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REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE - Chapter 7 - Verse 5

Verses 5-8. Of the tribe of Juda were sealed twelve thousand. That is, a selection was made, or a number sealed, as if it had been made from one of the tribes of the children of Israel—the tribe of Judah. If the remarks above made are correct, this refers to the Christian church, and means, in connexion with what follows, that each portion of the church would furnish a definite part of the whole number sealed and saved. We are not required to understand this of the exact number of twelve thousand, but that the designation would be made from all parts and branches of the church as if a selection of the true servants of God were made from the whole number of the tribes of Israel. There seems to be no particular reason why the tribe of Judah was mentioned first. Judah was not the oldest of the sons of Jacob, and there was no settled order in which the tribes were usually mentioned. The order of their birth, as mentioned in Ge 29:1; 30:1, is as follows: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin. In the blessing of Jacob, Ge 49:1, this order is changed, and is as follows: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, Benjamin. In the blessing of Moses, De 33:1, a different order still is observed: Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph, Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, Asher; and in this last, moreover, Simeon is omitted. So again in Eze 48:1, there are two enumerations of the twelve tribes, differing from each other, and both differing from the arrangements above referred to: viz., in Eze 48:31-34, where Levi is reckoned as one, and Joseph as only one; and in Eze 48:1-27, referring to the division of the country, where Levi, who had no heritage in land, is omitted, and Ephraim and Manasseh are counted as two tribes.—Professor Stuart, ii. 172, 173. From facts like these, it is clear that there was no certain and settled order in which the tribes were mentioned by the sacred writers. The same thing seems to have occurred in the enumeration of the tribes which would occur, for example, in the enumeration of the several States of the American Union. There is indeed an order which is usually observed, beginning with Maine, etc., but almost no two writers would observe throughout the same order; nor should we deem it strange if the order should be materially varied by even the same writer in enumerating them at different times, thus, at one time, it might be convenient to enumerate them according to their geographical position; at another, in the order of their settlement; at another, in the order of their admission into the Union; at another, in the order of their size and importance; at another, in the order in which they are arranged in reference to political parties, etc. Something of the same kind may have occurred in the order in which the tribes were mentioned among the Jews. Perhaps this may have occurred also of design, in order that no one tribe might claim the precedence or the pre-eminence by being always placed at the head of the list. If, as is supposed above, the allusion in this enumeration of the tribes was to the various portions of the Christian church, then perhaps the idea intended to be conveyed is, that no one division of that church is to have any preference on account of its locality, or its occupying any particular country, or because it has more wealth, learning, or numbers than others; but that all are to be regarded, where there is the true spirit of religion, as on a level.

There are, however, three peculiarities in this enumeration of the tribes which demand a more particular explanation. The number indeed is twelve, but that number is made up in a peculiar manner.

(1.) Joseph is mentioned, and also Manasseh. The matter of fact was, that Joseph had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, (Ge 48:1) and that these two sons gave name to two of the tribes, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. There was, properly speaking, no tribe of the name Joseph. In Nu 13:1 the name Levi is omitted, as it usually is, because that tribe had no inheritance in the division of the land; and in order that the number twelve might be complete, Ephraim and Joseph are mentioned as two tribes, Re 7:8,11. In verse 11, the writer states expressly that by the tribe Joseph he meant Manasseh—"Of the tribe of Joseph, namely, of the tribe of Manasseh," etc. From this it would seem that, as Manasseh was the oldest, (Ge 48:14) the name Joseph was sometimes given to that tribe. As Ephraim, however, became the largest tribe, and as Jacob in blessing the two sons of Joseph (Ge 48:14) laid his right hand on Ephraim, and pronounced a special blessing on him, (Ge 48:19-20) it would seem not improbable that, when not particularly designated, the name Joseph was given to that tribe, as it is evidently in this place. Possibly the name Joseph may have been a general name which was occasionally applied to either of these tribes. In the long account of the original division of Canaan, in Joshua 13-19, Levi is omitted, because he had no heritage, and Ephraim and Manasseh are mentioned as two tribes. The name Joseph in the passage before us (Re 7:8) is doubtless designed, as remarked above, to refer to Ephraim.

(2.) In this list (Re 7:7) the name of Levi is inserted among the tribes. As already remarked, this name is not commonly inserted among the tribes of the children of Israel, because that tribe, being devoted to the sacerdotal office, had no inheritance in the division of the country, but was scattered among the other tribes. See Jos 14:3-4; 18:7. It may have been inserted here, if this refers to the Christian church, to denote that the ministers of the gospel, as well as other members of the church, would share in the protection implied by the sealing; that is, to denote that no class in the church would be excluded from the blessings of salvation.

(3.) The name of one of the tribes—Dan—is omitted; so that by this omission, and the insertion of the tribe of Levi, the original number of twelve is preserved. There have been numerous conjectures as to the reason why the tribe of Dan is omitted here, but none of the solutions proposed are without difficulty. All that can be known, or regarded as probable, on the subject, seems to be this:—

(a) As the tribe of Levi was usually omitted in an enumeration of the tribes, because that tribe had no part in the inheritance of the Hebrew people in the division of the land of Canaan, so there appear to have been instances in which the names of some of the other tribes were omitted, the reason for which is not given. Thus, in Deuteronomy 33, in the blessing pronounced by Moses on the tribes just before his death, the name Simeon is omitted. In 1 Chronicles 4-8, the names of Zebulun and Dan are both omitted. It would seem, therefore, that the name of a tribe might be sometimes omitted without any particular reason being specified.

(b) It has been supposed by some that the name Dan was omitted because that tribe was early devoted to idolatry, and continued idolatrous to the time of the captivity. Of that fact there can be no doubt, for it is expressly affirmed in Jud 18:30; and that fact seems to be a sufficient reason for the omission of the name. As being thus idolatrous, it was in a measure separated from the people of God, and deserved not to be reckoned among them; and in enumerating those who were the servants of God, there seemed to be a propriety that a tribe devoted to idolatry should not be reckoned among the number. This will account for the omission without resorting to the supposition of Grotius, that the tribe of Dan was extinct at the time when the Apocalypse was written—a fact which also existed in regard to all the ten tribes; or to the supposition of Andreas and others, that Dan is omitted because Antichrist was to spring from that tribe—a supposition which is alike without proof and without probability. The fact that Dan was omitted cannot be supposed to have any special significancy in the case before us. Such an omission is what, as we have seen, might have occurred at any time in the enumeration of the tribes.

In reference to the application of this portion of the book, (Re 7:1-8) or of what is designed to be here represented, there has been, as might be expected, a great variety of opinions. From the exposition of the words and phrases which has been given, it is manifest that we are to look for a series of events like the following:

(1.) Some impending danger, or something that threatened to sweep everything away—like winds that were ready to blow on the earth.

(2.) That tempest restrained or held back, as if the winds were held in check by an angel, and were not suffered to sweep over the world.

(3.) Some new influence or power, represented by an angel coming from the east—the great source of light—that should designate the true church of God—the servants of the Most High.

(4.) Some mark or note by which the true people of God could be designated, or by which they could be known—as if some name were impressed on their foreheads.

(5.) A selection or election of the number from a much greater number who were the professed, but were not the true servants of God.

(6.) A definite, though comparatively a small number thus designated out of the whole mass.

(7.) This number taken from all the divisions of the professed people of God, in such numbers, and in such a manner, that it would be apparent that there would be no partiality or favouritism; that is, that wherever the true servants of God were found, they would be sealed and saved. These are things which lie on the face of the passage, if the interpretation above given is correct, and in its application it is necessary to find some facts that will properly correspond with these things.

If the interpretation of the sixth seal proposed above is correct, then we are to look for the fulfilment of this in events that soon succeeded those which are there referred to, or at least which had their commencement at about that time; and the inquiry now is, whether there were any events that would accord properly with the interpretation here proposed: that is, any impending and spreading danger; any restraining of that danger; any process of designating the servants of God so as to preserve them; anything like a designation or selection of them from among the masses of the professed people of God? Now, in respect to this, the following facts accord so well with what is demanded in the interpretation, that it may be regarded as morally certain that they were the things which were thus made to pass in vision before the mind of John. They have at least this degree of probability, that if it were admitted that he intended to describe them, the symbols which are actually employed are those which it would have been proper to select to represent them.

I. The impending danger, like winds restrained, that threatened to sweep everything away, and to hasten on the end of the world. In reference to this, there may have been two classes of impending danger—that from the invasion of the Northern hordes, referred to in the sixth seal, (chapter 6) and that from the influx of error, that threatened the ruin of the church.

(a) As to the former, the language used by John will accurately express the state of things as it existed at the period supposed at the time of the sixth seal—the series of events introduced, now suspended, like the opening of the seventh seal. The idea is that of nations pressing on to conquest; heaving like tempests on the borders of the empire; overturning everything in their way; spreading desolation by fire and sword, as if the world were about to come to an end. The language used by Mr. Gibbon in describing the times here referred to is so applicable, that it would seem almost as if he had the symbols used by John in his eye. Speaking of the time of Constantine, he says, "The threatening tempest of barbarians, which so soon subverted the foundations of Roman greatness, was still repelled, or suspended on the frontiers," i. 362. This language accurately expresses the condition of the Roman world at the period succeeding the opening of the sixth seal; the period of suspended judgments in order that the servants of God might be sealed. See Barnes on "Re 6:12-17".

The nations which ultimately spread desolation through the empire hovered around its borders, making occasional incursions into its territory; even carrying their arms, as we have seen in some in stances, as far as Rome itself, but still restrained from accomplishing the final purpose of overthrowing the city and the empire. The church and the state alike were threatened with destruction, and the impending wrath seemed only to beheld back as if to give time to accomplish some other purpose.

(b) At the same time, there was another class of evils which threatened to sweep like a tempest over the church—the evils of error in doctrine that sprang up on the establishment of Christianity by Constantine. That fact was followed with a great increase of professors of religion, who, for various purposes, crowded into a church patronized by the state—a condition of things which tended to do more to destroy the church than all that had been done by persecution had accomplished. This effect was natural; and the church became filled with those who had yielded themselves to the Christian faith from motives of policy, and who, having no true spiritual piety, were ready to embrace the most lax views of religion, and to yield themselves to any form of error. Of this period, and of the effect of the conversion of Constantine in this respect, Mr. Gibbon makes the following remarks, strikingly illustrative of the view now taken of the meaning of this passage: "The hopes of wealth and honour, the example of an emperor, his exhortations, his irresistible smiles, diffused conviction among the venal and obsequious crowds which usually fill the departments of a palace. The cities which signalized a forward zeal, by the voluntary destruction of their temples, were distinguished by municipal privileges, and rewarded with popular donatives; and the new capital of the East gloried in the singular advantage, that Constantinople was never profaned by the worship of idols. As the lower ranks of society are governed by imitation, the conversion of those who possessed any eminence of birth, of power, or of riches, was soon followed by dependent multitudes. The salvation of the common people was purchased at an easy rate, if it be true that, in one year, twelve thousand men were baptized at Rome, besides a proportionable number of women and children, and that a white garment, with twenty pieces of gold, had been promised by the emperor to every convert," i. 425. At a time, therefore, when it might have been supposed that, under the patronage of a Christian emperor, the truth would have spread around the world, the church was exposed to one of its greatest dangers—that arising from the fact that it had become united with the state. About the same time, also, there sprang up many of those forms of error which have spread farthest over the Christian world, and which then threatened to become the universal form of belief in the church. Of this class of doctrine were the views of Arius, and the views of Pelagius—forms of opinion which there were strong reasons to fear might become the prevailing belief of the church, and essentially change its character. About this time, also, the church was passing into the state in which the Papacy would arise—that dark and gloomy period in which error would spread over the Christian world, and the true servants of God would retire for a long period into obscurity. "We are now but a little way off from the commencement of that noted period—obscurely hinted at by Daniel, plainly announced by John—the twelve hundred and sixty prophetic days or years, for which preparations of a very unusual kind, but requisite, doubtless, are made. This period was to form the gloomiest, without exception, in the annals of the world—the period of Satan's highest success, and of the church's greatest depression; and lest she should become during it utterly extinct, her members, never so few as then, were all specially sealed. The long night passes on, darkening as it advances; but the sealed company are not visible; they disappear from the Apocalyptic stage, just as they then disappeared from the observation of the world; for they fled away to escape the fire and the dungeons of their persecutors, to hide in the hoary caves of the earth, or to inhabit the untrodden regions of the wilderness, or to dwell beneath the shadow of the Alps, or to enjoy fellowship with God, emancipated and unknown, in the deep seclusion and gloom of some convent." —The Seventh Vial, London, 1848, pp. 27, 28. These facts seem to me to show, with a considerable degree of probability, what was designated by the suspense which occurred after the opening of the sixth seal—when the affairs of the world seemed to be hastening on to the great catastrophe. At that period, the prophetic eye sees the tendency of things suddenly arrested; the winds held back, the church preserved, and a series of events introduced, intended to designate and to save from the great mass of those who professedly consutured the "tribes of Israel," a definite number who should be in fact the true church of God.

This note purposely split at this point. Continued at next verse. see Barnes "Re 7:6"

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