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As the prophet that he claims to be, the author of the Apocalypse has above all to foretell the future. Indeed, his whole book consists of such prediction. The vast agglomeration of his promises admit, after all, of a very simple division into three parts: (1) The Christian hope in the parousia; (2) political prophecy; (3) conceptions borrowed from the storehouse of Jewish apocalyptical tradition.
The coming of Jesus, the Son of man, down from heaven, stands in the front of the prophecy, that is its Christian element. The old expectation of the earliest Church continues in undiminished strength. The nearness of His coming is, as before, the chief point in connection with it. As the book begins, “For the time is at hand; behold He cometh”—so it ends: “Yea, I come quickly. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” He will come suddenly as a thief, as a judge, as a Saviour of them that are His. The last great tribulation precedes His coming. There will be a sifting of the saints, then it will be decided who shall stand and who shall fall. Such had ever been the 367hopes of the early Christians, and lapse of time has not effected any change in them. Even the language is almost that of the earliest Church. Since Jesus departure His second advent has come to be the main factor in the kingdom of God, to such an extent that it has usurped its place in ordinary conversation.
And yet this hope has experienced a great transformation through the changes wrought by the course of contemporary history. It comes to be political, because the Roman State has assumed an attitude of hostility to the Christians. One persecution has already taken place in which the blood of martyrs has been shed, and now the last great persecution is close at hand. The thirteenth and seventeenth to nineteenth chapters deal with this especially. The enemy is Rome, the great city Babylon, which has the dominion over the kings of the earth. Already it is drunken with the blood of the saints, and of the witnesses of Jesus. It is the great harlot, the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth. The demoniac power appears in chap. xiii. under the picture of the two beasts, who come up, the first out of the sea, and the second out of the earth. The dragon has equipped the first with his own authority, so that he wars against the saints, and is able to vanquish them: that is the Roman Empire. The second beast is subject to the first. It is the false prophet who deceives men so that they worship the image of the first beast and bear its mark: that is, the priesthood of the Roman emperor-worship. The demand that was made to worship the emperor, and the persecution of those who refused to obey, is the occasion for the 368publication of our apocalypse. It was the measures taken by Domitian and Trajan which compelled the Christian eschatology to take this political turn. The same position had occurred long ago for the Jews, when Caligula ordered his image to be erected in the temple. The author of our apocalypse takes over these old Jewish feelings of irritability and resentment against the imperial cultus into the Christian Church, and builds up his eschatology on this basis. For him the mark of the times is the struggle between God and the Caesar whom Satan has set upon the throne. Now it is just this struggle which at present ends in the defeat of the Christians that the future is to decide by bringing about the defeat of Rome. And this decision—the victory of the Christians in the contest which is at once political and demoniac—is brought about by the coming of the Messiah. It is here treated as an entirely political occurrence. The Messiah descends from heaven upon a white horse, in the full equipment of battle, surrounded by the heavenly hosts. The beast, the kings of the earth, and their enemies are gathered together to make war against Him. The result is, of course, their entire annihilation. The beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, whilst their followers perish by the sword. Hereupon begins the reign of Messiah and of His martyrs, the heroes that fell in battle. This future victory of Christ over Rome is the core and centre of the promise of our book.
In the midst of the political chaos which the prophet predicts, the Emperor Nero appears upon the scene. The belief in Nero’s return from the grave 369had already assumed different shapes. An older form, that he would wage war against Rome in league with the Parthian kings, has now been susperseded by a later, that he was to fight against the Lamb, and be overcome by Him. The celebrated number 666 is supposed to refer to the Emperor Nero. One can scarcely conceive of anything more fantastic than these politics which deal with men and spirits, with devils and angels.
No small danger arose for Christianity from this political coloring of its hope. St Paul had declared that every power in the State, even the Emperor Nero, had been appointed by God and was to be regarded as the servant of God. And now in consequence of the entirely new position of affairs the emperor has come to be for the Christians the servant of Satan, and it is from him that he draws all his power. Is the Christian, then, bound to render him obedience any longer? Is rebellion not his duty? But nothing lies further from our author’s intentions than any idea of rebellion. His one demand is patience. He would never allow any other form of resistance but that of passive endurance. God alone brings us the victory, not men. On the other hand, the prophet’s visions in chaps. xviii. xix. are nothing less than orgies of vengeance. To revel in these affords some little comfort for the misery of the present. The malignant joy, the song of triumph, at the fall of the great harlot, and the description of the destruction of the enemy: “Gather together, ye birds, and come to the great feast of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of commanders, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, 370the flesh alike of free men and of slaves, and of high and low”—all this confers no distinction upon Christianity. Along with the changed political situation it has forthwith taken over all the thoughts of vengeance, hatred and fanaticism, which were the marks of Judaism. This fact is certain: it matters not whether Jewish or Christian materials are the ultimate source. He that takes delight in such fancies is no whit better than he that first invented them. It is the thirst for vengeance of tortured slaves, who imagine still worse tortures for their masters.
But the Christian hope in the parousia and the political prediction against Rome, after all, only occupy a small portion of the big book. The main body of the prophecies is nothing but old material taken from the storehouse of Jewish apocalytic traditions. If the ‘prophet’ wished to write an apocalypse, then he had above all else to be careful that the old tradition as to the mysteries at the end of the world should not be lost in his hands. Rather take too much of it than too little. Contradictions do not matter. Put into your book all that you can lay hold of: do not bother about probabilities. As a matter of fact this writer has tied together a whole bundle of eschatologies, often without any mutual connection.
The greatest space is occupied by the description of the preliminary signs and the tribulation. The seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven bowls, are only variations of similar signs of the last days which occur in all apocalypses. Of these the seven bowls and the seven trumpets are so nearly related, that they are best explained as a twofold copy of the same original. First of all, in each case the earth is 371smitten—then the sea, then the rivers, then the stars, then the air (true, in a very different manner), then come the Parthians, finally hail, thunder, and lightning. In his descriptions of the preliminary signs and plagues, our author relies mostly on Old Testament material—the vision of the steeds in Zechariah, the conjunction of sword, plague and hunger in Jeremiah, above all, the Egyptian plagues, a regular mine for the apocalyptic; and besides this, on later Jewish uncanonical material. The whole of Nature is introduced into the final drama, and at the same time the political position (the Parthians and Nero redivivus) furnishes favourable subjects. In the fifth seal a Jewish idea, that the number of the righteous must be completed before the end, is changed into a Christian, the martyrs taking the place of the righteous.
But the prophet is very far from exhausting all his store of preliminary signs of the end in this threefold use of the number seven (seals, trumpets and bowls). He has to find room for the rest in the insertions which he introduces between the three sevens. To these belong: The sealing of the 144,000 out of the twelve tribes of Israel (without Dan, the tribe of the Antichrist), to whom afterwards the great multitude which no man could number out of all nations and peoples is added. Here the writer has almost certainly introduced an original Jewish fragment into his book.
The desolation of the holy city by the Gentiles. This section dates from some time previous to 70 A.D., and originally predicted the exemption of the temple from desecration.372
The sending of the two witnesses—according to an old tradition, Elijah and Enoch—as preachers of repentance to the holy city. They are killed by the beast, but are immediately raised from the dead and ascend up into heaven. All these three insertions are based not merely upon Jewish traditions, but upon written fragments.
The supernatural commencement of salvation is really only described when we reach chap. xii.: the birth of the Messiah from the woman whose robe was the sun, the effort of the dragon to destroy him, his translation to God. Thereupon follows the assault of heaven by the dragon, which ends with his defeat by Michael and his being cast down from heaven. Then the dragon persecutes the other seed of the woman—i.e. here the Church of Jesus. For this purpose he hands over his power to the beast, i.e. Rome, until at length the child that has been snatched up to God descends as king from heaven and destroys him.
All this material is of mythological origin, and is no invention of the Christian author’s. It can even be traced back right through Hebrew literature to Babylonian myths, but it has been transmitted by Jewish writers. Our author was the first to impress upon it a Christian interpretation. The all-important element in it for him is this: the victory of the Christian has already been decided in heaven, the dragon has been cast out. Hence the certainty of the approaching deliverance.
The final act of the drama is described by him in two stages, and offers a combination of different eschatologies. First of all, after the battle of the 373Messiah, there is the thousand years’ reign of Christ and of the martyrs (the first resurrection), whilst the dragon in the meanwhile is bound in the abyss. This state of things comes to an end with the liberation of the dragon and his renewed assault with Gog and Magog upon the holy city. In the decisive moment fire falls from heaven and consumes the enemies of God. Satan is cast forever into the lake of fire. Hereupon follows the general resurrection of the dead, and the judgment of the world according to each man’s works: all sinners fall into hell, the second death. Now comes the transformation of the world into the new heaven and the new earth (where there is no sea). The new Jerusalem descends from heaven. God dwells among men. There will be no more grief. The old order has passed away.
This is, indeed, the official Jewish eschatology, but it is presented in such a form that every Christian can easily adopt it. The case is different with the great final picture. Here we are transported, not into the new heaven and the new earth, but into that which is entirely of this earth, into the coarsely phenomenal and Jewish from a narrow national point of view. Our author has again incorporated a Jewish fragment. The new Jerusalem is brought before us in the form of a cube with golden streets, high walls, and twelve gates made of precious stones. There is no temple in it, neither does it need sun or moon. God Himself is there and illuminates the city. The Gentiles are still in their position of subjection; they may bring their treasures as tribute into the holy city, and be healed by the fruit of the tree of life. The main thing is, of course, the presence 374of God in person—and, adds the Christian, of the Lamb. Now here we have the most entire reversion conceivable to the old familiar national Jewish language. The Christian people takes the place of the Jewish, and takes over its contempt for the Gentiles. The new Israel at the head of the nations, in the holy land and in the holy city—that is the Christian battle-cry. For such Christians the whole transformation which Jesus effected of the conception of the kingdom of God has been in vain.
Throughout the whole of the Apocalypse, however, the picture of the Christian hope is set before us with many beautiful features of great poetic worth and emotional effect. The Christian joy and blessedness are expressed in many sayings, just as simply as in the beatitudes of Jesus. And then again by the side of these, the creations of the wildest fancy, even in the best portions of the book, the letters to the seven Churches: “To him that overcometh, to him will I give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon his stone a new name written which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it.” “And he that overcometh, and he that keepeth my words unto the end, to him will I give authority over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to shivers, as I also have received of my Father: and I will give him the morning star.” It is Jesus who utters such abstruse, essentially unchristian words in these letters. In fact, taking the prophecy of the book as a whole, the name of Jesus has been applied in a manner altogether unsuitable to the Jesus of history. The very role He did not want to play—that of Jewish Messiah in a 375Jewish kingdom of God—has here been allotted to Him.
What then, after all , is there that is Christian in this prophecy? Set it for a moment side by side with the apocalypse of Ezra, and the answer is not far to seek. There is resignation often akin to despair; here the exultant confidence of victory. With the glad exultant longing and splendid certainty of victory, the little handful of Christians faced their long and arduous struggle against almighty Rome. “The kingdom will still be ours.” That was the power which Jesus gave.376
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