hurries on to the end, and sees the close no longer in the dim future, but as, with the eye of God, an accomplished fact. The certainty is guaranteed with an oath. The gesture of the uplifted hand to give emphasis to the oath is of ancient date. Thus Abraham expressed his resolution to take none of the spoils of the conquered kings: “I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord ... that I will not take from a thread to a shoe latchet” (Gen. 14:22, comp. Ex. 6:8, margin). So, too, does the man clothed in linen (Dan. 12:6–9, a passage which, in much, is the foundation of the one before us) lift up both hands and swear that there shall be a fixed period for the accomplishment of the scattering of the power of the holy people. The oath in the passage under consideration is to the effect (not that time should cease and eternity begin, but) that there shall be no longer any delay. The suffering saints had cried, “How long?” (6:9–11), and they had been bidden to wait a little time. Now the close of all such waiting time is announced. When the seventh trumpet shall have blown, the mystery of God will be finished. “‘The mystery of God’ does not mean something which cannot be understood or explained. It is never applied to such matters, for example, as the origin of evil, or the doctrine of the Trinity in Unity. It does mean a secret; but then a secret may be told, and when told is no mystery. The mystery or secret of God means, therefore, the whole of His plan and of His counsel concerning this earth in its present state of discipline, and of imperfection. All that God means to do upon it and towards it, even till that which we read of as the time of the end (Dan. 12:4–9), the close of this last dispensation, and the introduction of that new heavens and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness” (Dr. Vaughan). No wonder, as he announced this fast approaching close of the ages of suffering and trial, he should add, “According as He (not “declared” – an utterly inadequate word – but) evangelized – i.e., according to the glad tidings which He had ever proclaimed to and by His servants the prophets.”
A somewhat remarkable parallelism between this passage and 1 Cor. 15:51–52, has been pointed out. In both passages there is reference to the mystery, the glad tidings, and the last (the seventh trumpet is also the last) trumpet. This harmony of reference – taken in connection with St. Paul’s statement, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” – is full of interest, if it were for nothing more than to notice the union of thought between the two Apostles; but it may also throw light upon the teaching respecting the first resurrection (20:5–6, but see Note there).
10:8. – And the voice which I heard from heaven spoke unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth.
10:9. – And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, [Ezek. 2:8 & 3:3.] and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.
8–9. And the voice … – Translate, And the voice which I heard out of the heaven (I heard it) again telling with me (it is not the angel that speaks, but the voice which had bidden him seal up the thunders is heard again speaking), and saying, Go, take the roll (or, the little roll; there is a difference in the MSS.) which is opened in the hand of the angel, who stands upon the sea and upon the earth. And I went away to the angel telling him to give me the little book. And he saith to me, Take and eat it up; and it shall make bitter thy belly, but in thy mouth it shall be sweet as honey. The image of eating the roll is derived from the Old Testament. We meet with it in Ezekiel (3:1–3) and Jeremiah (15:16). The passage in Ezekiel is probably the basis of the present passage, and the chapter in which it occurs gives us the meaning of the symbol. The eating of the roll, or the words of the roll, is the complete mastering of the contents of the book – the digesting, as we say, its meaning, till the principles and truths are thoroughly familiar and loved. “All my words” (so runs the explanatory verse, Ezek. 3:10) “that I shall speak unto thee, receive in thine heart and hear with thine ears.” It is similar to the Psalmist’s practice: “Thy words have I hid within my heart”; he made himself so familiar with them that they were no longer a code of laws, but a constant instinct, a second nature to him. Thus preeminently should he be familiar with his Master’s words and heart, saturated with his Master’s principles, who is to be a witness and a prophet for his Lord. “He who would carry God’s words to another must first be impressed and penetrated with them himself. He must not only bear, read, mark, and learn, but also (according to the Scriptural figure) inwardly digest them.”
10:10. –And I took the little book out of the angel’s baud, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.
10. And I took ... – The Evangelist takes the roll, as he was bidden, out of the angel’s hand, eats it up, and finds it, as he was told, “in his mouth as honey, sweet.” In this, his experience resembles that of Ezekiel, who found the roll in his mouth as honey for sweetness (Ezek. 3:3). So the Psalmist could rejoice in God’s words and God’s law as sweet, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb (Psa. 119:103 and 19:10). He who is ready to endure bitterness in his fidelity to God must not only be interpenetrated by divine teaching; he must have also realized its sweetness, or else, however pleasant his words may sound, they will lack the sweetness which is as needful to the words of the teacher as to the songs of the poet. But the after effect of the sweet-tasting roll is bitterness. Ezekiel makes no mention of this bitterness. Yet we know how much his fidelity to the words he loved so well must have cost him when he was bidden to arm himself with a flinty determination (Ezek. 3:9–14, and 2:6–7), and the patient courage of one whose lot was among thorns and briars and scorpions. It must always be so. The love of Christ may constrain men, but the very ardour of their affections must bring them through tribulation, and may make them as outcasts, defamed, persecuted, slain. The flaming zeal to emancipate mankind from thralldoms, follies, and ruinous sins may stir the soul with a holy joy; but there come moments when men are almost tempted to turn back, and to think that they have undertaken a hopeless task, when they find how slow is their progress, and what new and unexpected difficulties arise. Such was the bitterness which Moses felt: “Why is it that Thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast Thou delivered Thy people at all.” The most enthusiastic souls who love their fellowmen, and who feel how sweet and high is their calling, perhaps feel most of this bitterness. Their very love makes all failure very bitter to bear; yet is it through this martyrdom of failure that the noblest victories are won.
10:11. – And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.
11. And he … – Better, And they (not “he,” as in the English version, but they say: an equivalent for “It was said,”) say to me, Thou must again prophesy concerning (or, with regard to) peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings many. He is told that the bitterness will arise in connection with his prophecies with regard to peoples and kings. This carries us on to the vision in the next chapter, where the two witnesses stand so solitary, and prophesy so mightily, yet so vainly, among men. He will have to tell the story of churches and peoples, priests and princes, unmindful of their high calling and their allegiance to their true king, and of their hatred of God’s mightiest and purest witnesses. The end, indeed, will come. The Church will be victorious. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of Christ: but it will be through persecutions, apostacies, judgments. This is the sad vision he must describe. The interposed visions will answer the question, “What has the Church been doing?” but it will show how she has done that work, distressed by heresies, crippled by worldliness, trodden down by enemies, and, worse than enemies, foes veiled as friends. But this very vision will lead to the unfolding of the more truly spiritual aspects of the Church’s work, and of that conflict in which she contends with the multiform spirit and power of evil. Thus will he prophesy of peoples and kings many.
The Second Part of the Interposed Vision. The Measuring of the Temple; The Two Witnesses; The Earthquake.
The Measuring of the Temple. – We enter upon the second part of the interposed vision. The Temple proper is secured. The measuring signifies its protection from profanation. The outer court given to the Gentiles indicates that practical heathenism and corruption have invaded the Church. Against corruptions and profanities, witnesses, who draw their strength from divine help, are raised up to protest. Their power is great, though their witness is disregarded; for their influence outlasts their life, and their words avenge themselves on their adversaries. Rejected reformation reappears as revolution. The vision therefore declares that, whatever corruptions invade the Church, the kernel of the Church will never be destroyed, but out of it will arise those who will be true to the Masters commission, and whose words will never be void of power.
Such seems to be the general drift of this chapter. It is stated thus briefly and simply that it may be kept in mind as a leading idea in the comments which follow, and because the chapter is generally regarded as one of the most difficult in the book. On the relation between the allusions to the Temple in this chapter and the date of the book, see Introduction. It is perhaps well to remember that, as we have taken Jerusalem and Babylon as symbolic names, and not necessarily the literal Jerusalem and the literal Babylon, so the Temple and the court of the Temple are to be understood as symbols. The gospel has elevated the history and places of the past into a grand allegory, and breathed into their dead names the life of an ever-applicable symbolism. (See Introduction, On the General Meaning and Practical Value of the Book.)
11:1. – And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein.
1. And there was … – Translate, And there was given to me a reed like a rod (we must omit the words “and the angel stood”), saying. It is not said by whom the reed was given, nor are we told who speaks the command. The whole transaction is impersonal. The reed, like a measuring rod, is given him, and at the same time the command is given to arise and measure the Temple, and the altar, and them that worship in the Temple. Here, again, we find the basis of the vision in the Old Testament. Ezekiel was brought, in vision, to a high mountain, and saw a man with a line of flax (for measuring long distances) and a measuring line (for shorter distances). But, more probably, the vision of Zechariah was in the seer’s mind (Zech. 2:1–2), for the vision there of the man with the measuring rod to measure Jerusalem is followed, in the fourth chapter (Zech. 4:1–6), by the vision of the two olive trees, which are distinctly identified with the two witnesses in the present chapter (see verses 3–4). The Temple, altar, and worshippers are to be measured. The measuring implies the protecting of, or the token of a resolve to protect, a portion of the sacred enclosure from desecration. The measuring, like the sealing of chapter 6, is a sign of preservation during impending dangers. To understand what is thus measured out for protection, we must remember that there are two Greek words which are rendered Temple. The one (hieron) signifies “the whole compass of the sacred enclosure, including the outer courts, porches, porticoes, and other buildings subordinated to the Temple itself”. The other (naos) is the Temple itself, the house of God, the Holy and Holy of Holies. When it is said that Christ taught the people in the Temple, the first of these words is used; and it may be supposed that in one of the perches or courts of the sanctuary our Lord carried on His teaching. But when Zacharias is described as going into the Temple, the word is the second (naos), for he went into the Temple proper, and left the people in the outer court or court where the brazen altar stood. It is the second of these words which is used here. The Temple proper, the naos, the house of God, is measured, together with the altar. We are not told which altar is intended. It is at least too hasty to say that it must be the altar of incense, as this alone was in the Temple proper; for the explicit direction to measure the altar sounds like an extension of the measured area, and may perhaps mean that some portion of the court reserved for Israel is to be included in the measurement. The next verse, however, seems to imply that every spot outside the Temple proper was given up to the Gentiles, and was not to be measured. It is perhaps wisest, therefore, not to settle too definitely. The gist of the measurement is the preservation of the true, invisible Church, the Church within the Church; and everything necessary to the worship – Temple, altar, worshippers – all are reserved. There will always be the real and the conventional – the true and the formal Christian; always those who profess and call themselves Christians, and those who hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. These last are the called and chosen and faithful (Rev. 17:14), the sealed who dwell in the secret place of the Most High, and find therefore their safe lodging in the night of danger under the shadow of the Almighty (Psa. 91:1; comp. also the whole Psalm, especially verses 4–5, and 9–13).
11:2. – But the court which is without the temple leave out, [Or, cast out.] and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.
2. But the court … – Translate, And the court which is outside the Temple cast out, and measure not it; because it was given to the nations (Gentiles): and they shall tread down the holy city forty and two months. The outer court – meaning, perhaps, all that lies outside the Temple itself – is to be omitted. A strong word is used; the words “leave out” are far too weak. He is not only not to measure it, but he is, in a sort, to pass it over, as though reckoned profane. The reason of this is that it was given to the Gentiles. Our Lord had said that Jerusalem should be trodden down of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24). The sacred seer catches the thought and the deeper significance. There is a treading down worse than that of the conqueror. It is the treading under of sacred things when the beast power, or the world power in men, tramples, like the swine, the pearls of grace under their feet, and turns fiercely upon those who gave them. Such an experience must the Church of Christ undergo. The shrine shall be safe, but the spirit of the nations, though nominally Christian, will be the spirit of Gentilism, worldliness, and even of violence. In the outer court of Church life there will be “the ebbing and flowing mass,” who “sit in the way of knowledge,” who “stand idle in the marketplace,” who have no oil in their lamps, and who indirectly pave the way for utter worldliness and practical heathenism. But there is a limit to this desecration: forty and two months it is to last. The same length of time is expressed in different forms throughout the book. Sometimes we have twelve hundred and sixty days, as in verse 3 and in 12:6; at another time forty-two months, as here and in 13:5. A similar period seems to be meant in 12:14, where a time, times, and half a time is probably a way of expressing three years and a half. All three forms describe periods of the same length – not, of course, necessarily the same period. The idea is taken from Daniel, who uses such and similar expressions (Dan. 7:25, and 12:7, 11). This incorporation of the expressions used by Daniel is one of those hints which remind us that the laws and principles of God’s government are the same in all ages: so that the principles which receive illustration in one set of historical events are likely to receive similar illustrations in after times; and that the prophecies of one era may contain seeds of fulfillment which spring to fruit in more than one age. Thus the words of Daniel were not exhausted in the age of Antiochus, nor the visions of the Apocalypse in the overthrow of any one nation or the corruptions of any one Church. So much may this constantly recurring period of three years and a half, or forty-two months, or twelve hundred and sixty days, teach us. It is not needful, then, to take the period as an exact literal period. It is true that there have been some remarkable historical periods of this length, which various schools of interpreters have pointed out as the fulfillment of these prophecies. But there have been also remarkable blunders on the part of those who, forgetful of Christ’s own warning, have tried to predict the year when certain prophecies will receive their accomplishments. It is true, also, that the future may bring us further light, and enable us to understand these descriptions of time better. But for the present, the period of forty and two months, the equivalent of three years and a half (the half of seven, the complete and divine number), is the symbol of a period limited in length, and under the control of Him who holds the seven stars and lives through the ages. It is the pilgrimage period of the Church, the period of the world’s power, during which it seems to triumph; but the period of sackcloth (see verse 3) and of suffering will not last forever.
3–14. The Two Witnesses. – It is the opinion of one able and preeminently painstaking commentator that “no solution has ever been given of this portion of the prophecy.” I quote this that none may be disappointed when no satisfactory solution is given here. Further light in the knowledge of the Bible, and the light of history, and, above all, the aid of the Holy Spirit, may show what the real solution is. At present it is best to lay down the lines which seem to lead in the direction of such a solution. First, the aim of the present vision must be kept in mind; and secondly, the vision in Zechariah (chapter 4, all), on which this is professedly built, must be remembered. Now the aim of our present vision seems to be to explain that in the great progress towards victory the Church itself will suffer through corruptions and worldliness, but that the true Temple – the kernel, so to speak, of the Church – will be unharmed and kept safe in her Master’s hands. But the position of this hidden and enshrined Church will not be one of idle security. In that Temple will be reared in secret, as the rightful king Josiah was, those who will witness undaunted and undefiled for their Lord. Throughout the whole of that checkered period of profanation and pain there will never be wanting true witnesses for righteousness and faith. To assure the sacred seer that this would be the case, to exhibit the nature of their work and its results, is the apparent aim of the vision. If this be so, the witnesses can scarcely be literal individual men, though it is true that many literal individual men have played the part of these witnesses. Turning to the foundation vision in Zechariah, we find that the vision there is designed to encourage the weak and restored exiles in their work of rebuilding the Temple. They are shown that, weak as they are, there is a hidden strength, like a sacred stream of oil, which can make them triumph over all their difficulties. Not by might or power, but by God’s Spirit, the mountain would become a plain (Zech. 4:6–7), and “Grace! Grace!” would be the triumphant shout when the headstone of the Temple was raised. In both visions, then, our minds are turned to the hidden sources of divine strength. There is a safe and secret place measured off by God, where He gives His children strength – not of ordinary might or power, but strength of grace. This is the grace which made Zerubbabel and Joshua strong to achieve their work. This is the grace which can make the two witnesses strong to do their part in the building of that more glorious spiritual temple which is built on the foundation of Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. The witnesses, then, stand as the typical representatives of those who, in the strength of God, have, through the long ages, borne witness for Christ against all wrong and falsehood, against a world in arms or a Church in error, or against a nominal Christianity in danger of becoming as corrupt and as cruel as heathenism. Such witnesses stand, like the two columns Jachin and Boaz, before the true Temple of God.
11:3. – And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy [Gr. I will give unto my two witnesses that they may prophesy.] a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.
3. And I will give ... – Translate, And I will give (omit “power”) to my two witnesses, and they shall … These are the words of God Himself. The omission of the words “and the angel stood” from verse 1 prevents any confusion of thought on this point. Two witnesses were required for competent evidence (Deut. 17:6, 19:15, et al.), and there has constantly been a sending forth of God’s chosen messengers in pairs – Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha, besides Joshua and Zerubbabel, alluded to by Zechariah; and in New Testament times our Lord sent forth His disciples “two and two,” as afterwards Paul and Barnabas, or Paul and Silas went forth to preach. There is, besides the mere mutual support which two can give, a need for the association of two different characters in the same sort of work: the energy and the sympathy, the elucidator of doctrines and, the messenger to the conscience, the apologist and the evangelist, the man of thought and the man of action, the Son of Thunder and the Son of Consolation. It is well that in a worldwide work this duality of power should be brought into play. The witnesses prophesy: the word prophesy must surely be allowed a much wider meaning than merely to predict or foretell future events. The compass of their work, as described afterwards, embraces much more than this (see verses 5–7). They work wonders, showing tokens that remind us of the days of Moses and Aaron. Their words are mighty. Their life is a testimony. Their prophesying, or witnessing, extends over forty and two months: a symbolic period, as we have seen, but a period corresponding to that during which other witnesses had witnessed for God. Thus long did Elijah bear witness, under rainless heavens, against the idolatries of Israel. Thus long did a greater than Elijah offer the water of life to the Jews, and witness against the hard, unspiritual, worldly religionism of the Pharisee and Sadducee. Thus, too, must the witnesses for God bear testimony during the period that the world power seems dominant. They are clad in sackcloth – the emblem of mourning (2 Kings 6:30, Jonah 3:4) adopted by the prophets, whose God-taught hearts saw reasons for mourning where shallower minds saw none (Isa. 20:2, and Zech. 13:2). Compare the garb of Elijah and John the Baptist (2 Kings 1:8, and Matt. 3:4), whose very apparel and appearance were designed to testify against the evils they saw. “The special witnesses of God, in a luxurious and self-pleasing age, are often marked out from the world by signs of self-denial, of austerity, and even of isolation” (Dr. Vaughan).
11:4. – These are the two olive trees, [Zech. 4:3, 11, 14.] and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
4. These are … – Translate, These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks which stand before the Lord of the earth. This is the verse which refers us to the vision of Zechariah for the basis of our present vision. There, as here, we have the two olive trees, which are explained to be “the two anointed ones which stand before the Lord of the whole earth.” The explanation is supposed to refer to Zerubbabel and Joshua, or, as others think, to Zechariah and Haggai. At that time these men were the witnesses for God in their land and among their people. But the answer of the angel is general: “The olive trees are the two anointed ones which stand,” etc. For the vision is general and agelong. It reminds us of the returned Jewish exiles, and of those who were then among them, as anointed witnesses. But it shows us that such witnesses are to be found in more than one era; for it is not Zerubbabel and Joshua who can exhaust the fullness of a vision which is the representation of the eternal truth that the oil of gladness and strength from God will rest on those who rely, not on might or power, but on God’s Spirit. The fact that the witnesses are two is brought more prominently forward here than in Zechariah. There, though the olive trees are two, the candlestick is but one, with seven lamps. Here there are two candlesticks spoken of as well as two olive trees. This amplification of the original vision is, perhaps, designed to remind us of the greater latitude of diversity in the new dispensation. Just as in the early chapters of this book we had seven golden candlesticks, which, though one in Christ, yet are spoken of as separate; so here the double aspect, the diverse though united efforts of the two witnesses, are brought into prominence. It may serve to remind us that the witnesses are to be expected to keep their individuality and to use freely their diverse powers. It is not from one class or with one mode of action that the witnesses come: they may be of the statesman class, like Moses and Zerubbabel; of the prophetic or priestly, like Zechariah and Haggai, like Aaron and the later Joshua (Zech. 3:1); for men may witness for God, according as the evils of their time and age require it, in the State as well as in the Church. The work of Wilberforce, Clarkson, and Howard is a work and a witness for God as well as the work of Chrysostom, Athanasius, and Luther. For the witnesses are raised up to speak against the neglect of humanity as well as against errors in divinity; against a heartless as well as against a creedless Christianity, for both lead back to heathenism. These witnesses are burning and shining lights. In them is centered the light of their age. In them is found the token that the grace of God never fails, but as the Church’s day so shall her strength be. Here, too, we have the pledge that from Him who is both Priest and King the civil rulers as well as the ecclesiastical rulers may draw grace according to their gifts; and from Him, too, all who are made kings as well as priests to God may derive the power to give the double witness of a life anointed by the Spirit of consecration and ruled by the scepter of righteousness.
11:5. – And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.
11:6. – These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.
5–6. And if any man ... – Better, And if anyone wills to injure them, fire goeth forth out of their mouths, and devoureth their enemies: and if any one wills to injure them, thus must he be slain. These have power to shut the heaven that the rain may not moisten (the earth) during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to smite the earth with every plaque as often as they will. Again the Old Testament basis becomes evident. The histories of Elijah and Moses supply the illustration. The fire devouring their foes seems to allude to 2 Kings 1:10. Like Elijah, they can close the heaven (1 Kings 17:1). Like Moses, they can turn water into blood and summon down every plague (Ex, 7:20, et seq.). These last characteristics remind us of the spirit and power of Moses and Elias, but we must not forget what has gone before. The witnesses are like olive trees and lights. In them is concentrated grace, light, and power. Their witness recalls the great features of various Old Testament teachers and leaders. They display the light of truth, and men may not oppose or injure them with impunity. They wield a power which it is not safe to provoke. As from the mouths of the great Sixth Trumpet host there went forth fire and smoke and brimstone to kill the third part of mankind, so out of the mouths of these witnesses there goes forth a purer, but mightier flame. (Comp. Psa. 18:8.) We may compare the sword out of the mouth of Christ (1:16), and the promise to Jeremiah (5:14), “Behold I will make my words in thy mouth fire and this people wood, and it shall devour them.” The word which is like a sword to lay bare man to himself may become a consuming fire to those who resist or oppose it. The witnesses for God are thus armed with a spiritual might; for that word which, when accepted and lived by, brings peace, when rejected causes pain and danger. Thus often do the things which might have been for men’s peace become an occasion for falling. The stone which, used and built into the life, becomes a precious cornerstone and immovable foundation, grinds to powder those upon whom it falls. Thus is it with these witnesses. They come to witness for principles which go to make the world a Paradise once more. The world, which casts away their words, will find them come back with scorching force. Just as the breath of God gives life and beauty to the world, and power to men’s hearts and lives (Psa. 104:30, John 20:22), yet with that same breath of His lips does He slay the wicked (Isa. 11:4). Some have thought that there will be a time when witnesses for God will be raised up who will work literal wonders such as these. It is not for us to say that this will not be the case. All prophecy may take a sharper and clearer meaning as the times of the end draw near. But, meanwhile, it is needful for us to remember that the very power of truth is such that, when rejected, it can and does avenge itself by shutting heaven over our head, and making all the fresh rivulets of life’s purest pleasures loathsome as blood to the sensualized and perverted heart.
11:7. – And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them.
7. And when ... – Better, And when they shall have finished their testimony, the wild beast that goeth up out of the abyss shall make war with them, and conquer them, and kill them. Only when their work is done has the wild beast power over them. To every one there are the symbolic twelve hours in which his life’s work must be achieved. To every one there is the time secured when he may accomplish for God what God sent him to fulfill. Then, but not till then, cometh the night, when none can work. The wild beast: We shall hear much of this wild best later on. Here we are told distinctly that the wild beast will have his hour of triumph. He rises out of the abyss, as the locust horde did (9:1–2). There is, then, a beast spirit which is in utter hostility to the Christ spirit. We shall be able to study the features of this power in a future chapter (13:1). Here he is seen to be a spirit of irreconcilable antagonism to Christ. The image here is not new. Daniel made use of it (Dan. 7), though in a much more limited sense. This beast power vanquishes the witnesses. If the witnesses are those who have taught the principles of a spiritual and social religion, the death of the witnesses following their overthrow signifies the triumph of opposing principles, the silencing of those who have withstood the growing current of evil. Men can silence, can conquer, can slay the witness for a higher, purer, nobler life. They have done so. The history of the world is often the history of the postponement of moral and social advancement for centuries through the wild outbreak of some brutal, irrational, selfish spirit. The Reformers, the best friends of the Church and of the world, have been silenced and slain, and their death has often been little more than the triumph of the ignorance and selfishness of a practical heathenism.
11:8. – And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.
11:9. – And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves.
11:10. – And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.
8–10. And their dead bodies ... – Better, And their corpse (is) upon the street of the great city, which is called spiritually Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord also was crucified. And some from among the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations look upon their corpse three days and a half, and do not suffer their corpses to be put into a tomb. And they that dwell upon the earth rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth. Their corpses remain unburied, while congratulations and rejoicings go on. Harmony and concord prevail, as when Pilate and Herod were made friends. It is the millennium of evil, the paradise of fools who make a mock at sin, but the forms of the witnesses, though silenced, still in silence witness against evil. At no time are they hid away out of sight. Even in an age of religious and social anarchy the silent tokens of a better order remain, as when in mockery and profanation the harlot was enthroned within Notre Dame, the very sanctuary walls which no longer echoed to the psalm of Christian life, yet bore silent testimony to the higher genius of the past. They are said to lie in “the street of the great city”. The city is described as the great city (comp. 16:19), and also as Sodom, Egypt, and Jerusalem. Do not passages like this show conclusively that to deny the mystical or allegorical sense of the Apocalypse is to keep the husk and cast away the seed? The city is great, for it is all-important in the eyes of the inhabitants, as public opinion is all-important to the weak or the worldly. It is Sodom, for it is the place where, through pleasure and luxuriousness (fullness of bread), the worst forms of immorality take root. It is Egypt, for it is the house of bondage, where the wages of sin become tyrannous. It is Jerusalem, for it is the apostate place where the presence of Christ is hated. The same spirit which slew their Lord is alive to persecute His servants. “It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more them of his household”; and the reason of this hatred is told – the words of the witnesses “tormented them”. “The reproof of their gospel and the reproof of their example had been a torture to them. There was a voice in them which echoed its voice – the voice of a convicting conscience, and the voice of an anticipated judgment.”
11:11. – And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.
11. And after three days … – Better, And after the three days and a half (not simply “three days and a half,”) a Spirit of life out of (from) God entered into (or, in; i.e., so as to be in) them, and they stood upon their feet; and a great fear fell upon those who beheld them. The vision of the dry bones will be remembered. In part, the very wording of it is employed here – e.g., “they stood upon their feet” (Ezek. 26:1–10); and a yet more sacred remembrance – the three days of our Master’s death sleep – will be traced here. “Where I am there shall also My servant be” (John 12:26). “If we suffer with Him, we shall also be glorified together” (Rom. 8:17). There is a resurrection power in even rejected truth; the strength of it is undying. If it be of God, men cannot overthrow it. “The corn of wheat that dies brings forth much fruit.” The cause that seemed dead is found to be possessed of a renewed power and life. “There is an end of resistance to the Papal rule and religion; opposers exist no more!” cried the orator of the Lateran Council in 1514. But within three years and a half the hand of Luther nailed up his theses at Wittenberg. It is one illustration among many.
11:12. – And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them.
12. And they heard ... – Translate, And they heard (or, I heard; the MS. authority is divided, though the balance inclines to the first) a great voice out of the heaven saying to them, Come up hither. And they went up into the heaven in the cloud, and their enemies beheld them. The resurrection of the witnesses is followed by their ascension. It is the token that in this too they shall have a portion with their Lord. Rejected and slain, there is a welcome and honour for them. They take their place with those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. They rest from their labours. But this is not all. Like Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), they are taken up gloriously, but not, like Elijah, in comparative secret; their enemies see their exaltation. As for the witnesses themselves there is the welcome rest of heaven, so there is the visible recognition of their work and power on earth. The cause which seemed dead revives, and with its revival comes the recognition of those who laboured for it. The martyred are seen transfigured, they become glorious in the eyes of men: “Persecution dragged them into fame, / And chased them up to heaven.” They went up in the cloud: There is here, perhaps, a touch of recollection. St. John remembers the cloud which received his Lord out of sight. Since then the cloud mingles with his every thought of ascension or descending from heaven. (Comp. 1:7, Acts 1:9.) The witnesses, like their Master, disappeared in the cloud.
11:13. – And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men [Gr. names of men.] seven thousand: and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven.
13. And the same hour ... – Better, And in that hour there was (took place) a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and there were slain in the earthquake names of men seven thousand: and the rest became affrighted, and gave glory to the God of the heaven. The hour of their triumph is the hour of a retributive warning on the city where they were slain: convulsion, with the overthrow of dwellings and the death of seven thousand men. Is it accidental that the number is the same as the number of those who had not bowed to Baal? (1 Kings 19:18.) Rejected reformation avenges itself in revolution, and the city which might have been purified by the word is purged by the spirit of judgment (Isa. 4:4). Good is effected, even through fear. Some are saved though as by fire; and, unlike those who repented not (9:21), they give glory to the God of heaven. The visible Church of Christ is stirred. There is a reaction from the spirit of worldliness.
11:14. – The second woe is past; and, behold, the third woe cometh quickly.
14. The second woe ... – Translate, The second woe is past. (Omit the word “and,” which weakens the proclamation.) The eagle flying in mid-heaven had announced the three woe trumpets. A voice now reminds us that two of these had passed, just as at the close of the fifth trumpet a voice proclaimed that the first woe was past. We must remember, too, that the angel which descended from heaven declared that the end should not he delayed beyond the sounding of the seventh trumpet; the last woe trumpet, therefore, is the trumpet which will usher in the closing woe and the finishing of the mystery of God. Whatever view we adopt concerning the interpretation of the Apocalypse must be governed by the plainly declared fact that the seventh trumpet brings us to the very end. The next verse only serves to make this plainer.
The Seventh Trumpet – The Last Woe Trumpet.
11:15. – And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
15. And the seventh angel ... – Better, And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in the heaven (persons) saying, The kingdom of the world is become (the possession) of our Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign to the ages of ages. The literal translation is, The kingdom of the world is become our Lord’s, and of His Christ. As far as the expression “our Lord’s” is concerned, there is no need that any word, such as kingdom or possession, should be supplied, but the additional phrase of “His Christ” creates an awkwardness, and the word “possession,” or inheritance, may not inappropriately be used from the Psalm which foretells this final establishment of the kingdom of the anointed Messiah, the Christ of God. “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” (Psa. 2:8). It is the kingdom – not, as in the English version, “the kingdoms” – of the world which has become Christ’s possession. The contest is not for the kingdoms, the separate nationalities. The varying political systems might exist, as far as mere organization is concerned, under the rule of Christ. The contest is for the kingdom of the world. Satan was willing to surrender the kingdoms of the world to our Lord on condition of a homage which would have left him still in possession of the kingdom of the world. But now the close of the contest is the overthrow of the kingdom of evil, the establishment of the kingdom of good: that is, of God; and He shall reign for ever and ever. Dean Alford pointed out that our familiarity with the “Hallelujah Chorus” tempted us to put an emphasis on the word He which is not sanctioned by the Greek. It is the reign of the Lord which is the prominent thought. The reign is unto the ages of ages. Surely this means always. We are not told whose voices sing this chorus. It is just the tumultuous sound of heavenly voices, growing into natural and irresistible chorus as the trumpet heralds the approach of the glorious end.
11:16. – And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God,
16. And the four … – Translate, And the four-and-twenty elders, who before God were seated upon their thrones (not “seats”) fell upon their faces, and worshipped God. The four-and-twenty elders represent the Church of God in all ages. They sit with Christ in heavenly places, even while they are toiling and sorrowing on earth. Every one of the true children of the kingdom appear before God, and their angels behold the presence of their Father who is in heaven. They were seated on thrones, not “seats” (comp. 4:4), as in English version. The word used is the same which is translated “throne” when it refers to our Lord. It is the same word which is rendered “seat” (2:13, and 16:10) when it refers to Satan. But it is better rendered throne throughout, for by this variation of translation, as “Archbishop Trench has pointed out, two great ideas which run through this book, and, indeed, we may say through the whole of the New Testament, are obliterated: the one, that the true servants of Christ are crowned with Him and share His sovereignty; the other, that the antagonism of the Prince of Darkness to the Prince of Light develops itself in the hellish parody of the heavenly kingdom” (Prof. Lightfoot, Revision of New Testament, p. 41). It is specially desirable that this thought should be kept before us in this passage, which proclaims that the kingdom and throne and power of the wicked one have passed away, and the hour has come when the victorious saints may sit down with Christ in His throne (3:21).
The Chorus of the Church of God.
11:17. – saying, We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned.
11:18. –And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great and shouldest destroy them which destroy [Or, corrupt.] the earth.
17–18. Saying, We give thee thanks ... – Better,
“We thank Thee, O Lord,
The God, the Almighty,
He that is, and He that was,
Because Thou hast taken Thy great power and didst reign.
And the nations were angry,
And then came Thine anger
And the season of the dead to be judged,
And to give their rewards to Thy servants
the prophets, and to the saints,
And to them that fear Thy name, the small
and the great,
And to destroy them that destroy the earth.”
On the expression “He that is and He that was,” comp. 1:8 and the Note there. We can catch the echo of the Second Psalm throughout this chorus of grateful praise. The prayers of the groaning Church (5:10, and Luke 18:7–8) and the cries of travailing creation (Rom. 8:19) have been heard. Though the heathen raged and the people imagined a vain thing, their counsel against the Lord and His anointed, His Christ (compare verse 16), came to naught. The joy of their triumph was short-lived; the kingdom of evil was but for a moment; the kings were assembled, they passed by, they saw, they were troubled, they hasted away (Psa. 48:4–5); never did the real sovereignty of the Lord cease (Psa. 2:6); but the nations would not believe in His rule; they were not wise; they turned from the kiss of reconciliation, which was life (Psa. 2:10–12). Then came His anger, and the season of judgment and the season of reward. The prophets, the saints, and these that fear God’s name, the small and the great – every class and rank of the true servants of the King are included here; none are forgotten. Not a cup of cold water, given in His name, shall miss its reward; for not alone the preeminent in Christian power and in Christian holiness, but the weak, the struggling, the obscure, the small as well as the great, are remembered: “Unto the God of gods appeareth every one of them in Zion” (Psa. 84:7; Prayer Book version). Nor is the gladness only for this blessing; there is a joy at the overthrow of those who destroy the earth. The reign of evil is the destruction of the earth. The judgments of God are in mercy to stay the spread of destructive powers and principles. The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel; the very judgments of God are merciful. (See Note on 8:2.)
But where, we may be disposed to ask, is the “woe” in all this? We are led to expect that the seventh trumpet as a woe trumpet will bring in some period of pain and trouble, as the others have done, but all we hear is the chorus of glad voices uttering praise: we see no token of woe. The answer is that we must not overlook all that this song of rejoicing implies. The chorus we hear is the thanksgiving to God that the hour has come for the overthrow of the kingdom of evil, the manifestation of the sons of God, and the acknowledgment throughout the world of the sovereignty of the Lord and of His Christ. The overthrow of that evil kingdom, which is now to take place, brings with it woe to those who have supported it; for the time of the judgment of the dead, and of those whose lives have marred God’s word, has come. It is, then, woe on all those who have misused God’s gifts and those beautiful things which He gave us liberally to enjoy. It is a woe on those who have defiled those bodies, which are the temples of the Holy Ghost, profaned the earth, which is God’s footstool, or darkened by their evil deeds the heaven, which is His throne. Those who thus defile (or, destroy: the word is so in the margin, and is the same as that which follows) God’s temple anywhere, God will destroy (1 Cor. 6:19, and 3:17).
11:19. – And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail.
19. And the temple of God … – Translate, And the temple of God was opened in the heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunders, and an earthquake, and a great hail. At the beginning of the chapter we noticed the distinction between the two words (naos and hieron) applied to the Temple. The Temple building proper (the naos) was measured off. Now this (naos) Temple is opened, yes, to its very inmost recesses; for not the holy place alone is disclosed, but the holiest of all, the shrine of shrines, into which the high priest alone – and he only once a year – entered, is opened, as though anew the veil of the Temple had been rent in twain, and there the ark of the covenant of God is seen. The meaning of this, when read by the light of the measuring of the Temple, seems to be that now the secret abode of the safe-guarded children of God was revealed. In the hour of apostasies and worldliness the faithful had found their strength and protection in the shadow of the Almighty. They were regarded by God as His true living Temple, and in them He dwelt, as they, too, found their defense in Him. But now that the end has come, there is no need that these should be hidden any more. The children of God, who are the temple of God, are made manifest; and at the same time the secret spot of their shelter in troublous days is made plain, and in it is seen the token of that everlasting covenant which was the sheet anchor of their hopes in the day of their trouble (Heb. 6:19). The ark of God’s covenant is seen; the ark which contained the tables of the law, the rod of Aaron, and the manna is unveiled. And now is known whence they derived that hidden manna, that bread of heaven which strengthened their hearts in the days of temptation. Now is known how it was that the rod of Christ’s power flourished and blossomed in spite of oft-repeated rejection. Now, too, are known those high and holy principles by which the lives of the saints of God were ruled, even that law which the divine Spirit had written in their hearts (Heb. 10:16, and 2 Cor. 3:2). Then, too, with the ark of God’s covenant, is brought into view the mercy seat, that throne of grace to which the weary and heavy laden children of God had so often gone, and where they had never failed to receive grace to help in every time of need (Heb. 4:16). The Temple of God was opened, and the secret springs of power which sustained the patience and faith of the saints are found to be in God. And out of the opened Temple, or round about it, as round the sacred peak of Sinai, the lightnings are seen and voices and thunders are heard. The tokens of that holy law which the power of the world had defied are made manifest. For God’s righteousness has not lost its strength, and that which is a power of help to those who seek their shelter in God becomes a power of destruction to those who turn from Him. The habitation of God is an open sanctuary to faith. It is a clouded and lightning-crowned Sinai to faithlessness. (Comp. Heb. 12:18–24.) The spirit of evil, of selfishness, of luxuriousness, of profanity, which reject its birthright of better thoughts and holy things, leads to “the mount that burned with fire, and unto blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words”; the Spirit of God leads to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the firstborn which are written in heaven.”
We now enter upon the third group of visions (or, the fourth section of the book, if we include the epistles to the seven churches), which occupy chapters 12, 13, and 14, and close with the solemn scene of the harvest and the vintage (14:14–20). The close of each series of visions is in harmony with their general intention, and, as such, affords a key to their meaning. The seals end in peace; the trumpets end in victory; the present visions end in harvest. We have been shown that toil and trouble shall end in rest and conflict in triumph. Now we are to be shown that there is to be a harvest at the end of the world, when the fruits of the conflicting principles of life will have ripened, and when whatsoever a man hath sown, that shall he also reap: and men will be seen as they are. This set of visions accordingly moves in a different plane from the earlier groups. Starting from the same point as the others, it reviews the ground with a different purpose. It deals with the spiritual conditions of the great war between evil and good. It disrobes the false appearances which deceive men. It makes manifest the thoughts of men’s hearts. It shows that the great war is not merely a war between evil and good, but between an evil spirit and the Spirit of God: and that, therefore, the question is not only one between right and wrong conduct, but between true and false spiritual dispositions. Men look at the world, and they acknowledge a kind of conflict between evil and good. Their sympathies are vaguely on the side of good. They admire much in Christianity. They are willing to think the martyred witnesses of the Church heroes. They think the reformers of past ages worthy of honour. They would not be averse to a Christianity without Christ or a Christianity without spirituality. They do not realize that the war which is raging round them is not a war between men morally good and men morally bad, but between spiritual powers, and that what the Gospel asks is not merely a moral life, but a life lived by faith in the Son of God, a life in which the spiritual dispositions are Godward and Christward. The Apocalypse, in this set of visions, unveils the spiritual aspects of the conflict, that we may know that the issue is not between Christianity and un-Christianity, but between Christianity and anti-Christianity. Hitherto we have seen the more outward aspects of the great war. Now we are to see its hidden, secret, spiritual – yes, supernatural aspects – that we may understand what immeasurably divergent and antagonistic principles are in conflict under various and specious aspects in the history of the world. Accordingly, we are shown the child encountered by the dragon, the woman in conflict with the dragon, the wild beast as the adversary of the lamb. We see no longer the battle under human forms, as the struggle for the possession of the Temple; but we see clearly and unmistakably the real issue which is being fought out, and we see the real spiritual work which the Church is designed to accomplish in the world. The motto of this section might well be, “He that is not with me is against me” – “He that gathereth not with me scattereth”; for only those who are truly with Christ will avoid falling under the yoke of one of the three enemies of Christ – the dragon and the two wild beasts animated and inspired by him.
12:1. – And there appeared a great wonder [Or, sign.] in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars;
(1) And there appeared ... – Better, And a great sign was seen in the heaven. The word sign is preferable to “wonder,” both in this verse and in verse 3. It is the same word which is rendered sign in 15:1. It is a sign which is seen: not a mere wonder, but something which has a meaning. It is not “a surprise ending with itself,” but a signal to arrest attention, and possessing significance. There is “an idea concealed behind it.” (Comp. Note on John 2:11.)
A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. – All the lights of heaven are brought together here for a description which cannot fail to remind us of the picture of the Shulamite in the Canticles (6:10): “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners (or, the heavenly host)?” It is the picture of the bride, the Church. The beams of the divine glory clothe her. She has caught – like Moses – the radiance of her Lord, whose countenance was as the sun (1:16). The moon is beneath her feet. She rises superior to all change, and lays all lesser lights of knowledge under tribute. She is crowned with a crown of twelve stars: the illustrious members of the Church (twelve being the representative number in Old Testament as well as New Testament times) form her crown of rejoicing in the day of Christ.
12:2. – and she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
2. And she ... – Better, And being with child, she crieth, travailing, and tormented to bring forth. All life dawns in anguish, according to the ancient fiat (Gen. 3:1–6), but this is not all. There is an anguish of the Church which Christ laid upon her. It is the law of her life that she must bring forth Christ to the world. It is not simply that she must encounter pain, but that she cannot work deliverance without knowing suffering. Thus the Apostles felt: the love of Christ constrained them; woe it would be to them if they did not preach the Gospel; necessity was laid upon them; they spoke of themselves as travailing in birth over their children till Christ was formed in them. This, then, is the picture, the Church fulfilling her destiny even in pain. The work was to bring forth Christ to men, and never to be satisfied till Christ was formed in them, i.e., till the spirit of Christ, and the teaching of Christ, and the example of Christ were received, loved, and obeyed, and men transformed to the same image, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
But there was to be opposition; the enemy is on the watch to destroy the likeness of Christ wherever it was seen.
12:3. – And there appeared another wonder [Or, sign.] in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
3. And there appeared … – And another sign was seen in the heaven; and behold a great red dragon. This, too, is a sign, and has a meaning. The dragon stands for some dread and hostile power. “The dragon is that fabulous monster of whom ancient poets told, as large in size, coiled like a snake, blood red in colour ... insatiable in voracity, and ever athirst for human blood” – a fit emblem of him whom our Lord declared to be a murderer from the beginning; for the dragon is intended here to describe him who, in verse 9, is also said to be that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan. The red colour is the colour of flame and blood, and the symbol of destruction and slaughter. The dragon is the emblem of the evil spirit, the devil, the perpetual antagonist of good, the persecutor of the Church in all ages (Comp. Psa. 74:13); just as the dragon is sometimes employed to represent the Egyptian power, the ancient foe of Israel (Isa. 51:9, Ezek. 29:3).
Having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns (diadems) upon his heads. – This is the further description of the dragon. He is one, yet diverse; one, as an evil spirit; diverse, in the varieties of his power. The woman is but one: but her foe is multiform. She has one trust to keep, one work to do, and can but fulfill it in her Master’s way. Evil is bound by no law, regards no scruple, and exerts its power through any channel, and by every means. Is there not also an assumption of divine similitude here in the use of the number seven. It is at least the representation of the great and worldwide power which he exercises as the prince of this world, whose kingdom is in much a parody of the true kingdom. The whole description should be compared with the account given of the beast in 17:3, 7, 10, 12. There the seven heads are explained as seven kings, and the heads here are crowned. The ten horns are also explained as ten kings. The sevenfold kingship and the tenfold power of the world are thus described as belonging to the dragon. The picture here, as the picture of the wild beast in chapter 17, represents, as concentrated into a single hostile form, all the varying forces and successive empires which have opposed or oppressed the people of God, and sought to destroy their efforts for good; for all evil has its root in a spirit at enmity with God. Hence the dragon appears armed with all the insignia of those sovereignties and powers which have been animated by this spirit.
12:4. – And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
4. And his tail ... – Translate, And his tail drags (or, sweeps) away the third part of the stars of the heaven, and casts them to the earth. The stars are the light bearers, the illustrious of earth, who were given by God high place that they might be burning and shining lights for Him. A large proportion of these are drawn away in the train of evil. They are cast down from their high position of noble opportunities of good work and great work. They are dragged down from the height of the grandest possibilities of good to the low level of a life enslaved to evil.
And the dragon. – Translate, And the dragon stands (not “stood”) before the woman who is about to bring forth, that whenever she has brought forth he may devour her child. The spirit of evil is represented as ever on the watch to destroy the first tokens of better things. Our minds go back to the hatred and fear of Pharaoh, setting a watch for the offspring of Israel and ordering their destruction; and even more are we reminded of the jealous hatred of Herod seeking the life of the infant Christ. It seems clear that it is on this last incident that the present vision is primarily built up; but its meaning is much wider than this. It shows us that evermore, as Herod waited to destroy Christ, the devil, the old spirit whose malignity wrought through the fears of Pharaoh and of Herod, is on the watch to destroy every token of good and every resemblance to Christ in the world. The mission of the Church is to bring forth in her members this life of Christ before men. The aim of the wicked spirit is to destroy that life. The same hostility which was shown to the infant Christ is active against His children: “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
12:5. – And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
5. And she brought forth ... – Translate, And she brought forth a man child, who is to shepherd all the nations with (it is, literally, in) a rod of iron. There can be no doubt that this man child is Christ. The combination of features is too distinct to admit of doubt. It is the one who will feed His flock like a shepherd (Isa. 40:12), who is to have, not His own people, but all nations as His inheritance (Psa. 2:7– 9), and whose rule over them is to be supreme and irresistible. But the fact that this child is Christ must not cause us to limit the meaning of the vision to the efforts of the evil one to destroy the infant Jesus; for it is also the Christ in the Church which the wicked one hates: and wherever Christ dwells in any heart by faith, and wherever the preachers of the gospel in earnest travail for their Master, seek to lift up Christ, there will the foe be found, like the fowls of the air ready to carry away the good seed. Though the basis of the vision is in the historical fact, the power of the vision reaches over a wider area, and forcibly reminds us that as there are irreconcilable principles at work in the world, so all these, when traced to their original forms, are the Spirit of Christ and the spirit of the devil.
And her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. – The efforts of the evil one to destroy are thwarted. The child is snatched away and placed out of the range of the dragon’s power. The prince of this world might instigate Israel to take Jesus Christ and with wicked hands crucify and kill Him, but the eternal divine life of Him who had power to lay down His life and take it again, and whose years were for ever and ever, was beyond the reach of every hostile power. And after death and resurrection, Christ ascended up where He was before. But the vision is designed to assure us that, precisely because of this, so all life in Christ is beyond the power of the evil one, and that the forces hostile to good are powerless against that life which is hid with Christ in God. The Church may be as a weak, oppressed, and persecuted woman, but her faith rises up as a song from the lips of its members. “God hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The contest is between the man child and the dragon. And those who in heart and mind ascend to where Christ is know that the contest is not one of mere ideas, but a conflict between the Christ, who is with them always, though He has ascended, and all the powers of evil, which will be smitten down by the rod of His power.
12:6. – And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
6. And the woman fled ... – Translate, And the women fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared from God, that there they may nourish her for a thousand two hundred and sixty days. The flight of the woman into the wilderness, and her fortunes there, are more fully described in verse 13. This verse simply tells us that the woman fled. We read afterwards that it was persecution which drove her into the wilderness. As long as the evil one can be called the prince of this world: as long, that is, as the world refuses to recognize her true Prince, and pays homage to worldliness, and baseness, and falseness in heart, mind, or life, so long must the Church, in so far as she is faithful to Him who is true, dwell as an exile in the wilderness. This feeling it was – not any hostility to life as life, or to life’s duties – which led the Apostle to speak of Christians as strangers and pilgrims, and of the Church as another Israel, whom a greater than Moses or Joshua was conducting to a land of better promise (Heb. 4:8–9). The woman, the representative of the Church, has a place prepared by God for her in the wilderness. She is not altogether uncared for. She has a place prepared, and nourishment. God provides her with a tabernacle of safety (Psa. 90:1), and with the true Bread “which came down from heaven” (Ex. 16:15, Psa. 78:24–25, John 6:49–50), and with the living water from the Rock (John 4:14, 7:37–39; 1 Cor. 10:3–4). The time of the sojourn in the wilderness is twelve hundred and sixty days, a period corresponding in length to the forty-two months during which the witnesses prophesied. It is the period of the Church’s witness against predominant evil. Driven forth, her voice, though but as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, is lifted up on behalf of righteousness and truth.
The War in Heaven.
12:7. – And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
7. And there was war ... – Translate, And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels to war with the dragon; and the dragon warred and his angels. This is one of those passages which has ever been regarded as more or less perplexing. It has afforded material for many poetic fancies, and has been the occasion of much speculative interpretation. We shall fail to catch the spirit of its meaning if we insist upon detaching the passage from its context; and the more so that the structure of the chapter seems to give an express warning against doing so. The narrative of the woman’s flight into the wilderness is suspended that this passage may be inserted. Could we have a clearer indication of the anxiety of the sacred writer to connect this war in heaven with the birth and rapture of the man child? The man child is born, born a conqueror. The dragon is His foe, and the powers of the foe are not confined to the material and historical world. He is a power in the world spiritual, but the man child is to be entirely a conqueror. His rapture into heaven is the announcement that there, in the very highest, He is acknowledged victor; and His victory is won over the power of the dragon, the old serpent, whose head is now bruised. “The prince of this world cometh,” said Jesus Christ, “and hath nothing in Me.” “Now is the judgment of this world; now is the prince of this world cast out, and I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me.” Do we need more? There is mystery – unexplained mystery, perhaps – about this war in heaven, but there need be none about the general occasion referred to. It is the overthrow of the evil one by Christ: the deathblow given by the Lord of Life to him who had the power of death. It is the victory of Bethlehem, Calvary, and Olivet which is commemorated, and the effects of which are seen to transcend the sphere of the things seen. But why have we Michael and his angels introduced? This may be one of those unexplained mysteries referred to above. Some, indeed, think that this Michael is a designation of our Lord Himself, and of Him alone; but a consideration of the other passages in which Michael is mentioned (notably Dan. 10:13, where Michael is called “one of the chief princes”) leaves this limited meaning doubtful, and almost suggests conflict among the spiritual hierarchies. It may, however, be the case that the name Michael – the meaning of which is, “who is like unto God” – is a general name applied to any who for the moment represent the cause of God in the great conflict against evil. It may thus belong, not to any one angel being, but be a kind of type name used for the champion and prince of God’s people, and so employed in this passage to denote Him who is the Captain of our salvation.
12:8. – and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
8. And prevailed not ... – Better, And their power failed them, and not even was place for them found any more in the heaven. The result of the war was the dragon’s defeat. The whole power of the evil hosts failed them. There is an inherent weakness in evil, a spot which may be touched whereupon all its vaunted strength withers. So complete was the overthrow, that even their place knew them no more. “I went by, and, lo! he was gone; I sought him, but he could nowhere be found.”
12:9. – And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
9. And the great dragon … – Better, And he was thrown down, the great dragon, the ancient serpent, he that is called the Devil and Satan: he who deceives the whole world was thrown to the earth, and his angels were thrown with him. Thus the victory of Christ is marked by the overthrow of the great adversary. The stronger than the strong one has come, and taken away his armour (Luke 11:21–22). The deathblow is given. The prince of this world (who found nothing in Christ) is judged (John 16:11). The adversary is described as the dragon, the fierce and cruel foe who is ever ready to devour (1 Peter 5:8). The ancient serpent. The serpent was used as an emblem of the evil principle. (Comp. Gen. 3:1.) But the head of the ancient foe of man is now bruised: he is the devil, the accuser and calumniator. He is called the accuser of the brethren in the next verse. He is Satan, the adversary, and he is the seducer, the deceiver, as he is a liar, and the father of it (John 8:44).
12:10. – And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.
10. And I heard a loud voice ... – Better, And I heard a great voice in the heavens saying, Now is come the salvation, and the might, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ. The definite article is placed before the words “salvation” and “might”. The words of this doxology are like an echo of the close of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer “Thy kingdom come” seems answered. Now is come the kingdom. But it is not the full establishment of the kingdom which is here described. It is rather the manifestation of it. Since our Master passed into the heavens – and His victory is achieved, we know Him to be King, and even while we pray “Thy kingdom come” we yet confess “Thine is the kingdom” –the salvation so anxiously looked for (1 Peter 1:10); the power so much needed by weak and sinful men (1 Peter 1:5 and 1 Cor. 1:24); and the kingdom which cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28). The accuser of the brethren is cast down. This is another reason for joy and another feature of the salvation. The habit of the accuser is expressed by the use of the present tense. We should read not “who accused,” but “who accuseth.” Night and day he accused. (Comp. Zech. 3:1, and Job 1:9, and 2:5.) In Jewish writings, Michael is called “the advocate” (sunegor), and stands in opposition to the accuser (kategor); but now the accuser is cast down; for who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect, when it is God that justifieth, when it is Christ that died? (Rom. 8:33–34.)
12:11. – And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
11. And they overcame him … – Better, And they conquered him (not “by,” but) on account of the blood of the Iamb, and on account of the word of their testimony, etc. They overcame him – i.e., the accuser, the devil: their victory over him is “owing to” the blood of the Lamb. Who is he that condemneth, when Christ hath died? What power can the accusations of the adversary have when the Lamb of God hath taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and when we have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus? (Heb. 10:19.) Dean Alford mentions the tradition that Satan accuses men all days of the year except on the Day of Atonement. But their victory is also in virtue of the word of their testimony: in virtue of the word to which they bore witness; not simply, I think, because they had a word of God to which they could bear witness, but because they had a word of God and did bear witness to it. The Christian victory is a victory of dependence and of obedience: of dependence on Him without whom they can do nothing; and of obedience to Him. It is in keeping of His commandments there is great reward: and in bearing testimony that the testimony becomes a power and a treasure. So it was the man who did Christ’s commandments who was like the man whose house was founded on the rock. Theoretical religion relaxes the energy of faith, even though it may brace the intellect. Practical religion invigorates faith, gives it its force, and molds the heroism of those who in their love of Christ, “love not their lives even unto death.” It is thought that these last words imply that the martyred saints alone are spoken of. This seems to me a mistake. It is true that in the martyr we have the fullest practical token of that spirit of devotion to Christ which loves Him more than life itself. But the spirit of such devotion and such love has breathed in thousands who have never died the martyr’s death, but who have devoted their lives to Him they loved. The martyr spirit needs not death to show itself. Many lose their lives for Christ’s sake who have never been called to lay down their lives for Him, and these, as truly as those who have passed away in the shroud of flame, have loved not their lives unto the death. “He may bid us die for Him: He does bid us live for Him. If we do not the one – the less – we may be quite sure that we shall never rise to the other – the higher and the more glorious” (Dr. Vaughan).
12:12. – Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.
12. Therefore rejoice ... Better, For this cause rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that tabernacle in them. The words “for this cause” must be taken to refer to the overthrow of the evil one. This is the cause of joy to the heavens, and to them that tabernacle (not “dwell”) in them. The word is (as in 7:15, 13:6, 21:3) “tabernacle”. This allusion to the tabernacle where the glory of God and the mercy seat were to be found, is not without force. The sacred imagery of the tabernacle of witness calls to mind the safe dwelling which the sanctuary of God afforded to those whose testimony was given in the wilderness of sorrow. Those who tabernacled in the secret place of the Most High could rejoice with joy unspeakable.
Woe to the inhabiters ... – Translate, Woe to the earth and the sea! (the words “to the inhabiters of” are not found in the best MSS.) because the devil is gone down to you, having great wrath, knowing (or, because he knoweth: his knowledge that his season of power is short is the reason of his great wrath) that he hath (but) a short season. The painful consciousness of defeat has roused a deeper and more obstinate rage. Sin, which blunts the conscience, blinds the reason, and drives men madly to attempt the impossible, or to rouse
“the unconquerable will
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield.”
The woe to the sea and earth is simply a warning voice to all, that though the foe is overcome and death smitten, yet that he has power, quickened by defeat and fear, for a last struggle; and that therefore they need to be sober and vigilant against the adversary. His season is short. He may be active, sowing tares among the wheat and animating various hostile powers, such as the wild beasts of chapter 13, but he has only a season. There is a limit to his power and the time of his power. “A little while” was the word our Lord used to denote His time of absence (John 16:16–22): “Behold, He comes quickly!”
12:13. – And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.
13. And when the dragon – The wrath of the defeated dragon is manifested in persecution of the woman. The present verse explains the reason of the flight into the wilderness mentioned in verse 6.
12:14. – And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
14. And to the woman ... – Better, And there were given to the woman (the) two wings of the great eagle (the definite article is used before “great eagle”), that she might fly into the wilderness, unto her place, where she is nourished there for a season, and seasons, and half a season, from the face of the serpent. The woman is persecuted and driven into the wilderness: yet it is with the eagle wings given her by her Lord that she flies. The serpent drives her into the wilderness: yet it is in the wilderness that her place is prepared by God. The way that seems hard is the way that is most blest. The opposition of the dragon brings her blessings that she never would have received except in persecution. Neither the eagle power nor the heavenly sustenance had been hers without the serpent’s hate. Thus is the trial of faith precious in bringing us to know the priceless blessings of heavenly help and heavenly food. She is given eagle’s wings. God had spoken of the deliverance of Israel under a similar emblem, “Ye have seen … how I bare you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself” (Ex. 19:4, comp. Deut. 32:10–12). There is a difference as well as a resemblance in the emblem here. In Exodus God is said to have borne Israel on eagles’ wings: here the wings are given to the woman. The strength of the earlier dispensation is a strength often used for, rather than in, the people of God; the strength of the latter is a strength in them: “They mount up with wings as eagles” (Isa. 10:31). The place is not a chance spot. It is prepared of God; it is in the wilderness, but still it is the place God prepared for her. It is always a delight to faith to mark how the ordering of God works in and through the willfulness and wickedness of the enemy. The Son of man goeth, as it was written, though there is a “woe” against the man by whom He is betrayed. The wicked one can never drive us from God’s place, but only to it, unless we are enemies to ourselves. She is nourished in the wilderness. (See Notes on verse 6.) The length of her sojourn is here called a season, seasons, and half a season; it was called twelve hundred and sixty days in verse 6. The period is in both cases the same in length, viz., three years and a half – i.e., the season (one year), the seasons (two years), and the half season (half a year). This is the period of the Church’s trouble and persecution. It is not to be sought by any effort to find some historical period of persecution corresponding in length to this, lasting three years and a half, or twelve hundred and sixty days or years. No such attempt has hitherto been crowned with success. The period is symbolic of the broken time (the half of the seven, the perfect number) of the tribulation of God’s people. There may be some future period in which the vision may receive even more vivid fulfillment than it has hitherto received; but the woman has been nourished in the wilderness in the ages that are gone, and her sustenance there by God is an experience of the past, and will be in the future. It is not only in one age, but in every age, that God gives His children bread in the day of adversity, during the season that the pit is being dug for the ungodly. In many an era the servant of God can exclaim: “Thou preparedst a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
12:15. – And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.
15. And the serpent ... – Translate, And the serpent cast out of his mouth after the woman water as a river, that he might make her to be carried away by the river. The foe of the woman was described as a dragon for his cruelty and fierceness – as a serpent for his subtlety. The first attack on the woman is pictured as persecution by the dragon. From this she escapes by flight, but the subtlety of the enemy finds another device. The foe (now described as a serpent) pours forth water as a river to sweep away the woman. The emblem is not uncommon in the Bible. Invasion is described as “an overflowing flood” (Jer. 46:7–8, 47:2; comp. Isa. 8:7–8). The same emblem is used in Psa. 74:2–6 to describe the uprising of a people’s ill-will. The floods, the rivers, the waves of the sea, are employed to express popular movements. The woman that cannot be destroyed by positive persecution may be swept away by a hostile public opinion. It is not the rulers alone who stand up against the Lord and His Church. An infuriated populace may be stirred up against them. The temper of the mob occasioned as much suffering and as many deaths in early Christian days as did the political authorities. Ill-regulated popular impulses, leading to violence and unwise action, whether nominally for Christianity or against it, have done enough of the devil’s work in the world.
12:16. – And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.
16. And the earth … – Translate, And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and drank up the river, etc. This is generally understood of some earthly power which is raised up to protect the Church against persecution. Just as Persia was raised up to aid Israel after they had been swept away by the flood of Babylonish conquest. So does help come to the persecuted Church through the cultured Roman world, or through some other worldly power, “barbarian and godless in its beginning, but destined in due time to embrace, in name at least, the faith once abhorred, and to introduce that new order of things which should make a nominal Christianity the religion of states and nations, and secure it forever against the risk of a repetition of bygone persecutions” (Dr. Vaughan). The passage seems to want a wider interpretation. By the flood or river we understand all great popular movements against Christianity: the earth swallows up these. They diffuse themselves for a time, but mother earth absorbs them all, for the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and no movement hostile to truth can permanently succeed. The eternal laws of truth and right are ultimately found stronger than all the half-truths, whole falsehoods, and selfishness which give force to such movements. In a mysterious way, every devil-born flood of opinion, or violence, or sentiment, will sink beneath the surface. They rise like a river, they are tasted, and then rejected. The laws of the earth are against their permanent success. The finest epic of the world might have for its motto: “The earth helped the woman.” Creation is ultimately witness for righteousness and truth. It is not one nation, one age, which is represented here; it is an eternal law.
12:17. – And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
17. And the dragon ... – Translate, And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and departed (not merely “went,” but departed, as one baffled in his attempt to carry the woman away by the river) to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and hate the testimony of Jesus. Omit the word Christ. The attempt to sweep away the Christian Church is vain. The wrath of man has always been found to turn to God’s praise. The earth has always helped the woman. Out of a thousand seeming defeats the Church of Christ has arisen. The banner of the Lord has been lifted up over every flood. But the foe will not give up his attacks. He can make war upon individual Christians. He may cease to assail the collective Church of Christ, but he can assail Christians by a thousand discomforts, by petty opposition, by undermining their morals, by making them unpopular not as Christians, but as “very particular” Christians: for those thus assailed are they who “keep the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus.” It is the old combination of a holy life and a fidelity to their Master which is the test of true loyalty. They take heed to themselves; they abide in Christ; they take heed to the teaching, that Christ’s word may abide in them. They keep His word, and they witness to Him in lip and life.
This chapter describes the rise of two foes of Christ and His people. They are described as “wild beasts” in opposition to Him who is the Lamb. They are distinct from the dragon, yet they are inspired, as it were, by him. He gives them power (verse 4); his voice speaks through them (verse 11). They are forces and powers utilized by him in hostility to the cause of righteousness and truth. On the whole of this section the parallel vision in Dan. 7 ought to be read.
13:1. – And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name [Or, names.] of blasphemy.
1. And I ... – Better, And he (not “I stood,” as in English version, but he, i.e., the dragon) stood upon the sand of the sea. Some make this sentence a separate verse, and insert it as the closing verse of chapter 12. It is true that the sentence has a connection with that chapter, but it is also closely linked with what follows. The way in which the dragon carries out his plan of war is described. Like Milton’s “superior fiend,” he stands upon the shore and summons his legions (Par. Lost, Book I) to another form of war. Two monsters, one distinguished by more brutal, the other by more subtle power, rise at his bidding.
And saw ... – Translate, And I saw a wild beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and upon his horns ten diadems, and upon his heads names of blasphemy. – The wild beast rises out of the sea. In the vision of Daniel (chapter 7) the beasts rose out of the sea upon which the four winds strove. The sea represents the great, restless mass of human kind, or, as it is expressed in 17:16, “peoples and multitudes”. St. James represented an undecided man as a wave driven by the wind (James 1:6). The individuals, like larger and smaller waves, make up this great ocean-like mass of men, swayed by impulse or passion. Out of the sea rises a wild beast. The word is not the same as that used in 4:7 (see Note there), but is a word which implies the predominance of the beast nature. Whatever power rises is one which rules not by love or right, but by fear and willfulness. It is the great force of the world power, which in every age has been antagonistic to the power of right. The wild beast is always the figure of the kingdoms of this world – i.e., the kingdoms which are founded on passion or selfishness. They are seven in number, as the beast had seven heads. We read afterwards of seven mountains. These world powers are spoken of as mountains for their strength and stability; as heads of the wild beast because, though separate, they are inspired by the dragon spirit, the spirit of utter enmity to the rule of the Righteous King. The seven kingdoms, or heads of the wild beast, are more distinctly explained in 17:10. There we read that five are fallen, one was in possession of power, and the seventh had not yet arisen. The key is thus placed in our hands. The sixth head is imperial Rome, the successor of those great world powers which were, one and all, founded in unrighteousness – i.e., in violation of the law of brotherly kindness and faith. The heads carry the names of blasphemy. The spirit of arrogant self-sufficiency characterized all the world powers. Illustrations would be too numerous for our space. It is enough to refer to the spirit in Babylon: “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” The words were Nebuchadnezzar’s (Dan. 4:30). He became a beast in uttering them, but the spirit of them went through all the world powers, from the days of Lamech (Gen. 4:23–24) and Babel (Gen. 11:4) to the days when Roman poets prostituted their pens in abject flattery of emperors, and a degraded people welcomed them as gods, and put those to death who refused to offer frankincense and wine to the images of those who wore the purple.
Ten horns. – The beast has, besides seven heads, ten horns, which are explained further on (17:12) as “the kings which have received no kingdom as yet,” but which, when they rise, will draw their strength from the dragon and be members of the wild beast.
13:2. – And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.
2. And the beast ... – The wild beast combined the features of three wild animals: the leopard, the bear, the lion. In Daniel’s vision (Dan. 7:4) the kingdoms were described: the first, like a lion; the second, like a bear; the third, like a leopard or panther. Here all these features are combined because the wild beast is a representative of all forms of world power, which have been swift to shed blood: like a leopard leaping on the prey, tenacious and relentless as a bear, and all devouring (their throat is an open sepulcher) as a lion. The reader will remember the wild beasts which in vision hindered Dante when he sought to ascend the “pleasant mount” – the “cause and source of all delight”. The leopard, the lion, the wolf were symbols of luxuriousness, cruel ambition, and hungry and heartless avarice, which oppose men and nations when they seek the Holy Hill, where the light of God ever rests. (Comp. Inferno, i. 10–74).
And the dragon. – Read, And the dragon gave him his power and his throne (not his “seat,” as in the English version. It is the royal seat, the throne, which is meant). (See Notes on 11:16 and 4:4.)
And great authority. – It is through this succession of world powers that the dragon carries on his war. The wild beast becomes the vicegerent, so to speak, of the prince of this world.
13:3. – And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded [Gr. slain.] to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.
3. And I saw ... – Translate, And (I saw) one from among his heads as if having been slain [the expression is the same as that applied to the Lamb in 5:6: the wound marks are there when the vision rises] unto death; and the stroke of his death was healed. When the wild beast rose from the sea, the seer saw the deadly wound on the head. The wound was really unto death. The beast which had waged war against the true kingdom of righteousness and faith has received his deathblow. This is the historical point from which the vision starts. This being so, the deathblow is that which has just been dealt: the seed of the woman has bruised the serpent’s head. The blow which casts down the dragon inflicts a deadly wound upon the wild beast, which is his agent. When Christ overthrew the wicked one, He gave the deathblow to the world power – to all systems founded on passion, or self-sufficiency, or inhumanity. But the deathblow is apparently healed. What is this but telling the Church of Christ that the fruits of Christ’s victory will not be seen without delay? The world power is smitten unto death, but the actual death does not follow immediately. The power of evil, contrary to all expectation, rises with new vigour. This revived power showed itself, with more or less force, in the way in which the spirit of the wild beast broke forth when Christianity seemed to have put fetters on the Roman empire.
13:4. – And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?
3–4. And all the world wondered … – Literally, And the whole earth wondered after the wild beast, and worshipped the dragon, because he gave the authority and worshipped the wild beast, saying, Who is like unto the wild beast? and who is able to war with him? The healing of the deathblow causes wonder to all. Their wonder leads to worship. The spirit of the wild beast is adored wherever worldliness prevails. There is nothing so successful as success, and the homage of men is more often paid to power than to principle. “Who is like unto the beast?” The words are a parody, and a blasphemous parody, on the ascription of praise to God which the name Michael imported. (See 12:7; comp. Psa. 112, Micah 7:18.) “Who is like unto God?” is the legend of the saints: the opposing cry is, “Who is like unto the beast?”
“Can you not hear the words coming across the centuries from the lips of two Roman youths talking with each other, as they lounge together in the Forum?” (Maurice.) Can we not hear the echo of the words in the Champs Elysees, in Piccadilly, in the Broadway, or Unter Den Linden, from the lips of young men who have taken fashion, rank, wealth, world power in any shape, as their god?
13:5. – And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue [Or, to make war.] forty and two months.
5. And there was given … – In these verses the words and the works of the wild beast are described. The 5th verse tells us that the liberty to speak and work was given to him. There is consolation in the words: he has no power beyond what is given; behind his reckless and apparently irresistible power there stands the veiled but real power of God. “Thou couldest have no power” (the saints may take up their Lord’s words) “against me, except it were given thee from above.” He speaks great things, and blasphemy. And there was given him authority to act (literally, to do) forty-two months. Again the familiar period, the limited time of the world power.
13:6. – And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven.
6. And he opened his mouth … – Translate, And he opened His mouth unto blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name, and His tabernacle, and them that tabernacle in the heaven. Much of the beauty of the thought is lost by the translation “them that dwell”; the word is tabernacle. The saints, to whom the name of the Lord is a strong tower, and who have a tabernacle of witness in this wilderness world, can yet tabernacle their spirits where their treasure is, in the heaven, according to that word: “our citizenship is even now in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). Against these the world power blasphemes: who has not taken the Lord for his strength, God is not his might; his might is his god. (Comp. Hab. 1:11: “He passes over and is guilty, he whose might is his god.”)
13:7. – And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.
7. And it was given ... – Better, He makes war with the saints, and conquers them. This, too, is said to be “given him”. The conquest is not a conquest of their fidelity. It is rather that the beast so far succeeds that they must suffer or submit. The saints seem to be singlehanded, for there was given him authority over every tribe, and people, and tongues, and nations. Nor does his success end here. The next verse shows us how completely earth is at his feet.
13:8. – And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
8. And all that dwell ... – Better, And all they that dwell on the earth shall worship him (every one) whose name has not been written in the book of life of the Lamb that has been slain from the foundation of the world. This is the climax of his triumph. He, or it, is worshipped, but the saints, though conquered, conquer. They do not worship after the fashion of the deluded or self-seeking. A stronger tie binds them to a better allegiance: their names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life. There is some doubt about the connection of the words “from the foundation of the world”. Some connect them with the word “written”. This would express that the names were written “from the foundation of the world” in the book. Other connect them with the word “slain”. This expresses that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world. For the former view, the similar passage in 17:8 is cited; but, on the other hand, the phrase “from the foundation of the world” is connected in other parts of the Bible with certain aspects of the work of Christ (1 Peter 1:19–20, and John 17:24), and it seems more natural to take the words in their simple order. Whatever view we take, the verse proclaims that the security of God’s saints is based on the eternal love of God. “An eternal deliverer is the only refuge from this great world tyranny”. The strength of the tempted is in him who is the same in love and righteousness through all the ages.
13:9. – If any man have an ear, let him hear.
9. This verse – an echo of his Master’s words from the lips of the beloved disciple – calls marked attention to the warning words of the next verse.
13:10. – He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.
10. This verse may read: If any one (is) for captivity, into captivity he goeth; if any one to be killed by the sword, he should by the sword be killed. If we read the verse thus, it is generally understood to be a caution to the suffering saints that there is nothing for them but to endure, just as Jeremiah told his countrymen that those who were for death must go out to meet it, and those who were for sword or captivity must face them (Jer. 15:2). But is not this a warning to them that the way of the Church’s victory lay through suffering captivity and meeting sword, and that the temptation to take the sword or seize the weapons of their foes would be fatal to their true success? The spirit of the words reminds them that their weapons are the weapons of faith and patience, of truth and righteousness; and they must accept the tribulation, as their Lord did His cross, because thus it must be. At the same time, their very doing so is a witness to their foes that “all those who take the sword will perish with the sword”; and that the sword, from which the saints do not shrink, will assuredly turn against those who use it. Here (i.e., in the enduring of these persecutions, and amid so many temptations, not seizing easy, world-like methods of saving themselves) is the endurance and faith of the saints.
The Appearance of the Second Wild Beast.
For the understanding of this portion of the vision we must notice the contrasts and resemblances between this and the former wild beast. They are both wild beasts: they both have horns: they both have a dragon-like inspiration (verse 11): they both tyrannize over men. But, on the other hand, the second beast is less monstrous in appearance. We read only of two horns, and we hear nothing of seven heads. He somewhat resembles a lamb; he rises from the earth, and not from the sea; his power lies in deception (verses 13, 11) as well as violence; he seems to possess more supernatural power. Yet the whole of his work is directed to magnifying the first beast (verse 12). Do not these features lead to the conclusion that the principles which the second wild beast supports are the same as those on which the former wild beast acted, but that he supports them with more subtlety, intelligence, and culture? But for all the deception he employs, his work, when stripped of its specious drapery and seen in its native ugliness, is to promote the honour of the first wild beast. Because of this seductiveness, and of his efforts to support his mission with higher sanctions (verse 13), he is called in later chapters (16:13, 19:20, 20:10) the False Prophet; the force and appropriateness of this designation becomes more apparent when we notice that the features which are assumed bear a deceptive resemblance to those of a lamb. The advancing intelligence of the world, its increase in knowledge and wisdom, the wider diffusion of culture and thought, produce a change in the general fashion of life. But the spirit which animates society is unchanged. The second wild beast is that change which is a change of mode, but not of spirit – a change of manners, but not of heart. There is more refinement, more civilization, more mind, but it is still the world power which is worshipped. It is the self-seeking adoration of pleasures, honours, occupations, influences which spring from earth and end in earth – the pursuit of powers which are worldly. Some see in this second wild beast the Pagan priesthood aiding the imperial power, the embodiment of the first wild beast. Others see in it the Papal sacerdotal power, the heir of Pagan rites. Others, again, would combine the two, and view this second wild beast as the sacerdotal persecuting power, Pagan and Christian. I believe that, though there is truth in these views, they are too narrow. It is true that priesthoods – Pagan and Christian – have often devoted their influence to the upholding of the great world power. It is true that men called to be Christian teachers forgot their function, and used their knowledge and power to bolster up the power of the beast and to make men worship the world, as though there were nothing higher for men to worship than this world could afford. It is true that they used, in later days, their powers to aggrandize the Church rather than to reform the world and regenerate men. In so far as they did this, they acted like the second wild beast; but the stretch of the vision embraces more than these. All who use their knowledge, their culture, their wisdom to teach men that there is nothing worthy of worship save what they can see, and touch, and taste, are acting the part of the second wild beast. And be they apostles of science, or apostles of culture, or apostles of logical immorality, or apostles of what is called materialism, if their teaching leads men to limit their worship to the visible and the tangible, they are making men worship the beast who is the adversary of the servants of the Lamb.
13:11. – And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.
11. And I beheld ... – Better, And I saw another wild beast rising out of the earth. Both wild beasts rise from beneath. The sea, out of which the first rises, represents the tumultuous impulses and passions of mankind; the earth, the more fixed element of human thought and wisdom, or society consolidated and disciplined by intelligence and culture. The wisdom, however, which guides this wild beast is not divine wisdom, but that wisdom which a sacred writer described as earthly, sensual, devilish (James 3:17).
He had two horns like (those of) a lamb. – There is an appearance of gentleness about him, but he spake as a dragon; the voice betrayeth him. He that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth. The spirit of the adversary is in him (John 3:31, 8:44).
13:12. – And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.
12. And he exerciseth ... – Better, And he works, or exercises (literally, does), all the authority (or, power) of the first wild beast in his presence. It will be seen by this that we must not look upon the second wild beast as a successor, but rather as a supporter, of the first. The intellectual force of an earthly wisdom is practically subservient to the spirit of unmitigated worldliness.
13:13. – And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men,
12–13. And causeth the earth ... – Literally, and he makes the earth and them that dwell in it that they shall worship the first wild beast, the stroke of whose death was healed; and he does signs great, so that he even makes fire to descend out of the heaven to the earth in the sight of men. This descent of fire is the counterpart of the work of the two witnesses (11:5), and of Elijah in Old Testament days. It is one of the features of that deceivableness of unrighteousness which misleads man. There is a holy fire which inspires the lips and hearts of the holy. There is an unhallowed fire, a fire of mere power, which the worldly spirit is tempted to worship.
13:14. – and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live.
14. And deceiveth them … – Better, And he leads astray those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which were given him to do in the presence of the wild beast; saying to those who dwell on the earth, to make an image to the wild beast that has the stroke of the sword and lived. He leads astray: this is the key to his success. He deifies the spirit of worldliness, but he does it by deception and subtlety. There is an appearance of wonderful power: he can work lying wonders. When men lose the sense of duty, – the will to ask, “Is it right?” – they become an easy prey to some specious deception. This is the reason that, both in the old and new dispensations, a caution against “immoral marvels” is entered (see Deut. 13:1–3, Matt. 24:24, and 2 Thess. 2:9). Mere greatness, either of achievement or of miracle, is no guarantee of a good cause. The motto “Might is right” is the motto of worldliness. “Right is might” is the motto of faith, and those who hold it cannot worship the beast, even though the stroke of his death-wound is healed. Men have appealed to lying miracles on behalf of a death-wounded creed: the cleverness of self-interested partisanship is seldom barren of imposing expedients.
13:15. – And he had power to give life [Gr. breath.] unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.
15. And he had power … – Better, And it was given to him to give breath to the image of the wild beast, that the image of the wild beast should both speak, and cause that as many as do not worship the image of the wild beast shall be slain. The image to the wild beast is an image also of the wild beast, and the image of the monster is endued with apparent vitality. Wisdom can give a semblance of life to the most doomed cause, and the bulk of mankind read only with their eyes, and not at all with their thoughts. The image of the Roman emperor was, in ancient days, made an object of worship. Christians suffered rather than by such an act of worship prove disloyal to Christ. Like their spiritual ancestors, they refused to worship the image which the world power had set up. They were willing to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, but the homage which belonged to God they refused to any but their God. These are but types of those who have refused, though tempted by specious eloquence and sagacious subtlety, to offer homage to any mere world power; for the golden image is ever set up upon the plains of this world. Its glitter and its vitality survive the storm and the conflict of the ages. It speaks, and men hear and adore, for they walk by sight, not by faith. And it needs no imperial or papal edict to doom to social death and failure those who refuse to shape their conduct by considerations of self-interest, and who are sure to be treated as fanatics because they follow right and conscience and Christ.
13:16. – And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive [Gr. to give.] a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
13:17. – and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
16–17. And he causeth ... – Better, And he [i.e., probably, the second wild beast, and not the image, as in the latter clause of the last verse] makes all men, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free and the slaves, that they should give them a mark upon their right hand or upon their forehead: (and) that as one should be able to buy or to sell but he who has the mark, the name of the wild beast, or the number of his name. We have read of the sealing of the servants of God in their foreheads (7:3). We shall hear of it again (22:4). The power of evil also has its mark or stamp. As slaves received a brand or mark in their flesh, betokening to whom they belonged, so in the spiritual conflict there is on the side of good and of evil a brand or mark. St. Paul spoke of such marks in his own body that proved him a slave of Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:17). In the same way the subtle false prophet, the abettor of world power, seeks to impress a mark on all, on the penalty of complete social exclusion. It is utterly unnecessary to take this brand of evil literally, any more than we took the seal of Christ literally. That seal we understood as spiritual, in the faith and in the character. This evil brand we must interpret in like manner. It surely means the acquiescence in character and action to the principles of this tyrannical world power. The right hand is the symbol of toil and social intercourse. The forehead is the symbol of character, as time is ever writing its awful tale upon men’s brows. There have been days when men’s faith has been read only too plainly by a hostile world, and when their simple trust in Christ caused Christians to be suspected, and when “men cast out their name as evil,” and when the mark of the beast was worn and gloried in everywhere. We might cite from the history of the past numberless such epochs. But are we sure that the days are gone? Are we sure that it is easy for simple, unaffected goodness and genuine faith to gain all it might gain? Are we sure that honesty, guilelessness, utter and strenuous truthfulness are not weighted in the race of life? The days of the future may bring more intense forms of this tyranny, as the days of the past have shown them; but the days of the present may afford us illustrations of how readily men may lose, lose much and lose terribly, rather than succumb to fashions which violate honour and dishonour Christ. But we read of more than a mark here: we read of a “name,” and the “number of a name”. What are we to understand by these?
13:18. – Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
18. Here is wisdom ... – Translate, Hither is wisdom. This most difficult verse is introduced by this word of preface. Wisdom – indeed, the highest wisdom – is needed for those who would understand it. Two or three points ought to be noticed. (1) The verse surely implies that the understanding of this name and number is attainable. It warns us that wisdom and understanding are needed, but it as certainly leads us to believe that to wisdom and understanding a solution of the problem will be granted. (2) There is a variation in the MSS. respecting the number. Some MSS. read six hundred and sixteen, but the probability is in favour of the reading six hundred and sixty-six. In an excursus (Excursus B) will be found a short account of the various interpretations which have been given. (3) The clause “It is the number of a man,” has been rendered “For number is of man.” The number, then, is the combination of three sixes; there is a wisdom and understanding which may grasp its import, and that import is to be guided by the principle that it is the number of a man, or that number is of man – is, that is to say, a method of computation which is used by man, and used by God in order to symbolize something made thus more intelligible to man. Is the wisdom which is to solve this, then, the mere cleverness which can guess an acrostic or an enigma? or is it rather that the true heavenly wisdom, which is moral rather than intellectual, is needed to unite itself with understanding to solve the problem? Surely the dignity of the Apocalypse is sacrificed when we search for its meaning like children playing with conundrums rather than like men being guided by its principles. There is a wisdom which brings its sevenfold beam of heavenly light to the children of men – a wisdom pure, peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, without partiality, without hypocrisy – and when this wisdom rests on men in the fullness of its seven-fold perfection, they may read the number of the beast, and see that, with all its vaunted strength, it is but weak; with all its vaunted perfection, it is imperfect; that though it vaunts itself as rich, increased in goods and needing nothing, it still lacks that “one needful thing” – faith in God, or the love by which faith works. Without this it will never attain even the appearance of that perfect heavenly number symbolized by seven. It may multiply itself in earthly strength – the power of worldliness into the power of worldly wisdom, and this again by the power of a hundredfold satanic subtlety – but it will remain still short of the tokens of the kingdom of God; and the number when read will be, however godlike it looks, but the number of a man after all.
I am disposed, therefore, to interpret this “six hundred and sixty-six” as a symbolic number, expressing all that it is possible for human wisdom, and human power, when directed by an evil spirit, to achieve, and indicating a state of marvelous earthly perfection, when the beast power has reached its highest development, when culture, civilization, art, song, science and reason have combined to produce an age so nearly resembling perfection – an age of gold, if not a golden age – that men will begin to say that faith in God is an impertinence, and the hope of a future life a libel upon the happiness of the present. Then will the world power have reached the zenith of his influence. Then will only a wisdom descended from above be able to detect the infinite difference between a world with faith and a world without faith, and the great gulf which the want of a little heaven-born love can fix between an age and an age.
At the same time, I feel bound to place here, as well as in the Excursus, two other views – one because it has recently been advanced with conspicuous ability; the other because it is perhaps the most generally adopted, as it is certainly the most ancient view. Both these interpretations are based upon the theory that the letters of the name, when added together, according to their numerical value, will make up six hundred and sixty-six. The first of these alluded to finds the word in Nero Caesar. The second, and more ancient, finds it in Lateinos; this last was mentioned by Irenaeus. It will be seen that both these solutions are at one in making the number point to the great Roman Power; and this was the great embodiment of the terrible spirit of self-sufficiency, tyranny, and utter godless worldliness with which St. John was familiar. These interpretations are interpretations in example, and as such probably true. But they are only types, as it seems to me, of that fuller and deeper view which takes the number as symbolic of that power which, whether directed by Nero, or inspired by Emperor or Pope, or false teacher, or military tyrant, has dazzled mankind by a fictitious glory, a fictitious civilization, and a fictitious religion, or deceived them by holding out the promise of splendour and happiness without the knowledge and obedience of God, without law, without faith, and therefore without true joy. (Comp. Note of the “Three Frogs,” 16:13–14.)
We have had before us the terrible foes which the cause of Christ and His righteousness must encounter in the world. We have seen the subtle spirit of the evil one defeated, yet plotting new methods of assault, and utilizing the powers of the world, its sheer force and its culture, to crush holiness and to destroy spiritual religion. The whole vision reminds us that our conflict is not with flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, and the world rulers of this darkness (Eph. 6:12). We have seen the spiritual issues which are at stake. In all the outward forms which the conflict may assume, there is but one inward spiritual antagonism – the spirit of evil against the spirit of good, the god of this world against the Christ of God. We have seen this power of evil rise to its blasphemous climax. But what has the Church of Christ been doing? The sealed ones of God have suffered; but have they done more than suffer? Has theirs been only a passive endurance of evils? Have they wielded no weapons against these foes, and used no counter-influence for good? The chapter before us will answer. In it the sacred seer takes us from our survey of the powers of evil, and shows us the powers of good. We have seen the strength of the wild beast. We may now see the followers of the Lamb. In the chapter there are seven messengers, or agents, employed, who prepare for or complete the harvest: the angel of good news (verses 6–7); the angel proclaiming the doom of the great world city (verse 8); the angel who warns men against the mark of the wild beast (verses 9–12); the angel of comfort (verse 13); the angel of the wheat harvest (verses 14–16); the angel of the vintage (verse 17–20); the angel of fire (verse 18). But before these we are shown a vision of the servants of the Lamb.
The Citadel of the Saints and the Servants of the Lamb.