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THE PAROUSIA

by James Stuart Russell

THE THIRD VISION

THE SEVEN TRUMPETS

Rev. 8—Rev. 9—Rev. 10—Rev. 11.

The Parousia

We have now reached the close of the second vision, and it might be supposed that the catastrophe by which it was concluded is so complete and exhaustive that there could be no room for any further development. But it is not so. And here we have again to call attention to one of the leading features in the structure of the Apocalypse. It is not a continuous and progressive sequence of events, but a continually recurring representation of substantially the same tragic history in fresh forms and new phases. Dr. Wordsworth, almost alone among the interpreters of this book, has comprehended this characteristic of its structure. At the same time every new vision enlarges the sphere of our observation and heightens the interest by the introduction of new incidents and actors.

OPENING OF THE SEVENTH SEAL.

Rev. 8:1. —‘And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.’

The seventh seal, strictly speaking, belongs to the former vision; but it will be observed that the catastrophe of that vision occurs under the sixth seal, and that the seventh becomes simply the connecting link between the second vision and the third, —between the seals and the trumpets. This no doubt intimates the close relation subsisting between them. We cannot conceive of the events denoted by the seven trumpets as subsequent in point of time to the events represented as taking place at the opening of the sixth seal, for that would involve inextricable confusion and incongruity. It appears the most reasonable supposition that we have here, in the vision of the seven trumpets, a fresh unfolding of the desolating judgments which were about to overwhelm the doomed land of Judea. Dr. Wordsworth observes: ‘The seven trumpets do not differ in time from the seven seals, but rather synchronise with them.’1 We doubt whether this is the correct way of stating the synchronism. We think the whole vision of the trumpets forms part of the catastrophe under the sixth seal.


THE FIRST FOUR TRUMPETS.

Rev. 8:7-12. —‘The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth’ [land], etc.

The vision opens with a proem, or introduction, according to the usual structure of the apocalyptic visions. The standpoint of the Seer is still heaven, though the scene on which the main action of the piece is take to place is the earth, or rather the land. It cannot be too carefully borne in mind that it is Israel, —Judea, Jerusalem, —on which the prophet is gazing. To roam over the breadth of the whole earth, and to bring into the question all time and all nations, is not only to bewilder the reader in a labyrinth of perplexities, but wholly to miss the point and purport of the book. ‘The Doom of Israel; or, the Last Days of Jerusalem,’ would be no unsuitable title for the Apocalypse. The action of the piece, also, is comprised within a very brief space of time, —for these things were ‘shortly to come to pass.’

To return to the vision. After an awful pause on the opening of the seventh seal, significant of the solemn and mournful character of the events which are about to take place, seven angels, or rather the seven angels who stand before God, receive seven trumpets, which they are commissioned successively to sound. Before they begin, however, an angel presents to God the prayers of the saints, along with the smoke of much incense from a golden censer, at the golden altar which was before the throne. This is usually regarded as symbolical of the acceptableness of Christian worship through the intercession and advocacy of the Mediator. But observe the effects of the prayers. The angel takes the censer which had perfumed the prayers of the saints, fills it with fire from the altar, and hurls it upon the land: and immediately voices, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake follow. Strange answers to prayer. But if we regard these prayers of the saints as the appeals of the suffering and persecuted people of God, whom we have seen represented in the former visions as crying aloud, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ all becomes clear. The Lord will avenge the blood of His servants; His wrath is kindled; swift retribution is at hand. The censer which censed the prayers becomes the vehicle of judgment, and is cast upon the land, filled with the fury of the Lord, —the fire from the altar before the throne.

Now, the seven angels prepared to sound, and each blast is the signal for an act of judgment. It will be observed that the first four trumpets, like the first four seals, differ from the remaining three. They have a certain indefiniteness, and the symbols, though sublime and terrible, do not seem susceptible of a particular historical verification. Probably they correspond with those phenomenal perturbations of nature to which our Lord alludes in His prophecy on the Mount of Olives as preceding the Parousia: ‘There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth [land] distress of nations, with perplexity: the sea and the waves roaring’. (Luke 21:25) These are the very objects affected by the first four trumpets, viz. the earth, the sea, the sun, the moon, the stars. Without endeavouring, then, to find a specific explanation of these portents, it is enough to regard them as the outward and visible signs of the divine displeasure manifested towards the impenitent and unbelieving; symptoms that the natural world was agitated and convulsed on account of the wickedness of the time; emblems of the general dislocation and disorganisation of society which preceded and portended the final catastrophe of the Jewish people.

The last three trumpets, however, are of a very different character from the first four. They are indeed symbolical, like the others, but the symbols are less indefinite and seem more capable of a historical interpretation. The judgments under the first four trumpets are marked by what we may call an artificial character; they affect the third part of every thing, —the third part of the trees, the third part of the grass, the third part of the sea, the third part of the fish, the third part of the ships, the third part of the rivers, the third part of sun, the third part of the moon, the third part of the stars, the third part of the day, the third part of the night. It would be preposterous to require a historical verification of such symbols. But the remaining trumpets appear to enter more into the domain of reality and of history; and accordingly we shall find great light thrown upon them by the Scriptures and by the contemporaneous history. That a special importance is attached to these last trumpets is evident from the fact that they are introduced by a note of warning:—

Rev. 8:13.—‘And I beheld, and heard an eagle flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the land by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound.’

This introductory note to the three woe-trumpets requires some observations.

First, the reader will perceive that the true reading of the text is eagle, not angel. ‘I heard an eagle flying through the midst of heaven.’ This is the symbol of war and rapine. There is a striking parallel to this representation in Hos. 8:1: ‘Set the trumpet to thy mouth. He shall come as an eagle against the house of the Lord, because they have transgressed my covenant.’ In the Apocalypse the eagle comes on the same mission, announcing woe, war, and judgment.

Secondly, the reader will observe the persons on whom the predicted woes are to fall, —‘the inhabiters of the land.’ As in Rev. 6:10, so here, gh must be taken in a restricted sense, as referring to the land of Israel. The rendering of gh by earth, instead of land, and of aiwn by world, instead of age, have been most fruitful sources of mistake and confusion in the interpretation of the New Testament. With singular inconsistency our translators have rendered gh sometimes earth, sometimes land, in almost consecutive verses, greatly obscuring the sense. Thus in Luke 21:23, they render gh by land:‘there shall be great distress in the land’ [epi thvghv], being compelled to restrict the meaning by the next clause, —‘And wrath upon this people.’ But in the next verse but one, where the very same phrase recurs, —‘distress epi thv ghv,’—they render it ‘upon the earth.’ In the passage now before us the woes are to be understood as denounced, not upon the inhabitants of the globe, but of the land, that is, of Judea.


THE FIFTH TRUMPET.

Rev. 9:1-12—‘And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fallen from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the pit of the abyss. And he opened the pit of the abyss; 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... And unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power... And they have a king over them which is the angel of the abyss, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, and in the Greek tongue he hath his name Apollyon. One woe is past; behold there come two woes more after this.’

On this symbolical representation Alford well observes, —‘There is an endless Babel of allegorical and historical interpretation of these locusts from the pit; ‘but while clearing the ground of the heap of romantic speculation by which it has been encumbered, he abstains from putting anything better in its place.

Without assuming to have more insight than other expositors, we cannot but feel that the principle of interpretation on which we proceed, and which is so obviously laid down by the Apocalypse itself, gives a great advantage in the search and discovery of the true meaning. With our attention fixed on a single spot of earth, and absolutely shut up to a very brief space of time, it is comparatively easy to read the symbols, and still more satisfactory to mark their perfect correspondence with facts.

Whatever obscurity there may be in this extraordinary representation, it seems quite clear that it cannot refer to any human army. On the contrary everything points to what is infernal and demoniac. Considering the origin, the nature, and the leader of this mysterious host, it is impossible to regard it in any other light than as a symbol of the irruption of a baleful demon power. It is exactly as it is represented to be, the host of hell swarming out upon the curse-stricken land of Israel. We have before us a hideous picture of a historic reality, the utterly demoralised and, so to speak, demon-possessed condition of the Jewish nation towards the tragic close of its eventful history. Have we any ground for believing that the last generation of the Jewish people was really worse than any of its predecessors? Is it reasonable to suppose that this degeneracy had any connection with Satanic influence? To both these questions we answer, Yes. We have a very remarkable declaration of our Lord on these two points, which, we venture to affirm, gives the key to the true interpretation of the symbols before us. In the twelfth chapter of St. Matthew (Matt. 12) He compares the nation, or rather the generation then existing, to a demoniac out of whom an unclean spirit had been expelled. There had been a temporary moral reformation wrought in the nation by the preaching of the second Elias, and by our Lord’s own labours. But the old inveterate unbelief and impenitence soon returned, and returned in sevenfold force:—

‘When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return unto my house from whence I came out; and when he is come he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and then enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be unto this wicked generation.’ (Matt. 12:43-45)

The closing sentence is full of significance. The guilty and rebellious nation, which had rejected and crucified its King, was, in its last stage of impenitence and obduracy, to be given over to the unrestrained dominion of evil. The exorcised demon was at the last to return reinforced by a legion.2

We have abundant evidence in the pages of Josephus of the truth of this representation. Again and again he declares that the nation had become utterly corrupt and debased. ‘No generation,’ says he, ‘ever existed more prolific in crime.’3

‘I am of opinion,’ he says again, ‘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 thunderbolts of the land of Sodom. For it produced a race far more ungodly than those who were thus visited.’—Josephus, bk. v. chap. xiii.

Let us now look at the symbols of the fifth trumpet in the light of these observations. There can be no question as to the identity of the ‘star fallen from heaven, to whom the key of the abyss is given.’ It can only refer to Satan, whom our Lord beheld ‘as lightning fall from heaven’; (Luke 10:18) ‘How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!’ (Isa. 14:12) The cloud of locusts issuing from the pit of the abyss—locusts commissioned not to destroy vegetation, but to torment men—points not obscurely to malignant spirits, the emissaries of Satan. The place from which they proceed, the abyss, is distinctly spoken of in the gospels as the abode of the demons. The legion cast out of the demoniac of Gadara besought our Lord ‘that he would not command them to go out into the abyss’. (Luke 8:31) The locusts in the vision are represented as inflicting grievous torments on the bodies of men; and this is in accordance with the statements of the New Testament respecting the physical effect of demoniac possession—‘grievously vexed with a devil’. (Matt. 15:22) It need cause no difficulty that unclean spirits should be symbolised by locusts, seeing they are also compared to frogs, Rev. 16:13. As to the extraordinary appearance of the locusts, and their power limited to five months’ duration, the best critics seem agreed that these features are borrowed from the habits and appearance of the natural locust, whose ravages, it is said, are confined to five months of the year, and whose appearance in some degree resembles horses. (See Alford, Stuart, Deut. Wette, Ewald, etc.) It is enough, however, to regard such minutiae rather as poetical imagery than symbolical traits. Finally, their king, ‘the angel of the abyss,’ whose name is Abaddon, and Apollyon, the Destroyer, can be no other than ‘the ruler of the darkness of this world;’ ‘the prince of the power of the air;’ ‘the spirit that worketh in the children of disobedience.’ The malignant and infernal dominion of Satan over the doomed nation was now established. Yet his time was short, for ‘the prince of this world’ was soon to be ‘cast out.’ Meanwhile his emissaries had no power to injure the true servants of God, ‘but only those men which had not the seal of God in their foreheads.’

Such is the invasion of this infernal host; all hell, as it were, let loose upon the devoted land, turning Jerusalem into a pandemonium, a habitation of devils, the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. (Rev. 18:2)4

THE SIXTH TRUMPET.

Rev. 9:13-21. —‘And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound on the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed, which had been prepared for the hour, and day, and month, and year, for to slay the third part of men. And the number of the army of the horsemen was two myriads of myriads: and I heard the number of them,’ etc.

The sixth trumpet is introduced by the announcement, —‘The first woe is past, behold, there are coming two woes still after these things;’—indicating that their arrival is near: they are on the way-‘they are coming’ [ercetai].

There is a certain resemblance between the vision here depicted and the preceding. Both refer to a great and multitudinous host let loose to punish men; in both the host is unlike any actual beings in rerum natura, and yet both seem in some points to come within the region of reality, and to be susceptible, in part at least, of a historical verification. The first incident which follows the sounding of the sixth trumpet is the command to ‘loose the four angels which are bound on the great river Euphrates.’ Of this passage Alford says: ‘The whole imagery here has been a crux interpretum as to who these angels are, and what is indicated by the locality here described.’ It is in these crucial instances, which defy the dexterity of the most cunning hand to pick the lock, that we prove the power of our master-key. Let us fix first upon that which seems most literal in the vision, —‘the great river Euphrates.’ That, at least, can scarcely be symbolical. There are said to be four angels bound, not in the river, but at, or on, the river [epi tw potamw]. The loosing of these four angels sets free a vast horde of armed horsemen, with the strange and unnatural characteristics described in the vision. What is the real and actual that we may gather out of this highly wrought imagery? How is it that these horsemen come from the region of the Euphrates?5 How is it that four angels are bound on that river? Now it will be remembered that the locust invasion came from the abyss of hell; this invading army comes from the Euphrates. This fact serves to unriddle the mystery. The invading army that followed Titus to the siege and capture of Jerusalem was actually drawn in very great measure from the region of the Euphrates. That river formed the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, and we know as a matter of fact that it was kept by four legions, which were regularly stationed there.6 These four legions we conceive to be symbolised by the four angels bound at, or on, the river. The ‘loosing of the angels’ is equivalent to the mobilising of the legions, and we cannot but think the symbol as poetical, as it is historically truthful. But, it will be said, Roman legions did not consist of cavalry. True; but we know that along with the legionaries from the Euphrates there came to the Jewish war auxiliary forces drawn from the very same region. Antiochus of Commagene, who, as Tacitus tells us, was the richest of all the kings who submitted to the authority of Rome, 7 sent a contingent to the war. His dominions were on the Euphrates. Sohemus, also, another powerful king, whose territories were in the same region, sent a force to co-operate with the Roman army under Titus. Now the troops of these Oriental kings were, like their Parthian neighbours, mostly cavalry; and it is altogether consistent with the nature of allegorical or symbolical representation that in such a book as the Apocalypse these fierce foreign hordes of barbarian horsemen should assume the appearance presented in the vision. They are multitudinous, monstrous, fire-breathing, deadly; and so, no doubt, they seemed to the wretched ‘inhabiters of the land’ which they were commissioned to destroy. The invasion may be fitly described in the analogous language of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Lord of hosts mustereth the host of the battle. They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the Lord, and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land’. (Isa. 13:4, 5)

It is in favour of this interpretation that there is a manifest congruity in the invasion of the devoted land, first by a malignant demon-host, and then by a mighty earthly army. Each fact is vouched for by decisive historical evidence. Strip the vision of its drapery, and there is a solid kernel of substantial fact. The dramatic unities of time, place, and action are also preserved, and we are gradually conducted nearer and nearer to the catastrophe under the seventh trumpet. But this is to anticipate.

An objection may be taken to this explanation of the vision of the sixth trumpet, on account of the Euphratean hordes being commissioned to destroy idolaters. Undoubtedly, the gross idolatry described in the twentieth verse was not the national sin of Israel at that period, though it had been in former ages. But there is too much reason for believing that very many Jews did conform to heathenish practices both in the days of Herod the Great and his descendants. We think, however, that in the sequel it will be satisfactorily proved that in the Apocalypse the sin of idolatry is imputed to those who, though not guilty of the literal worship of idols, were the obstinate and impenitent enemies of Christ. (See exposition of chap. xvii., topic 175)8

Finally, the true rendering of Rev. 9:15 removes an obscurity which has been the occasion of much perplexity and misconception. The four angels bound at the Euphrates, and loosed by the angel of the sixth trumpet, are declared to have been prepared, —not for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, but for the hour, and day, and month, and year: that is to say, destined by the will of God for a special work, at a particular juncture; and at the appointed time they were let loose to fulfil their providential mission. ‘The third part of men’ does not mean that the third part of the human race, but the third part of ‘inhabitants of the land’, (Rev. 8:13) on whom the woes are about to fall.


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Footnotes

1.  Lecture on the Apocalypse, p. 129.

2.  Stier observes: ‘In the period between the ascension of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem, this nation shows itself, one might say, as if possessed by seven thousand devils.’—Reden Jesu, vol. ii. p. 187.

3.  Josephus, Jewish Wars, bk. v. ch. x.

4.  Some eminent critics, Eichhorn, Herder, Heinrichs, and others, regard this locust symbol as emblematic of the Zealots and Sicarii, the miscreants who infested Judea and Jerusalem in the last days of the Jewish Commonwealth. It is a shrewd conjecture, with a very plausible appearance of verisimilitude; but on full consideration it will be found untenable. The symbols require a preternatural analogue.

5.  Josephus, Wars, bk. v. chap. i.

6.  Conybeare and Howson, chap. xxii.

7.  Tacitus, History, bk. ii. sect. 1.

8.  ‘That the Jews of the period immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem were wicked and impious, almost beyond example, and that such wickedness and impiety are characterised by verse 20, seems to be a sufficient solution of the language employed.’—Stuart on the Apocalypse, in loc.

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