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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Revelation 7

 

 

Other Authors
Verse 1

VII.

(1) And after these things . . Better, And after this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding fast the four winds of the earth, that there might not blow a wind upon the earth, nor upon the sea, nor upon any tree. In the sixth seal the winds had blown, and had shaken violently the fig-tree, causing its untimely figs to drop off: the untimely or winter figs represented those whose religious life was unequal to the strain of trial, and who failed in the crisis to which they were exposed. But is all the fruit shaken off? No; Christ had said that “if a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch;” but that those who abode in Him, purged by their trials, would bring forth more fruit, and the fruit which these bore was not a fruit easily shaken off, but fruit that should remain (John 15:6; John 15:5; John 15:16). They would not be as winter figs, easily torn from the boughs, for their strength was in God: before the stormy winds of manifold trials had blown they had been sealed with the seal of the living God. This is the scene which is brought before us in this chapter. In it the care of God, who restrains from violence the winds, that they should net shake too soon the immature fruit, the tokens by which the sealed are known and the meaning of their sealing are set forth. The chapter, in fact, answers the solemn question of the last chapter: “Who is able to stand?” The winds are clearly emblems of days of trouble or judgment; as the winds sweep away the chaff and clear the atmosphere, so do judgments try the ungodly, who are like the chaff which the wind driveth away: the storm of God’s judgments shakes the mountains and the wilderness, and strips the oaks of the forest. (Comp. Psalms 29) These winds of judgment are ready to blow from all quarters (four corners of the earth), but they are restrained till the servants of God are sealed. For passages where winds are used as emblems of judgment, see especially Jeremiah 49:36-37, “Upon Elam I will bring the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will bring evil upon them, even My fierce anger, saith the Lord.” Comp, also Daniel 7:2, “I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea.” But those tempests would not arise or shake a single leaf till the securing of God’s servants was accomplished.


Verse 2

(2) And I saw another angel . . .—Translate, And I saw another angel going up from the rising of the sun, having a seal of the living God, and he was crying with a great voice to the four angels to whom it was given to injure the earth and the sea, saying, Injure ye not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads. The angels appear as carrying out the purposes of God. This angel rises into view from the door of the dawn. In the midst of the dark symptoms of coming storm and judgment there springs up a light for the righteous and joyful gladness for such as are true-hearted: they need not be afraid of evil tidings whose hearts stand fast believing in the Lord. This angel carries a seal of the living God. The seal is the emblem of security. The seal was placed on our Lord’s sepulchre to keep the tomb safe from invasion; the king’s seal was, in the same way, placed on the stone which was laid at the mouth of the den in which Daniel was imprisoned: “the king sealed it with his own signet” (Daniel 6:17). The intrusting of the seal into the hands of others was the token that royal authority had been for the time delegated to man. So Jezebel “wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal” (1 Kings 21:8). Esther obtained the use of the king’s seal to protect her countrymen from the mischief devised by Haman: “for the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse” (Esther 8:8). There is also a seal of the living God. St. Paul tells us that this seal bears two legends. “The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, ‘The Lord knoweth them that are his,’ and, ‘ Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity’” (2 Timothy 2:19). On the one side, it is dependence on and communion with God; on the other side, it is holiness of life. The sealed are found in Christ, not having their own righteousness, but the righteousness which is of God by faith (Philippians 3:9). For this is the righteousness which will endure to the end, and which is found in them who are “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13-14). God’s image and superscription is impressed on such; just as afterwards we are told of all the servants of God, “His name shall be in their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4). This token is a true safe-guard and talisman; as the sprinkled blood on the lintel protected the house from the destroying angel at the first Passover. It is a token also of those who have not conformed to the evil world; they are like those whom Ezekiel saw in Jerusalem, when the Lord sent the man with the inkhorn “to set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done” (Ezekiel 9:4). There has been much misapprehension respecting this act of sealing. It has been said that it implies security, and assures God’s servants of protection in the coming judgments: this is, in a sense, true; but the sealing, as will have been seen by the passages quoted above, is that sealing of the Spirit, that root of heavenly life in the soul, which is the pledge of the soul’s union with God; and the terms of the charter of their protection are, Who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? In the Bible idea, sin, or moral defilement, is the only real evil: all other things work together for good. The breastplate which turns aside the fiery darts is the breastplate of righteousness: those who, escaping the corruptions which are in the world through lust, become partakers of the divine nature are in consequence victorious over all the evil. They are not exempt from the vicissitudes and tribulation of life: the winds are let loose to blow, but they are sealed, and they cannot be shaken; for what and who can separate them from the love of Christ? They are sealed by the Holy Spirit; they have an earnest of that Spirit in their hearts (Ephesians 4:30, and 2 Corinthians 1:22), and the pledge of His power in their lives. St. John gives the same two-fold test as St. Paul (2 Timothy 2:9): (1) “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13); and (2) “Hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). The sealing is on the forehead: it is God’s mark, but it is where all may see it. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The cry of the angel is, Injure not the sea nor the trees. Doubtless the sea and trees are mentioned as these are the objects which would be most disturbed and injured by a storm of wind. Trees are used as emblems of real and of pretended religionism. The true-hearted in faith are described as trees planted by the waterside, whose fruit does not wither; and it is singular that St. Jude, who pictures the Antinomian teachers of his day under the image of autumn trees (not trees whose fruit withereth, as in English version) without fruit, immediately adds an expression which almost suggests the sudden uprising of a testing storm: the fruitless trees are “plucked up by the roots” (Jude 1:12).


Verse 4

(4) And I heard the number of them . . . Translate, And I heard the number of the sealed: there were a hundred and forty and four thousand sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel. There are two or three questions which these verses suggest. What are we to understand by the number twelve thousand from each tribe? Who are these who are drawn from the tribes of Israel? Why is there a change of the order and name of the tribes? It may help us to clearer thoughts to take the second of these questions first. (1) Who are these one hundred and forty-four thousand? An answer to this has been partly anticipated in our previous comments; but perhaps a fuller consideration is needed. Some have thought that the sealed ones must be Jewish Christians: i.e., they are disposed to take the twelve tribes literally. The scope of the previous verses seems decisive against this view. The time of judgment and trial is drawing near; we have seen the tokens of the coming storm in the opening of the sixth seal; our wish is to know the lot of the saints of God; this chapter answers this wish: they are safe, having the seal of God. Now, to limit the answer to the Israelitish Christians is to break in abruptly upon the general flow of thought with a bold literalism. The sealed ones are explained to be the servants of God; the description which follows proclaims them to be the “Israel of God.” It would be a strange leap away from the subject to introduce a sudden limitation of thought. Nor is there any necessity for doing so. Israelitish and Jewish names are freely adopted by the sacred writers, and used in a spiritual sense without any explanation of such usage; and the Apostle most emphatically laid down the principle that “he is not a Jew which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh, but he is a Jew which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter” (Romans 2:28-29); and the principle he applies by affirming that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). The Christian Church absorbs the Jewish, inherits her privileges, and adopts, with wider and nobler meaning, her phraseology. She has her Jerusalem, but it is a heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22): a Jerusalem from above (Galatians 4:26): a new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2; see Revelation 3:12); and to that Jerusalem of God the true Israel of God, the chosen generation and royal priesthood of every age, turn the eye of faith. It is needless to say that this view does not rob, as it has been said, the Jew of God’s promises; it only intensifies those promises by showing the growth of that Church in which the Jew may yet find the truest consummation of his holiest and highest hopes, and into which God is yet able to graft them in again (Romans 11:23; Romans 11:25-26), and in which he may yet play a part loftier than men dream of. (2) How are we to understand the numbers? As we cannot adopt the literal interpretation of the tribes of Israel, still less can we admit a literal interpretation of the numbers here mentioned; but they are not on this ground to be looked upon as meaningless numbers: there is an appropriate symbolism in the numbers of the Apocalypse. Twelve is used as the number of those who in every age have been called out to witness for some truth which the world needed. Thus the twelve tribes of Israel were the appointed witnesses of a pure theology and a pure morality in the days of idolatry and license; and later, the twelve Apostles became the inheritors of a similar, though higher, spiritual work in the world. The number twelve, then, stands for a world-witness of divine truth; and the fruits of this world-witness is a wide and sustained success: the twelve multiplied by the twelve a thousand-fold—“the native and not degenerate progeny of the Apostles apostolically multiplied” (Mede, quoted by Dr. Currey). The skeleton organisation is twelve, the college of the Apostles; the one hundred and forty-four thousand represent the growth into full numbers of the choice ones of God. (3) Does the change in the order and names of the tribes symbolise anything? The alterations are not without significance. They are briefly these: The tribe of Dan is omitted, and the name of Ephraim does not appear, but the number is made up to twelve by two representatives of Joseph: Manasseh, who stands sixth in order, and Joseph (superseding the name, but representing the tribe of Ephraim), who is placed eleventh on the list. The number twelve is maintained to show that in all changes God’s purposes stand. The omission of one tribe and the changed name of another are designed to show that in the Church, as in Israel, the most splendid opportunities may be lost. Dan, once a tribe, and not an insignificant tribe, which had reared its heroes, gradually lapsed into idolatry and immorality, dwindled in numbers and importance, and at length disappeared, and as a tribe became extinct. Its omission in this list is a silent but emphatic comment on the sacred warnings: “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” “Begin not to say we have Abraham to our father: God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” Similarly, Ephraim, as has been suggested by a thoughtful writer, who exalted himself in Israel, is now lost in the greater name of Joseph. (Comp. Hosea 13:1; Hosea 10:11; Luke 18:14.) The order of the names is altered. Reuben no longer stands first: Judah has taken the firstborn’s place; and Levi, though named, does not occupy the third, the place of his birthright, but the eighth place. Here, again, the changes have their teachings. The unstable Reuben, with all his splendid advantages—the firstborn, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power—failed to hold his own among his brethren; the fatal instability of his character accompanied his history, and weakened his otherwise pre-eminent powers; yet weak and erring, the type of the brilliant and vacillating, he is not an outcast altogether, but finds place, and high place, among the servants of God. Judah, lion-like, resolute, and strong, wins the foremost place; from him springs the true Ruler, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, to unfold the counsels of God, and to rule the world with a righteous sceptre. Levi’s subordinate position is thought to be due to the fact that the Mosaic ritual and Levitical priesthood are at an end. This may be so; the changes are the result of the actual history of the tribes, and illustrate how in the Christian Church, as in the Jewish, privileges may be lost, opportunities seized or cast away, offices and functions used for a time, and then laid aside when their work is accomplished; but in all and through all changes, God’s unchanging purpose runs onward to its certain close. The grouping of the tribes is, as has been pointed out, in the order of closest kinship: “We find not one violent separation of those who are naturally united, where both are truly members of the Israel of God” (Rev. C. H. Waller, Names on Gates of Pearl).


Verse 9

(9) After this I beheld . . .—Better, After these things I saw, and behold! a great multitude which no one was able to number, out of every nation, and (all) tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches in their hands. “A great multitude:” We have just had the picture of the sealing of a multitude which could be numbered: now we have the picture of a countless throng. Who are these? Are they the same as the one hundred and forty-four thousand, or are they others? Our answer must be that this vision gives the climax of the previous one. The sealing represented the Passover of the Church: this vision represents its Feast of Tabernacles. The sealing assured us that in the midst of the severe times of testing there would be those who, wearing God’s armour, would come forth unscathed: this vision shows us the fruition of their labour and their rest after conflict. The sealing assured us that God’s hidden ones would be safe in trouble: this tells us that they have come safe out of it—they are those who have come out of the great tribulation (Revelation 7:14). But how can the numbered of the one vision be the same as the numberless of the next? They are numbered in the first vision, as it is one of the assurances of their safety. In that vision the idea of their security in trial and danger is the main one. The servants or God are safe, for they are sealed and numbered; they are among those sheep of Christ whom He calls by name, whose very hairs are numbered; they are those whose reliance is not on self, but on their shepherd; and the sealing is the echo of Christ’s words, “they shall never perish;” they are the servants of God, known by Him and recognised by Him. But in the next vision, the expanding prospects of the Church and her final repose are shown to us. The idea of victory and peace, not so much safety in danger as freedom from it, is set forth; and then countless multitudes are seen; the numbered are found to be numberless; countless as the sand by the sea and as the stars in heaven, they are yet in the reckoning and knowledge of Him who “telleth the number of the stars and calleth them all by their names.” The numbering must not be understood to imply limitation. We have seen that it is a number which symbolises expansive energy and extensive success; it implies the real security and wide-spread growth of the Church of God; it has no limits; it gathers from every nation, and people; it welcomes all; where there is neither Jew, nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond, nor free; its gates are open all night and all day to every quarter of the world—

“From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,

Through gates of pearl stream in the countless host,

Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Alleluia.”

The multitude are clothed with white robes, and carry palm branches in their hands. It has been thought that these are the emblems of victory; they doubtless are tokens of a triumph: it is the sacred rejoicing of the Israel of God. The imagery is drawn from the Feast of Tabernacles: just as the sealing reminded us of the protecting sign on the lintels of the houses of Israel in Egypt, so do these palm branches and songs of joy recall the ceremonies of the later feast. No imagery would be more natural to the sacred seer, and none more appropriate to his subject. The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated God’s care over them in the wilderness, and their gratitude for the harvest. The people forsook the houses, and dwelt in booths; the streets were full of glad multitudes who carried branches of palm, and olive, and myrtle; everywhere the sounds of rejoicing and singing were heard; “there was very great gladness” (Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23:43; Nehemiah 8:14-17). The vision here shows us a far greater feast. “The troubles of the wilderness are ended, the harvest-home of the Church is come,” and God tabernacles (Revelation 7:15) among His servants.


Verse 9-10

The Redeemed

After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation, and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God which sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.—Revelation 7:9-10.

1. The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia end with the third chapter of the Apocalypse. The fourth and fifth chapters describe two great acts of worship. In the fourth chapter God is worshipped as the Creator. The four Cherubim, or Living Creatures, representing all created life, are seen in perpetual adoration of their Maker. The four-and-twenty Elders—the patriarchs of the Old Covenant and the apostles of the New—fall down before the throne and worship God, saying, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honour and the power: for thou didst create all things.”

The fifth chapter introduces the great work of redemption. The Lamb appears in the midst of the throne, typical of the eternal Son, the Redeemer of the world. As He takes the Book of Doom from His Father’s hands, the four Living Creatures and the four-and-twenty Elders fall down before Him and sing a new song, the song of the redeemed. The angel chorus pours forth its chant of thanksgiving to the Lamb, and every creature in heaven and earth and sea joins in the act of adoration.

Then at the ninth verse of the seventh chapter this second great act of worship enters on a new stage. The congregation, which hitherto has been drawn from the twelve tribes of Israel, is now seen to be a great multitude which no man can number, and it is taken from every nation upon the earth.

2. The redeemed are at worship. Where are they? They are in heaven, no doubt. But heaven is not to be identified with the world to come. Life before the throne God says Swete is life wherever spent, if it is dminated by a joyful consciousness of the Divine Presence and Glory. And he adds that the present picture must be correlated with hat of chapters 21. and 22.

The text suggests, first, the number of the redeemed; second, their variety; and thin, their unity—their unity being seen (1) in their position or standing; (2) in their character; (3) in their feeling; and (4) in their occupation.

I

The Number of the Redeemed

1. “A great multitute, which no man could number.” It is a vision. But St. John had some material to work upon. Says Harnack, “The vigour and the variety of the forms already assumed by Christianity in these quarters are shown by the seven epistles to the Churches in the Johannine Apocalypse, by the whole tenor of the book, and by the Ignatian Writings.”

Tacitus, the careful Roman historian, in writing of the persecution of the Christians, under Nero in 64 a.d., says of their number that they were a huge multitude—“ingens multitudo.” The expansion of Christianity in the first years of its existence is one of the marvels of history. When it first began to be preached it was ridiculed and lampooned by the ablest satirists of the day. Every foul crime was charged upon its followers. The believers in the Christ were tortured, mutilated, thrown to wild beasts. Yet in spite of everything the church grew, grew and increased rapidly in numbers and in power.

Seventy years after the founding of the very first Gentile church in Syrian Antioch, Pliny wrote in the strongest terms about the spread of Christianity throughout remote Bithynia, a spread which in his view already threatened other cults through out the province. Seventy years later still the Paschal controversy reveals the existence of a Christian federation of churches, stretching from Lyons to Edessa, with its headquarters situated at Rome. Seventy years later again, the Emperor Decius—the fierce persecutor—declared he would sooner have a rival emperor in Rome than a Christian bishop. And are another seventy years had passes, the cross was sewn upon the Roman colours.1 [Note: H. T. Sell, Studies in Early Church History, 150.]

2. But the vastness is the outcome of faith much more than of sight. In another place St. John states the impression which the physical eye receives: “We are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.” The eye of faith is the eye of that God who invited Abraham to go out into the evening and count the number of the stars. It is the eye of that Christ of God who planted the mustard seed which grew into a great tree.

As their praise was erst not of men but of God, so now their number is known not to men but to God. “So many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the seashore innumerable.” “I beheld,” says St. John: and you with your eyes, I with mine (please God!) shall yet behold.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, The Face of the Deep, 31.]

3. The text is an answer at last to the question, “Are there few that be saved?” Were we to answer that question by sight we should probably answer it quite otherwise, our judgment being formed partly from the state of our own heart, and partly from what we see around us. With our own heart we cannot be too stern. To it Christ’s answer is addressed, “Strive ye to enter in.” With our neighbour we cannot perhaps be too lenient. In any case our neighbour has a right to ask, “Who made thee a judge or a divider over us?” We do not know enough to form a judgment.

Who made the heart, ’tis He alone

Decidedly can try us;

He knows each chord, its various tone,

Each spring, its various bias.

Then at the balance let’s be mute,

We never can adjust it;

What’s done we partly may compute,

But know not what’s resisted.2 [Note: Robert Burns.]

It is recorded of Daniel Webster that he was travelling in a then uninhabited part of Western America which is now covered by great and populous cities. As he and a friend were exploring that vast solitude, Webster suddenly lowered his head and seemed to listen.

“What are you doing?” inquired his friend.

“I am listening for the tramp of the coming millions!” replied Webster, his face aglow with confidence in the future greatness of his country.

II

The Variety

1. The variety is as great as the number. What a distance St. John has travelled! It is a long way for his feet from the shores of Galilee to the isle that is called Patmos; but how much father for his heart, from his hope for the seed of Abraham to this assurance of all nations and tongues! There is nothing that some men seem so sure about as the limitation of our Lord’s outlook. It is true He was not sent in His lifetime on earth but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But it was Christ, and not St. Paul, that enabled St. John to see the variety of the redeemed.

2. Every nation, and every variety of individual in every nation, every variety of gift and ministry—singers in choirs, nurses and doctors, visitors of the sick, priests, prophets, pastors, missioners, Bible-women, mothers, daughters—“I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” These are of the redeemed now. They do not need to wait for death to find their place in St. John’s majestic vision. “For all the saints who from their labours rest”—yes, certainly, for Livingstone and Gordon and Shaftesbury, for Lawrence and Martyn and Duff and Grenfell—but also for the saints who are still bearing the burden and heat of the day. O blessed union, fellowship Divine! “Next to the presence of God and the Lamb,” says Hort, “the highest blessing is the presence of them who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.”

3. What an encouragement it is to the missionary! “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” We are only now realizing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the communication of the love of God to the hearts of men; that Christianity is a spiritual power and impulse stirring all that is great and noble in the soul, not only making righteousness a dream, but also making it a dream realized in hearts transformed into the image of God. Christianity is indigenous in every land and among every race because Christianity is the love of God out-flowing to men—and than primal feeling of love every race knows. But it is only in this last generation that we have realized it. In times of strife Christianity was thought of as a system which put iron in the blood. When we pierced down to the heart of Christianity, felt its throb again, realized that it was the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, then the way opened out for the sending of the gospel to the heathen world, and the nations were moved at its approach, as if they, too, were prepared for its coming.

There never has been a day of opportunity like this in the history of the Church and the world. The way is open; the door is open; the hearts of the nations are open. Will the Churches rise to the great call which summons them? Will they, failing to obey Christ, and failing to communicate Him, themselves lose Him? Is the element of the heroic still vigorous in Christianity? Does Christ still stir the hearts of His people so that they are willing to die for Him?

“A people is upon thee loving death as thou lovest life,” was the message of the Mohammedan of old to his enemy. Is there still in Christendom the spirit which loves death for Christ’s sake? If there be, then in this, the great day of opportunity, the tide of the world’s destiny will be turned towards the Lord Jesus Christ. And it will be turned. For the Spirit is still in the midst of the Church, and until the end adoring lips will cry—

“Now let me burn out for God.”1 [Note: N. Maclean, Can the World be Won for Christ? 174.]

In the early days of New Zealand history, Governor (afterwards Sir) George Grey was walking, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, with Bishop Selwyn. They entered a tent, followed by a messenger bearing dispatches which had just arrived. One letter to the bishop brought the news of the death of Siapo, a Loyalty Islander, who had become a Christian, and was being educated at Auckland under the bishop’s supervision. Overcome with grief, Selwyn burst into tears. Then turning to the Governor, he exclaimed, “Why, you have not shed a single tear!” “No,” replied Grey, “I have been so wrapped in thought that I could not weep. I have been thinking of the prophecy that men of every race were to be assembled in the kingdom of heaven. I have tried to imagine the joy and wonder prevailing there at the coming of Siapo, the first Christian of his race. He would be glad evidence that another people of the world had been added to the teaching of Christ.” “Yes, yes,” said Selwyn, “that is the true idea to entertain; I shall weep no more!”

III

The Unity

The multitude that no man can number is a Society. Their robes have become white because every stain of selfishness has been washed from them by the blood of the Lamb. Their palms show that they have gotten the victory over those causes which have destroyed the unity of kindreds and nations here. There is no dull uniformity, no single tongue: all is harmonious amidst diversity. Here, some have glorified power to the destruction of meekness; some have pretended that meekness is incompatible with strength. There, all give glory to Him that sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb. Here, men who are sealed in the Name of God have thought that they glorified that Name most by declaring His damnation of His enemies or theirs. In that company, the one word which is connected with the Divine Name is salvation—salvation from the curse that men have made for themselves.

“All nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.”—Never, since Babel, a unison; no longer, since the first Christian Pentecost, an inevitable discord: for ever and ever, a harmony. Babel dissolved the primitive unison into discord: Pentecost reduced the prevalent discord to contingent harmony, but reclaimed it not into unison. Unison is faultless: harmony is perfect. On earth the possibility of harmony entails the corresponding possibility of discord. Even on earth, however, whoever chooses can himself or herself keep time and tune: which will be an apt prelude for keeping eternity and tune in heaven.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, The Face of the Deep, 231.]

A Canadian bishop has lately described what he saw and heard one night. He and some friends were on one side of a great Canadian river; a company of Christian Indians on the other. As the Englishmen gazed into the falling fire they heard a hymn across the river. This was succeeded by a hush. The song of the Red men across the water drew out a song from them, and that touched the Indians to a prayer whose measured tones just reached them across the water. O sweet communion of saints! “What was the river between?” asks the bishop. What, indeed? On one side there rose prayers and praises in the language of Milton and Shakespeare, of saints and sages; on the other, in words borrowed by the wild hunters from the glee of the waterfall or from the sighing of the pinewood. Yet once again the whole earth seemed to be “of one language and of one lip.” Out from the darkness there rose not a mere picture—a reality. Not the white Christ, with the blood-drops trickling down; but the living Christ, radiant and mighty. The harp of language with its myriad chords rang out through the starry silence. Not the Indian and the English only. Not one language was quite absent from the chorus. No longer Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. “All nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.”1 [Note: Archbishop Alexander, Verbum Crucis, 126.]

Principal D. W. Simon illustrates (Twice Born, 194) the unity and diversity of the redeemed by quotations from the hymns of the world. First of all he shows how widespread is the acceptance of a hymn like “Rock of Ages.” Our English hymn-books, he goes on, teem with translations from the German, with translations from the Latin, with translations from the Greek—“Jesus! Thy boundless love to me” (German); “Jesus! Thou joy of loving hearts!” (Latin); “O happy band of pilgrims” (Greek). It is an illustration that might be worked out easily and with much effect.

1. They are one in their Position or Standing—“standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Once they were “strangers and foreigners”; now they are “fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” Once they were far off; now they are made nigh. Once they were afraid to draw near; now they have access with boldness. “Happy are thy men,” said the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, “which stand continually before thee.” Happy are they who stand before the throne and before the Lamb. It is this that marks the difference between the first vision and the second, between the worship of the Creator and the worship of the Redeemer. They who worship the Creator veil their faces with their wings; every one of the redeemed, however vast their number and various, is made nigh by the blood of Christ.

Longings for pardon, for rest, for peace are met by the simple acceptance of this Saviour, whose blood speaks peace to the conscience and whose love brings rest to the heart. So powerful is this sprinkled blood that it can carry a sinner into the holiest of all to hold communion at the Mercy-seat with a reconciled God and Father. “One touch of this cleansing blood seals the soul for service.” Its voice—like the sound of the waves on the shore—is ever speaking peace in a believer’s ear, “sometimes loudly, sometimes less clearly, but always speaking.” “If a believer can do without the blood he is a backslider.” “At the Bush Moses was forbidden to draw nigh, but afterwards on the Mount he went up into the very presence of God. What made the difference? At the Bush there was no sacrifice.”1 [Note: Reminiscences of Andrew A. Bonar, 134.]

2. In Character—“arrayed in white robes.” The white robes, we are afterwards told, are the righteous acts of the saints. They are an exchange for the “filthy rags” of selfishness and selfrighteousness. If still here, they may not be wholly white; but even here He sees them in their shield, and looks upon them in the face of His anointed, and He sees no iniquity in Jacob and no perverseness in His Israel. And yet it is no hollow, fictitious righteousness. Their will consents. They themselves have washed their own robes—only they have not washed them in their own blood; they have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

It is related of Queen Victoria that one day she visited a paper-mill, the owner of which showed her through the works, and, not knowing who she was, took her, among other places, into the rag-room. When she saw the filthy rags, out of which the paper is made, she exclaimed, “How can these ever be made white?” “Ah, lady!” was the reply, “I have a chemical process of great power, by which I can take the colour even out of these rags!” Before she left, the owner discovered that she was the Queen. A few days after, the Queen found lying upon her writing-desk some of the most beautifully polished writing-paper she had ever seen. On each sheet were stamped the letters of her name, and her likeness. There was also a note from the mill-owner, asking her to accept a specimen of the paper, with the assurance that every sheet was manufactured out of the dirty rags she had seen.

3. In Feeling—“and palms in their hands.” Archbishop Trench will have it that it is a feeling of joy. For the Apocalypse, he says, moves altogether in the circle of sacred imagery; all its symbols and images are derived from the Old Testament. And so he refers to the Feast of Tabernacles, when with branches of palm trees the people rejoiced before the Lord seven days. But the Seer of the Apocalypse was certainly familiar with the palm as a symbol of victory. And perhaps the two ideas are not so far apart. If it was joy, it was the joy of a great triumph, triumph over the world, the flesh, and the devil; the joy of being more than conquerors through Him that loved them. In the presence of Christ has always been fulness of joy, downward from the time in which “your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day.”

It is more natural to think that the mention of the palms here, together with the expression in Revelation 7:15, “He that sitteth on the throne shall spread his tabernacle over them,” is intended to indicate that the redeemed are represented as keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. At that feast not only was it the custom for the faithful to dwell in booths or tents, but also in the festal solemnities to carry in their hands palm branches with myrtles and willows, in fulfilment of the charge in Leviticus 23:40 : “Ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook.” These palm branches, or lulabs, as they were called, were borne in procession by the worshippers on each of the seven days of the solemnity, when they accompanied the priest to the pool of Siloam, as he went to draw water from thence, to bring it to the Temple and pour it out by the altar. So this great multitude which St. John sees bear palms in their hands when the Lamb is about to lead them to no earthly fountain or pool, but to “living fountains of waters.” This view seems also to obtain a further confirmation from the fact that the thought of the tabernacle feast is not unknown to the prophets of the Old Testament in connexion with the future of the Church of God, e.g., Zechariah 14:16. It was not merely that this feast formed the most joyous of all the festive seasons of Israel; it was rather that it was the “feast of ingathering,” a sort of harvest home, and was thus regarded as pointing forward to the final harvest when Israel’s mission should be completed, and all nations should be gathered unto the Lord.

The Feast of Tabernacles commences five days after the Day of Atonement and lasts seven days. Its observance is commanded in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 23:34), and its purpose is there explained as to commemorate the way in which the Israelites dwelt in booths (sukkoth) during their journey through the wilderness.

Every Jew who owns a court or garden is required to erect a booth, or something more or less equivalent, and to dwell in it—or at least have meals in it—while the feast lasts. In order that the character of the original booth may as far as possible be retained, the modern counterpart is very lightly constructed. It “must not be covered with fixed boards and beams or with canvas, but with detached branches of trees, plants, flowers, and leaves, in such a manner that the covering is not quite impenetrable to wind and rain, or starlight.” The booths are adorned with garlands, flowers, and the like.

In the Synagogue the ancient and original character of the celebration as a Harvest Festival—the “Feast of Ingathering,” or thanksgiving for the gathered produce of the fields and gardens—is made prominent in various ways. The Synagogue itself is decorated with plants and fruits; and there are the palm-branch processions. The worshipper takes the palm-branch (lulab) in the right hand, and the ethrog or citron (fixed in a metal receptacle) in the left, reciting as he does so the following blessings:

(1) Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and commanded us to take up the palm-branch.

(2) Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast preserved us alive, sustained us, and brought us to enjoy this season.

These are lifted up during the recitation of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) in morning prayer. At the end of the Musaf or “Additional” prayer, a procession is formed, and the worshippers with the citron and palm-branch, make a circuit while certain prayers called “Hosannas” (Hosha’anoth) are recited.

The joyous character of the festival finds its fullest expression on the seventh day, the popular name of which is Hosha’na Rabba (“The great Hosanna”). It is so called because the exclamation “Hosanna,” and the “Hosanna-processions” are much more frequent than on the preceding six days. Seven processions take place round the whole Synagogue, a separate “hosanna” hymn being sung each time.

At the completion of the processions, the worshippers being now in their places, the lulab is laid aside and the willow-bunch taken up, and a few more poetical pieces are said. All join in the messianic hymn beginning “A voice brings glad tidings, brings glad tidings, and says.” Then with the utterance of a petition for forgiveness of sins each shakes or strikes the willow-bunch on the desk before him till its leaves fall off, and throws it away.1 [Note: W. O. E. Oesterley and G. H. Box, The Religion and Worship of the Synagogue, 397, 401.]

4. In Occupation—“they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation.” Their occupation is worship, of course. All their life is worship. St. John cannot conceive any one of the redeemed otherwise occupied than in worshipping, whether he is in the home, or the field, or the market-place. But the special form of the worship that attracts his attention is praise. Their great cry is a song, and there is no discord in it. Every person of every tribe has a voice and sings in harmony with all the rest.

Their cry is the acknowledgment that their salvation—the salvation which they now taste—is due not to themselves, but to their God and to the Lamb. The salvation here must be taken in its most comprehensive sense, including every deliverance—from the curse of law, from the power of sin, and from the perils of life. This is “the voice of rejoicing and salvation which is in the tabernacles of the righteous,” when the Lord, who is their strength and song, “has become their salvation.”

Salvation to our God, our salvation is unto, is wholly due to, our God. “Salvation belongeth unto the Lord”: it is all His, from first to last; every step of the way, and its termination. Yes, self-confidence, self-righteousness, self-exaltation, vanity, there, in heaven, in God’s presence, will be as impossible as they are natural and common here.… The “great multitude which no man could number” of the ransomed and saved, standing in heaven “before the throne” of God, join with one voice in ascribing solely to Him and to the Lamb the praise of their salvation. And the Angels, “in whose presence,” while earth lasted, “there was joy over every sinner,” one by one, “who repented,” may well rejoice, with a joy accumulated and intensified, over the final ingathering of all who have been saved. Most of all, well may they echo the ascription of all glory to God and to the Lamb. Amen, even so; it is indeed He who hath kept us from our fall; it is indeed He who hath brought you back from yours!1 [Note: C. J. Vaughan, Lectures on the Revelation of St. John, 192.]

What are these lovely ones, yea, what are these?

Lo these are they who for pure love of Christ

Stripped off the trammels of soft silken ease,

Beggaring themselves betimes, to be sufficed

Throughout heaven’s one eternal day of peace:

By golden streets, thro’ gates of pearl unpriced,

They entered on the joys that will not cease,

And found again all firstfruits sacrificed.


And wherefore have you harps, and wherefore palms,

And wherefore crowns, O ye who walk in white?

Because our happy hearts are chanting psalms,

Endless Te Deum for the ended fight;

While thro’ the everlasting lapse of calms

We cast our crowns before the Lamb our Might.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poetical Works, 212.]

The Redeemed

Literature

Alexander (W.), Verbum Crucis, 127.

Barry (A.), Sermons Preached at Westminister Abbey, 247.

Bonar (H.), Light and Truth: The Revelation, 190.

Brooke (S. A.), The Spirit of the Christian Life, 237.

Conn (J.), The Fulness of Time, 200.

Dearden (H. W.), Parochial Sermons, 55.

Gibson (E. C. S.), The Revelation of St. John the Divine, 105.

Grimley (H. N.), Tremadoc Sermons, 63.

Hyde (T. D.), Sermon-Pictures for Busy Preachers, i. 189.

Johnson (J. B.), A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, 77.

Jones (J. S.), The Invisible Things, 220.

Maurice (F. D.), Lincoln’s Inn Sermons, ii. 267.

Milligan (W.), The Book of Revelation (Expositor’s Bible), 124.

Paget (E. C.), Silence, 208.

Romanes (E.), Thoughts on the Collects for the Trinity Season, 293.

Rossetti (C. G.), The Face of the Deep, 231.

Skrine (J. H.), The Heart’s Counsel, 90.

Stone (S. J.), Parochial Sermons, 81.

Swete (H. B.), The Apocalypse of St. John, 99.

Trench (R. C.), Sermons Preached for the Most Part in Ireland, 360.

Vaughan (C. J.), Lectures on the Revelation of St. John, 191.

Christian World Pulpit, xliv. 174 (J. M. Wilson).

Churchman’s Pulpit: All Saints, xv. 363 (J. S. Jones).


Verse 10

(10) And cried with a loud voice . . .—Better, And they cry with a loud voice, saying, The salvation to our God who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb. Their cry, littered with a loud voice, is the acknowledgment that their salvation—the salvation which they now taste—is due not to themselves, but to their God and to the Lamb. The salvation here must, I think, be taken in its most comprehensive sense, including every deliverance—from the curse of law, from the power of sin, and from the perils of life. The explanation in Revelation 7:14 confirms this. (Comp. Galatians 3:13; Philippians 3:9.) This is “the voice of rejoicing and salvation which is in the tabernacles of the righteous,” when the Lord, who is their strength and song, “has become their salvation” (Psalms 118:14). Note the recurrence of “the Lamb.” They are before the throne and before the Lamb; their salvation is ascribed to God and to the Lamb.


Verse 11

(11) And all the angels . . .—Translate, And all the angels were standing round the throne, and the elders, and the four living beings . . . saying, Amen. The great concourse of angels—those among whom there has been joy in heaven when a sinner has repented—now add their “Amen” to the cry of the redeemed, and then raise the seven-fold ascription of praise—

“Amen!

The blessing, and the glory, and the wisdom,

And the thanksgiving,

And the honour, and the power, and the strength,

(Is) unto our God Unto the ages of the ages.

Amen!”

The seven-fold form of the doxology, which implies a divine completeness, is appropriate to this vision, which shows us the close of the Church’s agony, and is in itself a slight indication that the view which would limit the seals to some short period of Church history is incorrect, as it is assuredly inadequate.


Verse 13

(13) And one of the elders answered, saying unto me.—The seer had asked no question, but the elder answers the wondering thoughts and questionings which fill his mind. Perhaps this scene was in Dante’s mind when he described himself in Paradise:

“Silent was I, yet desire

Was painted in my looks; and thus I spake

My wish more earnestly than language could.”

—Paradiso, iv. 10-12.

The elder asks the question which he knows St. John would fain ask. These who are clothed in white robes, who are they, and whence came they? The question brings the white robes into prominence. Is it, as has been suggested, that the wonder of the seer is excited more by the emblem of holiness and innocence than anything else? He recognises the multitudes as men and women out of every nation and tribe of sinful humanity, and he sees them clothed in the garb of holiness. Who are these countless throngs of holy ones?


Verse 14

(14) And I said unto him . . .—The form in which the answer of the seer is given shows how completely the elder had anticipated his thoughts; for he describes his reply as instantaneous. And I have said, My Lord—the language is that of reverent regard, but not of worship (see Revelation 19:10; Revelation 22:8-9)—thou knowest—i.e., it is for thee to tell me: thy knowledge and thy view-point is higher than mine; thou knowest: it is thine to speak, and mine to hearken.

And he said to me . . .—Read, And he said to me, These are they who come (the present tense is used: these are those coming) out of the great tribulation. They are those who come, not all at once, but gradually. The saints of God are continually passing into the unseen world, and taking their place among the spirits of just men made perfect. They come out of the great tribulation. Are we to limit the expression to the special and peculiar afflictions of the last great trial? There is no doubt about the emphasis which the definite article (unfortunately, ignored in our English version) gives: it is the great tribulation; but while there may yet be in store for the Church of Christ trials so great that they may be called, in comparison with those which went before, the great tribulation, it yet seems out of harmony with the spirit of the Apocalypse and the complexion of this vision to limit the phrase to some special season of trial. Is not the great tribulation the tribulation which those must encounter who are on the side of Christ and righteousness, and refuse to receive the mark of worldliness and sin on their heart, conscience, and life? In all ages it is true that we must through much tribulation enter the Kingdom of God; and the vision here is surely not of those who will come safe out of some particular trials, but of the great multitude from every age and every race who waged war against sin, and who, in the midst of that protracted conflict, endured the great tribulation which is to continue until Christ’s return. And they washed (not “have washed,” for the washing was done during their earthly life) their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. The imagery is to be found in the Gospel and in the Epistle (John 13:8-11; and 1 John 1:7); its use here and in Revelation 1:5 (if the reading washed is to be preferred to loosed) points to a common authorship: the emblem of the blood which washes white, or cleanses, is not used with such distinctness elsewhere in the New Testament. It is, in St. John’s lips, but a following out of the twice-repeated words which he quotes from John the Baptist at the opening of the Gospel, when he proclaimed Christ to be “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In that Lamb of God those who came out of great tribulation found the forgiveness and the spiritual power which gave them confidence and hope in the midst of life’s war and life’s weariness; for the man who knows that he is forgiven and that he is being helped to holiness is the man who thinks no fiery trial strange, but rejoices in the knowledge that his salvation is of God.


Verse 15

(15) Therefore are they before the throne . . . —Better, On this account are they before the throne of God—i.e., because they so washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Comp. Revelation 22:14, where a well-supported reading is, “Blessed are they that wash their robes, that they may have right to the tree of life,” &c.) They are before the throne: they are like Him, for they see Him as He is (1 John 3:2), and serve Him day and night in His temple, and He that sitteth upon the throne shall tabernacle over them. The life is not simply one of joy or safety, it is one also of service. (Comp. Revelation 22:3.) Those who were made priests to God here carry on their service in His temple; yet it is to be remembered that this can only be figurative language, for in the heavenly city there is no temple (Revelation 21:22). It serves to teach us that the servant will find his fitting work of service there as well as here. He that sitteth upon the throne shall tabernacle over them. It is worth noticing how persistently St. John keeps up the phrase, “He that sitteth upon the throne” (Revelation 4:2; Revelation 5:1; Revelation 5:7; Revelation 5:13; Revelation 7:10). Tabernacle, or dwell as in a tent: The rendering “shall dwell” among them does not do justice to this word, and at the same time obscures the allusion which the seer has in his mind. The allusion is to the Shechinah, the symbol of the Divine Presence, which rested over the mercy seat. “The idea that the Shechinah, the σκηνή; (skéné), the glory which betokened the Divine Presence in the Holy of Holies, and which was wanting to the sacred temple, would be restored once more in Messiah’s days was a cherished hope of the Jewish doctors during and after the Apostolic ages.” The expected and wished-for glory would be seen among God’s saints. God’s tabernacle shall be with them (Revelation 21:3), and with them so as to stretch over them: He will tabernacle over (or, upon) them. With this we may compare St. Paul’s expression in 2 Corinthians 12:9 (“that the power of Christ may tabernacle” —“rest” in the English version—“upon me”), where Professor Lightfoot (whose words have just been quoted) thinks that there is a similar reference to the symbol of the Divine Presence in the Holy of Holies. (Comp. Isaiah 4:5-6; Ezekiel 37:27; and John 1:14.) There seems also to be a carrying on of the imagery derived from the Feast of Tabernacles: as there were the palm branches of the harvest joy, so there will be the booth, or tabernacle, of God’s presence among them. He shall be their pavilion, their shelter. “There shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the day-time from the heat, and for a place of refuge and for a covert from storm and from rain.”


Verse 16

(16) They shall hunger no more . . .—Better, They shall not hunger any more, nor yet thirst any more; neither at all shall the sun light upon them, nor any heat. The negatives are emphatic, and rise in force as the verse proceeds. None of the privations which they have endured for Christ’s sake shall trouble them; none of the dissatisfactions and weariness of life shall afflict them; for hunger, thirst, and fatigue will be no more, for the former things are passed away (Revelation 21:3-4). And then, too, shall that blessed hunger and thirst —the hunger and thirst for righteousness—be appeased. Christ’s benediction will then be realised in its fulness: Blessed are they who so hunger, for they shall be filled. And as they will receive inward strength and satisfaction, so also will they be kept from the outward trials which wear down the strength of the strongest. The sun shall not light on them: The Eastern sun, in its fierce and overpowering intensity, was a fit emblem of those trials which dry up the springs of strength. The sun, risen with a burning heat, devoured the beauty of the flower (James 1:11); the rootless growth on the stony ground was scorched when the sun was up (Matthew 13:5-6). Man’s beauty of wealth and talent, man’s resolutions of better things, all fade away before the testing beams of this sun; but the time of trial is past, the pains and temptations of life are over, the sun in that land will not scorch, for there is no longer need of these burning beams; the city has no need of the sun, for the glory of God lightens it, and the Lamb is the light thereof (Revelation 21:23). No sun, and no heat, no burning hot wind like the sirocco, will spread withering influence there.


Verse 17

(17) For the Lamb . . .—Translate, Because the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall tend them, and shall lead them to fountains of waters of life (or, life-springs of waters); and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes. The Lamb is described as “the Lamb in the midst of the throne.” The writer told in Revelation 5:6 that he had seen a Lamb in the midst of the throne. When he looked towards the throne, he saw the Lamb as the central object immediately in front of it. He who would draw near to the throne must pass the Lamb. The position which the Lamb held was one of significance, and is therefore repeated here. The Lamb will tend His people as a shepherd tends his flock (the word translated “feed” has this force), and will lead them to the springs of the water of life. The twenty-third Psalm rises at once to our minds. The Lord who was David’s shepherd (Psalms 23:2), who was the Good Shepherd who sought and brought home the lost for whom He died (Luke 15:4; John 10:11), does not forget the shepherd’s work in heaven. He who made His people to drink of the brook in the way (Psalms 110:7), who gave to those who came to Him the water which alone would quench their thirst (John 4:13-14; John 7:37-39), leads them now to the springs of the living water, and makes them drink of the river of His pleasures (Psalms 36:8). Significantly enough the springs of this living water are in the throne itself (Revelation 22:1). Ezekiel saw the stream issuing forth from the Temple (Ezekiel 48:1), but in the city where there is no temple we are carried to the very throne of God, to find the well-spring of every gladness. In this emblem of the water we have another allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles. Among the ceremonies observed at the feast was that of the drawing water; the priest drew a vessel of water from the brook of Siloam, and poured it out in the temple-court by the altar of burnt offering, and the people sang the words, “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). Here the Lamb, who is also the High Priest, leads His people to the springs of the water of life. Joy, too, is theirs; for God shall wipe away every tear from (or, out of) their eyes (Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4). In Isaiah it is said God shall wipe away tears from off all faces: here it is every tear. Thus shall all sorrow be removed from all: no tears shall gather in any eye, for the sources of sorrow will be cut off in the land where there is no more sin. None can weep again when it is God who wiped away their tears. Blessed are they that mourn, said Christ—blessed indeed in this, that God becomes their comforter. Only those who have wept can enjoy this consolation. Who would not shed life’s tears to have God’s hand to wipe them away!

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Revelation 7:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/revelation-7.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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