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The Parousia in the Apocalypse.
The Fifth Vision
THE SEVEN VIALS, Chaps. xv. xvi.
This vision opens, like the first, second, and third, with a prologue or preamble. The scene is laid in heaven, where the Seer beholds seven angels, charged with the infliction of seven plagues, which are called the last, as being the completion of the divine wrath upon the guilty nation. The imagery in this introductory scene is conceived in a style of the loftiest sublimity. The seven ministers of vengeance receive from on of the living creatures or cherubim, seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, and are commissioned to begin at once the execution of their mission, which is, to pour out their vials on the land [thn ghn].
It will at once be seen that there is a marked correspondence between the vision of the seven vials and that of the seven trumpets. The vials, indeed, are simply a repetition and abridgment of the trumpets, followed the same order and taking substantially the same form. There are, it is true, additional circumstances introduced into the vision of the seven vials, but still the resemblance between the two visions is so striking as to force the conviction on the mind that they both refer to the same historical events.
The subjoined parallel will show the correspondence between the two visions more distinctly:---
This cannot be mere casual coincidence: it is identity, and it suggests the inquiry, For what reason is the vision thus repeated? It cannot be merely for the sake of symmetry, to complete the sevenfold plan of the construction, for the marvellous affluence of the book makes the suggestion of poverty of invention, or repetition for the sake of filling up, utterly preposterous. More probable is the explanation that the vision of the vials is introduced not only to reaffirm the judgments about to come upon the land, but especially to prepare the way for the bringing in of the great criminal, the hour of whose judgment is come. The last of the seven vials represents Babylon the great as coming in remembrance before God; yet in the catastrophe of the vision her judgment is suspended, because it is to form the material of a separate vision, viz. the sixth.
It will now be proper to pass in brief review the successive vials of the seven angels.
The first four vials (chap. xvi. 2-9), like the first four trumpets, affect the natural world,---the earth or land, the sea, the rivers, the sun. These are all smitten with distemper and plague,---the frame of nature is out of joint, and the inanimate creation sickens and groans on account of the wickedness of men. This may be said to be a figure of speech, though enough in Scripture; how far it expresses any historical facts it is impossible to say, but it is remarkable that the language of our Lord in speaking of this very period comes very near the symbols of the Apocalypse: ‘There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth [land] distress of the nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming upon the land: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken’ (Luke xxi. 25, 26). If the testimony of Josephus is to be relied on, the destruction of Jerusalem was preceded by portents of the most alarming kind. It is to be observed that the area affected by these plagues is ‘the land,’ that is Judea, the scene of the tragedy. The local and national character of the transactions represented in the vision is distinctly brought out in ver. 6. When the third angel turns the rivers into blood, the angel of the waters is heard acknowledging the retributive justice of this plague,---‘For they shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou has given them blood to drink; they are worthy.’ This ‘killing of the prophets’ was the very sin of Israel, and of Jerusalem, nor is there any other city or nation against which this particular crime can be alleged as its peculiar characteristic. This impeachment decisively fixes the allusion in the vision to the Jewish people, and to that fearful period in their history when it might truly be said that their rivers ran with blood.
The fifth vial (chap. xvi. 10, 11) corresponds with the fifth trumpet. It is poured out on the seat or throne of the beast, which seems to be identical with ‘the abyss’ of the trumpet vision. The abyss is the region from which the beast is said to ascend (chap. xi. 7); and that this was the name given to the abode of evil spirits appears from the fact that the demons cast out of the possessed Gadarene besought Jesus ‘that he would not command them to go away into the abyss’ (Luke viii. 31). The seat of the beast, therefore, is the same as the abyss,---the kingdom of the power of darkness. What historical facts are signified by the symbols of terror and misery here employed it is impossible to say, though they point not obscurely to the agonies of distress and suffering which preceded and portended the final consummation.
The sixth vial, like the sixth trumpet, takes effect upon the great river Euphrates (ver. 12), the water of which is dried up, that ‘the way of the kings of the east may be prepared.’ We now approach the catastrophe. In the vision of the sixth trumpet we see an innumerable host mustered for the great battle; in the vision of the sixth vial we see ‘three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet;’ the emissaries of the powers of darkness go forth to muster the armies of the ‘kings of the whole world,’ to gather them to the great war of ‘the great day of God Almighty.’ Translated into historical terms this symbol represents the mobilising of the forces of the Empire and of the kings of the neighbouring nations for the Jewish war. The drying up of the Euphrates seems plainly to signify its being crossed with ease and speed; and this, taken in connection with the corresponding symbol under the sixth trumpet, viz. the loosing of the four angels bound at the Euphrates, points to the drawing of troops from that quarter for the invasion of Judea. This we know to be a historical fact. Not only Roman legions from the frontier of the Euphrates, but auxiliary kings whose dominions lay in that region, such as Antiochus of Commagene and Sohemus of Sophene, most properly designated ‘kings from the east,’ followed the eagles of Rome to the siege of Jerusalem. The name given to the approaching conflict decisively determines the event to which reference is made:---it is ‘the battle,’ or ‘war of that great day of God Almighty’---an expression equivalent to ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord.’ That this day was now at hand is plainly intimated by the warning in ver. 15, ‘Behold, I come as a thief.’ The scene of the conflict also, ‘Armageddon,’---a name that is associated with one of the darkest and most disastrous days in the history of Israel, the field of Megiddo, the emblem of defeat and slaughter, lies in Jewish territory. That name of evil omen was meet to be the type of that final field of blood on which Israel as a nation was doomed to perish.
The seventh vial, like the seventh trumpet, brings the catastrophe of the vision, accompanied by the same portents of ‘voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake, and great hail.’ A voice from the temple, a voice from the throne itself, proclaims the consummation, ‘It is done! Tegonen! Actum est! All is over!’ That is to say, the catastrophe of the vision, and that which it symbolises, is come; for it will be observed that every catastrophe lands us in virtually the same conclusion. An earthquake of unparalleled violence shatters ‘the cities of the nations’ and divides ‘the great city’ itself, the city which is pre-eminently the theme of these visions, into three parts. ‘Babylon the great’ (which is clearly meant to be the name of the city just referred to) ‘was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath;’ her sins cry for vengeance, and now her judgment is come, and the wine-cup of the fierce wrath of God is filled for her to drink.
That all this refers indubitably and exclusively to Jerusalem is surely self-evident, and it is capable of the clearest demonstration as the sequel will show.
One incident in this grad and awful catastrophe deserves special attention. In both the visions, the seventh trumpet and the seventh vial, particular mention is made of the great hail which falls upon men. In the seventh vial the hail is more fully dwelt upon, and every stone is said to be about the weight of a talent. There is something so extraordinary, and yet so specific, in this statement that it arrests the attention and suggests the inquiry, Is this wholly symbol, or is it in any degree fact? Of course, we cannot conceive literal hail of which every stone should be of the weight of a talent; yet the language is so precise and definite that we are almost compelled to suppose that it is not mere hyperbole. Now, it is a remarkable fact that in Josephus we seem to get the explanation of this apparently unintelligible symbol. He informs us that at the seige of Jerusalem the tenth legion constructed balistae of enormous magnitude and power, which discharged vast stones into the city. The whole description which Josephus gives of these engines is of such extraordinary interest it is well worthy of quotation:---
Is this only a fanciful coincidence, or is it a signal instance of the exact fulfillment of prophecy? We confess that we incline to the latter alternative, for it is perfectly congruous to represent such a mode of assault as a storm or hail of projectiles, while the specific allusion to the enourmous weight of each stone seems to bring the statement within the domain of fact and history.3
1. Jewish Wars, bk. vi. chap. v. section 3, 4. 2. See Josephus, Jewish Wars, bk. iii. chap. iv. paragraph 2; bk. v. chap. i. paragraph 6.
3 There is another curious circumstance connected with this passage in Josephus. Whiston has the following not upon it:---
Dr. Traill makes the following observations on this passage:---
We are disposed to think that none of these suggestions give a satisfactory explanation, though some of them come near the truth. It could not but be well known to the Jews that the great hope and faith of the Christians was the speedy coming of the Son. It was about this very time, according to Hegesippus, that St. James, the brother of our Lord, publicly testified in the temple that ‘the Son of man was about to come in the clouds of heaven,’ and then sealed his testimony with his blood. It seems highly probable that the Jews, in their defiant and desperate blasphemy, when they saw the white mass hurtling through the air, raised the ribald cry, ‘The Son is coming,’ in mockery of the Christian hope of the Parousia, to which they might trace a ludicrous resemblance in the strange appearance of the missile.
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