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THE PAROUSIA

by James Stuart Russell

THE FIRST VISION

THE MESSAGES TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES.

Rev. 1:10-20 —Rev. 2 —Rev. 3.

The Parousia

Notwithstanding what has been said respecting the imagery and symbolism of the Apocalypse, it is not to be forgotten that underlying these symbols there is everywhere a substratum of fact and reality. We have only to read the messages to the seven churches to discover that we are in a region of actual fact and intense reality. There is such individuality of character in the graphic delineations of the spiritual state of the several churches, that we cannot doubt that they are accurate and truthful portraits of the Christian communities which they describe. There is indeed a strange commingling of figure and fact; but there is no difficulty in discriminating between the one and the other; or, rather, they so admirably blend and harmonise that each lends vividness and force to the other. The explanation, also, of the symbols (Rev. 1:20) converts them into real existences, —‘The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches; and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.’

It is scarcely necessary to say that there is not the slightest foundation for the preposterous theory which represents these delineations of the spiritual condition of the seven churches as typical of successive states or phases of the Christian church in so many future ages of time. Such a hypothesis is incompatible with the express limitations of time laid down in the context, as well as inconsistent with the distinctive individuality of the several churches addressed. Everything shows that it is of the present, and the immediate future, that the Apocalypse treats. The first readers of these epistles must have felt that they came expressly to them, and not to other people, in other times. It is, no doubt, true that these epistles describe types of character which may be repeated, and are repeated continually, in successive generations; but this does not alter the fact that they had a direct and personal application to the churches specified, which they can never have to any other.

Let us endeavour, then, to place ourselves in the situation of those primitive churches in Ephesus, and Smyrna, and Pergamos, and Thyatira, and Sardis, and Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Let us call up the prominent features and actors of the time, and consider the hopes and fears, the dangers and difficulties, which occupied and agitated their minds. Is it not obvious that these things must necessarily constitute the elements which go to the composition of the whole book? If not, it is not easy to see what special interest or concern it could have for its original readers, whose blessedness it was pronounced to be to read, or hear, and keep its words. What, then, do we find in those early days? Suffering and persecuted Christians; malignant and blaspheming Jews; stern Roman magistrates; a brutal and capricious tyrant on the Imperial throne; among themselves false teachers, apostates from the faith; wide-spread degeneracy and defection. In addition to all this we find a general expectation of a great crisis at hand; the conviction that at length the time was come for which all Christians had been taught to wait and hope; the hour of deliverance for the persecuted faithful; the day of retribution and judgment for the enemy and the oppressor. The watchword was passed from man to man, from church to church, —‘Maranatha! The Lord is at hand. Behold, he is coming. He will not tarry.’ We know certainly that this thought burned in the hearts of the first Christians, for they had been taught to cherish it by the instructions of the apostles and by the promise of the Master. Their hope was not the hope of Christians now, —to live on the earth as long as possible, and to die at a good old age, and then go to heaven, there to await a full and final glorification in some distant period. Their hope was not to die at all, but to live to welcome their returning Lord, to be clothed upon with their heavenly investiture; to be caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so to be for ever with the Lord.

Such unquestionably were the circumstances, expectations, and attitude of the Christian people who received these messages from the coming deliverer by His servant John. It will be obvious how exactly the contents of these epistles correspond with the circumstances of the churches. There is a striking common resemblance in the structure of the epistles, as if cast in the same mould or formed on the same plan. They are all naturally divisible into seven parts:

  • The superscription.
  • The style or title of the writer.
  • A judicial declaration of the state or character of the church addressed.
  • An expression of commendation or of censure.
  • An exhortation to penitence, or to perseverance.
  • A special promise to ‘him that overcometh.’
  • A proclamation to all to hear what the Spirit said to each.

The chief point, however, which concerns us in these epistles to the churches is that we find in each of them a distinct allusion to a great and imminent crisis, when reward or punishment is to be meted out to each according to his work. No one can fail to be struck with the indications that an expected catastrophe is at hand. To Ephesus it is said, ‘I will come unto thee quickly’; (Rev. 2:5) to Smyrna, ‘Thou shalt have tribulation ten days’; (Rev. 2:10) to Pergamos, ‘I will come unto thee quickly’; (Rev. 2:16) to Thyatira, ‘Hold fast till I come’; (Rev. 2:25) to Sardis, ‘I will come on thee as a thief’; (Rev. 3:3) to Philadelphia, ‘Behold, I come quickly’; (Rev. 3:11) to Laodicea, ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock’. (Rev. 3:20) It is impossible to conceive that these urgent warnings had no special meaning to those to whom they were addressed; that they meant no more to them than they do to us; that they refer to a consummation which has never yet taken place. This would be to deprive the words of all significance. What can be more evident than that in these sharp, short, epigrammatic utterances all is intensely urgent, pressing, vehement, as if not a moment were to be lost, and negligence or delay might be fatal? But how could such passionate urgency be consistent with a far-off consummation, which might come in some distant period of time, which after eighteen hundred years is still in the future? Why resort to such an unnatural and unsatisfactory explanation when we know that there was a predicted and expected consummation which was to take place in the days when these churches flourished? We therefore conclude that the period of recompense and retribution referred to in all these epistles to the churches was the approaching ‘day of the Lord’—the Parousia, which the Saviour declared would take place before the passing away of the generation which witnessed His miracles and rejected His message.


THE SECOND VISION

THE SEVEN SEALS
Rev. 4—Rev. 5—Rev. 6—Rev. 7—Rev. 8:1.

Introduction to the vision,
Rev. 4—Rev. 5.

The real difficulties of apocalyptic exposition now begin. We seem to pass into a different region, where all is visionary and symbolical. The prophet is summoned by the trumpet-voice, which had previously spoken to him, to ascend into heaven, there to be shown ‘the things which must take place hereafter’[ after these]. (Rev. 4:1)

There is a manifest reference in these words to the direction given to the Seer in Rev. 1:19, ‘Write the things which thou sawest and what they signify, and the things which are about to happen after these.’ It is these last which the prophet is now to have revealed to him; the phrase, ‘the things which must happen after these’ [a dei genesyai], being evidently synonymous with ‘the things which are about to happen’ [a mellei genesyai], the latter expression clearly indicating that the time of their fulfilment is close at hand.

We must pass by the magnificent description of the heavenly majesty, in which we are reminded of the sublime visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, and come to the scene in which the prophet beholds, ‘in the right hand of him that sat on the throne, a book, or roll, written within and without, and sealed with seven seals.’ A strong angel proclaims with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?’ When none is found equal to the task, and the Seer is overwhelmed with grief because the mystic roll must remain unopened, he is comforted by the announcement made to him by one of the elders, that ‘the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.’ Accordingly, amid the adoring worship of the heavenly host, and of the whole created universe, the Lion-Lamb advances to the throne, takes the book from the right hand of Him that sat thereon, and proceeds to break in succession the seals by which it is fastened.

Nothing can be more vivid and dramatic than the scenes which are successively exhibited as the Lamb opens the seals. The four cherubs that guard the throne, one after another announce the breaking of the first four seals, with a loud cry of ‘Come!’ And as each is opened the Seer beholds a visionary figure pass across the field of view, emblematic of the contents of that portion of the scroll which is unrolled. It will be observed that there is a manifest gradation in the character of these emblematic representations, which rise in intensity and terror from the first to the last.

What, then, do these symbols represent? It needs only a glance to see their general nature and character. Everywhere it is WAR, and the concomitants of war, —blood, famine, and death, all leading up to and terminating in one dread and final catastrophe, in which the elements of nature seem to be dissolved in universal ruin—‘the great day of wrath’. (Rev. 6)

Of what events does the prophet speak? Some would have us believe that this is a compendium of universal history; that we have here the conquests of Imperial Rome for three hundred years, down to the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Empire by Constantine. We are sent to the volumes of Gibbon to wander through the ages in search of events to correspond with these symbols. But this is just what the seven churches of Asia had no power to do. Would it not have been a mockery to invite them to study and comprehend such visions, which even with the aid of Gibbon are not luminous to us? Surely, the interpreters who propound such solutions must have closed their eyes against the express teachings of the book itself. We are precluded by the terms of the prophecy from all such vague excursions into general history; we are shut up to the near, the imminent, the immediate; to things which must shortly come to pass; to events which intensely concern the original readers of the Apocalypse: ‘for the time is at hand.’ With this light in our hand all becomes clear. We have only to place ourselves in the time and circumstances of those primitive churches, and these visionary symbols shape themselves into historical facts before our eyes. The Seer stands on the verge of the long-predicted, long-expected crisis, for the coming of which in their own day the Saviour had before His departure prepared His disciples. As the prophecy which He delivered on the Mount of Olives commences with wars and rumours of wars, and goes on the speak of ‘Jerusalem compassed about with armies,’ and ‘the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place,’ till it culminates in the seeming wreck of universal nature, and ‘the coming of the Son of man in the clouds of heaven,’ so the prophecy in the Apocalypse proceeds in the same method.

Here, then, the vision is representative of the approaching destruction of Jerusalem and judgment of the guilty land. It is ‘the last time;’ and the beloved disciple, who hear the prophecy on the Mount, now sees its fulfilment in vision. His heart is filled with one thought, his eye with one scene. The storm of vengeance is gathering over his own land; his own nation—the city and temple of God. The armies are mustering for the conflict; and, as seal after seal is broken, he beholds the successive waves of that tremendous deluge of wrath which was about to overwhelm the devoted land of Israel. This we believe to be the significance of the symbolic vision of the seven seals. It is only another form of the selfsame catastrophe foretold by our Saviour to His disciples; but now the hour is come; the close of the aeon is at hand, and the ministers of the divine wrath are let loose upon the guilty nation.


OPENING OF THE FIRST SEAL.

Rev. 6:1, 2—‘And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying, as [with] a voice of thunder, Come.1 And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given to him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.’

It will be seen that we regard this vision as emblematic of the Jewish war, which was introductory to the great final event of the Parousia. Upon the opening of the first seal we behold the first act in the tragic drama. It is announced by one of the four mystic beings, represented as guarding the throne of God, exclaiming, with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ and behold, an armed warrior, seated on a white horse, and holding in his hand a bow, passes across the field of vision. A crown is bestowed upon the warrior, who goes forth conquering, and to conquer.

This is a most vivid representation of the first scene in the tragic drama of the Jewish war which commenced in the reign of Nero, A. D. 66, under the conduct of Vespasian. In the first scene we see the Roman invader advancing to the combat. As yet the war has not actually begun; the warrior rides upon a white horse; he holds in his had a bow, a weapon used at a distance. It is fanciful to see in the crown given to the horseman a presage that the diadem was to be placed on the head of Vespasian, or is it only the token of victory? However this may be, the whole imagery, as Alford observes, speaks of victory, —‘He went forth conquering and to conquer.’


OPENING OF THE SECOND SEAL.

Rev. 6:3, 4.—‘And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, Come. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given unto him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth [land], and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.’

This symbol also speaks for itself. Hostilities have now commenced; the white horse is succeeded by the red—the colour of blood. The bow gives place to the sword. It is a great sword, for the carnage is to be terrible. Peace flies from the land: all is strife and bloodshed. It is a civil as well as a foreign war, —‘ they kill one another.’

All this fitly represents the historical fact. The Jewish war, under Vespasian, commenced at the furthest distance from Jerusalem in Galilee, and gradually drew nearer and nearer to the doomed city. The Romans were not the only agents in the work of slaughter that depopulated the land; hostile factions among the Jews themselves turned their arms against one another, so that it might be said that ‘every man’s hand was against his brother.’ The exchange of the bow for the sword indicates that the combatants had now closed, and fought hand to hand: it is another act in the same tragedy.

It is worthy of notice that the language of the fourth verse (Rev. 6:4) not obscurely indicates the scene of war. Peace is taken from the land [ek thv ghv]. Stuart has accurately interpreted this circumstance: ‘Here, not the whole earth, but the land of Palestine is especially denoted.’1


THE OPENING OF THE THIRD SEAL.

Rev. 6:5, 6. —‘And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, Come. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard as it were a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, A measure of wheat for a denarius, and three measures of barley for a denarius; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.’

This symbol also is not difficult of interpretation. It signifies the deepening horrors of the war. Famine follows on the heels of war and slaughter. Food is now scarce in Judea, especially in the beleaguered cities, and most of all in Jerusalem, after its investment by Titus. Wheat and barley are at famine prices, for the daily wage of a labouring man (a denarius) suffices to buy only a single measure of wheat (a choenix, or less than a quart), and three times that quantity of inferior grain.2 This is significant of terrible privation among the crowded masses in the besieged city.

Turning from prophecy to history the pages of Josephus furnish us with a fearful commentary on this passage. He is speaking of the scarcity of food in Jerusalem during the period of the siege:—

‘Many privately exchanged all they were worth for a single measure of wheat, if they were rich; of barley, if they were poor. Then, shutting themselves up in the most retired recesses of their houses, some, from extremity of hunger, would eat the grain unprepared; others would cook it according as necessity and fear dictated. A table was nowhere spread, but snatching the dough half-baked from the fire, they tore it in pieces.’3

But what means injunction, ‘See thou hurt not the oil and the wine’? This has greatly perplexed commentators, for such a command seems not to accord with the prevalence of famine. If we are not mistaken, Josephus will enable us to reconcile this apparent incongruity.

After stating that John of Gischala, one of the partisan leaders who tyrannised over the miserable people in the last days of Jerusalem, seized and confiscated the sacred vessels of the temple, Josephus goes on to relate another act of sacrilege committed by the same chief, which seems to have aroused the deepest indignation and horror in the mind of the historian:—

‘Accordingly, drawing the sacred wine and oil, which the priests kept for pouring on the burnt-offerings, and which was deposited in the inner temple, he distributed them among his adherents, who consumed without horror more than a hin in anointing themselves and drinking. And here I cannot refrain from expressing what my feelings suggest. I am of opinion that had the Romans deferred the punishment of these wretches, either the earth would have opened and swallowed up the city, or it would have been swept away by a deluge, or have shared the thunderbolt of the land of Sodom. For it produced a generation far more ungodly than those who were thus visited; for through the desperate madness of these men the whole nation was involved in their ruin.’4

This serves to explain the use of the word adikhshv [deal unjustly with] in this injunction: ‘See thou deal not unjustly with the oil and the wine.’ Mark. Elliott, in opposition to Dean Alford, contends for the sense ‘do not commit injustice in respect to the oil,’ etc. Rinck, as quoted by Alford, renders it ‘waste not,’ etc. The incident related by Josephus shows how the word adikhshv suits every variety of rendering. The act of John was adikia in the sense of sacrilegious wrong; it was also asikia in the sense of wanton waste.5


OPENING OF THE FOURTH SEAL.

Rev. 6:7, 8. —‘And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, Come. 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 over the fourth part of the earth [land], to kill with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the beasts of the earth.’

The scene here is evidently the same, only with all the horrors and miseries of the war intensified. The ghastly spectres of Death and Hades now follow in the train of famine and war. The ‘four sore judgments of God,’ which Ezekiel saw commissioned to destroy the land of Israel, ‘the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence,’ are again let loose upon the land, and by them the fourth part of its population is doomed to perish. Never was there such a glut of mortality as in the war which terminated in the siege and capture of Jerusalem. The best commentary on this passage is to be found in the records of Josephus, as the following description will show:—

‘All egress being now intercepted, every hope of safety to the Jews was utterly cut off; and famine, with distended jaws, was devouring the people by houses and families. The roofs were filled with women and babes in the last stage; the streets with old men already dead. Children and youths, swollen up, huddled together like spectres in the market-places, and fell down wherever the pangs of death seized them. To inter their relations they who were themselves affected had not strength; and those still in health and vigour were deterred by the multitude of the dead and by the uncertainty that hung over themselves. For many expired while burying others, and many repaired to the cemeteries ere the fatal hour arrived.’

‘Amidst these calamities there was neither lamentation nor wailing: famine overpowered the affections. With dry eyes and gaping mouths the slowly-dying gazed on those who had gone to their rest before them. Profound silence reigned through the city, and a night pregnant with death, and the brigands more dreadful still than these. For, bursting open the houses, as they would a sepulchre, they plundered the dead, and, dragging off the coverings from the bodies, departed with laughter. They even tried the points of their swords in the carcases, and to prove the temper of their blades would run them through some of those who were stretched still breathing on the ground; others, who implored them to lend them their hand and sword, they abandoned disdainfully to the famine. They all expired with their eyes intently fixed on the temple, averting them from the insurgents whom they left alive. These at first, finding the stench of the bodies insupportable, ordered that they should be buried at the public expense; but afterwards, when unequal to the task, they threw them from the walls into the ravines below.’

‘But why need I enter into any partial details of their calamities, when Mannoeus, the son of Lazarus, who at this period took refuge with Titus, declared, that from the fourteenth of the month Xanthicus, the day on which the Romans encamped before the walls, until the new moon of Panemus, there were carried through that one gate, which had been entrusted to him, a hundred and fifteen thousand eight hundred and eighty corpses. This multitude was all of the poorer class; nor had he undertaken the charge himself, but having been entrusted with the distribution of the public fund, he was obliged to keep count. The remainder were buried by their relations. The interment, however, consisted merely in bringing them forth and casting them out of the city.’

‘After him many of the higher ranks escaped; and they brought word that full six hundred thousand of the humbler classes had been thrown out through the gates. Of the others it was impossible to ascertain the number. They stated, moreover, that when they had no longer strength to carry out the poor they piled the carcases in the largest houses and shut them up: and that a measure of wheat had been sold for a talent; and that still later, when it was no longer possible to gather herbs, the city being walled round, some were reduced to such distress that they searched the sewers and the stale ordure of cattle, and ate the refuse; and what they would formerly have turned away from with disgust then became food.’—Traill’s Josephus, Jewish War, bk. v. chap. xii. sect. 3; chap. xiii. sect. 7.’


OPENING OF THE FIFTH SEAL.

Rev. 6:9-11. —‘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: 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 [land]? And a white robe was 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.’

This passage may be regarded as a crucial test of any interpretation of the Apocalypse. It may be truly said that anything more unsatisfactory, uncertain, and conjectural than the explanation given by those interpreters who find in the Apocalypse a syllabus of ecclesiastical history can scarcely be imagined. But if our guiding principle be correct, it will lead us to such an interpretation as will demonstrate by its self-evidence that it is the true one.

The scene now changes from the battle-field, and the scenes of carnage and blood in the besieged and famished city, to the temple of God. But it is still Jerusalem. The Christian martyrs whom Jerusalem had slain are represented as crying aloud from under the altar, and appealing to the justice of God no longer to delay the vindication of their cause, and the avenging of their blood ‘on them that dwell in the land.’ This is a new and important scene in the tragic drama, but one that is in perfect keeping with the teaching of the New Testament. Our Lord forewarned the Jews that ‘upon them should come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel, unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachaias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation’. (Matt. 23:35, 36) In like manner He forewarned His disciples that some of them would fall victims to Jewish enmity: ‘Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you’. (Matt. 24:9) All this was to precede ‘the end’. (Matt. 24:13) Our Lord also declared that Jerusalem was deepest in the guilt of shedding innocent blood: she was the murderess of the prophets; and upon her the most signal punishment was to fall. (Matt. 23:31-39)

Here, then, we have the chief elements of the scene before us. But this is not all. It is impossible not to be struck with the marked resemblance between the vision of the fifth seal and our Lord’s parable of the unjust judge: (Luke 18:1-8) ‘And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith in the land?’ This is more than resemblance: it is identity. In both we find the same complainants, —the elect of God; they appeal to Him for redress; in both we find the response to the appeal, ‘He will avenge them speedily;’ in both we find the scene of their sufferings laid in the same place—‘in the land’— i.e. the land of Judea. The vision and the parable also mutually supplement one another. The vision tells us the cause of the cry for vengeance, and who the appellants are, viz. the martyred disciples of Jesus who have sealed their testimony with their blood. The parable suggests the time when the retribution would arrive, —‘when the Son of man cometh;’ and likewise the mournful fact that when the Parousia took place it would find Israel still impenitent and still unbelieving.

The vision of the fifth seal likewise elucidates an obscure passage which has hitherto baffled all attempts to solve its meaning. In 1 Pet. 4:6 we find the following statement: ‘For, for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.’ Referring the reader back to the remarks made upon this passage etc. (see topic 117), it will suffice here to recapitulate the conclusion there reached. The statement really is, ‘For, for this cause a comforting message was brought even to the dead, that they, though condemned in the flesh by man’s judgment, should live in the spirit by the judgment of God.’ This evidently points to the vindication of those who had by the unrighteous judgment of men suffered death for the truth of God; it declares that they had been comforted after death by the tidings that they should, by the divine judgment, enjoy eternal life. There is no allusion anywhere to be found in Scripture to any such transaction, except in the passage before us, —the vision of the fifth seal. This, however, precisely meets all the requirements of the case. Here we find ‘the dead,’—the Christian martyrs, who had died for the faith; they had been condemned in the flesh by the unrighteous judgment of man. It is manifestly implied that they had appealed to the righteous judgment of God. In response to their appeal ‘a comforting message’ [euaggelion] had been communicated to them; they are told to rest a little while until their brethren and fellow-servants who are to be killed like them shall join them; while ‘white robes,’ the tokens of innocence and emblems of victory, are given to them. We think it must be obvious that this scene under the fifth seal exactly corresponds with the allusion of St. Peter and the parable of our Lord. It is important also to observe the place which this scene occupies in the tragic drama. It is after the outbreak, but before the conclusion, of the Jewish war; it precedes by a little while the final catastrophe of the sixth seal. It is the impatient cry of the martyred saints, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ It calls for just retribution on those who had shed their blood; and it distinctly specifies who they are by describing them as ‘them that dwell in the land.’ And all this is immediately antecedent to the final catastrophe under the next seal, which depicts the wrath of God coming upon the guilty land ‘to the uttermost.’ Here, then, we have a body of evidence so varied, so minute, and so cumulative that we may venture to call it demonstration.6


OPENING OF THE SIXTH SEAL.

Rev. 6:12-17. —‘And I beheld when he 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; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth [land], 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; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?’

We now come to the last act of this awful tragedy: the catastrophe which closes the second vision. It may excite surprise that the catastrophe occurs under the sixth seal, and not under the seventh, as we might have expected. But the seventh seal is made the link of connection between the second and the third visions, and is most artistically employed to introduce the next series of seven, viz. the vision of the seven trumpets. We may here observe that each of the visions culminates in a catastrophe, or signal act of divine judgment, bringing destruction on the wicked, and salvation to the righteous.

No one can fail to observe that nearly every feature in this awful scene occurs in our Lord’s prophecy on the Mount of Olives with reference to the coming judgments on the city and nation of Israel. There is, therefore, no room for a moment’s uncertainty as to the meaning of the vision of the sixth seal; but the more closely that every symbol is studied, the more distinctly will be seen its relation to the great catastrophe. This is the ‘dies irae’—the hmera kuriakh—‘the great and terrible day of the Lord’ predicted by Malachi,7 for which the apostolic church was watching and waiting, —the day of the judgment for the guilty nation, and, as we shall presently see, the day of redemption and reward for the people of God.

It will be proper, first, to note the correspondence between the symbols in the vision and those in our Lord’s prophetic discourse:—

THE SIXTH SEAL.
THE PROPHECY ON OLIVET.
'And lo, there was a great earthquake.'
'And there shall be earthquakes in divers places.' (Luke 21:11 Matt. 24:7)
'And the sun became black as sackcloth of hair.'
'Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened.'
'And the moon became as blood.'
'And the moon shall not give her light.'
'And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth.'
'And the stars shall fall from heaven.'
'And the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together.'
'And the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.'(Matt. 24:29)
'And the kings, etc., hid themselves, ... and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us,' etc.
'Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us: and to the hills, Cover us.'(Luke 23:30)

The comparison of these parallel passages must satisfy every reasonable mind that they both refer to one and the same event. What that event is our Lord’s words decisively determine: ‘Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled’. (Matt. 24:34) The only passage which does not come within the discourse on the Mount of Olives is the address to the women who followed our Lord in the way to Calvary, yet even there the limitation of the time is clearly indicated: ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children;’ implying that the calamities which He predicted would come in the lifetime of themselves and their children. The same nearness of the time is marked by the phrase, ‘Behold, the days are coming’. (Luke 23:29)

No doubt it will appear an objection to this explanation that the destruction of Jerusalem, awful as it was, appears inadequate as the antitype of the imagery of the sixth seal. The object applies equally to our Lord’s prophecy where His own authority determines the application of the signs. Indeed it applies to all prophecy: for prophecy is poetry, and Oriental poetry also, in which gorgeous symbolical imagery is the vesture of thought.8 Besides, the objection is based upon an inadequate estimate of the real significance and importance of the destruction of Jerusalem. That event is not simply a tragical historical incident; it is not to be looked at as in the same category with the siege of Troy or the destruction of Tyre or of Carthage. It was a grand providential epoch; the close of an aeon; the winding up of a great period in the divine government of the world. The material catastrophe was but the outward and visible sign of a mighty crisis in the realm of the unseen and the spiritual.

At the same time it is to be observed that the historical facts underlying these symbols are sufficiently real and tangible. The consternation and terror here depicted as seizing on ‘the kings of the land, the great men,’ etc., are in perfect accord with the scenes in the last days of Jerusalem as described by Josephus. Premising that by ‘the kings of the land’ [basileiv thv ghv] are meant the rulers of Judea, as we shall be able to show, we find the prophetic description wonderfully correspondent with the historical facts. First, the scene in the vision is evidently laid in a country abounding in rocky caverns and hiding-places, which, it is well known, are characteristic of Judea. The limestone hills of that country are literally honeycombed with caverns, which have been the dens of robbers and the shelter of fugitives from time immemorial. Ewald acknowledges ‘that there is here a special reference to the peculiarities of Palestine as to its rocks and caves, which afford places of shelter for fugitives.’ (Quoted by Stuart, Apocalypse, in loc.) These two notes, the land, and its geological character, fix the locale of the scene. Secondly, it is a fact attested by Josephus that the last hiding-places of the infatuated citizens of Jerusalem were the rocky caverns and the subterranean passages into which they fled for refuge after the capture of the city:—

‘The last hope,’ says Josephus, ‘that buoyed up the tyrants and their brigand bands lay in the subterranean excavations, in which, should they take refuge, they expected that no search would be made for them, and purposed, after the final overthrow of the city, when the Romans should have withdrawn, to come forth and seek safety in flight. But this was after all a mere dream, for they were unable to hide themselves from the observation either of God, or of the Romans.’9

Still more striking, if possible, is the fact mentioned by Josephus, that Simon, one of the chiefs of the rebellion, secreted himself after the capture of the city in one of these subterranean hiding-places. The incident is thus related by the Jewish historian:—

‘This Simon, during the siege of Jerusalem, had occupied the upper town; but when the Roman army had entered within the walls and was laying the whole city waste, accompanied by the most faithful of his friends, and some stonecutters with the iron tools required by them in their trade, and with provisions sufficient for many days, he let himself down with all his party into one of the secret caverns, and advanced through it as far as the ancient excavations permitted. Here, being met by firm ground, they mined it, in hope of being able to proceed farther, and, emerging in a place of safety, thus effect their escape. But the result of the operations proved the hope fallacious. The miners advance slowly and with difficulty, and the provisions, though husbanded, were on the point of failing.’

‘Thereupon Simon, thinking that he might pass a cheat upon the Romans by the effect of terror, dressed himself in white tunics, and buttoning a purple cloak over them, rose up out of the earth at the very spot where the temple formerly stood. At first indeed, the beholders were seized with amazement, and stood fixed to the spot; but afterwards, approaching nearer, they demanded who he was. This Simon refused to tell them, but directed them to call the general; on which they ran quickly to Terentius Rufus, who had been left in command of the army. He accordingly came, and after hearing from Simon the whole truth, he kept him in irons, and acquainted Caesar with the particulars of his capture.... His ascent out of the ground, however, led at that period to the discovery, in other caverns, of a vast multitude of the other insurgents. On the return of Caesar to the maritime Caesarea, Simon was brought to him in chains, and he ordered him to be kept for the triumph which he was preparing to celebrate in Rome.’10

Thus, with all the symbol and imagery we have at the same time such a basis of historical reality and literal fact as abundantly to verify the fulfilment of the prophetic vision.


EPISODE OF THE SEALING OF THE SERVANTS OF GOD.

Rev. 7:1-17.—‘After this, 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. 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, saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads. 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,’ etc.

In the very crisis of the catastrophe the action is suddenly suspended until the safety of the servants of God is assured. The four destroying angels who are commissioned to let loose the elements of wrath upon the guilty land are commanded to stay the execution of the sentence until ‘the servants of our God have been sealed on their foreheads.’ Accordingly an angel, having ‘the seal of the living God,’ sets marks upon the faithful, the nationality and number of whom are distinctly declared, —‘an hundred and forty and four thousand from every tribe of the children of Israel.’ In addition to these, an innumerable multitude, ‘of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues,’ are seen standing before the throne, clothed with white robes and with palms of victory in their hands, ascribing praise and glory to God amid the felicity and splendours of heaven.

This representation is generally regarded as an episode, or digression from the main action of the piece. No doubt it is so; but at the same time it is essential to the completeness of the catastrophe, and in fact an integral part of it.

It will be seen that in every catastrophe in this book of visions, —and every vision ends in a catastrophe, —there are two parts, viz. the judgment inflicted upon the enemies of Christ and the blessedness conferred upon His servants.

Now, under the sixth seal, where the catastrophe of the vision is placed, we have already seen the first part described, viz. the judgment of the enemies of God; but the other part, the deliverance of the people of God, is represented in the chapter before us. The progress of judgment is even arrested until the safety of the servants of Christ is secured.

What, then, is the meaning of this episode?

In the predictions relating to the ‘end of the age’ we invariably find a promise of safety and blessedness to the disciples of Christ, coupled with declarations of coming wrath upon their enemies. To give two or three examples out of many: in our Lord’s prophecy on the Mount of Olives, of which the Apocalypse is the echo and expansion, He warns His disciples to make their escape from Judea when they saw ‘Jerusalem compassed about with armies’, (Luke 21:20) ‘and the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place’. (Matt. 24:15) He assures them that ‘there should not an hair of their head perish;’ that when the signs of His coming began to appear, then they should look up, and lift up their heads, because their redemption was drawing nigh. (Luke 21:18-28) That the Son of man would send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and would ‘gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’. (Matt. 24:31) That in the great judgment day, which was to follow the destruction of Jerusalem, the wicked should ‘go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life’. (Matt. 25:46)

In harmony with these declarations we find the apostles teaching the churches that when ‘the day of the Lord’ came, ‘sudden destruction would overtake the enemies of God, while Christians would obtain salvation’; (1 Thess. 5:2, 3, 9) that when the Lord Jesus was ‘revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, to take vengeance on them that know not God,’ His faithful people would enter into ‘rest,’ and would ‘be counted worthy of the kingdom of God’.(2 Thess. 1:5-9)

It is this deliverance and salvation promised to the disciples of Christ which is symbolically shadowed forth in the episode to the sixth seal. The imagery by which it is described is evidently taken from the scene beheld in vision by the prophet, (Ezek. 9) where ‘the men that sigh, and that cry for all the abominations of Jerusalem,’ have ‘a mark set upon their foreheads,’ which was to ensure their safety when the executioners of divine justice went forth to slay the inhabitants of the city.

It is worthy of remark that Jerusalem is the scene of judgment alike in the prophecy of Ezekiel and in the Apocalypse; and the allusion by St. Peter to this very transaction in Ezekiel’s vision, as about to be repeated in the Jerusalem of his own day, is very significant. (1 Pet. 4:17)

But the fullest light is thrown upon this episode by the words of our Lord: ‘The Son of man shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’. (Matt. 24:31) This episode is the representation of the accomplishment of that promise. While wrath to the uttermost is being poured upon the land; while the tribes of the land are mourning; while the enemies of God are fleeing to hide in the dens and caves; in that dread hour the angel’s trumpet convokes the faithful remnant of the people of God, ‘that they may be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger.’ The time was now full come; for all this, it must be remembered, was to be witnessed by the apostles themselves, or at least by some of them; for our Lord’s own generation was not to pass till all these things were fulfilled.

Accordingly it was the cherished hope of the Christians of the apostolic age that they should escape the general doom, and enter into the possession of immortality by the instantaneous change which should come over them at the appearing of the Lord. St. Paul reassured the Christians of Thessalonica by telling them that they which were alive, and remained unto the coming of the Lord, should not take precedence of those who had departed in the faith previous to the Lord’s coming. He declares to them, by the word of the Lord, that ‘the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and, first, the dead in Christ shall rise; then we, the living, who remain behind, shall be caught up all together with them, in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And so shall we ever be with the Lord’.(1 Thess. 4:15-17) He alludes again to this same confident expectation in 2 Thess. 2:1, where he says, ‘Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,’ etc. This peculiar expression, ‘our gathering together’ [episunagwgh], would be scarcely intelligible but for the light thrown upon it in Matt. 24:31 and in Rev. 7. The same period, the same transaction, are referred to in our Lord’s prophecy, in St. Paul’s epistle, and in the episode before us. Here is the great consummation, and the assuring of the safety of the people of God when destruction overtakes the impenitent and unbelieving. All this belongs to the great crisis at the end of the aeon, —that is, at the close of the Jewish dispensation. The finger of the Lord has defined the limits beyond which we may not go in determining the period of this transaction: ‘Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass till all these things are fulfilled.’ Whatever our opinion may be as to the extent or the manner of the fulfilment of the prediction, uttered alike by our Lord, by St. Paul, and by St. John, of one thing can be no doubt, —the Scriptures are irrevocably committed to the assertion of the fact.

It will be remarked that there are two classes, or divisions, of ‘the people of God’ who are specified in this episode. The first class belongs to a particular nation, —‘the hundred and forty and four thousand out of every tribe of the children of Israel.’ These must of necessity represent the Jewish Christian church of the apostolic period. But in addition to these there is a multitude which no man could number, belonging to all nationalities; that is to say, not Israelites but Gentiles. This class, therefore, must of necessity represent the Gentile church of the apostolic period; the ‘uncircumcision,’ who were admitted into the privileges of the covenant people, called to be ‘fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of God’s promise in Christ by the gospel,’ along with the Jewish believers. This representation implies that the danger and deliverance symbolised by the sealing of the servants of God were not confined to Judea and Jerusalem. The religion of Jesus of Nazareth was a proscribed and persecuted faith over the whole Roman Empire before the outbreak of the Jewish war and the abrogation of the Jewish economy. Accordingly the redeemed in the vision, the ‘white-robed multitude,’ are said to come out of great tribulation: an expression which gives us a clue to the determination of the time and the persons here referred to. Our Lord, when predicting the season of unparalleled affliction that was to precede the catastrophe of Jerusalem and Juda, says, ‘Then shall be great tribulation [yliqiv megalh], such as was not since the beginning of the world,’ etc. (Matt. 24:21) Now in the statement in the episode, ‘These are they that came out of great tribulation,’ there is an unquestionable allusion to our Lord’s words. The proper rendering, as Alford points out, is, —‘These are they that came out of the great tribulation’ [ek thv yliqewv thv megalhv], the definite article being most emphatic, and the tribulation plainly in allusion to the prediction in Matt. 24:21.

We are thus brought, by the guidance of the word of God itself, to one and the same conclusion; and it is impossible not to be impressed by the concurrence of so many different lines of argument leading to one result. We are justified, therefore, in concluding that the episode of the sealing of the servants of God represents the safety and deliverance of the faithful in the fearful time of judgment which, at the Parousia, overtook the guilty city and land of Israel.


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Footnotes

1.  The words ‘and see,’ appended in our Authorised Version to ‘come,’ are now generally rejected as spurious. Come, is in the singular number, ‘Come thou,’ and may be regarded as spoken to the visionary figure, who thereupon appears upon the scene; or, more probably, it is the invocation of ‘the Coming One’ [uu ercomenov]. It is the same expression with which the Apocalypse concludes, "Ercou Kurie".

2.  Commentary on Apocalypse, in loc.

3.  Bloomfield says: ‘The choenix was our quart, and was considered a sufficient portion for a man’s support for a day. The price subjoined (which has been proved to be enormous, viz. twenty times the usual one) is meant to intimate the excessive scarcity and dearness of the article.’—Greek Testament, in loc. See also Wordsworth’s Lectures on the Apocalypse, pp. 109, 110.

4.  Traill’s Josephus, Jewish War, bk. v. chap. x, Sec. 2.

5.  Ibid. bk. v. chap. xiii. sec. 6.

6.  ‘On the purport of these words, "See thou hurt not," etc., commentators are not agreed whether there is herein contained a command not to injure the oil and wine, or an injunction not to do wrong in respect to them. If the former be adopted, adik. will be = blapt. as often in this book. (See also Josephus and the classical writers.) If the latter, we may suppose mh adik. to mean, "See that thou dost not adulterate" (literally, "play the rogue with it") Thus the four articles are adverted to which (according to the simplicity of living in the East) form the main support of life.’—Bloomfield’s Greek Testament, in loc.

7.  For further corroboration of this exposition see the remarks on Rev. 10:7.

8.  It is impossible to overlook the connection between the seventeenth verse Rev. 6:17 and the language of Mal. 3:2, ‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’

9.  See Note On the Symbolism of Prophesy 138

10.  Traill’s Josephus, bk. vi. 7.

11.  Traill’s Josephus, Jewish War, bk. vii. chap. ii. sect. 2.

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