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The Parousia in the Apocalypse.
The Fourth VisionVISION OF THE SEVEN MYSTIC FIGURES. Chaps. xii. xiii. xiv.
The catastrophe of the trumpet vision lands us in the very same crisis as the catastrophe of the seven seals. They are both different representations of the same great event. But there is still room for fresh representations; and the next vision ushers in a completely different set of symbols, though belonging to the same period and relating to the same events. Its place, between the seven trumpets and the seven vials, enables us very distinctly to define its limits; and it closes, like the other visions, with a very marked catastrophe. It differs from them, however, in not being so expressly characterised by the number seven, though it is not difficult to see that it really consists of that number of principal figures or characters, all of them being symbolical representations. These are,---1. The woman clothed with the sun; 2. The great red dragon; 3. The man-child; 4. The beast from the sea; 5. The beast from the land; 6. The Lamb on Mount Sion; 7. The Son of man on the cloud. We call this vision, therefore, the vision of the seven mystic figures. It occupies the next three chapters---chaps. xii. xiii. xiv. It is of the utmost consequence for the correct interpretation of these apocalyptic visions that we keep stedfastly in mind the limits of the area to which we are restricted by the terms of the Book. It is only a point in historical time and geographical space,---the consummation of the Jewish age. The theatre of action, and the greater number of dramatis personae, must always be sought at the central spot, where is the focus of the interest,---Jerusalem and Judea. It is rarely that we have to travel beyond this region, although occasionally remoter elements are introduced, when they have a special relation to the principal theme.
1. The Woman clothed with the Sun.
It is not surprising that this representation of the woman who brings forth a man child destined to rule all the nations, who is caught up to God and to His throne, etc., should at the first view suggest the Virgin Mother and her Son, who was no sooner born than He was persecuted by the murderous jealousy of Herod, ‘who sought the young child to destroy him;’ and who ascended to the throne of God. Nevertheless, such an interpretation at once breaks down, being wholly incompatible with the subsequent representations in the vision. There is nothing in the history of Mary corresponding to the persecution of the woman by the dragon; to her flight into the wilderness after the ascension of her Son; to the flood of water cast out by the serpent to destroy her; and to the war made upon ‘the remnant of her seed.’
There is another objection which is fatal to this interpretation. It is outside the bounds which the Apocalypse itself expressly draws around its scene and time of action. It is not among the things ‘which must shortly come to pass.’ If we were taken back to look at symbolical representations of the birth of Christ, we should not be upon apocalyptic ground. To leave this ground is to travel out of the record, to forsake the terra firma of historical fact, and to launch out upon a shoreless sea of conjecture, without a compass or a guiding star.
We have no difficulty, therefore, in accepting the common opinion that the woman clothed with the sun is representative of the Christian church. But his alone is too vague a statement. It is the persecuted church, the apostolic church, the church of Judea, that is here symbolised. That is to say, it is the Hebrew-Christian church in the closing days of the Jewish age.
The emblems with which the woman is adorned will not seem incongruous or extravagant when we remember the lofty language in which the prophet Isaiah addresses Israel: ‘Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee,’ etc. (Isa. lx.) That the apostolic church should be resplendent as the sun, that the moon should be beneath her feet, is only in keeping with all that is spoken in the New Testament of the dignity and glory of the bride of Christ.
But that which identifies the woman in the vision as the Hebrew-Christian church is the crown of twelve stars upon her head. That this is emblematic of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel seems beyond question; and it therefore fixes the reference of the vision to the church of Judea.
2. The great Red Dragon.
There is no possibility of doubt respecting the identity of this symbol. The dragon is ‘that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan,’---the ancient and inveterate foe of God and of His people. He is represented as possessing vast authority and power; ‘having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads;’ for he is ‘the god of this world,’ ‘the prince of the power of the air;’ ‘the accuser of the brethren;’ ‘the deceiver of the whole world.’ This malignant enemy of the cause of Christ stands ready to devour the child of which the woman is about to be delivered.
3. The Man Child.
Alford affirms that ‘the man child is the Lord Jesus Christ, and none other.’ He further says that ‘the exigencies of this passage require that the birth should be understood literally and historically of that birth of which all Christians know.’ And yet he holds that the mother is ‘the church;’ that ‘the Blessed Virgin cannot possibly be intended.’ These two suppositions are incompatible, and mutually destructive. It seems indeed natural at first sight to assume that Christ must be intended, but further consideration will show that it cannot be so. The church is never said to be the mother of Christ, nor Christ to be the Son of the church. The church is the bride, the wife, the body, the house of Christ, but never the mother. Christ is the King, the Head, the Husband of the church, but never the Son or Child. He is the Son of God, and the Son of man; but never the Son of the church. There would be an incongruity and impropriety in such a figure from which the sense of fitness revolts.
We believe the key to this symbol is to be found in the sixty-sixth chapter of Isaiah, which is the original source from which the figures are derived. Jerusalem is there represented as a woman in travail, who is delivered of a man child (vers. 7, 8): ‘Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child. Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children.’ It is impossible to believe that the resemblance between these passages is merely casual; and we are therefore greatly assisted in the interpretation of the vision by the analogous representations in the prophecy. As the man child, or the children of Zion, in the prophecy, signify the faithful in the land, or in Jerusalem, so the man child born of the persecuted woman in the Apocalypse denotes the faithful disciples of Christ in Judea, or even in Jerusalem itself. This explanation harmonises the seeming incongruities of the passage, and gives an intelligible and reasonable sense to the whole representation. The Hebrew-Christian church is personified as the persecuted parent of a persecuted offspring; she gives birth to a man child, but a man child that is also a nation, according to the words of the prophet. This man child is destined ‘to rule the nations with a rod of iron, and is caught up unto God, and to his throne.’ These are statements which seem to many only applicable to the Son of God Himself; but they are in truth affirmed in the Apocalypse to be the privilege and reward of every faithful disciple: ‘To him that overcometh will I give power over the nations, and he shall rul them with a rod of iron’ (chap. ii. 26, 27); ‘To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne’ (chap. iii. 21). It is therefore not unwarrantable to apply these expressions, lofty as they are, to the faithful disciples of Christ.
The safety of her offspring being thus secured, provision for the persecuted mother is made by God.
This anticipatory of the fuller statement in vers. 13-16, where we are told that ‘to the woman were given the two wings of the 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.’
This allusion to the period of time during which the woman is preserved furnishes a clue to the interpretation of this part of the vision. It will be seen that it is the same space of time during which Jerusalem is trodden under foot by the Gentiles, and during which the two witnesses utter their prophecy. That is to say, these different designations of time,---forty-two months, a thousand two hundred and threescore days, and a time, and times, and half-a-time, are all equivalent to three years and a half, which is known to have been the duration of the Jewish war. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that these different events coincide with the period of the Jewish war, and cover the same duration, being contemporaneous events. Is there then, it may be asked, any historical fact corresponding to the symbols in the vision, namely, the persecuted woman, the mother of the man child, fleeing into the wilderness from the face of the dragon, and preserved in safety there during a space of time equal to three years and a half? We think there is; and we shall endeavour to present the veritable facts which, as we believe, answer to the symbolic representation.
Our Lord distinctly forewarned His disciples that when they saw certain specified signs of the approaching catastrophe, especially when they saw ‘Jerusalem compassed about with armies,’ and ‘the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place,’ they should, without loss of time, escape from the doomed city, and ‘flee to the mountains.’ So hasty was to be their flight that they were even to disregard their property, and only care for personal preservation (Matt. xxiv. 15-18). We have the testimony of Josephus also that many of the Jews at the commencement of hostilities with Rome abandoned Jerusalem as they would a sinking ship. It is presumable that the Christian population, who had been so expressly warned of what was coming, would quit the city; and there appears to be no reason to question the fact that as a body they did retire, and sought refuge in Peraea, beyond the Jordan, a district which we are informed by Josephus is generally desert, and might therefore be properly styled ‘the wilderness.’
This, then, is how the symbols shape themselves into history. The church of Jerusalem, the mother church as it may well be called, and the fruitful mother of a multitude of spiritual children, is subjected to severe and grievous persecution, stirred up by Satan, the malignant adversary of Christ and of His people. Whether the man child caught up to God and to His throne symboloses the martyred sons of the church referred to in ver. 11, who, ‘though condemned by men in the flesh, were justified and crowned by God with life eternal in their spirit’ (1 Peter iv. 6), we will not decide, though we think it probable. The mother church, however, though deprived of her first-born, is still persecuted by the dragon. Never was the persecution hotter than when the period of the Jewish revolt arrived and the army of Rome appeared before the gates of Jerusalem. Warned of God, the church of Jerusalem abandoned the city, and fled as on eagle’s wings into the wilderness beyond the Jordan, where a safe retreat was found during the period of the war and the siege. Baffled in his attempt to crush the cause of Christ in Jerusalem, the dragon vents his rage by discharging a flood of malignant wrath after the fugitive Christians,---which, however, does them no harm,---and then turns to molest and persecute ‘the remnant of the woman’s seed,’ or disciples in other parts of the earth or the land.
If it be said that there is an incongruity in representing the persecuted Christians of the church of Jerusalem by the double figure of the woman and the man child, one of whom is caught up into heaven, while the other flies for refuge to the wilderness, we answer, that it is an incongruity inseparable from the use of such symbols. Zion and her children in the prophecy of Isaiah are virtually identical; and the same is true of the woman and the man child. We speak of England and her people when we really mean the same thing by both expressions; and it would be an over-fastidious criticism that would object to such language, which, if not logically correct, adds greatly to the dramatic and poetical effect of the description.
Alford, although he feels quite perplexed about the interpretation of the vision as a whole, gives his opinion in favour of our explanation of a very important part of the symbols. His words are,---
Strange that, having found one historical fact that so well corresponded with the symbol, the critic did not seek in the same quarter for more, which would no doubt have resulted in a luminous exposition of the whole; but he is led away by the ignis fatuus of a syllabus of universal church history in the Apocalypse, unaccountably ignoring the express statements of the book itself with reference to the very restricted period within which its visions must be fulfilled.
We come next to the conflict between the dragon and the champion who appears in defence of the persecuted woman:---
It does not appear that this transaction,---the conflict between Michael and the dragon,---was represented to the Seer in vision. It is not introduced by the usual formula in such cases, ‘And I saw, and behold’ [eidon kai idou], but related more in the manner of a historian. Nor are we informed of the particular time or occasion of the conflict being fought. Indeed, the whole transaction is mysterious, and outside the range of earthly things; the scene of it is ‘in heaven;’ the combatants are spiritual beings,---‘the principalities and powers in heavenly places;’ although it is reasonable to suppose that the event has an intimate bearing upon the history of the apocalyptic period which is the subject of the vision. It is evidently introduced to explain the intense hostility of the dragon against the church of Christ; and this circumstance seems to imply that the casting out of Satan here referred to took place shortly before the outbreak of persecution against the Christians. It is important to remember that ‘Michael’ is in all probability to be identified with the Son of God. The reader is referred to the satisfactory proof of this identity adduced by Hengstenberg.
We are not to conceive of this conflict as one of physical force, like Milton’s battles in ‘Paradise Lost,’ but rather as a moral and spiritual victory gained by truth over error, by light over darkness, by the Gospel over sin and unbelief. Probably there is an intimate connection between the casting out of Satan here referred to and the words of our Lord to His disciples when they brought back the report of their successful mission as evangelists,---‘I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven’ (Luke x. 18); and, again, ‘Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out’ (John xii. 31); and, again, ‘For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John iii. 8). Translating the symbols into common language, they appear to signify that the progress of Christianity in the land aroused the hostility of Satan and his emissaries, and led to more active persecution of the disciples of Christ.
The victory Michael and his angels is celebrated by a triumphant proclamation in heaven, which does come within the purview of the vision.
In all this we have the expression of the general truth that, in the long and deadly conflict with Jewish enmity, intensified by satanic malice, Christ fought for His persecuted disciples and foiled the attacks of their adversaries. How distinctly St. Paul recognised the presence and activity of an infernal power in the malignant hostility which opposed the Gospel may be seen in his remarkable words, ‘We wrestle not with flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’ (Ephes. vi. 12). Divested of its symbolical imagery, the vision shows that the efforts of Satan to crush the truth of God were foiled and defeated, and only led to the more signal and decisive triumph of the kingdom of Christ.
Satan, baulked of his prey and knowing that ‘he hath but a little while,’ for the consummation is now very near, departs, as we have seen, to make war with the remnant of the woman’s seed, ‘who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus’ (ver. 17).
4. The First Wild Beast.
We now enter upon an investigation full of interest, but also full of difficulty; though that difficulty is greatly mitigated by the known limits of the area within which we are restricted, and where we must look for the personage now introduced upon the scene, and who plays so important a part in the sequel.
The true reading of the first verse is now admitted to be estaqh [he stood], namely, the dragon. This is not unimportant. The dragon, foiled in his attempt to destroy the woman and her seed, stations himself on the sands of the sea, looking out for a potent auxiliary enlisted in his service.
Nor is he long in making his appearance. A portentous monster is beheld coming up out of the sea,---he is designated qhrion [a wild beast], already named by anticipation in chap. xi. 7. The description of this monster is very minute, so that his identification ought to be easy. Let us note the particulars of the description:---
It would be strange if such a number of marked and peculiar characteristics could be applicable to more than one individual, or if such an individual could be so obscure as not to be immediately recognised. He must be sought among the greatest of the earth; he must be the foremost of his day, the observed of all observers; he must fill the highest throne and rule the mightiest empire. His period, too, is fixed: it is in the last days of the Jewish polity, close upon the final catastrophe. The mystery stands revealed even by its own self-solution. This portentous wild beast, this potentate of the world, this plenipotentiary of Satan, can be no other than the master of the world, the Emperor of Rome, ‘the man of sin,’---NERO
Let us now see how the particulars of the description agree with the character of Nero.
Postponing for the moment the consideration of the next and crucial question,---‘the number of the beast,’ we may here pause to observe how precisely all this tallies with the character of Nero. We might, at first, be disposed to think, with Bossuet, that the visionary beast signifies ‘the Roman Empire, or more properly Rome herself, the mistress of the world,---Rome pagan, and the persecutor of the saints.’ But as we proceed we are satisfied that it is not an abstraction, but a real person, that is here described, or, at least, the Imperial power embodied in the most ferocious and brutal of its representatives, the Emperor Nero. Every point of the description identifies the criminal. It was this execrable tyrant who first let loose the hell-hounds of persecution on the unoffending Christians of Rome. More like a wild beast than a man, he glutted his bloodthirsty propensities with the murder of his brother, his mother, and his wife. The incendiary of his own capital, he falsely imputed his crime to the innocent Christians, whom he put to death in vast numbers and with unheard-of barbarities. Wielding the mightiest power on earth, he used it for the indulgence of the basest vices, and made himself the slave of the most brutal passions. He arrogated to himself the prerogatives of deity, and claimed and received the worship due to God. His inordinate vanity made him greedy of admiration; it led him to perform as an actor on the stage, to drive as a charioteer in the circus, to contend in the Olympic games. ‘The world wondered after the beast.’ We are told that he received no less than eighteen hundred crowns for his victories. Dio Cassius relates that he entered Rome in triumph, and was hailed with acclamations by the senate and people, who offered him the most abject adulation. He was greeted with shouts of ‘Victories Olympic! Victories Pythian! Thou August! Thou August! Nero the Hercules! Nero the Apollo! Sacred Voice! Eternal One!’ [Eiz ap aiwnoz]
Much more obscure is the apparently paradoxical statement respecting the deadly wound of the beast which was nevertheless healed. Of course, if it was healed it was not deadly; and if it was deadly it could not really be healed. To require a literal fulfillment of an impossibility would manifestly be unreasonable, yet the explanation ought to reconcile the seeming contradition. Now, it is a curious fact that a plausible explanation of the paradox has been given. Nero died a violent death,---died by a wound from a sword, inflicted either by his own hand or by that of an assassin. It is needless to say that the wound was mortal; but there was undoubtedly a very general belief at the time that he did not die, but was somewhere in concealment, and would ere long reappear, and recover his former power. Tacitus alludes to the popular belief (History, chap. ii. 8), as does also Suetonius (Nero, chap. lvii.). There is nothing improbable in the supposition that such a note of identity, embodying the general belief, might be employed as it is in the vision; at all events, no other explanation supplies so reasonable and satisfactory a solution of the problem.
The Number of the Beast.
We now come to the question which has exercised the ingenuity of critics and commentators almost since the day it was first propounded, and which even yet can hardly be said to be solved, viz. the name or number of the beast. Without wasting time on the various answers that have been given, it may suffice to make one or two preliminary remarks on the conditions of the problem.
We have already, on entirely independent grounds, arrived at the conclusion that by the apocalyptic beast is intended the reigning emperor, Nero. It is his name, therefore, that ought to fulfill, not indeed obviously, nor without some research, yet satisfactorily and conclusively, all the conditions of the problem. That emperor’s name would be written in three ways, according as it was expressed in one or other of the three languages, the Latin, the Greek, or the Hebrew: in Latin, Nero Caesar; in Greek, Nerwn Kaisar; in Hebrew, rsq nwrn.
St. John was not writing to Romans, nor in the Latin tongue, so that the first form may be at once set aside. He was writing, however, in Greek, and to readers well acquainted with Greek, though most of them probably of Jewish blood. It is probable that most of them would at once, and instinctively, pronounce the dreaded name. If so they would feel at a loss, for the Greek letters N e r w n K a i s a r would not make up the numbers required.
But if this had been all that was necessary, the name would have lain upon the surface, patent and palpable to the dullest apprehension. It would have required neither wisdom nor understanding to read the riddle. The reader must try another method. St. John was a Hebrew, and though he wrote in Greek characters, his thoughts were Hebrew, and the Hebrew form of the Imperial name and title was familiar to him and to his Hebrew-Christian friends both in Asia Minor and Judea. It might not unnaturally occur to the reflecting reader to calculate the value of the letters which expressed the emperor’s name in Hebrew. And the secret would stand disclosed:---
Here, then, is a number which expresses a name; the name of a man, of the man who, of all then living, best deserved to be called a wild beast: the head of the Empire, the master of the world; claiming to be a god, receiving divine honours, persecuting the saints of the Most High; in short, answering in every particular to the description in the apocalyptic vision. If it should be asked, Why should the prophet wrap up his meaning in enigmas? Why should he not expressly name the individual he means? First, the Apocalypse is a book of symbols: everything in it is expressed in imagery, which requires translation into ordinary language. But, secondly, it would not have been safe to speak more plainly. To have openly stated the name of the tyrant, after describing and designating him in the manner employed in the Apocalypse, would have been rash and imprudent in the extreme. Like St. Paul when describing ‘the man of sin,’ St. John veils his meaning under a disguise, which the heathen Greek or Roman would probably fail to penetrate, but which the instructed Christian of Judea or Asia Minor would readily see through.
It is a strong confirmation of the accuracy of this interpretation that we have another enigmatical description of the very same personage from the hand of St. Paul. We have already seen the proof that ‘the man of sin’ delineated in 1 Thess. ii. is no other than Nero, and the comparison of the two portraitures shows how striking is their resemblance to one another and to the original. This correspondence cannot be a curious coincidence merely; it can only be accounted for by the supposition that both apostles had the same individual in view.
5. The Second Wild Beast.
If our conclusions respecting the identity of the first beast are correct, it ought not to be difficult to discover who is intended by the second beast. It will be observed that in many respects there is a strong resemblance between them: they are of the same nature, though one is supreme and the other subordinate; but there are also points of difference. It will be proper, however, in this case also, to bring into one view the various particular characteristics which assist to identify the individual intended:---
Looking at these characteristics it becomes at once perfectly clear that we must seek the antitype to this symbolic figure in a man kindred character with the monster Nero himself. He is evidently the alter ego of the emperor, though his proportions are drawn on a smaller scale.
At this point the individual is revealed to us. He can be no other than the Roman procurator or governor of Judea under Nero, and the particular governor must be sought at or near the outbreak of the Jewish war; and here the history of the time throws a flood of light upon the inquiry.
There are two names which may vie with each other for the bad pre-eminence of the original of this picture of the second beast,---Albinus and Gessius Florus. Each was a monster of tyranny and cruelty, but the latter outdid the former. Before Gessius Florus came into office the Jews counted Albinus the worst governor who had ever ground them by his oppression. After Gessius Florus came they thought Albinus almost a virtuous man in comparison. Florus was a miscreant worthy to stand by the side of Nero: a fit servant of such a master.
The reader will find in the pages of Josephus the story of the enormous and incredible profligacy, fraud, treachery, and tyranny of this last and worst of all the governors who represented the Imperial authority in Judea, and will see how the historian traces to the misrule of this infamous man the ruin that fell upon the nation. It was his intolerable and Draconic oppression that goaded the unhappy Jews into rebellion, and was the proximate cause of the war which ended in the utter overthrow of Jerusalem and her people. Josephus, indeed, has not preserved all the facts, which, if we had them, would no doubt vividly illustrate all the particulars in the apocalyptic portraiture of the second beast. But we scarcely need them. Force, fraud, cruelty, imposture, tyranny, are attributes which too certainly might be predicated of such a procurator as Florus. Perhaps the traits most difficult to verify are those which relate to the compulsory enforcement of homage to the emperor’s statue and the assumption of miraculous pretensions. Yet even here all we know is in favour of the description being true to the letter. Dean Milman observes:---
Dean Alford’s remarks are also deserving of notice:---
To the same effect are the following observations of Dean Howson, which are the more striking as being written without any reference to the passage before us:---
We are now in a position to ask the verdict of every candid and judicial mind on the question of identity which has been argued, as well as the complete congruity and correspondence in all points between the symbols in the vision and the historical personages whom, in our opinion, they represent. The time, the place, the scene, the circumstances, and the dramatis personae are all in full accord with the requirements of the Apocalypse. It is the eve of the great catastrophe, the final ruin of the Judaic polity. The predicted persecution of the people of God, which was to usher in the end, has broken out. A terrible triumvirate of evil is in league against Christ and His cause. The dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the land,---Satan, the Emperor, and the Roman procurator, are in active hostility against ‘the woman and the remnant of her seed.’ Their time, however, is short; the hour of retribution is at hand; and the very next scene discovers the champion and avenger of the faithful, and shows the security and blessedness of His people.
6. The Lamb on Mount Sion.
This portion of the vision scarcely needs an interpreter; it speaks for itself. There is a striking contrast between the wild beast that rules as vicegerent of the dragon and the Lamb that governs in His Father’s name. There can be no doubt that the hundred and forty and four thousand, having the name of Christ and the Father inscribed on their foreheads, are identical with the hundred and forty and four thousand out of all the tribes of the children of Israel, who have the seal of God on their foreheads, who are alluded to in chap. vii. They are the elect Hebrew-Christian church of Judea, possibly of Jerusalem, and are represented as standing with the Lamb on the Mount Sion, redeemed, triumphant, glorified; no longer exposed to danger and death, but gathered into the fold of the Great Shepherd. Of course the representation is proleptic---an anticipation of what was now imminent; in fact, a repetition of the glorious scene described in chap. vii. 9-17. Is it possible to believe that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews had not this vision in his thoughts when he wrote that noble passage, "Ye are come unto mount Sion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem," etc.? The points of resemblance are so marked and so numerous that it cannot possibly be accidental. The scene is the same,---Mount Sion; the dramatis personae are the same,---‘the general assembly and church of the first-born, which are written in heaven,’ corresponding with the hundred and forty and four thousand who bear the seal of God. In the epistle they are called ‘the church of the first-born;’ the vision explains the title,---they are ‘the first-fruits unto God and to the Lamb;’ the first converts to the faith of Christ in the land of Judea. In the epistle they are designated ‘the spirits of just men made perfect;’ in the vision they are ‘virgins undefiled, in whose mouth was found no guile; for they are without fault before the throne of God.’ Both in the vision and the epistle we find ‘the innumerable company of angels’ and ‘the Lamb,’ by whom redemption was achieved. In short, it is placed beyond all reasonable doubt that since the author of the Apocalypse cannot be supposed to have drawn his description from the epistle, the writer of the epistle must have derived his ideas and imagery from the Apocalypse.
Events are now hastening rapidly towards the consummation. The Seer beholds three angels fly in succession across the field of vision, each bearing a prophetic announcement of the approaching catastrophe. The first, who is charged with the proclamation of the everlasting Gospel, in the first instance to them that dwell in the land, and next to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, crises with a loud voice, ‘Fear God, and give glory to him; because the hour of his judgment is come’ (ver. 7). There is a manifest allusion here to the fact predicted by our Lord that, before the coming of ‘the end,’ the Gospel of the kingdom would first be preached in all the world [oikonmenh] ‘for a witness to all the nations’ (Matt. xxiv. 14). This symbol, therefore, indicates the near approach of the catastrophe of Jerusalem,---the arrival of the hour of Israel’s judgment.
A second angel swiftly follows, and proclaims the fall of Babylon, as if it had already taken place, saying, ‘Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, which made the all the nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.’ This is plainly another declaration of the same impending catastrophe, only more distinctly indicating the doom of the guilty city---the great criminal about to be brought to judgment. We shall presently have occasion to discuss the identity of the great city here and elsewhere designated as Babylon.
A third messenger succeeds, who denounces, in awful language, the wrath of God upon all idol worshippers:---
In striking contrast to this is the message which a heavenly voice brings to the faithful disciples of Christ ‘who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.’
All this is clearly indicative of the near approach of the final catastrophe. There is one expression, however, in the last quotation which calls for explanation, viz. the announcement respecting the blessedness of the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth. This ‘henceforth’ [ap arti] is the emphatic word in the sentence, and must have an important significance. It is not simply that the dead in Christ are safe or happy, but that, from and after a certain specified period, a peculiar blessedness belongs to all those who thenceforth die in the Lord.
It is not unreasonable in itself, and it appears, moreover, to be the distinct teaching of Holy Scripture, that the great consummation which closed the Jewish age had an important bearing upon the condition of all who subsequently to that period, ‘die in the Lord.’ We have seen (Remarks on Heb. xi. 40) that previously to the redemptive work of Christ the state of the pious dead was not perfect. They had to await the accomplishment of that great event which constituted the foundation of their everlasting felicity. The saints of the old dispensation ‘obtained not the promise.’ They died in faith, but did not possess the inheritance. ‘God provided something better for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.’ So wrote the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews on the verge of the great consummation. The plain meaning of this is that the Parousia marked the introduction of a new epoch in the condition of the departed saints and the prospects of all who after that epoch commenced should die in the Lord. ‘Blessed are such’ from henceforth. That is to say, they should not have to wait, as their predecessors had, the arrival of the period when the promise should be fulfilled. They should enter at once into ‘the rest which remaineth for the people of God.’ The way into the holy place has now been made manifest; there is immediate rest and reward for the faithful departed; ‘they rest from their labours; for their works do follow them.’
This important passage would be totally inexplicable but for the light thrown upon it by Heb. iv. 1-11; xi. 9, 10, 13, 39, 40.
7. The Son of Man on the Cloud.
We now come to the seventh and last of the mystic figures of which this fourth vision consists, and to the denoument, where we may expect to find the catastrophe of the whole. Nor are we disappointed; for nothing can be more distinctly marked than the catastrophe under this symbol, the interpretation being so self-evident that it can hardly be misunderstood.
The scene opens with the apparition of ‘one like unto the Son of man seated on a white cloud,’ wearing a golden crown on his head and holding a sharp sickle in his hand. The weapon which he holds is the emblem of the transaction which is about to take place. It is the time of harvest, for ‘the harvest of the land is ripe; and he that sat on the cloud cast his sickle on the land; and the land was reaped.’
There can be no misunderstanding this act. We have the original draught of the picture in our Lord’s parable of the wheat and the tares. ‘In the time of harvest [the end of the age, sunteleia tou aiwnoz], I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn’ (Matt. xiii. 30).
The parable of the tares and the wheat is also followed in the vision in the separation of this final judicial transaction into two parts---the wheat harvest and the vintage, except only in the transposition of the order of the events. The harvest corresponds with the reaping of the wheat and its safe gathering into the barn; in the other words, it is the fulfillment of the prediction, ‘The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds’ (Matt. xxiv. 31-34), an event which was to take place before the passing away of that generation. The destruction of the tares corresponds with the ‘vintage of the land.’ It will be observed that the vintage is wholly of a destructive character. As the ‘harvest of the land’ denotes the salvation of the faithful people of God, so the ‘vintage of the land’ denotes the destruction of His enemies. It is worthy of remark that while the Son of man is represented as the reaper, the angel in the vision is the agent in the cutting down of the vine. It is scarcely necessary to point out the peculiar fitness of the imagery employed in the latter impressive scene. ‘The vine of the land’ is Israel, according to the well-known emblem in Psalm lxxx. 8, ‘Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt,’ etc. The vintage is now come, for ‘her grapes are fully ripe;’ that is to say, the nation is ripe for judgment. The angel commissioned to destroy does not gather the clusters, but cuts down the vine itself, and casts it altogether into the ‘great wine-press of the wrath of God.’ The wine-press is trodden; and this is represented as taking place outside the city, as the sin-offering was burned outside the camp, and as the criminal was executed outside the gate, being accursed (Heb. xiii. 11-13). Blood comes out of the wine-press, and in such torrents that it is like a river in flood, rising to the horse-bridles, and reaching a distance of ‘a thousand and six hundred furlongs.’
This is terrible in symbol, yet almost literal in its historic truth. It was a people that was thus ‘trampled’ in the fury of divine wrath. Where was there ever such a sea of blood as was shed in the exterminating war of Vespasian and of Titus? The carnage, as related by Josephus, exceeds all that is recorded in the sanguinary annals of warfare. Jerusalem, and her children within her, were trodden in the great wine-press of the wrath of God. Then were fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah, ‘The Lord hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a wine-press’ (Lam. i. 15). There is fact as well as figure in the ghastly scene which represents the invading cavalry as swimming in blood up to the horses’ bits; and there is probably an allusion to the geographical extent of Palestine in the ‘thousand and six hundred furlongs,’ so that we may regard the symbolical description as equivalent to the statement that from one end to the other the land was deluged with blood.
In all this the prophecy and the history fit each other like lock and key; and if we had not the testimony of an eyewitness, who certainly could have no interest in exaggerating the ruin of his people or defaming their character, it would scarcely be possible to believe that these symbols were not overcharged. But no one can read that tragic story without recognising there the transactions which are here written in symbol, and which amply attest the reality and truth of the prophecy.
Such is the distinctly marked catastrophe of the vision of the seven mystic figures. Like the other catastrophes it is an act of judgment, presenting the great consummation in a different aspect. If any doubt should still be felt as to the principle which underlies our whole system of interpretation, viz. that the Apocalypse is a sevenfold representation of the same great providential drama, it must be dispelled by the next series of visions, which conclusively demonstrates this feature of the book.
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