Can Change the World Again.
THE REVELATION OF JOHN,
REV. HENRY COWLES, D. D.
I. Of the Author.
1. Christian Fathers | 2. Few Contrary Voices | 3. Internal Traits, Objections Considered.
II. Of the date of his writing.
1. Internal Evidence | 2. External.
III. Of his timeshis circumstances and those of his first readers.
IV. Of the questionTo whom precisely was this book primarily addressed and therefore specially adapted?
1. Prophecy depending upon the fulfilling event and not upon the revealing words, is not true | 2. Contrary to Moral purpose | 3. Confronted by the facts.
V. The various indications in the book which locate its prophetic events in place and in time, and thus become landmarks to guide to its just interpretation.
VI. The sources of the writer's figurative imagery and the bearing of these sources upon his use of them in this book.
VII. The principles or laws which should control the interpretation of this book.
1. Come to the book Unprejudiced | 2. Interpret in harmony with God's own declarations | 3. And His interpretation of symbols | 4. And whatever allusions it contains to known historic events and localities | 5. And that Christians then living were to be the persecuted men of whom these visions speak | 6. Persecuting name omitted because John's first readers knew it | 7. Interpret in harmony with the obvious moral purpose | 8. Symbols borrowed from the Old Testament should be obviously interpreted in the light of their usage there | 9. While these principles of interpretation suffice to prove that the great body of the book refers to events then near at hand, the well-known usage of prophecy will permit the minds of both prophet and reader to pass over by analogy from these events to others of like general character far in the futurethese future events being reached, not through a continuous series of history, filling up the whole interval, but under the law of analogy by which one series of events suggests another of like general character, resting on the same broad principles of God's government.
It lies upon the face of this book that it was written in a time of persecution. The writer was an exile in the barren isle of Patmos because of his testimony for Jesus Christ. He wrote the book to those who were his "companions in tribulation," like himself in the point of suffering and endurance for the Kingdom of Jesus (1: 9). The whole book is addressed to the seven churches of Asia (1: 4), while the second and third chapters comprise special messages to each one of these churches by name. A careful attention to these special messages will show that those Christians were either actually suffering persecution, or at least were exposed and in constant peril. The letters speak of their "patience" (i. e., suffering); of their "tribulation;" of some who had "kept the word" (command) "of my patience" and obtained the promise that Jesus would "keep them from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world to try them that dwell upon the earth" (3: 10); of those who "had not denied my faith even in those days wherein Antipas, my faithful martyr, was slain among you" (2: 13). They were exhorted to "be faithful unto death;" with the promise of gaining thus a crown of life. Each message closes with a specific and glorious promise to "him that overcometh." To them the battle of life was "unto blood."Altogether to the same purport is the body of this "Revelation of St. John." First, a book (5: 1) or scroll of destiny written on both sides is unrolled, disclosing its contents by sections as one seal after another is broken. One of these seals (6: 9-11) significantly opens to view "under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held;" and they are heard to cry with a loud voice: How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" Then "white robes" (of prospective victory and joy) "were given to every one of them, and it was said to them that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren that should be killed as they were should be fulfilled." The obvious construction of this passage implies that persecution was then raging; that some faithful martyrs had already fallen; that their murderers were then living on the earth, their crimes yet unpunished; and that other Christian martyrs, of their brethren, were to be killed as they had been before God's sword of retribution should smite the murderers.Bearing to the same conclusion are the scenes of chap, 7: 9-17the myriads of saved ones arrayed in white who have "come out of great tribulation," but are seen at rest in the fullness of joy before the throne of God. So the two witnesses (of chap, 11), representative characters, indicate an age of faithful testimony for Jesus which cost human blood but ended in glorious victory for truth and for truth's Great King. So throughout the scenes unfolded in the second part of this book (13-18) we have bloody persecution, led on by the Great Dragon, his auxiliary forces being the savage wild "beasts'' (the first and the second) and the great harlot, citythat woman seen in vision "drunk with the blood of saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (17: 6)throughout which scenes there was abundant demand for "the patience of the saints" (13: 10 and 14: 12 and 12: 17), and for the assurance of blessedness to those that "die in the Lord" and so "rest from their labors." It can not fail to impress the attentive reader that every feature of this book is made to bear upon the case of Christian men and women breasting the fire and flame of persecution. They are thought of as in the midst of such conflicts as try men's souls. They are precisely where they need to see the surpassing majesty and glory of their own risen Redeemer (1: 13-18). They need the assurance of his presence, walking amid the seven golden candlesticks, searching all hearts, witnessing every believer's personal conflicts, sufferings, faith, love and fidelity to his Master; where it must be cheering to see visions of myriads of men saved through blood and fire and to witness the ineffable glory of their joy, and where the judgments of the Almighty on his foes are the pledge of speedy victory to Zion's King and people. Such comprehensively are the main points made in this book. Throughout they undeniably assume that the writer and his first readers were in the midst of bloody persecution, and therefore give us beyond dispute the moral purpose of this book of Revelation.
Let it now be strongly said and deeply pondered.This obvious and unquestionable moral purpose of the book may be relied on to guide us to its true interpretation. For no interpretation can be a right one unless it bears naturally and squarely toward attaining the obvious purpose of the book. It can not be admissible to put upon it or any part of it a construction which would frustrate or even materially emasculate its moral purpose. The reason of this will be obvious. Every sensible and earnest author writes for a purpose and makes his points bear toward its attainment. His good sense will appear in the wisdom and effectiveness of his adaptation of means to his ends: his earnestness will be the guaranty that he will surely try to accomplish his purpose. Our author is wonderfully strong in his manifestations of earnestnessgiving assurance therefore that he can not forget his great object in writing. We shall see that he is not deficient in the good sense that adapts his points to their obvious purpose. *
* Only for brevity's sake do I speak of this book as the product of John's own mind and heart. I hold the whole book to be inspired, and therefore really the mental product of John's Divine Teacherthe messages and the vision having been given him while "in the Spirit." Their wise adaptation to great moral ends and that earnestness which breathes in every word and symbol are therefore primarily those of the Divine Spirit.I extend the remark here made to the whole subject of language, style, symbol and figure. For the sake of brevity I speak of all points that arise under this comprehensive head as if John were the uninspired and only responsible author of the book, and every feature of the style were due to his own taste, his own cast of mind and modes of speech. This way of speaking of the language and poetry of a prophet is unobjectionable provided it be fully understood that it does not in any wise ignore his prophetic inspiration. For, however the fact may be explained, no one can deny that the style and language of each prophet is as truly his own, representing his own taste, culture, cast of mind and genius, as the style of Gibbon is his own, or the style of Carlyle, his. As to explanation of this fact, it may suffice to say that God speaks to his prophets, to each in his own tongue, as wise men now speak in one style to a child, in another to a youth or a man; in one style to men of no education; in another, to the educated, and in their own parlance to men of any given profession. That the inditing Spirit should adapt himself to the mind and tongue of each prophet is no mystery. The fact applies both to messages given to the prophet to be spoken or written verbatim, and to revelations made to his prophetic eye in vision, or through a revealing angel, or by any other mode of communicating the thought of God to the mind of man.
From these principles I infer that if the book was written in order to produce certain moral impressions and effects upon its first readersmen then livingit must have been in the main intelligible to those men. Its words, its pictured scenes, its symbols, its allusions to God's enemies soon to be destroyed, must have been brought down to the average level of their comprehension. The writer meant to be understoodexpected to be; for he certainly must have known that what his readers could not understand could do them no good. On this point human nature was the same then as now: words and symbols which men can not understand are simply powerless. If the seven churches of Asia to whom John wrote this entire book (1 : 4) could not understand the main and vital things it contains, then it was to them in just so far a dead lettera book written in vain as to any effect upon thema "revelation" that revealed nothing. The notion that the great body of this prophetic book was unintelligible to its first readers and therefore may be interpreted today to mean things which they could never have imagined, must be for every reason rejected. Think of the blessing promised to "him that readeth and to those that hear its words" (1: 3); think of the declared speedy fulfillment of its staple predictions (1: 1, 3, and 4: 1, and 22: 6, 10, 12, 20); the special blessing for those who keep i, e., observe and obey those things written herein (1 : 3, and 22: 7); the obvious need of just such sayings and showings to support the Christian faith and heroism of those churches at that time; the perfect adaptation of the things shown to meet their case and sustain their souls under the sternest and bloodiest of scenes. All these points conspire to show that the author wrote with a present object; consequently, sought to be understood; therefore must have made himself fairly intelligible to the average capacity of those church members; and so, by resistless inference, must be interpreted to mean what would be within and not beyond the pale of their thought and conception.
I deem it the more important to show that the book had a great and then present moral purpose; what that purpose was; and the inference as to its interpretation that flows by necessity from it, because in my view these points give us the only reliable clue to its just interpretation. Overlooking these points or according to them only the least possible influence upon its interpretation, men have speculated upon this book in endless diversity, with no one result more general and deep in the public mind than the breaking down of all confidence in prophecy and the special conclusion that nothing can be known with any certainty as to the true meaning of this book of Revelation.
As preliminary and essential steps in unfolding what I regard as the true sense of this book, I must treat,
I. Of the Author.
II. Of the date of his writing.
III. Of his timeshis circumstances and those of his first readers.
IV. Of the questionTo whom precisely was this book primarily addressed and therefore specially adapted?
V. The various indications in the book which locate its prophetic events in place and in time, and thus become landmarks to guide to its just interpretation.
VI. The sources of the writer's figurative imagery and the bearing of these sources upon his use of them in this book.
VII. The principles or laws which should control the interpretation of this book.
I. THE AUTHOR.
The writer calls himself simply "John" (1: 1, 4, 9, and 22: 8) with no further designation save that he is "his" (Jesus Christ's) "servant," and "your brother and companion in tribulation"the same who was exiled to Patmos (1: 1, 9). He does not say John the Apostle, nor John the brother of James, or one of the sons of Zebedee; does not define himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (as in his gospel, 13: 23, and 19: 26, and 20: 2, and 21: 7, 20). Yet he makes no effort to disguise his person, but obviously assumes that his first readers will recognize him without fail by the indications given. It is therefore safe to conclude that he was well known throughout all those seven churches. This fact of itself leaves no room to doubt that he was the venerable and every-where known Apostle John. The church history of the early ages from the date of this epistle onward witnesses to no other John of such prominence and distinctiona father to the churches, known and beloved by all.
This question of authorship is not absolutely vital to the reception and usefulness of this book, provided it be admitted and satisfactorily shown that the author was one of the inspired men of the apostolic age. Yet if John the beloved disciple was truly the author, it is refreshing to know it. In my view the proof that he was the author is entirely conclusive. Yet I am well aware that some very learned critics of our times deny his authorship, especially on the ground of the great diversity of style between this book and the fourth gospel and the three epistles attributed to John. Consequently the question should be the more carefully examined and the strong points of proof more fully presented.
1. In the first place the voice of the most ancient Christian fathers is strongly and almost unanimously for him as the author.The testimony of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (Col. 4: 13) in Phrygia (flourished in the first years of the second century) and who may have seen John personally, shows only that he held the book to be of apostolic origin and worthy of our Christian faith ("axiopiston"). He says nothing adverse to the opinion that John was the author. The presumption is that in his day there was no occasion to affirm this.The active life of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, spanned the first half of the second century and the later years of the first. He is spoken of as a personal companion and disciple of John; but we reach his views on the point before us only by inference from the well known views of his pupil Ireneus. The latter speaks explicitly of the Apostle John as the author of this book.Justin Martyr (flourished: A. D. 140-164), the earliest author and scholar after the apostles, writes: "A man from among us" (Justin was of Palestine) "by name John, one of the apostles of Christ, in the revelations made to him; has prophesied that those who believe in our Messiah shall live a thousand years in Jerusalem," etc.Melito, bishop of Sardis one of those seven churches), who flourished in the third quarter of the second century, "wrote a treatise on the Apocalypse of John." This is the language of Eusebius (Book 4, chap. 26), and can be fairly construed of no other than John the Apostle.Theophilus, bishop of Antioch (A. D. 169-180), is reported by Eusebius (Book 4, chap. 24) as drawing "testimony from the Apocalypse of John" in a work of his entitled, "Against the heresy of Hermogenis."Eusebius says the same of Apollonius (Book 5, chap. 18), who was of Asia Minor, latter part of the second century.Ireneus, trained in Christian life and doctrine under Polycarp of Smyrna till about A. D. 150; then sent as a missionary to the south of France (Gaul), where he was bishop of Lyons (A. D. 177-202), witnesses abundantly that John the disciple of the Lord wrote the Apocalypse. His testimony, found in his great work "Against Heresies," is chiefly in the form of quotations from the Apocalypse, spoken of as "the words of John."Clement of Alexandria (A. D. 192-220) quotes from this book with the remark, "As John Says in the Apocalypse."Tertullian of Carthage (A. D, 199-220) in many passages refers to the Apocalypse as being "the work of the Apostle John."Origen, the greatest biblical scholar among the Christian fathers to his day; in early life of Alexandria (Egypt), but in later life of Palestine; born A. D. 185, died A. D. 254, makes his testimony signally explicit: "John who leaned on the bosom of Jesus has left us one gospel, and he wrote also the Apocalypse." He speaks of this John as "being the son of Zebedee;" also as being "condemned to the Isle of Patmos for bearing his testimony to the word. of truth."
This list of witnesses and recital of their testimony might be very greatly extended. I have selected the earliest witnesses because they are most likely to be original and direct, and therefore have the highest value. I see no reason to doubt that these witnesses give us the prevalent opinions of those who first received this book from the pen of John and of their successorssons and grandsons, pupils and grand-pupils, of the nearest subsequent years.
2. In respect to historic testimony it should however be distinctly stated that a very few counter voices, are heard; but their doubt or denial of the authorship of John is obviously traceable either (1) to doctrinal prejudice against the book; or (2) to their inference from its peculiarities of style, compared with the fourth gospel.As to doctrinal prejudice, the facts are in brief that a few Christians in the second century and onward gave this book an extremely literal and even a repulsively gross and sensual interpretation, which so disgusted many of their brethren that they discredited the book itself denying its divine authority, and of course denying that it was written by the Apostle John. It was apparently under the influence of this feeling that the scholarly Dyonisius of Alexandria raised the question whether the John whose name appears in this book was not another man-a position which he supported by appealing to its diversity of style; compared with the fourth gospel. Such counter testimony considered as properly historic is obviously of no account. It fails to touch the only really historic question, viz., What were the views of those who personally knew the author, and who received the book from his well-known hand? And what voice did they hand down to their children and to their pupils of the next and of succeeding generations? On this simply historic question there seems to be no ground for any difference of opinion.
3. Internal traits go far to prove that the same John who wrote the fourth gospel and the three epistles wrote also the Revelation. Note how he identifies himself by his use of special terms and phrases and by his dominant ideas of gospel truth, and also by his modes of conceiving and representing them.
(1.) Observe that he alone of all the New Testament writers, thinks and speaks of Jesus Christ as "the Word of God." This name stands out prominently in the Revelation (19: 13) : "His name is called the Word of God." It is equally prominent in the very opening of the fourth gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." . . "And the Word was made flesh," etc. (1: 1, 14.) In the epistle also: "The Word of life " (1 : 1), and in the disputed and doubtful passage (5: 7) "The Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost." [If we admit that this last passage came into our copies by interpolation, still it must have gained and held its place on the strength of its harmony with John's usage and with the views of the ancient church.]
(2.) By John alone of all the New Testament writers Jesus is thought of and seen as "a Lamb slain for an atoning sacrifice." We have this view in the Revelation. In the midst of the heavenly elders is seen "a Lamb as it had been slain," to whom they sing: "Thou vast slain and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood" (5: 6, 9, 12). "The book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world " (13: 8). The victors on the sea of glass sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (15: 3). And in the same strain of thought"To him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood " (1 : 5). Now observe how perfectly in harmony with this way of thinking and speaking you find the fourth gospel: "Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world" (1: 29, 36).Peter approximates toward this (1 Eps. 1: 19), comparing Christ to a lamb, but no other New Testament writer save John fully reaches it.The reader will bear in mind also that this figure is the more remarkable in the Revelation because the tone and purpose of the book should more naturally present Christ as the Lion than as the Lambthe Lion who treads down his foes rather than the Lamb who dies a sacrifice for his friends.
(3.) Allusions to the manna of the wilderness appear in the New Testament in this writer only; in Rev. 2: 17,"To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna:" and in the fourth gospel (6: 48, 58), "My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven" [the real manna].
(4.) Only in the imagery of this New Testament writer are the blessings of salvation, "waters of life," given to all the thirsty ones. See in Rev. 21: 6, and 22: 1, 17. "I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely." "Let him that is athirst come. Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." In his gospel history, see 7: 37: "In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."
(5.) In his style of thought and speech, preaching the gospel is "witnessing," "testifying," bearing testimony to the truth. We see this throughout the Apocalypse, e. g., in 1: 2, and 2: 13 ["martyr" is the Greek word for witness], and 3: 14, and 6 : 9, and 11: 3, 7, and 12: 11, 17, and 19: 10, and 20: 4, and 22: 16, 18, 20. In the fourth gospel we have the same use of this language, 5: 39, and 15: 26, 27, and 18: 37. "For this cause (said Jesus before Pilate) came I into this world that I should bear witness to the truth." See also the authors description of his work (21: 24): "This is the disciple which testifieth of these things and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true." "Witnessing" appears in the same general sense in the first epistle (1: 2, and 5: 9, 10). These modes of thought and speech appearing prominently and uniformly throughout all his books go very far indeed to identify the author of them all as the same man.
(6.) We carry this argument but one step further when we adduce the fact that this book of Revelation and the fourth gospel are essentially at one in their great cardinal points of Christian faith, as well as in their peculiar forms of expression. No points of revealed truth can be more fundamental than the one already introduced aboveJesus Christ an atoning sacrifice for the sins of men. We have seen that this view is prominent in the gospel, the epistle, and the Revelation. So also is the doctrine that Jesus is King and Lord of all, worthy of equal honor with the Father; and actually receiving it in heaven itself. The gospel gives us the eternal Word who "was in the beginning; was with God; and was God;"by whom "all things were made" (l : 1; 13); to whom "the Father hath committed all judgment" (5 22), and who himself speaks of "the glory which he had with the Father before the world was" (17: 15). The first epistle indorses this doctrine in most concise but explicit terms "This is the true God and the eternal life" (1 John 5:20). With surpassing fullness and splendor the Apocalypse corroborates this doctrine by its open visions of the homage and worship accorded by all the hierarchies of heaven in equal strains to "Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb forever and ever." This worship is supreme; none higher is known in heaven. It therefore indorses the true divinity of Jesus Christ, in harmony with both the fourth gospel and the epistles of John, and in a form of testimony than which none can be stronger.In the same line of argument it might be shown that all these writings concur in presenting Jesus as the life of his people, their Shepherd; their Defender; while the Apocalypse makes specially prominent his relation as the Avenger of their martyred blood.
(7.) Objections considered.
The strong points of objection are,(a.) The poetry and the symbols of the Apocalypse have a tone of grandeur and sublimity so unlike the plain simplicity and the metaphysical abstractness of the fourth gospel and of the epistles that they can not be supposed to have come from the same author.To which I reply that the poetry and the prose of the same author are naturally very unlike. Compare the prosaic history given Ex. 14: 19-31; and 15: 19, with the poetic song of Ex. 15: 1-18. What could be more unlike? But the same Moses wrote both. Or compare the first two chapters of Habakkuk with the third; or Isa. 37 with Isa. 60; or Dan. 6 with Dan. 7; or Job, chapters 1 and 2, with any or all of the others; or 2 Sam. 22: 1 with vs. 2-51. Surely it is no strange thing that the same writer, especially if he have genius imagination, and sublimity in him, should make his poetry very diverse from his prose. And whether we are able to give all the reasons for it or not, we have the fact that prophecy does come to us clothed (usually) in the loftiest poetry and often in the grandest symbols. Yet these poetic and sublime prophets in the grandest symbols have given us also some very plain and unpoetic prose. To which it may appropriately be added that the author of the Apocalypse shows by manifold allusions that he has been reading those grand old Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, and that his mind is filled with their sublime conceptions. Is it then any marvel that his own style should catch their strain; or rather, that his soul should enkindle from contact with their seraphic fire?Let us also bear in mind that the Apocalypse was probably written from ten to twenty years before the fourth gospel and the three epistles, and consequently when the writer had more of the fire and vivacity of his youth than when under the weight of more than fourscore years he penned his gospel and epistles. Men of the noblest powers must pass with the lapse of years from the buoyancy and glow of manhood to the more calm you sedateness of old age. Need it surprise us if their writings evince it?
(b.) It is objected that the tone of tenderness, sympathy, and love which appears in the fourth gospel is far removed from the sternness, the terror, and the vengeance which reign in the Apocalypse.But are not the zephyrs and the hurricanes from the same God? The dews and the delugescome they not from the same Author? The whispering calls of mercy and the thunder tones of the judgment trumpare they not from the same Jesus? Is there not one hour for beseeching men to be reconciled to God; and another hour for the vials of his wrath upon those whom no mercy can touch and no forbearance and no warnings can reclaim? And precisely to our present point, may not God employ the same tongue and pen to utter both the one and the other?Specifically it is claimed that the three epistles of John breathe a tender spirit as from a loving father to his well-belove children; but that the messages to the seven churches have the air of authority, reproof, and threatening.This difference is rather strongly put, yet no one can deny that a measure of it exists. To account for it I suggest that in the messages to the seven churches the speaker is rather Jesus himself than John the amanuensis; and moreover, that the emergency was such as to call for the most solemn earnestness. The tone in those seven Messages is rather that of tremendous earnestness than of asperity or vengeance. A fearful strain was upon the piety of those churchesa time of stern and portentous trial through which none could pass unscathed unless their souls should be aroused to see their peril. Hence the spirit of those messages.
(c.) It is claimed that the original Greek of the Apocalypse is more tinged with Hebraistic words and grammatical forms than that of the known writings of JohnI reply, it is now generally conceded that the Aramean (a dialect of the Hebrew) was the spoken language in Palestine at the time of Christ, and therefore was the mother tongue of his Jewish disciples. When they began to push the gospel into the outlying countries, and to write out its records for the reading of the civilized world, a knowledge of Greek be came a necessity. But being in their minds superinduced upon their vernacular Hebrew, it was inevitable that their newer Greek would be shaded more or less by their older Hebrew. Precisely this appears in every New Testament writer, yet in various degrees. I freely admit the fact put forward in the objection above-named, i. e., that the Apocalypse is more deeply shaded with the Hebrew tint than the fourth gospel or the three epistles of John. But this fact can be accounted for without any serious damage to the evidence that the same John wrote the Apocalypse. For (1.) This Apocalypse was written (it is conceded by the best critics) several years earlier than the gospel and the epistles, when John was but recently arrived in Asia Minor from his Palestine home, and hence was less familiar with classic Greek and more fresh from his Aramean vernacular than in his later years: and (2.) His exile in Patmos, we must assume, was cheered by the deep and ardent study of the old Hebrew prophets. Fresh from their perusal, he turned to the writing of the Apocalypseof which the book bears most abundant traces.These important facts in his case suffice to show that his Hebraistic style in the Apocalypse compared with his gospel is altogether what we ought to expect. If the preponderance of Hebrew style were the other waythe more abundant traces in the later writings and not in the earlier, and when farther removed from the immediate influence of the old prophets, then the argument against the common authorship of all these books would be very strong, if not even conclusive.
(d.) A vast amount of labor has been expended to bring out a class of words which occur in the Apocalypse and not in the fourth gospel; and vice versa, another class from the fourth gospel, not found in the Apocalypse. The same thing is also shown to some extent in respect to special grammatical forms.But this sort of argument seems to me to have little force. It is offset in part by the fact of very considerable and indeed somewhat striking similarities, going to identify the author of both books as the same. And why may not all the real diversities be accounted for by the different dates of the books; the changes due to his greater familiarity with classic Greek after many more years of practical contact with it; and, not least, to the great difference in the subjects treated ofthe difference natural between the loftiest poetry and the plainest prose?
II. THE DATE OF THE WRITING.
This question involves some real difficulty, especially on its historic aide. Yet it has very considerable importance in its bearings upon the interpretation of the book, and therefore calls for a careful and candid examination.On this question of date, critical opinions fall into two classes, one assigning it to the reign of Nero (about A. D. 64-68), and the other to the reign of Domitian (A. D. 95-96). It is well known that violent persecution raged at both these periods, and it is possible that John was banished to Patmos twicei. e., by both Nero and Domitian, and that this fact occasioned the confused and discordant notices that appear in the early fathers in regard to the time of his banishment and the date of this book.
In respect to date, I will speak,
1. Of the internal evidencethat which appears in the book itself; and
2. Of the external, as found in fragmentary notices by the Christian fathers.
1. Internal. Under this head I adduce
(1.) The fact that the culpable practices which appear in the seven churches (chaps. 2, 3) are those of the early and mid-apostolic agesprecisely those against which the churches of Asia were specially warned by the circular "epistle" of the first Christian council (Ac. 15), and which appear in Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. Thus in Pergamos the practices indicated as "the doctrine of Balaam" were these two: eating things offered to idols and fornication (Rev. 2: 14). The doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, appearing in both Pergamos and Ephesus, was very similar (2: 15); Precisely the, same practices appear in Thyatira, inculcated by one called "Jezebel" (2: 20). By a remarkable coincidence, the evils against which the first council at Jerusalem specially warned the churches were prominently these two (Acts 15: 20, 29). In Corinth the eating of things offered to idols was one of the live questions then pressing sharply upon the churches (1 Cor. 8). I need not say that fornication was a second special subject for rebuke and warning in that church.Thus it appears that the great moral questions and immoral practices which pressed sorely upon the churches at the date of the Jerusalem council (A D. 50 or 52) and at the date of Paul's letters to Corinth (A. D. 57-58) were the very things condemned in the seven churches of Asia.But it will be asked, Were not these evils rife in the age of Domitian? Possibly they were; but the latest N. T. books, viz., the gospel and the epistles of John, give no hint of it. Other historical records of that age are scanty; but so far as I know are silent on these points. It is intrinsically improbable that the questions in regard to eating meats offered to idols would have continued practically unsettled forty years (from A. D. 50 to A D. 90).This argument amounts in my view only to a strong probabilitynot to a demonstration.
(2.) The churches of Asia were suffering severely from pernicious teachers claiming to be Jews. In Ephesus were some who said they were apostles but were not (2: 2); in Smyrna the troublers said they were Jews, but were more "the synagogue of Satan" (2: 9); in Philadelphia were the same class precisely (3: 9); while the personage called Jezebel (2: 20), claiming to be a prophetess, was probably a Jewess also.Thus the troublers of the seven churches at the date of this book were remarkably well definedeither actually being Jews, or at least claiming to be.Now let it be also considered that the first council was called (A D. 50 or 51) to counteract the mischiefs of Judaizing teachers. The letters of Paul to the Galatians (A. D. 56) and to the Colossians (A. D. 62) disclose the presence and mischiefs of the same set of men. These were churches of Asia, adjacent to the seven to whom John wrote. Paul's first letter to Timothy (1: 3, 4, 7), written A. D. 65, alludes to men causing trouble in Ephesus and puts upon them two Jewish marks"given to endless genealogies;" and "desiring to be teachers of the law." Indeed the early apostolic age was constantly annoyed by this class of men.Thus we see the most entire coincidence between the case of: the seven churches as it appears in these letters, and the case of other churches of Asia in the years A. D. 50-66.
Here too (as before) the question must be met: Did not this annoyance from Jewish and Judaizing teachers continue down to the age of Domitian?I answer, All existing historical evidence is strongly against it. The later books of the New Testament give not the least allusion to such teachers. While the earliest heresies that annoyed the Christian churches came from Judaism; the next in orderthe second generation of themsprang from contact with Pagan philosophies and science, "falsely so called"to which it is generally conceded some of the latest writers of the New Testament allude.What history thus testifies, the nature of the case strongly sustains. The fall of Jerusalem and the utter destruction of the temple naturally struck Judaism down. More than one million of Jews perished in that fearful fall; the rest were scattered far abroad. The hope of bringing the Gentile converts into Jewish ritualism was forever blasted; the power and prestige of this Judaizing element fell, never to rise. Hence the inference seems irresistible that the seducers in the seven churches when John wrote must have been of the age of Nero and not of the age of Domitian. Of course the book was written in the former age and not in the latter.It may not be amiss to suggest that we have here another special element in the retributions upon the Jews of which chapters 4-11 speak, since, they are before us not only as the first and most malign persecutors of the infant Christian church, but also as its first, most persistent, most annoying and dangerous seducers.
(3.) The seventh chapter of the Apocalypse presents a scene in which four mighty angels are holding in suspense the fearful elements of retributive vengeance until another angel might place the seal of God upon the foreheads of his faithful servants. The central idea and also in the main its costume seem to be taken from Ezek. 8 and 9: "Go through the midst of the city and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all its abominations:" this done, let the others go through the city and smite, only come not near any man who bears the mark! Here in the scenes of this apocalyptic vision, John first hears the number of the sealed"one hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel;" and indeed definitely twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes. That these represent the Christian converts gathered from the lineal Jews is made doubly certain by the counterpart of this first sealing, viz., the view of "a great multitude which no man could number of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues;" that is, Gentile converts of every land and tribe, seen before the throne already clothed in white, ascribing their salvation to God and the Lamb. So much the gospel had then achieved already. The scathing judgments that were about to smite the Jewish world and in due time the Gentile, would find so many garnered in safety, housed in their eternal home before the storm should burst.Now the definite point of my argument is that this sealing of Jewish converts, considered as a prophecy, appears to be precisely coincident with that of Jesus Christ in his prediction of the fall of Jerusalem and of the previous gathering of his elect, as given in Mat 24: 31 and Mark 13: 27. The personal preaching of Jesus and the earliest mission labors of his disciples turned first to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mat. 10: 5, 6, 13). Forty years God waited and wrought patiently to gather in those lost ones. Jesus prophetically represents this gathering as to be done within the life-time of that generation (Mat. 24: 34 and Mark 13: 30), i. e., to be finished before Jerusalem should fall. The sealing and rescuing of the elect Jews in Rev. 7 bears every trace of being the same great fact. Hence its location in time shortly preceded the fall of that city, and if the fulfillment precedes that fall, so and much more must the prophecy itself.
(4.) In the same general line of thought and of argument we have a remarkable coincidence between our Lord's prediction (Luke 21: 24), "Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles;" and of the temple (Mat 24: 2), "There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down;" and the prediction through the Revelator John (Rev. 11: 2), "The court that is outside the temple leave out, for it is given unto the Gentiles, and the holy city shall they tread underfoot forty-two months." Both these predictions concur: (a) that Jerusalem was a doomed city; (b) that it should be trodden down by unhallowed Gentile feet [the Roman armies]; and (c) that even the presence of the holy temple within it should not shield it from this desolation. My argument as to the date of the Apocalypse turns on the strong presumption that this passage (Rev. 11: 2) synchronizes with Christ's prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, and therefore proves that at the date of its writing, the city had not yet fallen.Very strong to the same point is the statement in the same context (v. 13): "And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell"which certainly assumes that the whole city had not previously fallen, but was standing. The date of its actual fall is well known, viz., A. D. 70. This prophecy was written, therefore, shortly before this fall.
(5.) The account given of the murder of the "two witnesses," naming the very place where their dead bodies lay exposed and insulted (Rev. 11: 8)"in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our [their] Lord was crucified," puts the finger of prophecy precisely upon Jerusalem, and obviously conceives of it as standing at the time of this vision, and indeed at the time when the murder of the two witnesses took place. This, taken in connection with the points made from chap. 7 and from chap. 11: 2, would certainly seem to fix the date of these events and of course the date of the book which predicts them, before the destruction of Jerusalem.
(6.) Rev. 17 is professedly an explanation of the more prominent symbols in the seven chapters (13-19), inasmuch as the angel said (v. 7), "I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, who hath the seven heads and ten horns." In this explanation the woman is shown to be "that great city" (Rome) "which reigneth over the kings of the earth" (v. 18), and which "sat on seven hills" [mountains]. Specially to our purpose it is said, "There are seven kings (v. 10) of whom five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come." Here the one that is, placed in a series with certain preceding ones fallen, and another following, "not yet come," must beyond all reasonable question be the king then on the throne of Rome when this book was written. It is safe to affirm that John could not have given the date of his writing more precisely and conclusively than he has done here unless he had given the very name of Nero. But there were obvious reasons why it was not prudent to give his actual name. He meant however to describe him so that his readers need be in no doubt.Now since the question of date is narrowed down to a choice between the reigns of Nero and of Domitian, it only remains to say that this dynasty of Roman kings [emperors] began unquestionably with Julius Caesar, after whom we count Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, making the five who had fallen, and reach Nero, the sixth, of whom the, angel then said, "One is." Galba followed "to continue but a short space" (v. 10)according to history, but seven months. The symbol and the angel's count had no occasion to carry the list of kings further. If carried on however and all counted in, Domitian would have been the twelfth. Of course the present tense of the bookthe date of the visionwas not under Domitian, but was under Nero. But beyond all question in proof that Nero was the one head of the beast then in power when John wrote is the fact that he is absolutely identified by "the number of his name" (13: 18). See my notes on the passage.
(7.) There are at least two books in the New Testament (the Epistle to the Hebrews and 2 Peter) which are thought to contain allusions to the Apocalypse. If this shall appear, it will follow that the Apocalypse was in existence when these books were written. Let us then examine a single passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12: 22, 23).On the point of motives to a holy life, the writer is contrasting the case of the Hebrews. before Mt. Sinai with the case of the Hebrew Christians of his own day before the corresponding Mt. Zion. He says (v. 18), "Ye are not come unto that merely material, tangible mount [Sinai]...... but ye are come unto [a spiritual] Mt Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem"[in Rev. 21: 2, "The holy city, New, Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven"]:"And to an innumerable company of angels," [the reader may see them in Rev. 5: 11, 12, and 7: 11, 12]; "to the general assembly and church of the first-born which are written in heaven" [see the writing of their names in the book of life, Rev. 21: 27, and 13: 8, and 20: 12] "and to God the Judge of all" [Rev. 20: 11, 12] "and to the spirits of just men made perfect" [who stand before us remarkably throughout: this book of Revelation, e. g., 5: 8-10, and 6: 9-11, and 7: 13-17, and 15: 2-4, and 21 and 22]. It seems to me highly probable, not to say, almost certain, that the writer to the Hebrews had in his eye these salient points of the book of Revelation. These points are in his book for precisely the purpose which the writer to the Hebrews had before him, viz.: as constituting that magnificent and most impressive array of motives which under the gospel were brought to bear upon the Christian life, as compared with the corresponding motives arrayed before the ancient Hebrew people even in those most impressive scenes at Mt. Sinai.In his 2d Epistle (3: 10, 13) Peter makes two points which the reader will notice: (1) that "the heavens shall pass away" and "the earth be burnt up;" (2) that "we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness." John has it (Rev. 20: 11) "The earth and the heavens fled away;" and (21: 1) "I saw a new heaven and a new earth, and the first heaven and the first earth were passed, away." The righteous only dwelt there (21: 27; and 22 14). Here then we have both the fact of the passing away of this present earth and heavens, and the promise of the new. With a high degree of probability Peter; had the Revelation of John before him and adopted its descriptive terms. But Peter fell a martyr under Nero's persecution, and therefore wrote this epistle before Nero's death. The date of the Epistle to the Hebrews is not known precisely, but no critics within my knowledge have placed it so late as the reign of Domitian.
2. It remains to speak of the external evidencethat of the early Christian fathers. This is far from being uniform, clear and direct. Unfortunately the earliest fathers (Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Papias, Polycarp and Justin Martyr)the very men whose testimony would have been most valuablefail us altogether. They either omitted all allusion to this point as being well enough understood without their testimony, or what they wrote has perished. The earliest of the fathers whose testimony has been relied on is Ireneus, who wrote his book "Against Heresies," A. D. 175-180. His youth was spent in Asia Minor, but all his manhood and Christian work lay in Ancient Gaul [France]. From the dim light that reaches us it would seem that his statements as they were understood shaped the opinions of Eusebius and Jerome on this question, and that they naturally controlled the views of subsequent authors. Hence it becomes important to examine carefully what Ireneus saidthe more so because it is at least supposable (I think even probable) that his testimony as to the date of the Apocalypse has been misunderstood.The only passage appealed to as giving his testimony occurs in some remarks upon "the number of the, beast" (Rev. 13: 18), which stand in our received text 666. The original Greek is this.*
* "HmeiV oun ouk apokinouneuomen peri ton onomaioV tou Anticrios apofainomenoi bebaiwtiwV, ei gar edei anafanon tw nun kaiow khouitesqai to onama, di ekeinou an erreqh tou kai thn Apokalujn ewpakotoV. Oude gar pro pollou cronou ewpaqh, alla scedon epi ths hmeteraV geneas, proV tw telei ths Dometianou apchV."
It may be translated thus:"Therefore we do not imperil [the churches] by announcing the name of the Antichrist plainly, for if it were safe and wise at the present time to proclaim his name, it would have been done by him who saw the visions of the Apocalypse, for it is not a very long time since he was still to be seen, but almost in our own age, near the close of the reign of Domitian." This passage has been generally understood to say that the vision of the Apocalypse was seen in the age of Domitian, and it seems to have been the standard authority for that opinion with the Christian authors of the third and fourth centrries and onward. His testimony turns on the single point whether in the last clause it is he (John) who was still seen among the churches in the age of Domitian, or it (the vision) which was then first seen. The logic of the passage, the course of thought, should be mainly relied on to decide this question.I understand the logic of Ireneus thus:Obviously it was not prudent to give Nero's name during his life. But John lived down to the time of Domitian when Nero was thirty years dead. So far forth therefore the circumstances had materially changed. Now, says Ireneus, if the necessity for divulging the real name of Nero is so great and the danger from doing it so small that we ought to have the name brought out now, then the same was true in the time of Domitian, and John would have disclosed the name himself. He did not do it, for though Nero was dead, yet Rome still lived, a persecuting power. The danger from Nero's personal vengeance was long since passed away, but other Neros might arise on the same Roman throne; therefore John remained silent: so let us. Hence the logic of the passage requires that the thing seen in the last clause of this passage should be John yet living in his extreme old age, and not the vision itself. The supposition that it was the vision nullifies the argument of the passage.Or thus: The argument assumes that it would have been dangerous and therefore unwise to give Nero's name openly during his life; also, that John lived a long time after Nero's death, so that if it were proper to give Nero's name when Ireneus wrote, it was equally so in the last years of John, and he would have given the name to the churches then himself.Origen seems to take the same view of the case, and perhaps the same view of this passage from Ireneus when he says, "The king of the Romans as tradition teaches condemned John to the Isle of Patmos for his testimony to the word of truth; and John taught many things about his testimony, yet did not say who condemned him in all that he has written in his Apocalypse."*
* See Stuart's Apocalypse, vol. l, p. 271.
Several fathers of the third century and the fourth speak of John's writing this book in connection with his banishment to Patmos, which they locate in Domitian's reign. Yet some of them are not explicit as between Nero and Domitian. Clement of Alexandria says John was banished by "the tyrant"a name appropriate enough to either, yet in usage applied less to Domitian and more to Nero.
A very ancient Latin fragment [quoted in Stuart's Apocalypse, 1: 266] comes down to us, probably of the second century, saying, "Paul, following the order of his own predecessor John, wrote in the same way to only seven churches by name." This assumes that John wrote the Apocalypse before Paul wrote the last of his seven letters to as many churches by name. The latest date of Paul's seven was about A. D. 64. He died under Nero's persecution.Eusebius [bishop of Cesarea, A. D. 314-340] in his history (book 3; chap. 18, and bk. 5: 8) speaks of John as being banished to Patmos and of seeing his visions there in the reign of DOMITIAN, but quotes Ireneus (the very passage above cited) as his specific authority. Did he not misunderstand Ireneus?He also refers to a current tradition to the same effect, which however may have grown out of mistaking the sense of Ireneus.Jerome [born A. D. 331; died A. D. 420] held the same opinion, apparently on the authority of Ireneus as above and of Eusebius.Victorinus of Petavio [died A. D. 303] in a Latin commentary on the Apocalypse, says that "John saw this vision while in Patmos, condemned to the mines by Domitian Caesar."Many others of a later age might be cited to the same purport, witnessing however only to a current tradition which so far as appears may have come from the language of Ireneus, under a misunderstanding of his meaning.
On the other hand the Syriac translation of the Apocalypse has this superscription: "The Revelation which was made by God to John the Evangelist in the Island of Patmos to which he was banished by Nero the Emperor.'' Most of the Syriac New Testament (known as the "Peshito"), i. e., all the unquestioned books, are supposed to have been translated late in the first century or very early in the second; but the Syriac version of the Apocalypse is not so old. Yet Ephraim the Syrian of Nisibis [died A. D. 378] wrote commentaries on nearly the whole Bible; often appeals to the Apocalypse; but wrote only in Syriac and probably was unacquainted with Greek and therefore must have had this book in the Syrian tongue. This superscription seems to testify, to a current tradition in Syria at least as far back as his day, assuming the date of the book to the age of Nero.Of later witnesses, Andreas of Cappadocia [flourished about A. D. 500], in a commentary on this book, favors the Neronian date. Arethas also, his successor [about A. D. 540], yet more decisively. He assumes the book to have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem, for he explains chapters 6 and 7 as predictions of that event.Plainly then the traditions of the early ages and the testimony of the fathers were not all in favor of the Domitian date.Some incidental circumstances strongly favor the earlier date; e. g., the account given in much detail by Eusebius [Ec. His. 3: 23], who quotes Clement to the effect that John after his return from this banishment in Patmos, mounted his horse and pushed away into the fastnesses of the mountains to reach a robber chief who had apostatized from the Christian faith. But Jerome represents John in the last years of his life (i. e., at the time of Domitian's persecution) as being so weak and infirm that he was carried by other hands with difficulty to his church-meetings to say in tremulous tones: "My little children, love one another."These traditions of the aged apostle, compared with each other and with the probabilities of the case, seem to forbid us to assign the date of the Apocalypse to the reign of Domitian.
The conclusion to which I am brought after much investigation is that the historic testimony for the Domitian date is largely founded on a misconception of the passage from Ireneus, and as a whole is by no means so harmonious, so ancient, and so decisive, as to overrule and set aside the strong internal evidence for the earlier date. I am compelled to accept the age of Nero as the true date of this writing.
III. Of the TIMES under which the book was written.
Here the important facts naturally fall under three heads. The first should present the personal circumstances of the writer and of his first readers whom he primarily addressed. Of this perhaps enough has been said in the opening pages of this Introduction, the great central fact lying out upon the face of the whole book, indicating the writer to be in banishment and his readers in peril and fierce temptation in the presence of impending persecution.Then (2.) we should recall to mind the condition of the Jewish people and nation; and (3.) in like manner the state of Rome, both these nations being before us in this book as great persecuting powers, incurring the retributive vengeance of the Almighty and about to feel its fearful visitations.(2.) As to the Jews many of my readers will scarcely need to be reminded that while a few of the nation had received Jesus of Nazareth, the great majority had, scornfully rejected him; that spiritually, these masses were fearfully apostate from God; that morally, society was rotten to the core; that the high priest's office was bought and sold for money, and sometimes seized and held by an armed force of bandits and assassins; that their bitter hostility to Jesus passed over after his death upon his followers with augmented virulence; that the stoning of Stephen, the murder of James, the incessant persecutions of Paul, the instigation of the Roman civil magistrates in cities where they had no civil power in their own hands, combine to evince their implacable hostility against Christ and all his faithful servants;in short, that the measure of their iniquity was now full; the day of hope and mercy, though long protracted, was now about to close, and "the hour of her judgment had come." Through the lips of her national Council, as well as by the voice of her populace, she had demanded the crucifixion of the Son of God, and had cried, "His blood be on us and on our children!" The imprecation had been heard, the challenge accepted; and now upon the children of those who shouted, "Crucify him!" his blood was indeed about to come in appalling! That fearful doom of which Moses had forewarned them (Lev. 26: 14-43, and Deut. 28: 15-68); that doom which wrung tears from the greater "Man of Sorrows" as he beheld the city and recalled. the murder of so many generations of prophets and righteous men within her walls (Mat 23: 34-39); that ruin which Jesus so definitely foretold as destined to bury her proud city in ruins and leave not one stone upon another of her glorious temple;that doom was now waiting only for its last signal to burst forth upon her. The vials of the wrath of God were in readiness for his angels of death, and Prophecy at so late an hour could scarcely think of forewarning the doomed. It seemed to have no other mission save to comfort the people of God and assure them that the Lord was about to smite the hopelessly hardened and guilty Jews "because his mercy endureth forever."The heavens were black with these storm-clouds of the wrath of God while John lay in Patmos. His prophetic eye was opened and uplifted to the visions thereof as seal after seal was broken, and trump after trump rung out its blast of impending doom.Such on the Jewish side were the salient features of the times when this book was written.
(3.) To the student of ancient history, if moderately well read, the Rome of Nero's time is familiar. Eight centuries of war and conquest had filled Italy with enslaved captives, Rome with the spoil and plunder of the civilized world and its consequent enervation and vices, and her throne with a succession of emperors whose crimes and misrule beggar description. The reaction and debasement of ages of oppression were upon her, and her turn had come to be herself scourged with War's desolations.Rome, moreover, was radically and intensely idolatrous. Reverence for her gods had been studiously engrafted into her civil institutions and made one of the main pillars of her political system. To fill up the cup of her abominations, the emperors in the dynasty of the Caesars had exalted themselves to the rank of gods, and demanded of their people divine honors. It was to such a people that Paul set forth with trenchant power the sin of idolatryits war against the light of nature and the law of conscience, and its natural and inevitable debasement of morals and of all society. The first two chapters of his Epistle to the Romans were meant primarily for the Rome of the age of Nero.Yet the case of Rome differed in some points from that of Jerusalem; mainly in the fact that she had sinned against less light. To this it was due that the hour of her final ruin was more remote. The forbearance of God had yet more time to run. Her case had its remarkable parallel in ancient Babylon. Alike, each had been the great oppressing power of contemporary nationsas to God's people, each had been first the scourge in God's hand against them, and then was to be herself scourged for her oppressions; but especially were they alike in the manner in which prophecy made the predicted future judgments upon each, minister to the comfort of God's suffering people, and witness to the righteous retribution which he will surely visit upon the nations that array themselves against his Zion. Moreover, God's predicted judgments on Babylon filled out ages of history in their completion; and the same is true of his judgments on the second great BabylonPagan Rome.-Coming back now to a nearer and closer view of the Rome of the Apocalypse, we have Neroanother name for tyranny and crime. Gibbon sets him forth in moderate terms as "profligate and cruel," and adds of him and the other emperors of his age, "They are condemned to everlasting infamy." History recites his unnatural murdersof mother, brothers, wives; states that a fearful conflagration of nine days' continuance having destroyed the greater part of Rome, and it being generally believed that the fire was kindled by his order, Nero, to silence this report, charged the act upon the Christians, and thus excited against them a most barbarous, implacable, and universal persecution. Wild beasts, crucifixion, and fire in its most torturing forms, were the common instruments of suffering and death.There seems to be no reason to doubt that this persecution extended to other portions of the empire. The known will of the sovereign would at least give the license, and human depravity would supply the malice requisite to violence and blood.Thus the old idolatrous harlot"mother of abominations"made herself drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus; and now the time draws on for God to "give her blood to drink without measure." The hour of her judgment is near at hand;prophetic vision paints for us its glowing and terrible outlines.Such, then, in respect to the Rome of that age were the times in which the visions of the Apocalypse were shown and recorded.
IV. To whom precisely was this took primarily addressed and therefore specially adapted? and what was its great moral purpose?
This question has vastly important bearings upon the true interpretation of the book. One of the first conditions precedent to the true interpretation of any written document is to ascertain for whom it was written, and what their circumstances and wants were, that so we may master the special aim and purpose of the writer. When we have the people before us for whose special benefit he wrote, and when we have reason to believe that he writer knew their case well, wrote to be understood by them, and therefore adapted himself to their capacities and to their circumstances, we begin to feel ourselves on solid ground as to a fair comprehension of what he wrote and of its just interpretation. Thus, e. g., the interpreter of the Epistle to the Romans finds it exceedingly useful to consider that the people primarily addressed were mostly Jews resident in Romethe same class with whom (Acts 28: 23) Paul "reasoned out of their own scriptures from morning to evening." So also the epistles to the church at Corinth are set in full sunlight only when you study Corinth itselfits philosophical culture, the national pride therein, and its dissolute morals, coupled also with the special purposes which the letters themselves clearly indicate. So in the book before us, we must know to whom it was primarily addressed and for whom therefore it was specially adapted.On this point the notion has been somewhat common that although the second and third chapters were addressed specifically to the seven churches of Asia, therein named, yet this was true of those chapters only,the rest of the book having no specific addressno special adaptation to any body of people well defined either in place or time. It has been loosely supposed to belong rather to the world at large and indefinitely; somewhat to the age now passing, and much of it yet more definitely to the ages yet to come. It is claimed by those who take this view that prophecy was not written to he understood by its first readers. God expected it would be and meant it should be in the main unintelligible to them, and indeed that it should never admit of a just and real interpretation until its fulfillment should bring out its meaning. Some of this class of interpreters of prophecy seem to think it a most sublime idea that God should throw out prophecies of the distant and magnificent future, and then wait in the majesty and dignity of an inscrutable being till remote ages should come up with their revealing light and give mankind their first just ideas of its meaning.An exhaustive discussion of this theory of prophecy would detain me too long and turn me aside too much from my present special work. I must pass it therefore with suggesting three serious and indeed fatal objections against it.
(1.) In just so far as this theory makes the true sense of prophecy depend upon the fulfilling event and not upon the revealing words, it strikes at the very nature of prophecywhich surely claims to predict future events in language which reveals what the event shall be before the event is. This element being abstracted, written prophecy becomes in itself no prediction of things future, for the things future must needs reveal themselves and so give their first intelligible sense to the so-called prophetic words.This Theory pushed as far as some would push it brings the predictions of the Bible upon substantially the same basis as the ambiguous sayings of the ancient Delphic oracle to Croesus: "Crossing the great river you destroy a great nation;"the event alone determining whether the "great nation" would be his own or his enemy's. Whatever tends to degrade the prophecies of the Bible to this low form is to be not only deplored but reprobated.To prevent a possible misunderstanding of my position, let me say (a.) That a morally right heart, docile and unprejudiced, is naturally prerequisite to the understanding of prophecy, as it is also of any and every word of God: (b.) That usually the points which God makes in prophecy are rather general than particular. Prophecy is intelligible when so put that we can get substantially the truth which God meant to reveal. (c.) Other things being equal, nearer events will be more easily and perfectly understood than more remote, because men more perfectly understand the attendant circumstances.
(2.) This theory in its application to the book before us is fatally confronted by the manifold indications of a definite moral purpose and aim, of such sort as presupposes that the predictions are intelligible and are in fact mainly understood. This is preeminently true in this book of Revelation. There is no book in all the Bible which bears more obvious and certain marks of a definite and strong moral purpose, indicating everywhere that the things said were designed to be understood and to have an immediate and powerful moral influence on their first readers.Can it be necessary to argue this point? Surely nothing can he more absurd than the theory that God sent to the seven churches of Asia a series of predictions for the solemn purpose of girding their souls to "endure a great fight of afflictions," but yet, with design made these predictions unintelligible i. e., as to them utterly unmeaning? Will it be assumed that God expected to move the minds of men in that way?
(3.) This theory that prophecy is usually unintelligible until the event reveals its meaning is squarely confronted by the facts of the case. Did not the Jewish scribes learn from prophecy where Christ should be born? (Mat. 2: 4-6). Did not the disciples understand Christ's prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem and the immediate sign of that fall (Luke 21: 20, 21) and so escape from Jerusalem to Pellathe "mountains" across the Jordan? Did they kill the sense of that prophecy by mystifying the word "Jerusalem" as many critics mystify the literal landmarks which appear in the Apocalypse? And is it not the fact that the Messianic prophecies in general were very fairly interpreted by the Jews long before Christ came, as appears in the Septuagint translation and in the Chaldee Targums?
It is therefore both pertinent and important to inquire, Who were those first readers to whom the book was definitely addressed and to whose case it was consequently adapted? Fortunately we have the best possible evidence on this pointthe author's own announcement in the opening of the book"John to the seven churches of Asia" (1: 4); "I John, your brother and companion in tribulation, was in Patmos . . . and being in the spirit on the Lord's day, I heard behind me a great voice, saying, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia," etc. (1: 9-11).But the objector will claim that this refers exclusively and solely to chapters second and third, and has no reference to the remaining chapters which are the great body of the book.To which I answer, That is bald assumption, and what is more, is an assumption squarely in the face of the testimony of the book itself. For surely the author and the inditing spirit ought to be allowed to give the address of the book, i. e., to say to whom it was in fact addressed. The proper place to say this is in the opening of the book, and again perhaps at its close. Precisely in these places do we find his testimony to his point. The opening testimony I have cited. The closing testimony is of the same purport: "I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches." "The Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to show unto his servants the things which must shortly be done" (22: 16, 6). Therefore these "churches," these "servants" were then living, i. e., they were the churches of Asia Minor.But although this testimony alone is amply sufficient, yet more can be adduced. I call the reader's attention to the fact that the special messages to the seven churches as they stand in chapters 2 and 3 are not isolated and disconnected from the rest of the book, but are interlaced in the strongest way, both with chapter 1 which precedes, and with the chapters that come after, especially chapters 19-22. Let us see.In the face and the fear of persecution unto blood, a time of stern trial came upon all those churches of Asia. They were not in all respects ready to meet this trial and stand up with steady faith and unflinching soul for Jesus. What must be done for them? what considerations must be brought before them to gird them for endurance unto victory?First, the great Alpha and Omega, their glorified Lord and Savior, appears in surpassing majesty to John (1: 12-20). But let it be distinctly noted: this transcendently glorious manifestation of Christ was not made solely or even mainly for the sake of its impression upon John alone. A more important purpose was to impress the seven churches with the special presence, the searching eye, the limitless power, the ineffable glory and majesty of their own professed Lord and Master. Mark how this is done. Not only does John describe this impressive manifestation in words of unrivaled force, and send the description entire to them all, but he takes up and distributes it in separate parts, applying them to set forth that all-glorious Personage who sends them their respective messages. To Ephesus: "These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks"as you may see in chap. 1 : 12, 13, 20.To the church of Smyrna speaketh he "who is the first and the last, who was dead and is alive"points which appear in 1: 11, 17, 18.To Pergamos thus saith he who "hath the sharp sword with two edges," as said (1 : 16): "Out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword."To Thyntira speaketh "the Son of God who hath eyes like a flame of fire and feet like fine brass"those same words of thrilling power which you may read in 1: 14, 15.So to Sardis he defines himself as "having the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars" (1: 4, 16); to Philadelphia, as "he that is holy and true, he that hath the key of David," etc. (see 1: 5, 18); and to Loadicea, as "the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the beginning of the creation of God" (1: 5).Thus it is shown impressively that the same glorious Personage at whose feet John fell as one dead was precisely the author of these messages to the seven churches. He would have them know whose voice spake these words; whose eye was searching every heart; whose glorious presence was surely there, walking up and down among those churches.
In a manner precisely analogous to these opening addresses, each several letter closes with a blessing promised to "him that overcometh." In the letter to Ephesus (2: 7) the promise is, "I will give him to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God." But what "tree of life" is this? How came it to be assumed that the brethren at Ephesus would know any thing about this tree of life if no other part of this book were written for them and to them, save the first seven verses of chap. 2? This assumption must be a mistake; the "tree" referred to is the one described in chap. 22: 2, and John intended the last chapter of the book for the reading of the church at Ephesus as really as the first two.So in the letter to Sardis: "He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death." Where are they expected to learn of this "second death?" The answer is in 20: 14 and 21: 8, not to speak of many other passages in the last four chapters.To the victorious ones of Pergamos the promise runs, "I will give, to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it." But these words would quite fail of expressing their full meaning unless the brethren of Pergamos were to read through the whole book, and see especially what is said (19: 12) of the Great Conquering Chief: "On his head were many crowns, and he had a name written which no man knew but he himself;" and also the numerous allusions to the opposite partythe enemies of Jesuswho "bore the mark of the beast in their right hand and in their forehead," as may be seen (13: 16, 17, and 14; 9, and 15: 2, and 16: 2, and 19: 26).In like manner the victor in Sardis shall be clothed in white and his name not blotted from the book of life, the glory of which promise the brethren in Sardis were expected to see when they read the thrilling account thereof in chaps. 19: 7-9, 14, and 20: 12; and indeed in all these last chapters of the book.So the promise to the overcoming ones of Philadelphia carries the mind to the New Jerusalem of which they might read in the last two chapters.In this remarkable manner did the voice of Jesus, dictating to John both these seven letters to as many churches and the remaining contents of this book, tie all the parts together, interlacing them as I have said, as if he foresaw the violence that in future times would be used to tear them asunder! What more could he have done to prove to us that the whole book was intended primarily for those seven churchesevery word of it sent to them to be read, pondered, and understood by themselves, that they might receive its full moral impression, both the full force of all its threatened judgments upon their persecutors, and also the full force of all its inspirations of hope and promise to "him that overcometh?"A careful examination of the whole book will show that all the intermediate chapters (4-18) are naturally adapted to meet the great moral wants of those churches; had a vital bearing toward this end, to gird every wavering heart with strength unto patient endurance, and unflinching fidelity for Christ.Nothing more seems necessary to complete this argument and bring it up to demonstration save to adduce the reiterated declarations of the book itself that the events which it predicted were then "near at hand." See 1: 1: "Must shortly come to pass;" and 1: 3, "For the time is at hand;" and 22: 6, "To show unto his servants the things that must shortly be done;" and 22:10, "Seal not up the sayings of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand." Consequently the first readers of this book would know that they must look for these predicted events (at least the greater part of them) very soon, within their own age. Those fearful judgments on Christ's enemies they could not fail to interpret rightly, for they were already so near as to "cast their shadows before."
In concluding this topic let me again remind the reader of the point of my argument, viz.: that a book addressed to certain specified churches then under the sternest trial, to be read by them for their spiritual good, was certainly made in the main intelligiblemust have been adapted to their understanding in both the judgments it threatened and the blessings it promised. The judgments threatened were not to them unmeaning; the enemies threatened were not to them unknown. The blessings promised were, to be measured and appreciated in the light of those judgments. In respect to both the judgments and the blessings we must assume that they had the keenest personal interest, and therefore this entire book must have thrilled their souls with its utmost measure of inspiring power.
V. Let us consider various indications in the book which locate its predicted events in place or in time, and thus become landmarks to determine its interpretation.I assume that my readers will appreciate the importance of studying this point faithfully and discreetly. The visions proper of this book are almost exclusively a series of symbolic picturesa grand panorama, painting scenes of prophetic import to the eye in gorgeous colors and majestic outlines. Now we wish to know what these pictures mean. I am to inquire at this point whether this writing gives us any plain unsymbolic hints as to the place and the time of these future events which the visions prophetically portray. Has the revealing Agent anywhere dropped, though but for a moment, his symbolic speech and given us literal unsymbolic words which mean just what they saywhich were designed apparently to explain the symbols and locate the events, and which therefore may be relied on for this purpose?We shall find a fewperhaps enough for our purpose. It is our wisdom to use them to the full extent of their legitimate aid.One appears in 11: 8, in which, speaking of the place where the two witnesses lay murdered and unburied, the angel says, "Their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified" Beyond all rational doubt, this was designed to give the literal and precise location of that event. This great city in reference to its spiritual character was a second Sodom (see Isa. 1: 9, 10) in the twofold sense of guilt and doom. But dropping all figure, the place may be known through all the ages as that where the Lord was crucified. There never was or could be but one city that answers to this fact of history. The angel appends a literal statement to his figurative description in order to tell us precisely the place.The better reading of this remarkable clause is not "our" Lord but their Lordthe exact sense being, where their Lord also as well as themselves was murdered.This landmark shows us therefore where to look for the two witnesseswhere their testimony was given, and where their martyred bodies fell. The fact stated in v. 13, that "one tenth part of the city fell," locates these events in time to some point before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, A. D. 70.The allusions (11: 2) to the court of the temple and to the holy city as "given up to the Gentiles to be trodden under foot by them," become a very decisive landmark when we take into view their connection with v. 8 and v. 13 as above explained, and also the obviously parallel prophecy recorded by Luke (21: 24), "Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles." This chapter (Rev. 11) treats therefore of Jerusalemthe persecution which she brought upon Christ's faithful witnesses, and the fearful doom which God brought upon her for her sins. If on a careful examination of chaps. 6-9 it shall appear (as most critics have thought) that chap. 11 gives us the final catastrophe, and those chapters (6-9) the antecedent, foreshadowing and premonitory notes of coming doom, then so much of the predicted events of this book would seem to be definitely located in both place and time, and of course, we may add, in history. These points must be carefully examined when those chapters come under consideration.
Under our present head chap. 17 is specially important because it is declared to be an explanation of the meaning of certain leading symbols in chaps. 13-19. The writer says (v. 1), "An angel came and talked with me, saying, 'Come hither; I will show thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters;'" and yet more definitely (v. 7), "Why dost thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns." These are the very things that John wanted to know; which he needed to tell his original readers that they might know; and which we may well rejoice to learn, for they give us the clew to all these related chapters (13-19). His explanation (briefly stated) shows that the woman is that "great city" of which two descriptive facts are given: (a.) She "reigneth over the kings of the earth" (v. 18); (b.) She sitteth on seven mountainsi. e., is a city built on seven hills. All students of Roman history will recognize the Rome of that age as this city, and consequently as being in symbol this womanthe great harlot. No other city approaches this description. Every element given fits her perfectly; and what is yet more, they are the great historic and geographic facts which most comprehensively and precisely describe the Rome of that age. She was built on seven hills; she was mistress of the civilized world, reigning over the kings of the earth.In its place I may notice two other corroborating features of her history:her bloody persecution of the saints, and her harlotry (idolatry). Apart from these however, the woman is locatedher name is virtually revealed. We know who she is. So much then is solid grounda fixed landmark.But as yet we lack the historic datethe time when. Will the explaining angel give this?Note what he says of the succession of her kings (v. 10): "There are seven kings; five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh he must continue a short space." Now if we take this as an explanation of the seven symbolic heads of the beast (as we must), we are shut up to the literal and most obvious sensea succession of five kings already fallen; a sixth then reigning; a seventh soon to rise, but for only a short reign.Now having the date of the vision, we know that the king then reigning was Nero. Nero then is a specimen of the seven, and we must go back to the rise of his dynasty and begin our count therei. e., with Julius Caesar. Beginning with him, Nero is precisely the sixth; the seventha short reign according to the prophecywas Galba, who reigned seven months. Here then we have this series of prophetic events located in placeold Rome; and in timeupon Nero's reign. This is another great landmark. No interpretation of this book can possibly be the true one which disregards these landmarks and fails to adjust itself to their demands. The points that are fixed in chap. 11 and in chap. 17 avail to prove beyond all rational doubt that in this book of Revelation we have two great persecuting powers, depicted, threatened, judged and destroyed, each represented by its great cityJerusalem, Rome: Jerusalem, involving the Jewish people and Judaism as a persecuting power; Rome, involving that pagan, idolatrous, persecuting power. Whether we have other persecuting powers in this book will be a subject of future inquiry. These two we certainly have; for these literal statements; so obviously made for the very purpose of explaining what would otherwise be dark, uncertain prophetic symbols, must be held to be absolutely decisive. If we can not or will not accept God's own explanations, it is vain for us to expound, dreaming that we have mastered the problems of the book.
VI. The sources of the writer's figurative imagery, and the bearing of these sources upon his use of them in this book. *
* It is only to avoid circumlocution that I speak of John as the writer of this book and also as himself determining its style, figures of speech, etc. while I hold most fully that the Spirit of inspiration spake many of these words to John and showed him, these, symbols, either in vision or by a revealing angel.
See a fuller note on this subject, p. 7.
Upon the first point there would seem to be no room for doubt. These sources were the Old Testament prophets. There John found his symbols and figures; thence he took them. The four living ones of chaps. 4-6 [very improperly translated "beasts"] are from Ezek. 1, with some shadings from Isa. 6. The books of prophetic destiny, both that of chaps. 5 and 6, with its seven, seals and the "little book" of chapter 10, are from Ezek. 2 and 3, even to the special feature of eating it and its sweetness in the mouth. The diverse colored horses of Rev. 6 come from Zech. 1 and 6. The sealing of one hundred and forty-four thousand men in their foreheads is from Ezek. 8 and 9. The great dragon [serpent] of Rev. 12 was first named in the story of the fall (Glen. 3). The "beasts" of chap. 13 and onward have their prototypes in Dan. 7 and 8. The vials of chaps. 15 and 16 come from the "cup of God's indignation" which appears so often in the old Hebrew prophets, especially in Jeremiah. (See Jer. 25: 15-28.). Of course the Babylon of Rev. 18 looks back to that old Babylon whose fall Isaiah and Jeremiah so abundantly predicted. The sketching in chap. 18 comes largely from Ezekiel's picture of the fall of Tyre (chaps. 26-28).These cases may at least serve as specimens.
On the question whether John used these symbols in the same sense in which he found them used by the old prophets, the presumption is strong that he did. This would unquestionably be the natural course of his mind. Any wide, violent divergence from this rule is exceedingly improbable. In general their sense where John found them should be assumed to be their sense as he used them. Special circumstances may demand a slight modification, but ordinarily nothing more.
VII. It remains to speak of the principles or laws which must control the interpretation of this book.
Need I here solicit the reader's careful attention? I will only premise that if any certainty is ever to be attained in respect to the meaning of this book, it must be reached by first determining its just principles of interpretation.The following principles and rules I propose to follow myself. I commend them to the good sense of my readers:
1. We must come to this book to learn what it teaches; not to make it teach what we will. That is, we must rule out of the mind all preconceived theories and bring to its study a mind open to the very impressions which the book itself, diligently studied in the light of all its known circumstances, shall legitimately make.
2. We must interpret the predictions in harmony with God's own declarations as to the time of their fulfillment. If God has himself indicated whether this time be near or remote, why should we not accept his indications in their obvious sense, and interpret accordingly? How can we hope to reach the truth if we will not receive God's own teaching and guidance?Now the fact is that precisely in those parts of the book where we should look for these indications, we find them, viz., at the opening of the book, to give us the right clue at the outset and prevent us from being led on some false track; and again, near its close, to remind us that we must not transcend these heaven-sent limitations in the stage we may take to find the leading events therein predicted.The words in which God defines the time of these predicted events are these: "The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass" (1: 1): "Blessed is he that readeth and they that hear the words of this prophecy . . . for the time is at hand" (1: 3). "Write the things which thou hast seen and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter" (1: 19)but this "hereafter" is not the remote, indefinite future, but according to the original ["meta tanta"] the things which follow closely after, in the closest connection with present events. The same language and in the same sense appears (4: 1); "Come up hither" [into his opened heaven] "and I will show thee things that must be hereafter," i. e., in close connection with the present; things which must be very soon. Such are the declarations as to the time of fulfillment, in the very opening of these visions. Are they not perfectly definite and decisive?Near the close we read (22: 6), "These sayings are faithful and true, and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to show unto his servants the things which must shortly be done." Also (22: 10) "Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book; for the time is at hand." Daniel was directed (8: 26, and 12: 4, 9) to "shut up the words" and "seal the book" because the events predicted lay somewhat remotely in the future, i. e., they referred to the age of the Maccabees and of a Syrian wars, then three hundred and sixty years distant. With this case John's prophecies are contrasted and he is told not to seal and abut up his prophetic words because the time of their fulfillment was then near at hand.Such are the indications kindly given by God himself in regard to the time of fulfillment of the great facts revealed in this book. Inasmuch as they speak in general of the things predicted with no limitation to a few of these things or to any defined part of them, we are manifestly bound to apply them to the great body of these predictions. This is the only method of fair dealing with the divine words.Yet let me anticipate the examination of chapters 19-22 so far as to say that they seem obviously to refer to the final triumph of the gospel in our world; to the scenes of the last judgment; and (probably) of the future heavenly state. The laws of mental association by which these events are linked with the fall of Jerusalem and the judgments of God upon Rome I shall have occasion to consider fully in their place: They constitute a very easy and natural exception to the statements we have been considering, which assume that the main events foretold in the book were then near at hand. Those main events we shall see refer to Jerusalem and to Romethe great persecuting powers then actively hunting down and murdering the saints. They constitute the staple facts of this book of prophecy and therefore are fitly embraced in the comprehensive statement, "near at hand"I am well aware that many critics have disposed of this testimony from God himself, as to the speedy fulfillment of these prophecies, in a very short-hand way. One of the reviewers of Prof. Stuart wrote;"Nor would we contract the mind of God to the narrow dimensions of the generation when John wrote." "Nor does it move us that at the opening of his book, he says;'The time is at hand.' He was then judging from God's point of vision, with whom a thousand years are as one day; he was judging on the scale of eternity."*
* See Bibliotheca Sacra, April, 1847; p. 302.
But if God had occasion to say certain things to the churches of Asia of "the generation when John wrote," and undertook to do it, who shall forbid him? Who has any right to insinuate that such messages would dishonorably belittle or contract the mind of God? And when the revealing angel said"The time is at hand," how does this critic know that "he was judging from God's point of vision with whom one thousand years are as one day?" If he meant so, why did he not say so? If he has not said so, what right has any critic to wrest his words from their natural sense and put upon them a construction altogether his own and in the face of their plain, obvious meaning? If critics may use such liberties with God's own words, making his declarations"The time is at hand;" "shortly come to pass"mean the very reverse of what they say, what may they not do? And how can God reveal any thing to us so that we can surely know what he means? If God does not use the language of men as men ordinarily use it, there is an end of all reliable interpretation of his words. If when he says "day" he may mean a thousand years and yet give us no hint of any other sense than we give to the word "day," then there is no such thing as a trustworthy revelation from God to man.For myself I must take it for granted that when God introduced this book of prophecy to the seven churches of Asia, saying that the time of fulfilling its predicted events was then near at hand, he meant just what he saidmeant to have them expect the great body of those events very soon and be looking for them in their own times. For if he had meant precisely this, he could not have said it in any other words more direct and plain than these.
Many critics have saidThis book gives a prophetic series of historic events, running on two thousand years or more, and that when God said, "These things must come to pass shortly," he meant only that the series would begin shortly, while the great mass of its events would lie far down in the future centuries. But this seems to me to be, not accepting God's words at their obvious value, but forcing a sense upon them to suit the exigencies of the critic's own theory. If God had really meant what these critics claim, why, did be not say it? Could he possibly suppose that the words he did use would be understood by the seven churches as these critics interpret them? And did he use words which he knew would convey a sense quite different from the truth?
3. We are bound to interpret this book in harmony with God's own interpretation of its symbols.Such professed explanations are much less numerous and full in this book of prophecy than in Daniel. Let us the more carefully use what we have.The greater part of chap. 17, is such explanation. It shows us definitely who is meant by "the woman," "the great harlot."The seven heads of the beast are explained to have a twofold reference; (1.) To "the seven mountains on which the woman sitteth;" (2.) To the seven kings who reigned in succession, the sixth being then on the throne. This is not the place to expound in full the points made in this chapter. Suffice it to say that as humble pupils of prophecy, sitting at the feet of our Great Teacher, we shall surely seize with promptness and ponder with diligence whatever explanations he may be pleased to give us of the meaning of his own symbols. Such explanations should be permitted to throw their influence over all other points, not explained, which are of the same general character. The whole prophecy to which the woman and the seaven-headed beast belong must surely be interpreted in harmony with God's explanation of these leading characters and agents therein.
4. We must interpret in harmony with whatever allusions the book contains to known historic events and localities. We have such allusions in chaps. 11 and 17.In chap. 11: 1, 2, we have the temple, the altar, the outer court, and the giving of it up to the Gentiles to be trodden under foot of them; and in v. 8 we have another most specific and unquestionable reference to Jerusalemthe very place "where the Lord was crucified," and where his two witnesses fell and lay unburied; and in v. 13 it is said that "in the same hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth part of the city (this same Jerusalem) fell," etc. Now here are various allusions to historic places and objects with which John's readers were somewhat acquainted and with which we are familiar. There can be no doubt how they would understand these words. Of all the men who were ever to read this book, they were best situated to understand it. The sense most obvious to them is doubtless the true one. It would be only a great folly therefore for us to ignore such historic references, and make up an interpretation of this eleventh chapter and of the stupendous events which reach their consummation here, just as if the prophet had given us in these allusions no clew to his meaning. It would be unpardonable to fritter away the meaning of these allusions and rob ourselves of their aid by forcing upon them a fanciful meaning. They are plainly literal expressions thrown into the midst of a delineation which is mostly figurative and symbolic; and therefore we may assume that they were intended to be landmarks to guide the reader through the entire series of symbols which culminate here. They put their prophetic finger on Jerusalem as the doomed city; on its corrupt Judaism, its apostate priests and people, as the sworn and long time maddened enemies of Christ and of his true Zionnow about to be overwhelmed under the bolts of Jehovah's thunder.In like manner the angel-interpreter appears in chap. 17, avowedly to "show the judgment of the great harlot" (v. 1), and "to tell the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns" (v. 7). This woman and this beast are the prominent personages throughout chaps. 13-18. Here the revealing angel comes to identify the city of old Rome as represented by this woman, and the seven kings that successively filled her throne as the seven heads of the "beast that carried her." When he gives plain explanations of the great prophetic symbols of the book, saying, "The woman whom thou sawest is the great city," etc., and "The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth," and also "the seven kings, of whom five are fallen," etc., why shall we not hail this explanation with joy and thankfulness, accepting it as indeed a light shining in an otherwise dark place, and a landmark to guide our otherwise dubious way? On what ground can we expect to reach the true sense of this book if we thrust away the heaven-sent, teacher who comes "to tell us the mystery" of these symbols?
5. We must interpret in harmony with whatever indications the book itself may give us showing that Christians then living were to be the persecuted men of whom these visions speak and whose martyrdom they assume; and that their own persecutors were the men about to be visited with desolating judgments. Such indications appear in the account given of the opening of the fifth seal (6: 9-11): "When he had opened the fifth seal I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held; and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" "Dwell on the earth," be it noticed, testifies that those persecutors were then alivethen, at the time of the vision and of this prayerpursuing their diabolic mission, for the prayer of the fallen martyrs cries, "How long, O Lord, wilt thou not avenge our blood on them," and put an end to their murder of our surviving brethren?The record proceeds to say, "And white robes were given to every one of them, and it was said to them that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they had been, should be fulfilled." The white robes, significant of ultimate victory to their cause, were for their comfort and consolation, yet they must needs be told that more of their brethren were yet to fall martyrs for a season longer; then the vials of God's wrath would be poured out on those guilty murderers. To see this argument in its proper strength, it should be borne in mind that the sense most obvious and natural to the first readers of the book is the true one; that although modern critics may overlook or ignore the explicit declarations with which the book opens"things that must shortly come to pass;" "the time is at hand;" or (4: 1) "things which must be" [immediately] "hereafter;" it is simply impossible that John's first readers could forget or overlook these statements, for they served to make these prophecies matters of immediate, personal and most vital interest. Consequently those first readers must have made the present tense of this vision ["that dwell on the earth"] their own present timenow dwelling on the earth while we are reading this bookand would apply what is said of the persecutors to the very men who had just been murdering their own brethrene. g., Antipas of Pergamos, "slain among you" (2: 13). Hence my argument is that, this being the construction which they must needs give to these words, it is the true one and we must adopt it. Therefore to apply these words in their primary and proper sense to the Waldenses and Albigenses of the middle ages seems to me like mere dreamingor rather like steering one's ship in mid-ocean by defacing the logbook, throwing overboard the compass, and blotting out the stars!
6. If the prophetic symbols indicate fearful judgments on some great persecuting power without naming or particularly describing this power, we are bound to assume that such naming and description are omitted because John's first readers would know without its name what power was meant. This rule rests on the simple principle that every sensible man writes so as to be understood by those whom he addresses. Of course he writes for an object. John wrote for a great moral object; wrote to do good to the churches of Asia. Therefore he wrote in such a way that they could readily understand of whom he spoke. If he omitted to name the wicked men then about to be judged and destroyed for their violence against Christ's people, it was because he saw that his readers would know without his naming them. In this case they could not fail to assume that those persecutors were the men under whom their own brethren were dying; the martyrs alluded to were of themselves.The reader will notice the remarkable fact that the successive seals (chaps. 6 and 8) and the successive trumpets also (chap. 9) reveal plagues, yet without definitely naming the parties on whom those plagues were to fall. Except the intimations given (6: 9-11) in the cry of the martyred souls seen under the altar, and in the nationality of the sealed ones (chap. 7), we have nothing thus far in the book to define the doomed nation or people. Chap. 11 does give us some definite localities, and also some landmarks as to time. But through several chapters we fail to find such indications. The rule now under consideration requires us to find the persecuting powers here foredoomed, within the immediate knowledge and experience of the churches of Asiaso near that they could not think of any other. This view is abundantly sustained and verified by the prayer of the martyrs and its answer at the opening of the fifth seal; and also in chap. 11 as you approach the final catastrophe.
7. We must interpret in harmony with the obvious moral purpose of the book. What this moral purpose was the book itself abundantly shows. It went to the seven churches of Asia; its mission was to arm them against the temptations incident to deadly persecution; to fire their souls with love to Christ, with zeal for his cause, with the spirit of patient endurance even unto torture and death. To effect such results the writer brings the glories of the risen Savior impressively near; he sets before them the bliss of heaven and the sympathy felt in their case by the myriads around the throne; he testifies to them most tenderly that God sees their tears, notes their agony, will surely render vengeance to their persecutors, joy and peace to their martyred brethren, and everlasting victory to his Zion. All these points came home to their hearts with most thrilling power, because the scenes of agonizing fear and horrible persecution were so very near; because the sufferers were their own fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. "Antipas my faithful martyr was slain among you" (2: 13).Every thing in this book indicates not only an intense moral purpose, but a most direct one, bearing upon the very churches then immediately addressed. We must therefore interpret accordingly. We should do great violence to the whole book if we were to construe it to refer primarily to events far away in the remote future from those seven churchesevents of which they could possibly have no conception, and to which they could not apply these predictions. When the book is interpreted as a history of the European kingdoms, which grew out of the disintegrated Roman Empire, continued down to our own day, and of the Roman Catholic church in the great outlines of its history through all time, I must insist that such interpretation is violently against the obvious moral purpose of the book. Its first readers could not possibly take this view of its meaning; therefore this view of its meaning can not be the true one. For sensible writers, writing for a present object, must be presumed to write so as to be readily understood by the average minds of their readers. They never write for a great moral purpose in the case of their first readers, and yet write so that not a man of them can possibly understand to what they refer. To write in a manner so utterly beyond their comprehension would inevitably defeat their moral object. Prophecy can by no means be exempted from this rule. Certainly and especially it can not, provided it appears that it was written and sent to particular churches for an obvious moral purpose. Such undeniably is the case of this book.
A broader view of the analogy of scripture prophecy on this point will be useful here. In the Old Testament age, Babylon, Edom, Moab, Philistia, etc., were hostile powers, corresponding to apostate Judaism and Roman Paganism in the age of this book. All these powers became subjects of prophecy. Those of the Old Testament age stand before us undeniably fulfilled and easily interpreted; and therefore give us priceless illustrations of the method of such prophecythe manner of giving itin other words, the important laws of prophetic interpretation.The attentive reader of this class of Old Testament prophecies will soon satisfy himself as to these vital points:(1.) That they were written for a then present moral purpose, viz., to assure the covenant people that Jehovah was on their side, and that, being King of nations, he could and would break down their foes, and visit just retribution upon them;(2.) Consequently, having a present moral purpose to serve, they were made easily intelligible; were designed, not to hide, but to reveal the coming destiny of those hostile powers, and that they were in fact, so far as we can learn, understood by the prophets and by their first hearers and readers;(3.) That the events predicted, like those revealed through John to the seven churches, were near at hand and did shortly come to pass. The prophecies of Jeremiah against Babylon (chaps. 50 and 51) had but few years at most to wait for their fulfillment. The moral effect sought was to be realized upon that generationthe very men who first received the prophecy from his lips or pen. And this was the model and type of the Babylon of the Apocalypse. So the Lord's word by Jeremiah against the Philistines (chap. 47) was filfilled by a Pharaoh then living and by Nebuchadnezzar then on his throne, and of course with no considerable delay. Of Moab Isaiah (16: 14) said: "Within three years, as the years of a hireling, and the glory of Moab shall be contemned." Also of Ephraim (Isa.7:8) he said: "Within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken that it be not a people."Thus it appears that this style of ancient prophecy had a then present mission and straightway performed it; was consequently made plain; was in fact understood by all readers and hearers of average intelligence; and fulfilled its mission in the moral benefit of that generation which first received it. So Christ's prediction to his disciples of the destruction of Jerusalem had a present mission for the men of that generation and fulfilled it.In the nature of the case the prophecies respecting the promised Messiah had a long time to run. But as to the points now under consideration, those prophecies are not analogous and should be left out of the account. All the prophecies of the Bible that are analogous concur to establish these principles beyond dispute, and therefore must legitimately be accepted and applied in our interpretation of the Apocalypse.
8. Symbols borrowed from the Old Testament should be obviously interpreted in the light of their usage there. A general correspondence of the meaning here to the meaning there should be assumeda proximate at least, though not perhaps in every case a precise similarity. It being certain that the author had in hand the Old Testament scriptures, but not certain that he had any other book; certain, moreover, that he had read those prophets carefully, intensely, with the deepest love of his heartthat he had made himself familiar with their imagery and symbols as well as with their thoughts; it follows that his own symbols when distinctly traceable to those old prophets should be construed in his book mainly as they are in those original sources. This rule applies to the seals, the trumpets, the vials; to the horses seen in vision; to the locusts; to Babylon, and not least, to the usage of the words "abomination," "harlot," etc., in reference to idolatry.
9. While these principles of interpretation suffice to prove that the great body of the book refers to events then near at hand, the well-known usage of prophecy will permit the minds of both prophet and reader to pass over by analogy from these events to others of like general character far in the futurethese future events being reached, not through a continuous series of history, filling up the whole interval, but under the law of analogy by which one series of events suggests another of like general character, resting on the same broad principles of God's government. Thus in Christ's prophetic discourse (Mat. 24 and 25) his primary reference is to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (A. D. 70). Yet he also passes over from this event to the analogous onethe final judgment scene. But he does not reach the final judgment by filling up all the interval between the first event and the second with a continuous prophetic history of the events intervening. Some commentators have interpreted Mat. 24 and 25 in this way, but, in my view, without the least reason. The transition from the first event to the second is made by the law of analogy. The same law obtains abundantly in the old prophets, e. g., Isaiah, passing from the fall of Sennacherib's host, compared to the fall of the glory of Lebanon before an archangel's scythe (chap. 10 and 11) to the springing up of the fresh shoot of David from the stump of a cut-down tree.Accepting this principle of interpretation, we naturally expect the mind of both prophet and reader to be borne onward from the fall of persecuting Judaism and Paganism to the fall of every foe hostile to Christ, and to the final triumph of the Great Conqueror, as we have it in Rev. 11, and also Rev. 19 and 20.The main argument for spreading out the visions of this book into a compend of universal history has been that because the series lands us at last in the Millennium, therefore it must take us over and through all the intermediate stages of human history. It might for the same reason be demanded that we spread out the prophecy by Christ in Mat. 24 and 25, by violent and fanciful applications thereof till we make it fill up the satire interval between the fall of Jerusalem and the final judgment. Such methods of interpretation ignore the whole genius of Old Testament prophecy.I am well aware that many assume this one book of the Bible, the last (as they say) of them all, to have been written, not like the rest of the Bible primarily for the generations then living and near, but primarily and with special design for the far distant agesfor ourselves and the generations yet to come. They admit, as all sensible men must, that David wrote his psalms for the present use and adapted them accordingly; that Isaiah had his eye primarily upon his own generation in the adaptation of his prophecies, and so also Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all the rest. The internal evidence of a special mission to their own people and of a special adaptation to their case is completely decisive. So of the gospel history; so of all the epistles.But this book of Revelation they insist must be made an exception to this otherwise universal law. One book at least among so many the Lord could certainly afford to give to us of these latter days by special address and special adaptation, so that we may claim it as meant for us in the same definite sense in which the Jews of the captivity might claim Ezekiel's messages as theirs.Now this may be a very pretty fancy; but I must be plain enough to sayit can be nothing more. For, the proofs of special dress, special design, special adaptation to the seven churches of Asia, are fully as strong and decisive in this book as like proofs are in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Haggai, or Zechariah. Nor have we the least reason to feel that we are deprived of a right or robbed of a treasure when this book is put on the same footing with all other books of the Bible in respect to original address and adaptation; for we may still use it precisely as we use all the rest of the Bible, i. e., first, get its exact meaning as written and adapted to its first readers for its special purposes; and then apply it all to ourselves as so much general truth good for us according to our circumstances. Knowing the case of its first readers we get a far more definite, precise, life-like sense of its meaning, and therefore have so much more actual truth to apply with the utmost precision to our own case. But a book specially addressed and adapted to the indefinite ages could never be soundly and safely interpreted; for who could know the circumstances of the parties addressed? Who could make any use of the landmarks of interpretation which a book of prophecy must needs have, or of necessity remain unintelligible? The endless variety of fanciful interpretations under which this book has suffered above all other books of the Bible is due largely and by necessity to this grand mistake in the very conception of its original design.Yet again, it will seem to any that the glory of this book is departed if the events which it definitely predicts are narrowed down to the doom of apostate Jerusalem and of Pagan Rome as great persecuting powers, and we fail to find in it the great outlines of the world's history since the first century of the Christian era, and especially if we fail to find here the Pope and the system he represents. There lies before me "A New Interpretation of the Apocalypse," brought out in 1827, by Rev. George Croley, to which I refer as a samplea work brilliantly written and eminently popular. He says (p. 2, 3), "It will be shown in the course of the Interpretation that this prophecy includes in the most direct manner all those great events which make the framework of history since the first age of Christianity; that it distinctly predicts the establishment of the church under Constantine and his successors" [etc. on through the early, the middle, and the post-middle ages], "the destruction of the Spanish Armada; the civil wars following the overthrow of Protestantism in France in 1685; the wars of Louis XIV.; the French revolution not narrowed down to a few conjectural verses as is usual, but detailed in an entire and unsuspected chapter with its peculiar character of Atheism and anarchy, its subsequent despotism, and its final overthrow by the armies of Europe." Then quite a respectable portion remains for the ages to come, the events being yet future.Now a prophecy so admirably flexible that ingenious men can find in it all the interesting events of their own times and of times yet fresh in the pastindeed, all the salient points in the world's great history since A. D. 100, must be very attractive to an ingenious commentator, and very amusing, no doubt, to many readers.Moreover, apart from this exercise of human ingenuity, there is a special religious interest felt by many Protestants in finding here Romanism in the three-fold aspect,its spiritual abominations, its bloody persecutions, and its destiny of fiery doom. It seems to some of them that this is God's battle-ax made ready to their hand.Now to all who may be of this mind I wish to say very plainly that I have not the least repugnance to seeing the Pope and Romanism in this prophecy provided only that God has put them here. But I have an invincible repugnance to making prophecy myselfto bringing into this book by forced or fanciful interpretation any thing which God has not put here. It should be remembered that the book closes with some very monitory words against "adding to the things" herein written. It is a solemn undertaking to make a comment on the words of God. With some sense of the inexpressible solemnity of this work I am holden most sacredly to follow the landmarks set up by God's own finger. No attractions toward this resulting sense or thatno desire to find or not to find Papal Rome herecan be allowed to move my pen a hair's breadth.According to my reading of scriptural prophecy God has certain modes of presenting itfollows certain principles in revealing itgives certain indications ("landmarks" I have called them) which were manifestly designed to guide us to their true meaning and application. All these, I propose to myself and suggest to my readers, should be canvassed with untiring diligence and applied with our utmost coolness of judgment, with unbiased heart and unclouded eye, and above all, with unceasing prayer to the Great Father of light to guide us into all his blessed truth for the good of his Zion and the glory of his name.