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REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE - Chapter 6 - Verse 1

 

CHAPTER VI

 

ANALYSIS OF THE CHAPTER

THIS chapter contains an account of the opening of six of the seven seals. It need hardly be said to any one who is at all familiar with the numerous—not to say numberless—expositions of the Apocalypse, that it is at this point that interpreters begin to differ, and that here commences the divergence towards those various, discordant, and many of them wild and fantastic theories, which have been proposed in the exposition of this wonderful book. Up to this point, though there may be unimportant diversities in the exposition of words and phrases, there is no material difference of opinion as to the general meaning of the writer. In the epistles to the seven churches, and in the introductory scenes to the main visions, there can be no doubt, in the main, as to what the writer had in view, and what he meant to describe. He addressed churches then existing, (chaps. i.—iii.,) and set before them their sins and their duties; and he described scenes passing before his eyes as then present, (chaps. iv., v.,) which were merely designed to impress his own mind with the importance of what was to be disclosed, and to bring the great actors on the stage, and in reference to which there could be little ground for diversity in the interpretation. Here, however, the scene opens into the future, comprehending all the unknown period until there shah be a final triumph of Christianity, and all its foes shall be prostrate. The actors are the Son of God, angels, men, Satan, storms, tempests, earthquakes, the pestilence and fire; the scene is heaven, earth, hell. There is no certain designation of places; there is no mention of names—as there is in Isaiah (Isa 45:1) of Cyrus, or as there is in Daniel (Da 8:21; 10:20; 11:2) of the "king of Grecia;" there is no designation of time that is necessarily unambiguous; and there are no characteristics of the symbols used that make it antecedently certain that they could be applied only to one class of events. In the boundless future that was to succeed the times of John there would be, of necessity, many events to which these symbols might be applied, and the result has shown that it has required but a moderate share of pious ingenuity to apply them, by different expositors, to events differing widely from each other in their character, and in the times when they would occur. It would be too long to glance even at the various theories which have been proposed and maintained in regard to the interpretation of the subsequent portions of the Apocalypse, and wholly impossible to attempt to examine those theories. Time, in its developments, has already exploded many of them; and time, in its future developments, will doubtless explode many more, and each one must stand or fall as in the disclosures of the future it shall be found to be true or false. It would be folly to add another to those numerous theories, even if I had any such theory, (see the Preface,) and perhaps equal folly to pronounce with certainty on any one of those which have been advanced. Yet this seems to be an appropriate place to state, in few words, what principles it is designed to pursue in the interpretation of the remainder of the book.

(1.) It may be assumed that large portions of the book relate to the future; that is, to that which was future when John wrote. In this all expositors are agreed, and this is manifest indeed on the very face of the representation. It would be impossible to attempt an interpretation on any other supposition, and somewhere in that vast future the events are to be found to which the symbols here used had reference. This is assumed, indeed, on the supposition that the book is inspired: a fact which is assumed all along in this exposition, and which should be allowed to control our interpretation. But assuming that the book relates to the future, though that supposition will do something to determine the true method of interpretation, yet it leaves many questions still unsolved. Whether it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, on the supposition that the work was written before that event, or to the history of the church subsequent to that; whether it is designed to describe events minutely, or only in the most general manner; whether it is intended to furnish a syllables of civil and ecclesiastical history, or only a very general outline of future events; whether the times are so designated that we can fix them with entire certainty; or whether it was intended to furnish any certain indication of the periods of the world when these things should occur;—all these are still open questions, and it need not be said that on these the opinions of expositors have been greatly divided.

(2.) It may be assumed that there is meaning in these symbols, and that they were not used without an intention to convey some important ideas to the mind of John and to the minds of his readers— to the church then, and to the church in future times. Comp. See Barnes "Re 1:3".

The book is indeed surpassingly sublime. It abounds with the highest flights of poetic language. It is Oriental in its character, and exhibits everywhere the proofs of a most glowing imagination in the writer. But it is also to be borne in mind that it is an inspired book, and this fact is to determine the character of the exposition. If inspired, it is to be assumed that there is a meaning in these symbols; an idea in each one of them, and in all combined, of importance to the church and the world. Whether we can ascertain the meaning is another question; but it is never to be doubted by an expositor of the Bible that there is a meaning in the words and images employed, and that to find out that meaning is worthy of earnest study and prayer.

(3.) Predictions respecting the future are often necessarily obscure to man. It cannot be doubted, indeed, that God could have foretold future events in the most clear and unambiguous language, he who knows all that is to come as intimately as he does all the past, could have caused a record to have been made, disclosing names, and dates, and places, so that the most minute statements of what is to occur might have been in the possession of man as clearly as the records of the past now are. But there were obvious reasons why this should not occur, and in the prophecies it is rare that there is any such specification. To have done this might have been to defeat the very end in view; for it would have given to man, a free agent, the power of embarrassing or frustrating the Divine plans. But if this course is not adopted, then prophecy must, from the nature of the case, be obscure. The knowledge of any one particular fact in the future is so connected with many other facts, and often implies so much knowledge of other things, that without that other knowledge it could not be understood. Suppose that it had been predicted, in the time of John, that at some future period some contrivance should be found out by which what was doing in one part of the world could be instantaneously known in another remote part of the world, and spread abroad by thousands of copies in an hour to be read by a nation. Suppose, for instance, that there had been some symbol, or emblem representing what actually occurs now, when in a morning newspaper we read what occurred last evening at St. Louis, Dubuque, Galena, Chicago, Cincinnati, Charleston, New Orleans. It is clear that at a time when the magnetic telegraph and the printing-press were unknown, any symbol or language describing it that could be employed must be obscure, and the impression must have been that this could be accomplished only by miracle—and it would not be difficult for one who was disposed to scepticism to make out an argument to prove that this could not occur. It would be impossible to explain any symbol that could be employed to represent this until these wonderful descriptions should become reality, and in the mean time the book in which the symbols were found might be regarded as made up of mere riddles and enigmas; but when these inventions should be actually found out, however much ridicule or contempt had been poured on the book before, it might be perfectly evident that the symbol was the most appropriate that could be used, and no one could doubt that it was a Divine communication of what was to be in the future. Something of the same kind may have occurred in the symbols used by the writer of the book before us.

(4.) It is not necessary to suppose that a prophecy will be understood in all its details until the prediction is accomplished. In the case just referred to, though the fact of the rapid spread of intelligence might be clear, yet nothing would convey any idea of the mode or of the actual meaning of the symbols used, unless the inventions were themselves anticipated by a direct revelation. The trial of faith in the ease would be the belief that the fact would occur, but would not relate the mode in which it was to be accomplished, or the language employed to describe it. There might be great obscurity in regard to the symbols and language, and yet the knowledge of the fact be perfectly plain. When, however, the fact should occur as predicted, all would be clear. So it is in respect to prophecy. Many recorded predictions that are now clear as noon-day, were once as ambiguous and uncertain in respect to their meaning as in the supposed case of the press and the telegraph. Time has made them plain; for the event to which they referred has so entirely corresponded with the symbol as to leave no doubt in regard to the meaning. Thus many of the prophecies relating to the Messiah were obscure at the time when they were uttered; were apparently so contradictory that they could not be reconciled; were so unlike anything that then existed, that the fulfilment seemed to be impossible; and were so enigmatical in the symbols employed, that it seemed in vain to attempt to disclose their meaning. The advent of the long-promised Messiah, however, removed the obscurity, and now they are read with no uncertainty as to their meaning, and with no doubt that those predictions, once so obscure, had a Divine origin.

The view just suggested may lead us to some just conceptions of what is necessary to be done in attempting to explain the prophecies. Suppose then, first, that there had been, say in the dark ages, some predictions that claimed to be of Divine origin, of the invention of the art of printing and of the magnetic telegraph. The proper business of an interpreter, if he regarded this as a Divine communication, would have consisted in four things:

(a) to explain, as well as he could, the fair meaning of the symbols employed, and the language used;

(b) to admit the fact referred to, and implied in the fair interpretation of the language employed, of the rapid spread of intelligence in that future period, though he could not explain how it was to be done;

(c) in the meantime it would be a perfectly legitimate object for him to inquire whether there were any events occurring in the world, or whether there had been any, to which these symbols were applicable, or which would meet all the circumstances involved in them;

(d) if there were, then his duty would be ended; if there were not, then the symbols, with such explanation as could be furnished of their meaning, should be handed on to future times to be applied when the predicted events should actually occur. Suppose then, secondly, the case of the predictions respecting the Messiah, scattered along through many books, and given in various forms, and by various symbols. The proper business of an interpreter would have been, as in the other case,

(a) to explain the fair meaning, of the language used, and to bring together all the circumstances m one connected whole, that a distinct conception of the predicted Messiah might be before the mind;

(b) to admit the facts referred to, and thus predicted, however incomprehensible and apparently contradictory they might appear to be;

(c) to inquire whether any one had appeared who combined within himself all the characteristics of the description; and

(d) if no one had thus appeared, to send on the prophecies, with such explanations of words and symbols as could be ascertained to be correct, to future times, to have their full meaning developed when the object of all the predictions should be accomplished, and the Messiah should appear. Then the meaning of all would be plain; and then the argument from prophecy would be complete. This is obviously now the proper state of the mind in regard to the predictions in the Bible, and these are the principles which should be applied in examining the book of Revelation.

(5.) It may be assumed that new light will be thrown upon the prophecies by time, and by the progress of events. It cannot be supposed that the investigations of the meaning of the prophetic symbols will all be in vain. Difficulties, it is reasonable to hope, may be cleared up; errors may be detected in regard to the application of the prophecies to particular events; and juster views on the prophecies, as on all other subjects, will prevail as the world grows older. We become wiser by seeing the errors of those who have gone before us, and an examination of the causes which led them astray may enable us to avoid such errors in the future. :Especially may it be supposed that light will be thrown on the prophecies as they shall be in part or wholly fulfilled. The prophecies respecting the destruction of Babylon, of Petra, of Tyre, of Jerusalem, are now fully understood; the prophecies respecting the advent of the Messiah, and his character and work, once so obscure, are now perfectly clear. So, we have reason to suppose, it will be with all prophecy in the progress of events, and sooner or later the world will settle down into some uniform belief in regard to the design and meaning of these portions of the sacred writings. Whether the time has yet come for this, or whether numerous other failures are to be added to the melancholy catalogue of past failures on this subject, is another question; but ultimately all the now unfulfilled prophecies will be as clear as to their meaning as are those which have been already fulfilled.

(6.) The plan, therefore, which I propose in the examination of the remaining portion of the Apocalypse is the following:

(a) To explain the meaning of the symbols; that is, to show, as clearly as possible, what those symbols properly express, independently of any attempt to apply them. This opens, of itself, an interesting field of investigation, and one where essential service may be done, even if nothing further is intended. Without any reference to the application of those symbols, this, of itself, is an important work of criticism, and, if successfully done, would be rendering a valuable service to the readers of the sacred volume.

(b) To state, as briefly as possible, what others who have written on this book, and who have brought eminent learning and talent to bear on its interpretation, have supposed to be the true interpretation of the symbols employed by John, and in regard to the times in which the events referred to would occur. It is in this way only that we can be made acquainted with the real progress made in interpreting this book, and it will be useful at least to know how the subject has struck other minds, and how and why they have failed to perceive the truth. I propose therefore to state, as I go along, some of the theories which have been held as to the meaning of the Apocalypse, and as to the events which have been supposed by others to be referred to. My limits require, however, that this should be briefly done, and forbid my attempting to examine those opinions at length.

(c) To state, in as brief and clear a manner as possible, the view which I have been led to entertain as to the proper application of the symbols employed in the book, with such historical references as shall seem to me to confirm the interpretation proposed.

(d) Where I cannot form an opinion as to the meaning, to confess my ignorance. He does no service in a professed interpretation of the Bible who passes over a difficulty without attempting to remove it, or who, to save his own reputation, conceals the fact that there is a real difficulty; and he does as little service who is unwilling to confess his ignorance on many points, or who attempts an explanation where he has no clear and settled views. As his opinion can be of no value to any one else unless it is based on reasons in his own mind that will bear examination, so it can usually be of little value unless those reasons are stated. It is as important for his readers to have those reasons before their own minds as it is for him; and unless he has it in his power to state reasons for what he advances, his opinions can be worth nothing to the world. He who lays down this rule of interpretation may expect to have ample opportunity in interpreting such a book as the Apocalypse to confess his ignorance; but he who interprets a book which he believes to be inspired may console himself with the thought that what is now obscure will be clear hereafter, and that he performs the best service which he can if he endeavours to explain the book up to the time in which he lives. There will be developments hereafter which win make that clear which is now obscure; developments which will make this book, in all past ages apparently so enigmatical, as clear as any other portion of the inspired volume, as it is now, even with the imperfect view which we may have of its meaning, beyond all question one of the most sublime books that has ever been written.

This chapter describes the opening of the first six seals.

(1.) The first discloses a white horse with a rider armed with a bow. A crown is given to him, symbolical of triumph and prosperity, and he goes forth to conquer, Re 6:1,2.

(2.) The second discloses a red-coloured horse with a rider. The emblem is that of blood—of sanguinary war. Power is given him to take peace from the earth, and a sword is given him—emblem of war, but not of certain victory. Triumph and prosperity are denoted by the former symbol; war, discord, bloodshed by this, Re 6:3,4.

(3.) The third discloses a black horse with a rider. He has a pair of balances in his hand, as if there were scarcity in the earth, and he announces the price of grain in the times of this calamity, and a command is given not to hurt the oil and the wine, Re 6:5,6. The emblem is that of scarcity—as if there were oppression, or as a consequence of war or discord, while at the same time there is care bestowed to preserve certain portions of the produce of the earth from injury.

(4.) The fourth discloses a pale horse with a rider. The name of this rider is Death, and Hell, or Hades, follows him—as if the hosts of the dead came again on the earth. Power is given to the rider over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and with wild beasts. This emblem would seem to denote war, wide-wasting pestilence, famine, and desolation —as if wild beasts were suffered to roam over lands that had been inhabited: something of which paleness would be an emblem. Here ends the array of horses; and it is evidently intended by these four symbols to refer to a series of events that have a general resemblance —something that could be made to stand by themselves, and that could be grouped together.

(5.) The fifth seal opens a new scene. The horse and the rider no longer appear. It is not a scene of war, and of the consequences of war, but a scene of persecution. The souls of those who were slain for the word of God and the testimony which they held are seen under the altar, praying to God that he would avenge their blood. White robes are given them—tokens of the Divine favour, and emblems of their ultimate triumph; and they are commanded to "rest for a little season, till their fellow-servants and their brethren that should be killed as they were should be fulfilled:" that is, that they should be patient until the number of the martyrs was filled up. In other words, there was

(a) the assurance of the Divine favour towards them;

(b) vengeance, or the punishment of those who had persecuted them, would not be immediate; but

(c) there was the implied assurance that just punishment would be inflicted on their persecutors, and that the cause for which they had suffered would ultimately triumph, Re 6:9-11.

(6.) The opening of the sixth seal, Re 6:12-17. There was an earthquake, and the sun became dark, and the moon was turned to blood, and the stars fell, and all kings and people were filled with consternation. This symbol properly denotes a time of public commotion, of revolution, of calamity; and it was evidently to be fulfilled by some great changes on the earth, or by the overturning of the seats of power, and by such sudden revolutions as would fill the nations with alarm.

Verse 1. And I saw. Or, I looked. He fixed his eye attentively on what was passing, as promising important disclosures. No one had been found in the universe who could open the seals but the Lamb of God, (Re 5:2-4) and it was natural for John, therefore, to look upon the transaction with profound interest.

When the Lamb opened one of the seals. See Barnes "Re 5:1, seq. This was the first or outermost of the seals, and its being broken would permit a certain portion of the volume to be unrolled and read. See Barnes "Re 5:1".

The representation in this place is, therefore, that of a volume with a small portion unrolled, and written on both sides of the parchment.

And I heard, as it were the noise of thunder. One of the four living creatures speaking as with a voice of thunder, or with a loud voice.

One of the four beasts. See Barnes on "Re 4:6, See Barnes "Re 4:7".

The particular one is not mentioned, though what is said in the subsequent verses leaves no doubt that it was the first in order as seen by John-the one like a lion, Re 4:7. In the opening of the three following seals, it is expressly said that it was the second, the third, and the fourth of the living creatures that drew near, and hence the conclusion is certain that the one here referred to was the first.

If the four living creatures be understood to be emblematic of the Divine providential administration, then there was a propriety that they should be represented as summoning John to witness what was to be disclosed. These events pertained to the developments of the Divine purposes, and these emblematic beings would therefore be interested in what was occurring.

Come and see. Addressed evidently to John. He was requested to approach and see with his own eyes what was disclosed in the portion of the volume now unrolled. He had wept much (Re 5:4) that no one was found who was worthy to open that book, but he was now called on to approach and see for himself. Some have supposed (Lord, in loc.) that the address here was not to John, but to the horse and his rider, and that the command to them was not to "come and see," but to come forth, and appear on the stage, and that the act of the Redeemer in breaking the seal, and unrolling the scroll, was nothing more than an emblem signifying that it was by his act that the Divine purposes were to be unfolded. But, in order to this interpretation, it would be necessary to omit from the received text the words kai blepe—"and see." This is done indeed by Hahn and Tittman, and this reading is followed by Professor Stuart, though he says that the received text has "probability" in its favour, and is followed by some of the critical editions. The most natural interpretation, however, is that the words were addressed to John. John saw the Lamb open the seal; he heard the loud voice; he looked and beheld a white horse—that is, evidently, he looked on the unfolding volume, and saw the representation of a horse and his rider. That the voice was addressed to John is the common interpretation, is the most natural, and is liable to no real objection.

{a} "seals" Re 5:5

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