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Analysis Of The Chapter
This chapter Revelation 6:0 contains an account of the opening of six of the seven seals. It need hardly be said to anyone who is at all familiar with the numerous - not to say numberless - expositions of the Apocalypse, that it is at this point that interpreters begin to differ, and that here commences the divergence toward those various, discordant, and many of them wild and fantastic theories, which have been proposed in the exposition of this wonderful book. Up to this point, though there may be unimportant diversities in the exposition of words and phrases, there is no material difference of opinion as to the general meaning of the writer. In the epistles to the seven churches, and in the introductory scenes to the main visions, there can be no doubt, in the main, as to what the writer had in view, and what he meant to describe. He addressed churches then existing Revelation 1:0; Revelation 3:0, and set before them their sins and their duties; and he described scenes passing before his eyes as then present Rev. 4–5, which were merely designed to impress his own mind with the importance of what was to be disclosed, and to bring the great actors on the stage, and in reference to which there could be little ground for diversity in the interpretation.
Here, however, the scene opens into the future, comprehending all the unknown period until there shall be a final triumph of Christianity, and all its foes shall be prostrate. The actors are the Son of God, angels, people, Satan, storms, tempests, earthquakes, the pestilence and fire; the scene is heaven, earth, hell. There is no certain designation of places; there is no mention of names as there is in Isaiah Isaiah 45:1 of Cyrus, or as there is in Daniel Daniel 8:21; Daniel 10:20; Daniel 11:2 of the “king of Grecia”; there is no designation of time that is necessarily unambiguous; and there are no characteristics of the symbols used that make it antecedently certain that they could be applied only to one class of events. In the boundless future that was to succeed the times of John, there would be, of necessity, many events to which these symbols might be applied, and the result has shown that it has required but a moderate share of pious ingenuity to apply them, by different expositors, to events differing widely from each other in their character, and in the times when they would occur.
It would be too long to glance even at the various theories which have been proposed and maintained in regard to the interpretation of the subsequent portions of the Apocalypse, and wholly impossible to attempt to examine those theories. Time, in its developments, has already exploded many of them; and time, in its future developments, will doubtless explode many more, and each one must stand or fall as, in the disclosures of the future, it shall be found to be true or false. It would be folly to add another to those numerous theories, even if I had any such theory (see the Preface), and perhaps equal folly to pronounce with certainty on any one of those which have been advanced. Yet this seems to be an appropriate place to state, in few words, what principles it is designed to pursue in the interpretation of the remainder of the book:
(1) It may be assumed that large portions of the book relate to the future; that is, to what was future when John wrote. In this all expositors are agreed, and this is manifest indeed on the very face of the representation. It would be impossible to attempt an interpretation on any other supposition, and somewhere in that vast future the events are to be found to which the symbols used here had reference. This is assumed, indeed, on the supposition that the book is inspired - a fact which is assumed all along in this exposition, and which should be allowed to control our interpretation. But assuming that the book relates to the future, though that supposition will do something to determine the true method of interpretation, yet it leaves many questions still unsolved. Whether it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, on the supposition that the work was written before that event, or to the history of the church subsequent to that; whether it is designed to describe events minutely, or only in the most general manner; whether it is intended to furnish a syllabus of civil and ecclesiastical history, or only a very general outline of future events; whether the times are so designated that we can fix them with entire certainty; or whether it was intended to furnish any certain indication of the periods of the world when these things should occur; all these are still open questions, and it need not be said that on these the opinions of expositors have been greatly divided.
(2) It may be assumed that there is meaning in these symbols, and that they were not used without an intention to convey some important ideas to the mind of John and to the minds of his readers - to the church then, and to the church in future times. Compare the notes on Revelation 1:3. The book is indeed surpassingly sublime. It abounds with the highest flights of poetic language. It is Oriental in its character, and exhibits everywhere the proofs of a most glowing imagination in the writer. But it is also to be borne in mind that it is an inspired book, and this fact is to determine the character of the exposition. If inspired, it is to be assumed that there is a meaning in these symbols; an idea in each one of them, and in all combined, of importance to the church and the world. Whether we can ascertain the meaning is another question; but it is never to be doubted by an expositor of the Bible that there is a meaning in the words and images employed, and that to find out that meaning is worthy of earnest study and prayer.
(3) Predictions respecting the future are often necessarily obscure to man. It cannot be doubted, indeed, that God could have foretold future events in the most clear and unambiguous language. He who knows all that is to come as intimately as he does all the past, could have caused a record to have been made, disclosing names, and dates, and places, so that the most minute statements of what is to occur might have been in the possession of man as clearly as the records of the past now are. But there were obvious reasons why this should not occur, and in the prophecies it is rare that there is any such specification. To have done this might have been to defeat the very end in view; for it would have given to man, a free agent, the power of embarrassing or frustrating the divine plans. But if this course is not adopted, then prophecy must, from the nature of the case, be obscure. The knowledge of any one particular fact in the future is so connected with many other facts, and often implies so much knowledge of other things, that without that other knowledge it could not be understood.
Suppose that it had been predicted, in the time of John, that at some future period some contrivance should be found out by which what was doing in one part of the world could be instantaneously known in another remote part of the world, and spread abroad by thousands of copies in an hour, to be read by a nation. Suppose, for instance, that there had been some symbol or emblem representing what actually occurs now, when in a morning newspaper we read what occurred last evening at Louis, Dubuque, Galena, Chicago, Cincinnati, Charleston, New Orleans; it is clear that at a time when the magnetic telegraph and the printing-press were unknown, any symbol or language describing it that could be employed must be obscure, and the impression must have been that this could be accomplished only by miracle - and it would not be difficult for one who was disposed to scepticism to make out an argument to prove that this could not occur. It would be impossible to explain any symbol that could be employed to represent this until these wonderful descriptions should become reality, and in the meantime the book in which the symbols were found might be regarded as made up of mere riddles and enigmas; but when these inventions should be actually found out, however much ridicule or contempt had been poured on the book before, it might be perfectly evident that the symbol was the most appropriate that could be used, and no one could doubt that it was a divine communication of what was to be in th future. Something of the same kind may have occurred in the symbols used by the writer of the book before us.
(4) It is not necessary to suppose that a prophecy will be understood in all its details until the prediction is accomplished. In the case just referred to, though the fact of the rapid spread of intelligence might be clear, yet nothing would convey any idea of the mode, or of the actual meaning of the symbols used, unless the inventions were themselves anticipated by a direct revelation. The trial of faith in the case would be the belief that the fleet would occur, but would snot relate to the mode in which it was to be accomplished, or the language employed to describe it. There might be great obscurity in regard to the symbols and language, and yet the knowledge of the fact be perfectly plain. When, however, the fact should occur as predicted, all would be clear. So it is in respect to prophecy. Many recorded predictions that are now clear as noon-day, were once as ambiguous and uncertain in respect to their meaning as in the supposed case of the press and the telegraph. Time has made them plain; for the event to which they referred has so entirely corresponded with the symbol as to leave no doubt in regard to the meaning. Thus, many of the prophecies relating to the Messiah were obscure at the time when they were uttered; were apparently so contradictory that they could not be reconciled; were so unlike anything that then existed, that the fulfillment seemed to be impossible; and were so enigmatical in the symbols employed, that it seemed in vain to attempt to disclose their meaning. The advent of the long-promised Messiah, however, removed the obscurity; and now they are read with no uncertainty as to their meaning, and with no doubt that those predictions, once so obscure, had a divine origin.
The view just suggested may lead us to some just conceptions of what is necessary to be done in attempting to explain the prophecies. Suppose, then, first, that there had been, say in the dark ages, some predictions that claimed to be of divine origin, of the invention of the art of printing and of the magnetic telegraph. The proper business of an interpreter, if he regarded this as a divine communication, would have consisted in four things:
(a) to explain, as well as he could, the fair meaning of the symbols employed, and the language used;
(b) to admit the fact referred to, and implied in the fair interpretation of the language employed, of the rapid spread of intelligence in that future period, though he could not explain how it was to be done;
(c) in the meantime it would be a perfectly legitimate object for him to inquire whether there were any events occurring in the world, or whether there had been any, to which these symbols were applicable, or which would meet all the circumstances involved in them;
(d) if there were, then his duty would he ended; if there were not, then the symbols, with such explanation as could be furnished of their meaning, should be handed on to future times, to be applied when the predicted events should actually occur. Suppose, them secondly, the case of the predictions respecting the Messiah, scattered along through many books, and given in various forms, and by various symbols. The proper business of an interpreter would have been, as in the other case:
(a)To explain the fair meaning of the language used, and to bring together all the circumstances in one connected whole, that a distinct conception of the predicted Messiah might be before the mind;
(b)To admit the facts referred to, and thus predicted, however incomprehensible and apparently contradictory they might appear to be;
(c)To inquire whether anyone had appeared who combined within himself all the characteristics of the description; and,
(d)If no one had thus appeared, to send on the prophecies, with such explanations of words and symbols as could be ascertained to be correct, to future times, to have their full meaning developed when the object of all the predictions should be accomplished, and the Messiah should appear. Then the meaning of all would be plain; and then the argument from prophecy would be complete. This is obviously now the proper state of the mind in regard to the predictions in the Bible, and these are the principles which should be applied in examining the Book of Revelation.
(5) It may be assumed that new light will be thrown upon the prophecies by time, and by the progress of events. It cannot he supposed that the investigations of the meaning of the prophetic symbols will all be in vain. Difficulties, it is reasonable to hope, may be cleared up; errors may be detected in regard to the application of the prophecies to particular events; and juster views on the prophecies, as on all other subjects, will prevail as the world grows older. We become wiser by seeing the errors of those who have gone before us, and an examination of the causes which led them astray may enable us to avoid such errors in the future. Especially may it be supposed that light will be thrown on the prophecies as they shall be in part or wholly fulfilled. The prophecies respecting the destruction of Babylon, of Petra, of Tyre, of Jerusalem, are now fully understood; the prophecies respecting the advent of the Messiah, and his character and work, once so obscure, are now perfectly clear. So, we have reason to suppose, it will be with all prophecy in the progress of events, and sooner or later the world will settle down into some uniform belief in regard to the design and meaning of these portions of the sacred writings. Whether the time has yet come for this, or whether numerous other failures are to be added to the melancholy catalogue of past failures on this subject, is another question; but ultimately all the now unfulfilled prophecies will be as clear as to their meaning as are those which have been already fulfilled.
(6) The plan, therefore, which I propose in the examination of the remaining portion of the Apocalypse is the following:
(a) To explain the meaning of the symbols; that is, to show, as clearly as possible, what those symbols properly express, independently of any attempt to apply them. This opens, of itself, an interesting field of investigation, and one where essential service may be done, even if nothing further is intended. Without any reference to the application of those symbols, this, of itself, is an important work of criticism, and, if successfully done, would be rendering a valuable service to the readers of the sacred volume.
(b) To state, as briefly as possible, what others who have written on this book, and who have brought eminent learning and talent to bear on its interpretation, have supposed to be the true interpretation of the symbols employed by John, and in regard to the times in which the events referred to would occur. It is in this way only that we can be made acquainted with the real progress made in interpreting this book, and it will be useful at least to know how the subject has struck other minds, and how and why they have failed to perceive the truth. I propose, therefore, to state, as I go along, some of the theories which have been held as to the meaning of the Apocalypse, and as to the events which have been supposed by others to be referred to. My limits require, however, that this should be briefly done, and forbid my attempting to examine those opinions at length.
(c) To state, in as brief and clear a manner as possible, the view which I have been led to entertain as to the proper application of the symbols employed in the book, with such historical references as shall seem to me to confirm the interpretation proposed.
(d) Where I cannot form an opinion as to the meaning, to confess my ignorance. He does no service in a professed interpretation of the Bible who passes over a difficulty without attempting to remove it, or who, to save his own reputation, conceals the fact that there is a real difficulty; and he does as little service who is unwilling to confess his ignorance on many points, or who attempts an explanation where he has no clear and settled views. As his opinion can be of no value to anyone else unless it is based on reasons in his own mind that will bear examination, so it can usually be of little value unless those reasons are stated. It is as important for his readers to have those reasons before their own minds as it is for him; and unless he has it in his power to state reasons for what he advances, his opinions can be worth nothing to the world. He who lays down this rule of interpretation may expect to have ample opportunity, in interpreting such a book as the Apocalypse, to confess his ignorance; but he who interprets a book which he believes to be inspired, may console himself with the thought that what is now obscure will be clear hereafter, and that he performs the best service which he can if he endeavors to explain the book up to the time in which he lives. There will be developments hereafter which will make that clear which is now obscure; developments which will make this book, in all past ages apparently so enigmatical, as clear as any other portion of the inspired volume, as it is now, even with the imperfect view which we may have of its meaning, beyond all question one of the most sublime books that has ever been written.
This chapter describes the opening of the first six seals:
(1) The first discloses a white horse, with a rider armed with a bow. A crown is given to him, symbolical of triumph and prosperity, and he goes forth to conquer, Revelation 6:1-2.
(2) The second discloses a red-colored horse, with a rider. The emblem is that of blood - of sanguinary war. Power is given him to take peace from the earth, and a sword is given him - emblem of war, but not of certain victory. Triumph and prosperity are denoted by the former symbol; war, discord, bloodshed, by this, Revelation 6:3-4.
(3) The third discloses a black horse, with a rider. He has a pair of balances in his hand, as if there were scarcity in the earth, and he announces the price of grain in the times of this calamity, and a command is given not to hurt the oil and the wine, Revelation 6:5-6. The emblem is that of scarcity - as if there were oppression, or as a consequence of war or discord, while at the same time there is care bestowed to preserve certain portions of the produce of the earth from injury.
(4) The fourth discloses a pale horse, with a rider. The name of this rider is Death, and Hell (or Hades) follows him - as if the hosts of the dead came again on the earth. Power is given to the rider over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and with wild beasts. This emblem would seem to denote war, wide-wasting pestilence, famine, and desolation - as if wild beasts were suffered to roam over lands that had been inhabited; something of which paleness would be an emblem. Here ends the array of horses; and it is evidently intended by these four symbols to refer to a series of events that have a general resemblance - something that could be made to stand by themselves, and that could be grouped together.
(5) The fifth seal opens a new scene. The horse and the rider no longer appear. It is not a scene of war, and of the consequences of war, but a scene of persecution. The souls of those who were slain for the Word of God and the testimony which they held are seen under the altar, praying to God that he would avenge their blood. White robes are given them - tokens of the divine favor, and emblems of their ultimate triumph; and they are commanded to “rest for a little season, until their fellow-servants and their brethren that should be killed as they were should be fulfilled”; that is, that they should be patient until the number of the martyrs was filled up. In other words, there was:
(a)The assurance of the divine favor toward them;
(b)Vengeance, or the punishment of those who had persecuted them, would not be immediate; but.
(c)There was the implied assurance that just punishment would be inflicted on their persecutors, and that the cause for which they had suffered would ultimately triumph, Revelation 6:9-11.
(6) The opening of the sixth seal, Revelation 6:12-17. There was an earthquake, and the sun became dark, and the moon was turned to blood, and the stars fell, and all kings and people were filled with consternation. This symbol properly denotes the time of public commotion, of revolution, of calamity; and it was evidently to be fulfilled by some great changes on the earth, or by the overturning of the seats of power, and by such sudden revolutions as would fill the nations with alarm.
And I saw - Or, I looked. He fixed his eye attentively on what was passing, as promising important disclosures. No one had been found in the universe who could open the seals but the Lamb of God Revelation 5:2-4; and it was natural for John, therefore, to look upon the transaction with profound interest.
When the Lamb opened one of the seals - See the notes on Revelation 5:1, Revelation 5:5. This was the first or outermost of the seals, and its being broken would permit a certain portion of the volume to be unrolled and read. See the notes on Revelation 5:1. The representation in this place is, therefore, that of a volume with a small portion unrolled, and written on both sides of the parchment.
And I heard, as it were the noise of thunder - One of the four living creatures speaking as with a voice of thunder, or with a loud voice.
One of the four beasts - notes on Revelation 4:6-7. The particular one is not mentioned, though what is said in the subsequent verses leaves no doubt that it was the first in order as seen by John - the one like a lion, Revelation 4:7. In the opening of the three following seals, it is expressly said that it was the second, the third, and the fourth of the living creatures that drew near, and hence the conclusion is certain that the one here referred to was the first. If the four living creatures be understood to be emblematic of the divine providential administration, then there was a propriety that they should be represented as summoning John to witness what was to be disclosed. These events pertained to the developments of the divine purposes, and these emblematic beings would therefore be interested in what was occurring.
Come and see - Addressed evidently to John. He was requested to approach and see with his own eyes what was disclosed in the portion of the volume now unrolled. He had wept much Revelation 5:4 that no one was found who was worthy to open that book, but he was now called on to approach and see for himself. Some have supposed (Lord, in loco) that the address here was not to John, but to the horse and his rider, and that the command to them was not to “come and see,” but to come forth, and appear on the stage, and that the act of the Redeemer in breaking the seal, and unrolling the scroll, was nothing more than an emblem signifying that it was by his act that the divine purposes were to be unfolded. But, in order to this interpretation, it would be necessary to omit from the Received Text the words καὶ βλέπε kai blepe - “and see.” This is done, indeed, by Hahn and Tittmann, and this reading is followed by Prof. Stuart, though he says that the received text has “probability” in its favor, and is followed by some of the critical editions. The most natural interpretation, however, is that the words were addressed to John. John saw the Lamb open the seal; he heard the loud voice; he looked and beheld a white horse - that is, evidently, he looked on the unfolding volume, and saw the representation of a horse and his rider. That the voice was addressed to John is the common interpretation, is the most natural, and is liable to no real objection.
And I saw, and behold - A question has arisen as to the mode of representation here: whether what John saw in these visions was a series of pictures, drawn on successive portions of the volume as one seal was broken after another; or whether the description of the horses and of the events was written on the volume, so that John read it himself, or heard it read by another; or whether the opening of the seal was merely the occasion of a scenic representation, in which a succession of horses was introduced, with a written statement of the events which are referred to. Nothing is indeed said by which this can be determined with certainty; but the most probable supposition would seem to be that there was some pictorial representation in form and appearance, such as he describes in the opening of the six seals. In favor of this it may be observed:
(1)That, according to the interpretation of Revelation 6:1, it was something in or on the volume - since he was invited to draw nearer, in order that he might contemplate it.
(2)Each one of the things under the first five seals, where John uses the word “saw,” is capable of being represented by a picture or painting.
(3)The language used is not such as would have been employed if he had merely read the description, or had heard it read.
(4)The supposition that the pictorial representation was not in the volume, but that the opening of the seal was the occasion merely of causing a scenic representation to pass before his mind, is unnatural and forced.
What would be the use of a sealed volume in that case? What the use of the writing within and without? On this supposition the representation would be that, as the successive seals were broken, nothing was disclosed in the volume but a succession of blank portions, and that the mystery or the difficulty was not in anything in the volume, but in the want of ability to summon forth these successive scenic representations. The most obvious interpretation is, undoubtedly, that what John proceeds to describe was in some way represented in the volume; and the idea of a succession of pictures or drawings better accords with the whole representation, than the idea that it was a mere written description. In fact, these successive scenes could be well represented now in a pictorial form on a scroll.
And behold a white horse - In order to any definite understanding of what was denoted by these symbols, it is proper to form in our minds, in the first place, a clear conception of what the symbol properly represents, or an idea of what it would naturally convey. It may be assumed that the symbol was significant, and that there was some reason why that was used rather than another; why, for instance, a horse was employed rather than an eagle or a lion; why a white horse was employed in one case, and a red one, a black one, a pale one in the others; why in this case a bow was in the hand of the rider, and a crown was placed on his head. Each one of these particulars enters into the constitution of the symbol; and we must find something in the event which fairly corresponds with each - for the symbol is made up of all these things grouped together. It may be further observed, that where the general symbol is the same - as in the opening of the first four seals - it may be assumed that the same object or class of objects is referred to; and the particular things denoted, or the diversity in the general application, is to be found in the variety in the representation - the color, etc., of the horse, and the arms, apparel, etc., of the rider. The specifications under the first seal are four:
(1)The general symbol of the horse - common to the first four seals;
(2)The color of the horse;
(3)The fact that he that sat on him had a bow; and,
(4)That a crown was given him by someone, as indicative of victory.
The question now is, what these symbols would naturally denote:
(1) The horse. The meaning of this symbol must be drawn from the natural use to which the symbol is applied, or the characteristics which it is known to have; and it may be added, that there might have been something for which that was best known in the time of the writer who uses it, which would not be so prominent at another period of the world, or in another country, and that it is necessary to have that before the mind in order to obtain a correct understanding of the symbol. The use of the horse, for instance, may have varied at different times to some degree; at one time the prevailing use of the horse may have been for battle; at another for rapid marches - as of cavalry; at another for draught; at another for races; at another for conveying messages by the establishment of posts or the appointment of couriers. To an ancient Roman the horse might suggest prominently one idea; to a modern Arab another; to a teamster in Holland another. The things which would be most naturally suggested by the horse as a symbol, as distinguished, for instance, from an eagle, a lion, a serpent, etc., would be the following:
(a) War, as this was probably one of the first uses to which the horse was applied. So, in the magnificent description of the horse in Job 39:19-25, no notice is taken of any of his qualities but those which pertain to war. See, for a full illustration of this passage, and of the frequent reference in the classic writers to the horse as connected with war, Bochart, Hieroz. lib. ii, c. viii., particularly p. 149. Compare Virgil, Geor. 3:83, 84:
“Si qua sonum procul arma dedere,
Stare loco nescit, micat auribus, et tremit artus.”
Ovid, Metam. iii:
“Ut fremit acer equus, cum bellicus, aere canoro.
Signa dedit tubicen, pugnaeque assumit amorem.”
Silius, lib. xiii:
“Is trepido alituum tinnitu, et stare neganti,
Imperitans violenter equo.”
So Solomon says Proverbs 21:31, “The horse is prepared against the day of battle.” So in Zechariah 10:3, the prophet says, God had made the house of Judah “as his goodly horse in the battle”; that is, he had made them like the victorious war-horse.
(b) As a consequence of this, and of the conquests achieved by the horse in war, he became the symbol of conquest - of a people that could not be overcome. Compare the above reference in Zech. Thus, in Carthage the horse was an image of victorious war, in contradistinction to the ox, which was an emblem of the arts of peaceful agriculture. This was based on a tradition respecting the foundation of the city, referred to by Virgil, Aeneas i. 442-445:
“Quo primum jactati undis et turbine Poeni.
Effodere loco signum, quod regia Juno.
Monstrarat, caput acris equi: sic nam fore bello.
Egregiam, et facilem victu per Secula gentem.”
In reference to this circumstance Justin (lib. xviii. 5) remarks, that “in laying the foundations of the city the head of an ox was found, which was regarded as an emblem of a fruitful land, but of the necessity of labor and of dependence; on which account the city was transferred to another place. Then the head of a horse was found, and this was regarded as a happy omen that the city would be warlike and prosperous.” Compare Creuzer, Symbolik, vol. ii. p. 456.
(c) The horse was an emblem of fleetness, and, consequently, of the rapidity of conquest. Compare Joel 2:4; “The appearance of them is as the appearance of horses; and as horsemen, so shall they run.” Jeremiah 4:13; “behold, he shall come up as clouds, and his chariots shall be as the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles.” Compare Job 39:18.
(d) The horse is an emblem of strength, and consequently of safety. Psalms 147:10; “he delighteth not in the strength of the horse.” In general, then, the horse would properly symbolize war, conquest, or the rapidity with which a message is conveyed. The particular character or complexion of the event - as peaceful or warlike, prosperous or adverse - is denoted by the color of the horse, and by the character of the rider.
(2) The color of the horse: “a white horse.” It is evident that this is designed to be significant, because it is distinguished from the red, the black, and the pale horse, referred to in the following verses. In general, it may be observed that white is the emblem of innocence, purity, prosperity - as the opposite is of sickness, sin, calamity. If the significance of the emblem turned alone on the color, we should look to something cheerful, prosperous, happy as the thing that was symbolized. But the significance in the case is to be found not only in the color - white - but in the horse that was white; and the inquiry is, what would a horse of that color properly denote; that is, on what occasions, and with reference to what ends, was such a horse used? Now, the general notion attached to the mention of a white horse, according to ancient usage, would be that of state and triumph, derived from the fact that white horses were rode by conquerors on the days of their triumph; that they were used in the marriage cavalcade; that they were employed on coronation occasions, etc. In the triumphs granted by the Romans to their victorious generals, after a procession composed of musicians, captured princes, spoils of battle, etc., came the conqueror himself, seated on a high chariot drawn by four white horses, robed in purple, and wearing a wreath of laurel (Eschenburg, “Man. of Class.” Literature, p. 283. Compare Ovid de Arte Amandi, lib. v. 214). The name of λευκιππος leukippos - leucippos - was given to Proserpine, because she was borne from Hades to Olympus in a chariot drawn by white horses (Scol. Pind. Ol. vi. 161. See Creuzer’s Symbol. iv. 253). White horses are supposed, also, to excel others in fleetness. So Horace, Sat. lib. i. vii. 8:
“Sisennas, Barrosque ut equis praecurreret albis.”
So Plaut. Asin. ii. 2, 12. So Homer, Iliad K. 437:
Leukoteroi chionos, theiein d' anemoisin homoioi”Whiter than the snow, and swifter than the winds.”
And in the Aeneid, where Turnus was about to contend with Aeneas, he demanded horses:
“Qui candore nives anteirent cursibus auras.”
“Which would surpass the snow in whiteness, and the wind in fleetness” (Aeneas xii. 84).
So the poets everywhere describe the chariot of the sun as drawn by while horses (Bochart, ut supra). So conquerors and princes are everywhere represented as borne on white horses. Thus, Propertius, lib. iv. eleg. i.:
“Quatuor huic albos Romulus egit equos.”
So Claudian, lib. ii., de Laudibus Stilichonis:
“Deposits mitis clypeo, candentibus urbem.
Ingreditur trabeatus equis.”
And thus Ovid (lib. i. de Arte) addresses Augustus, auguring that he would return a victor:
“Ergo erit illa dies, qua tu, Pulcherrime rerum,
Quatuor in niveis aureus ibis equis.”
The preference of “white” to denote triumph or victory was early referred to among the Hebrews. Thus, Judges 5:10, in the Song of Deborah:
“Speak, ye that ride on white asses,
Ye that sit in judgment,
And walk by the way.”
The expression, then, in the passage before us, would properly refer to some kind of triumph; to some joyous occasion; to something where there was success or victory; and, so far as this expression is concerned, would refer to any kind of triumph, whether of the gospel or of victory in war.
(3) The bow: “and he that sat on him had a bow.” The bow would be a natural emblem of war - as it was used in war; or of hunting - as it was used for that purpose. It was a common instrument of attack or defense, and seems to have been early invented, for it is found in all rude nations. Compare Genesis 27:3; Genesis 48:22; Genesis 49:24; Joshua 24:12; 1 Samuel 18:4; Psalms 37:15; Isaiah 7:24. The bow would be naturally emblematic of the following things:
- War. See the passages above.
- Hunting. Tires it was one of the emblems of Apollo as the god of hunting.
- The effect of truth - as what secured conquest, or overcame opposition in the heart.
So far as this emblem is concerned, it might denote a warrior, a hunter, a preacher, a ruler - anyone who exerted power over others, or who achieved any kind of conquest over them.
(4) The crown: “and a crown was given unto him.” The word used here - στέφανος stephanos - means a circlet, chaplet, or crown - usually such as was given to a victor, 1 Corinthians 9:25. It would properly be emblematic of victory or conquest - as it was given to victors in war, or to the victors at the Grecian games, and as it is given to the saints in heaven regarded as victors, Revelation 4:4, Revelation 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:8. The crown or chaplet here was “given” to the rider as significant that he would be victorious, not that he had been; and the proper reference of the emblem was to some conquest yet to be made, not to any which had been made. It is not said by whom this was given to the rider; the material fact being only that such a diadem was conferred on him.
(5) The going forth to conquest: “and he went forth, conquering and to conquer.” He went forth as a conqueror, and that he might conquer. That is, he went forth with the spirit, life, energy, determined purpose of one who was confident that he would conquer, and who had the port and bearing of a conqueror. John saw in him two things: one, that he had the aspect or port of a conqueror - that is, of one who had been accustomed to conquest, and who was confident that he could conquer; the ether was, that this was clearly the design for which he went forth, and this would be the result of his going forth.
Having thus inquired into the natural meaning of the emblems used, perhaps the proper work of an expositor is done, and the subject might be left here. But the mind naturally asks what was this designed to signify, and to what events are these things to be applied? On this point it is scarcely necessary to say, that the opinions of expositors have been almost as numerous as the expositors themselves, and that it would be a hopeless task, and as useless as hopeless, to attempt to enumerate all the opinions entertained. They who are desirous of examining those opinions must be referred to the various books on the Apocalypse where they may be found. Perhaps all the opinions entertained, though presented by their authors under a great variety of forms, might be referred to three:
(1) That the whole passage in Rev. 6–11 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the wasting of Judaea, principally by the Romans - and particularly the humiliation and prostration of the Jewish persecuting enemies of the church: on the supposition that the book was written before the destruction of Jerusalem. This is the opinion of Prof. Stuart, and of those generally who hold that the book was written at that time.
(2) The opinion of those who suppose that the book was written in the time of Domitian, about 95 or 96 a.d., and that the symbols refer to the Roman affairs subsequent to that time. This is the opinion of Mede, Elliott, and others.
(3) The opinions of those who suppose that the different horses and horsemen refer to the Saviour, to ministers of the gospel, and to the various results of the ministry. This is the opinion of Mr. David C. Lord and others. My purpose does not require me to examine these opinions in detail. Justice could not be done to them in the limited compass which I have; and it is better to institute a direct inquiry whether any events are known which can be regarded as corresponding with the symbols here employed. In regard to this, then, the following things may be referred to:
(a) It will be assumed here, as elsewhere in these notes, that the Apocalypse was written in the time of Domitian, about 95 a.d. or 96 a.d. For the reasons for this opinion, see the Introduction, 2. Compare an article by Dr. Geo. Duffield in the Biblical Repository, July, 1847, pp. 385-411. It will also be assumed that the book is inspired, and that it is not to be regarded and treated as a work of mere human origin. These suppositions will preclude the necessity of any reference in the opening of the seals to the time of Nero, or to the events pertaining to the destruction of Jerusalem and the over throw of the Jewish persecuting enemies of the church - for the opinion that those events are referred to can be held only on one of two suppositions: either that the work was written in the time of Nero, and before the Jewish wars, as held by Prof. Stuart and others; or that it was penned after the events referred to had occurred, and is such a description of the past as could have been made by one who was uninspired.
(b) It is to be presumed that the events referred to, in the opening of the first seal, would occur soon after the time when the vision appeared to John in Patmos. This is clear, not only because that would be the most natural supposition, but because it is fairly implied in Revelation 1:1; “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass.” See the notes on that verse. Whatever may be said of some of those events - those lying most remotely in the series - it would not accord with the fair interpretation of the language to suppose that the beginning of the series would be far distant, and we therefore naturally look for that beginning in the age succeeding the time of the apostle, or the reign of Domitian.
(c) The inquiry then occurs whether there were any such events in that age as would properly be symbolized by the circumstances before us - the horse; the color of the horse; the how in the hand of the rider; the crown given him; the state and hearing of the conqueror.
(d) Before proceeding to notice what seems to me to be the interpretation which best accords with all the circumstances of the symbol, it may be proper to refer to the only other one which has any plausibility, and which is adopted by Grotius, by the author of Hyponoia, by Dr. Keith (Signs of the Times, 1:181ff), by Mr. Lord, and others, that this refers to Christ and his church - to Christ and his ministers in spreading the gospel. The objections to this class of interpretations seem to me to be insuperable:
(1) The whole description, so far as it is a representation of triumph, is a representation of the triumph of war, not of the gospel of peace. All the symbols in the opening of the first four seals are warlike; all the consequences in the opening of each of the seals where the horseman appears, are such as are usually connected with war. It is the march of empire, the movement of military power.
(2) A horseman thus armed is not the usual representation of Christ, much less of his ministers or of his church. Once indeed Revelation 19:14-16 Christ himself is thus represented; but the ordinary representation of the Saviour in this book is either that of a man - majestic and glorious, holding the stars in his right hand - or of a lamb. Besides, if it were the design of the emblem to refer to Christ, it must be a representation of him personally and literally going forth in this manner; for it would be incongruous to suppose that this relates to him, and then to give it a metaphorical application, referring it not to himself, but to his truth, his gospel, his ministers.
(3) If there is little probability that this refers to Christ, there is still less that it refers to ministers of the gospel - as held by Lord and others - for such a symbol is employed nowhere else to represent an order of ministers, nor do the circumstances find a fulfillment in them. The minister of the gospel is a herald of peace, and is employed in the service of the Prince of Peace. He cannot well be represented by a warrior, nor is he in the Scriptures. In itself considered, there is nothing more unlike or incongruous than a warrior going forth to conquest with hostile arms, and a minister of Christ.
(4) Besides, this representation of a horse and his rider, when applied in the following verses, on this principle becomes most forced and unnatural. If the warrior on the white horse denotes the ministry, then the warrior on the red horse, the black horse, the pale horse, must denote the ministry also, and nothing is more fanciful and arbitrary than to attempt to apply these to teachers of various kinds of error - error denoted by the red, black, and pale color - as must be done on that supposition. It seems plain, therefore, to me, that the representation was not designed to symbolize the ministry, or the state of the church considered with reference to its extension, or the various forms of belief which prevailed. But if so, it only remains to inquire whether a state of things existed in the Roman world of which these would be appropriate symbols. We have, then, the following facts, which are of such a nature as would properly be symbolized by the horse of the first seal; that is, they are such facts that if one were to undertake to devise an appropriate symbol of them since they occurred, they would be well represented by the image here employed:
(1) It was in general a period of prosperity, of triumph, of conquest - well represented by the horseman on the white horse going forth to conquest. I refer now to the period immediately succeeding the time of John’s banishment, embracing some ninety years, anti extending through the successive reigns of Nerva, Trajan, Adrian, and the two Antonines, from the death of Domitian, 96 a.d., to the accession of Commodus, and the peace made by him with the Germans, 180 a.d. As an illustration of this period, and of the pertinency of the symbol, I will first copy from an historical chart drawn up with no reference to the symbol here, and in the mind of whose author the application to this symbol never occurred. The chart, distinguished for accuracy, is that of A.S. Lyman, published 1845 a.d. The following is the account of this period, beginning at the death of Domitian: “Domitian, a cruel tyrant, the last of the twelve Caesars.” (His death, therefore, was an important epoch.) “96 a.d. Nerva, noted for his virtues, but enfeebled by age.” “98 a.d. Trajan, a great general, and popular emperor; under him the empire attains its greatest extent.” “117 a.d. Adrian, an able sovereign; spends thirteen years traveling through the empire, reforming abuses and rebuilding cities.” “138 a.d. Antonions Pius, celebrated for his wisdom, virtue, and humanity.” “161 a.d. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Stoic Philosopher, noted for his virtues.”
Then begins a new era - a series of wicked princes and of great calamities. The next entry in the series is, “180 a.d. Commodus, profligate and cruel.” Then follows a succession of princes of the same general description. Their character will be appropriately considered under the succeeding seals. But in regard to the period now supposed to be represented by the opening of the first seal, anti the general applicability of the description here to that period, we have the fullest testimony in Mr. Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: a writer who, sceptic as he was, seems to have been raised up by Divine Providence to search deeply into historic records, and to furnish an inexhaustible supply of materials in confirmation of the fulfillment of the pro phecies, and of the truth of revelation. For:
(1) He was eminently endowed by talent, and learning, and patience, and general candor, and accuracy, to prepare a history of that period of th world, and to place his name in the very first rank of historians.
(2) His history commences at about the period supposed in this interpretation to be referred to by these symbols, and extends over a very considerable portion of the time embraced in the book of Revelation.
(3) It cannot be alleged that he was biassed in his statements of facts by a desire to favor revelation; nor can it be charged on him that he perverted facts with a view to overthrow the authority of the volume of inspired truth. He was, indeed, thoroughly skeptical as to the truth of Christianity, and he lost no opportunity to express his feelings toward it by a sneer - for it seems to have been an unfortunate characteristic of his mind to sneer at everything - but there is no evidence that he ever designedly perverted a fact in history to press it into the service of infidelity, or that he designedly falsified a statement for the purpose of making it bear against Christianity. It cannot be suspected that he had any design, by the statements which he makes, to confirm the truth of Scripture prophecies. Infidels, at least, are bound to admit his testimony as impartial.
(4) Not a few of the most clear and decisive proofs of the fulfillment of prophecies are to be found in his history. They are frequently such statements as would be expected to occur in the writings of a partial friend of Christianity who was endeavoring to make the records of history speak out in favor of his religion; and if they had been found in such a writer, they would be suspected of having been shaped with a view to the confirmation of the prophecies, and it may be added also with an intention to defend some favorite interpretation of the Apocalypse. In regard to the passage before us - the opening of the first seal and the general explanation of the meaning of that seal, above given, there is a striking resemblance between that representation and the state of the Roman empire as given by Mr. Gibbon at the period under consideration - from the end of the reign of Domitian to the accession of Commodes. By a singular coincidence Mr. Gibbon begins his history at about the period supposed to be referred to by the opening of the seal - the period following the death of Domitian, 96 a.d. Thus, in the opening sentences of his work he says: “In the second century of the Christian era the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. During a happy period of more than fourscore years the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Adrian, and the two Antenines. It is the design of this and the two succeeding chapters to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterward, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth,” vol. i. 1.
Before Mr. Gibbon proceeds to give the history of the fall of the empire, he pauses to describe the happy condition of the Roman world during the period now referred to - for this is substantially his object in the first three chapters of his history. The titles of these chapters will show their object. They are respectively the following: Ch. i., “The Extent and Military Force of the Empire, in the Age of the Antonines”; ch. ii., “Of the Union and Internal Prosperity of the Roman Empire, in the Age of the Antonines”; ch. iii., “Of the Constitution of the Roman Empire, in the Age of the Antonines.” In the language of another, this is “the bright ground of his historic picture, from which afterward more effectively to throw out in deep coloring the successive traits of the empire’s corruption and decline” (Elliott). The introductory remarks of Mr. Gibbon, indeed, professedly refer to “the age of the Antenines” (138-180 a.d.); but that he designed to describe, under this general title, the actual condition of the Roman world during the period which I suppose to be embraced under the first seal, as a time of prosperity, triumph, and happiness - from Domitian to Commodes - is apparent from a remarkable statement which there will be occasion again to quote, in which he expressly designates this period in these words: “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name what elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus,” i. 47.
The same thing is apparent also from a remark of Mr. Gibbon in the general summary which he makes of the Roman affairs, showing that this period constituted, in his view, properly an era in the condition of the world. Thus, he says (i. 4): “Such was the state of the Roman frontiers, and such the maxims of imperial policy, from the death of Augustus to the accession of Trajan.” This was 98 a.d. The question now is, whether, during this period, the events in the Roman empire were such as accord with the representation in the first seal. There was nothing in the first century that could accord with this; and if John wrote the Apocalypse at the time supposed (95 or 96 a.d.), of course it does not refer to that. Respecting that century Mr. Gibbon remarks: “The only accession which the Roman empire received, during the first century of the Christian era, was the province of Britain. In this single instance the successors of Caesar and Augustus were persuaded to follow the example of the former rather than the precept of the latter. After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke,” i. 2, 3.
Of course the representation in the first seal could not be applied to such a period as this. In the second century, however, and especially in the early part of it - the beginning of the period supposed to be embraced in the opening of the first seal - a different policy began to prevail, and though the main characteristic of the period, as a whole, was comparatively peaceful, yet it began with a career of conquests, and its general state might be characterized as triumph and prosperity. Thus, Mr. Gibbon speaks of Trajan on his accession after the death of Nerva: “That virtuous and active prince had received the education of a soldier, and possessed the talents of a general. The peaceful system of his predecessors was interrupted by scenes of war and conquest; and the legions, after a long interval, beheld a military emperor at their head. The first exploits of Trajan were against the Dacians, the most warlike of men, who dwelt beyond the Danube, and who, during the reign of Domitian, had insulted the majesty of Rome. This memorable war, with a very short suspension of hostilities, lasted five years; and as the emperor could exert, without control, the whole force of the state, it was terminated by an absolute submission of the barbarians. The new province of Dacia, which formed a second exception to the precept of Augustus, was about thirteen hundred miles in circumference,” i. 4.
Speaking of Trajan (p. 4), he says further: “The praises of Alexander, transmitted by a succession of poets and historians, had kindled a dangerous emulation in the mind of Trajan. Like him, the Roman emperor undertook an expedition against the nations of the East; but he lamented with a sigh that his advanced age scarcely left him any hopes of equalling the renown of the son of Phil Yet the success of Trajan, however transient, was rapid and specious. The degenerate Parthians, broken by intestine discord, fled before his arms. He descended the river Tigris, in triumph, from the mountains of Armenia to the Persian Gulf. He enjoyed the honor of being the first, as he was the last, of the Roman generals who ever navigated that remote sea. His fleets ravaged the coasts of Arabia; and Trajan vainly flattered himself that he was approaching toward the confines of India. Every day the astonished senate received the intelligence of new names and new nations that acknowledged his sway.
They were informed that the kings of Bosphorus, Colchis, lberia, Albania, Osrhoene, and even the Parthian monarch himself, had accepted their diadems from the hand of the emperor; that the independent tribes of the Median and Carduchian hills had implored his protection; and that the rich countries of Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria were reduced into the state of provinces.” Of such a reign what more appropriate symbol could there be than the horse and the rider of the first seal? If Mr. Gibbon had been writing a designed commentary on this, what more appropriate language could he have used in illustration of it? The reign of Hadrian, the successor of Trajan (117-138 a.d.), was comparatively a reign of peace - though one of his first acts was to lead an expedition into Britain: but though comparatively a time of peace, it was a reign of prosperity and triumph. Mr. Gibbon, in the following language, gives a general characteristic of that reign: “The life of Hadrian was almost a perpetual journey; and as he possessed the various talents of the soldier, the statesman, and the scholar, he gratified his curiosity in the discharge of his duty. careless of the difference of seasons and of climates, he marched on foot, and bareheaded, over the snows of Caledonia and the sultry plains of Upper Egypt; nor was there a province of the empire which, in the course of his reign, was not honored with the presence of the monarch,” p. 5.
On p. 6, Mr. Gibbon remarks of this period: “The Roman name was revered among the remote nations of the earth. The fiercest barbarians frequently submitted their differences to the arbitration of the emperor; and we are informed by a contemporary historian that he had seen ambassadors who were refused the honor which they came to solicit, of being admitted into the rank of subjects.” And again, speaking of the reign of Hadrian, Mr. Gibbon remarks (i. 45): “Under his reign, as has been already mentioned, the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all the provinces in person.” Hadrian was succeeded by the Antonines, Antoninus Pins and Marcus Aurelius (the former from 138 a.d. to 161 a.d.; the latter from 161 a.d. to the accession of Commodus, 180 a.d.). The general character of their reigns is well known.
It is thus stated by Mr. Gibbon: “The two Antenines governed the world for 42 years with the same invariable spirit of wisdom and virtue. Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government,” i. 46. And after describing the state of the empire in respect to its military and naval character, its roads, and architecture, and constitution, and laws, Mr. Gibbon sums up the whole description of this period in the following remarkable words (vol. i. p. 47): “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name what elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hands of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.” If it be supposed now that John designed to represent this period of the world, could he have chosen a more expressive and significant emblem of it than occurs in the horseman of the first seal? If Mr. Gibbon had intended to prepare a commentary on it, could he have shaped the facts of history so as better to furnish an illustration?
(2) The particular things represented in the symbol:
(a) The bow - a symbol of war. Mr. Elliott has endeavored to show that the bow at that period was especially the badge of the Cretians, and that Nerva, who succeeded Domitian, was a Cretian by birth. The argument is too long to be abridged here, but, if well founded, the fulfillment is remarkable; for although the sword or the javelin was usually the badge of the Roman emperor, if this were so, there would be a special propriety in making the bow the badge during this period. See Elliott, vol. 1, pp. 133-140. But whatever may be said of this, the bow was so generally the badge of a warrior, that there would be no impropriety in using it as a symbol of Roman victory.
(b) The crown - στέφανος stephanos - was, up to the time of Aurelian, 270 a.d. (see Spanheim, p. 60), the distinguishing badge of the Roman emperor; after that, the diadem, set with pearls and other jewels, was adopted and worn. The crown, composed usually of laurel, was properly the badge of the emperor considered as a military leader or commander. See Elliott, 1:130. At the period now under consideration the proper badge of the Roman emperor would be the crown; after the time of Aurelian, it would have been the diadem. In illustration of this, two engravings have been introduced, the first representing the emperor Nerva with the crown, or στέφανος stephanos, the second the emperor Valentinian, with the diadem.
(c) The fact that the crown was given to the rider. It was common among the Romans to represent an emperor in this manner; either on medals, bas-reliefs, or triumphal arches. The emperor appears going forth on horseback, and with Victory represented as either crowning him, or as preceding him with a crown in her hand to present to him. The engraving below, copied from one of the basreliefs on a triumphal arch erected to Claudius Drusus on occasion of his victories over the Germans, will furnish a good illustration of this, and, indeed, is so similar to the symbol described by John, that the one seems almost a copy of the other. Except that the bow is missing, nothing could have a closer resemblance; and the fact that such symbols were employed, and were well understood by the Romans, may be admitted to be a confirmation of the view above taken of the meaning of the first seal. Indeed, so many things combine to confirm this, that it seems impossible to be mistaken in regard to it: for if it should be supposed that John lived after this time, and that he meant to furnish a striking emblem of this period of Roman history, he could not have employed a more significant and appropriate symbol than he has done.
And when he had opened the second seal - So as to disclose another portion of the volume. See the notes at Revelation 5:1.
I heard the second beast say - The second beast was like a calf or an ox. See the notes at Revelation 4:7. It cannot be supposed that there is any special significancy in the fact that the second beast addressed the seer on the opening of the second seal, or that, so far as the symbol was concerned, there was any reason why this living. creature should approach on the opening of this seal rather than on either of the others. All that seems to be designed is, that as the living creatures are intended to be emblems of the providential government of God, it was proper to represent that government as concerned in the opening of each of these four seals, indicating important events among the nations.
Come and see - See the notes on Revelation 6:1.
And there went out another horse - In this symbol there were, as in the others, several particulars which it is proper to explain in order that we may be able to understand its application. The particular things in the symbol are the following:
(a) The horse. See this explained in the notes on Revelation 6:2.
(b) The color of the horse: another horse that was red. This symbol cannot be mistaken. As the white horse denoted prosperity, triumph, and happiness, so this would denote carnage, discord, bloodshed. This is clear, not only from the nature of the emblem, but from the explanation immediately added: “And power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another.” On the color, compare Bochart, Hieroz. P. 1, lib. 2, c. 7: p. 104. See also Zechariah 1:8. There is no possibility of mistaking this, that a time of slaughter is denoted by this emblem.
(c) The power given to him that sat on the horse: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another. This would seem to indicate that the condition immediately preceding this was a condition of tranquility, and that this was now disturbed by some cause producing discord and bloodshed. This idea is confirmed by the original words - τὴν εἰρήνην tēn eirēnēn - “the peace”; that is, the previously existing peace. When peace in general is referred to, the word is used without the article: Matthew 10:34, “Think not that I am come to send peace - βαλεῖν εἰρήνην balein eirēnēn - upon the earth.” Compare Luke 1:79; Luke 2:14; Luke 19:38; Mark 5:34; John 14:27; John 16:33; Acts 7:26; Acts 9:31, et al. in the Greek. In these cases the word “peace” is without the article. The characteristics of the period referred to by this are:
(a)That peace and tranquility existed before;
(b)That such peace and tranquility were now taken away, and were succeeded by confusion and bloodshed; and,
(c)That the particular form of that confusion was civil discord, producing mutual slaughter: “that they should kill one another.”
- The presentation of a sword: and there was given unto him a great sword. As an emblem of what he was to do, or of the period that was referred to by the opening of the seal.
The sword is an emblem of war, of slaughter, of authority Romans 13:4, and is used here as signifying that that period would be characterized by carnage. Compare Isaiah 34:5; Revelation 19:17-18; Leviticus 26:25; Genesis 27:40; Matthew 10:34; Matthew 26:52. It is not said by whom the sword was presented, but the fact is merely referred to, that the rider wets presented with a sword as a symbol of what would occur.
In inquiring now into the period referred to by this symbol, we naturally look to what immediately succeeded the one which was represented by the opening of the first seal; that is, the period which followed the accession of Commodus, 180 a.d. We shall find, in the events which succeeded his accession to the empire, a state of things which remarkably accords with the account given by John in this emblem - so much so, that if it were supposed that the book was written after these events had occurred, and that John had designed to represent them by this symbol, he could not have selected a more appropriate emblem. The only authority which it is necessary to refer to here is Mr. Gibbon; who, as before remarked, seems to have been raised up by a special Providence to make a record of those events which were referred to by some of the most remarkable prophecies in the Bible. As he had the highest qualifications for an historian, his statements may be relied on as accurate; and as he had no belief in the inspiration of the prophetic records, his testimony will riot be charged with partiality in their favor. The following particulars, therefore, will furnish a full illustration of the opining of the second seal:
(a) The previous state of peace. This is implied in the expression, “and power was given to him to take peace from the earth.” Of this we have had a full confirmation in the peaceful reign of Hadrian and tim Antenines. See the notes on the exposition of the first seal. Mr. Gibbon, speaking of the accession of Commodus to the imperial throne, says that he “had nothing to wish, and everything to enjoy. The beloved son of Marcus (Commodus) succeeded his father amidst the acclamations of the senate and armies; and when he ascended the throne, the happy youth saw around him neither competitor to remove, nor enemies to punish. In this calm elevated station, it was surely natural that he should prefer the love of mankind to their detestation; the mild glories of his five predecessors to the ignominions fate of Nero and Domitian,” i. 51. So again, on the same page, he says of Commodus, “His graceful person, popular address, and imagined virtues attracted the public favor; the honorable peace which he had recently granted to the barbarians diffused an universal joy.” No one can doubt that the accession of Commodus was preceded by a remarkable prevalence of peace and prosperity.
(b) Civil war and bloodshed: to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another. Of the applicability of this to the time supposed to be represented by this seal, we have the fullest confirmation in the series of civil wars commencing with the assassination of the emperor Commodus, 193 a.d., and continued, with scarcely any intervals of intermission, for 80 or 90 years. So Sismondi, on the fall of the Roman empire (i. 36), says, “With Commodus’ death commenced the third and most calamitous period. It lasted 92 years, from 193 to 284. During that time, 32 emperors, and 27 pretenders to the empire, alternately hurried each other from the throne, by incessant civil warfare. Ninety-two years of almost incessant civil warfare taught the world on what a frail foundation the virtue of the Antonines had reared the felicity of the empire.” The full history of this period may be seen in Gibbon, i. pp. 50-197.
Of course it is impossible in these notes to present anything like a complete account of the characteristics of those times. Yet the briefest summary may well show the general condition of the Roman empire then, and the propriety of representing it by the symbol of a red horse, as a period when peace would be taken from the earth, and when people would kill one another. Commodus himself is represented by Mr. Gibbon in the following words: “Commodus was not, as be has been represented, a tiger, born with an insatiate thirst of human blood, and capable, from his infancy, of the most inhuman actions. Nature had formed him of a weak, rather than a wicked disposition. His simplicity and timidity rendered him the slave of his attendants, who gradually corrupted his mind. His cruelty, which at first obeyed the dictates of others, degenerated into habit, and at length became the ruling passion of his soul,” i. 51.
During the first three years of his reign “his hands were yet unstained with blood” (Ibid.), but he soon degenerated into a most severe and bloody tyrant, and “when Commodus had once tasted human blood, he was incapable of pity or remorse,” i. 52. “The tyrant’s rage,” says Mr. Gibbon (i. 52), “after having shed the noblest blood of the senate, at length recoiled on the principal instrument of his cruelty. While Commodus was immersed in blood and luxury he devolved the detail of public business on Perennis, a servile and ambitious minister, who had obtained his post by the murder of his predecessor,” etc. “Every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus,” i. 55. After detailing the history of his crimes, his follies, and his cruelties, Mr. Gibbon remarks of him: “His cruelty proved at last fatal to himself. He had shed with impunity the best blood of Rome: he perished as soon as he was dreaded by his own domestics. Marcia, his favorite concubine, Eclectus, his chamberlain, and Laetus, his pretorian prefect, alarmed by the fate of their companions and predecessor, resolved to prevent the destruction which every hour hung over their heads, either from the mad caprice of the tyrant, or the sudden indignation of the people. Marcia seized the occasion of presenting a draught of wine to her lover, after he had fatigued himself with hunting some wild beasts. Commodus retired to sleep; but while he was laboring with the effects of poison and drunkenness, a robust youth, by profession a wrestler, entered his chamber, and strangled him without resistance,” i. 57.
The immediate consequence of the assassination of Commodus was the elevation of Pertinax to the throne, and his murder eighty-six days after (Decline and Fall, i. 60). Then followed the public setting-up of the empire to sale by the pretorian guards, and its purchase by a wealthy Roman senator, Didius Julianus, or Julian, who, “on the throne of the world, found himself without a friend and without an adherent,” i. 63. “The streets and public places in Rome resounded with clamors and imprecations.” “The public discontent was soon diffused from the center to the frontiers of the empire,” i. 63. In the midst of this universal indignation Septimius Severus, who then commanded the army in the neighborhood of the Danube, resolved to avenge the death of Pertinax, and to seize upon the imperial crown. He marched to Rome, overcame the feeble Julian, and placed himself on the throne. Julian, after having reigned 66 days, was beheaded in a private apartment of the baths of the palace, i. 67. “In less than four years Severus subdued the riches of the East, and the valor of the West. He vanquished two competitors of reputation and ability, and defeated numerous armies provided with weapons and discipline equal to his own,” i. 68.
Mr. Gibbon then enters into a detail of “the two civil wars against Niger and Albinus” - rival competitors for the empire (i. 68-70), both of whom were vanquished, and both of whom were put to death “in their flight from the field of battle.” Yet he says, “Although the wounds of civil war were apparently healed, its mortal poison still lurked in the vitals of the constitution,” i. 71. After the death of Severus, then follows an account of the contentions between his sons, Geta and Caracalla, and of the death of the former by the instigation of the latter (i. 77); then of the remorse of Caracalla, in which it is said that “his disordered fancy often beheld the angry forms of his father and his brother rising into life to threaten and upbraid him” (i. 77); then of the cruelties which Caracalla inflicted on the friends of Geta, in which “it was computed that, under the vague appellation of the friends of Geta, above twenty thousand persons of both sexes suffered death” (i. 78); then of the departure of Caracalla from the capital, and his cruelties in other parts of the empire, concerning which Mr. Gibbon remarks (i. 78, 79), that “Caracalla was the common enemy of mankind. Every province was by turns the scene of his rapine and cruelty. In the midst of peace and repose, upon the slightest provocation, he issued his commands at Alexandria in Egypt for a general massacre. From a secure post in the temple of Serapis he viewed and directed the slaughter of many thousand citizens, as well as strangers, without distinguishing either the number or the crime of the sufferers,” etc.
Then follows the account of the assassination of Caracalla (i. 80); then, and in consequence of that, of the civil war which crushed Macrinus, and raised Elagabalus to the throne (i. 83); then of the life and follies of that wretched voluptuary, and of his massacre by the pretorian guards (i. 86); then, after an interval of thirteen years, of the murder of his successor, the second Severus, on the Rhine; then of the civil wars excited against his murderer and successor, Maximin, in which the two emperors of a day - the Gordians, father and son - perished in Africa, and Maximin himself, and his son, in the siege of Aquileia; then of the murder at Rome of the two joint emperors, Maximus and Balbinus; and quickly after that an account of the murder of their successor in the empire, the third and youngest Gordian, on the banks of the river Aboras; then of the slaughter of the next emperor Philip, together with his son and associate in the empire, in the battle near Verona: and this state of things may be said to have continued until the accession of Diocletian to the empire, 284 a.d. See Decline and Fall, i. 110-197. Does any portion of the history of the world present a similar period of connected history that would be so striking a fulfillment of the symbols used here of “peace being taken from the earth,” and “men killing one another?” In regard to this whole period it is sufficient, after reading Mr. Gibbon’s account, to ask two questions:
(1) If it were supposed that John lived after this period, and designed to represent this by an expressive symbol, could he have found one that would have characterized it better than this does?
(2) And if it should be supposed that Mr. Gibbon designed to write a commentary on this “seal,” and to show the exact fulfillment of the symbol, could he have selected a better portion of history to do it, or could he have better described facts that would be a complete fulfillment? It is only necessary to observe further:
(c) that this is a marked and definite period. It has such a beginning, and such a continuance and ending, as to show that tiffs symbol was applicable to this as a period of the world. For it was not only preceded by a state of peace, as is supposed in the symbol, but no one can deny that the condition of things in the empire, from Commodus onward through many years, was such as to be appropriately designated by the symbol used here.
And when he had opened the third seal - Unfolding another portion of the volume. See the notes on Revelation 5:1.
I heard the third beast say, Come and see - See the notes on Revelation 4:7. It is not apparent why the third beast is represented as taking a particular interest in the opening of this seal (compare the notes on Revelation 6:3), nor is it necessary to show why it was so. The general design seems to have been, to represent each one of the four living creatures as interested in the opening of the seals, but the order in which they did this does not seem to be a matter of importance.
And I beheld, and lo, a black horse - The specifications of the symbol here are the following:
(a) As before, the horse. See the notes on Revelation 6:2.
(b) The color of the horse: “lo, a black horse.” This would properly denote distress and calamity - for black has been regarded always as such a symbol. So Virgil speaks of fear as black: “atrumque timorem” (Aen. ix. 619). So again, Georg. iv. 468:
“Caligantem nigra formidine lucum.”
So, as applied to the dying Acca, Aeneas xi. 825:
“Tenebris nigrescunt omnia circum.”
Black, in the Scriptures, is the image of fear, of famine, of death. Lamentations 5:10; “our skin was black like an oven, because of the terrible famine.” Jeremiah 14:2; “because of the drought Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish; they are in deep mourning (literally, black) for the land.” Joel 2:6; “all faces shall gather blackness.” Nahum 2:10; “the knees smite together, and there is great pain in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness.” Compare Revelation 6:12; Ezekiel 32:7. See also Bochart, Hieroz. P. i. lib. ii. c. vii. pp. 106, 107. From the color of the horse here introduced we should naturally look for some dire calamity, though the nature of the calamity would not be designated by the mere use of the word “black.” What the calamity was to be must be determined by what follows in the symbol. Famine, pestiilence, oppression, heavy taxation, tyranny, invasion - any of these might be denoted by the color of the horse.
(c) The balances: “and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.” The original word rendered here as “a pair of balances,” is ζυγὸν zugon. This word properly means a yoke, serving to couple anything together, as a yoke for cattle. Hence it is used to denote the beam of a balance, or of a pair of scales - and is evidently so used here. The idea is, that something was to be weighed, in order to ascertain either its quantity or its value. Scales or balances are the emblems of justice or equity (compare Job 31:6; Psalms 62:9; Proverbs 11:1; Proverbs 16:11); and when joined with symbols that denote the sale of grain and fruit by weight, become the symbol of scarcity. Thus, “bread by weight” Leviticus 26:26 denotes scarcity. So in Ezekiel 4:16, “And they shall eat bread by weight.” The use of balances here as a symbol would signify that something was to be accurately and carefully weighed out.
The connection leads us to suppose that this would pertain to the necessaries of life, and that it would occur either in consequence of scarcity, or because there would be an accurate or severe exaction, as in collecting a revenue on these articles. The balance was commonly the symbol of equity and justice; but it was also, sometimes, the symbol of exaction and oppression, as in Hosea 12:7; “The balance of deceit is in his hands; he loveth to oppress.” If the balances stood alone, and there were no proclamation as to what was to occur, we should look, under this seal, to a time of the exact administration of justice, as scales or balances are now used as emblems of the rigid application of the laws and of the principles of justice in courts, or in public affairs. If this representation stood alone, or if the black horse and the scales constituted the whole of the symbol, we should look for some severe administration, or perhaps some heavy calamity under a rigorous administration of laws. The reference, however, to the “wheat and barley,” and to the price for which they were to be weighed out, serves still further to limit and define the meaning of the symbol as having reference to the necessaries of life - to the productions of the land - to the actual capital of the country. Whether this refers to scarcity, or to taxation, or both, must be determined by the other parts of the symbol.
(d) The proclamation: And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say. That is, from the throne, Revelation 4:6. The voice was not that of one of the four beasts, but it seemed to come from among them. As the rider went forth, this was the proclamation that was made in regard to him; or this is what is symbolized in his going forth, to wit, that there would be such a state of things that a measure of wheat would be sold for a penny, etc. The proclamation consists essentially of two things - what refers to the price or value of wheat and barley, and what requires that care shall be taken not to injure the oil and the wine. Each of these demands explanation.
A measure of wheat for a penny - See the margin. The word rendered “measure” - χοῖνιξ choinix - denotes an Attic measure for grain and things dry, equal to the 48th part of the Attic medimnus, or the 8th part of the Roman modius, and consequently was nearly equivalent to one quart English (Robinson’s Lexicon). The word rendered “penny,” δηναρίον dēnarion - Latin, denarius - was of the same value as the Greek δραχμή drachmē, and was equivalent to about fourteen cents or seven-pence (circa mid-19th century). This was the usual price of a day’s labor, Matthew 20:2, Matthew 20:9. The choenix, or measure of grain here referred to, was the ordinary daily allowance for one man (Odyssey xix. 27, 28). See Stuart, in loco. The common price of the Attic medimnus of wheat was five or six denarii; but here, as that contained 48 choenixes or quarts, the price would be augmented to 48 denarii - or it would be about eight times as dear as ordinary; that is, there would be a scarcity or famine. The price of a bushel of wheat at this rate would be about four dollars and a half or 18 shillings - a price which would indicate great scarcity, and which would give rise to much distress.
And three measures of barley for a penny - It would seem from this that barley usually bore about one-third the price of wheat. It was a less valuable grain, and perhaps was produced in greater abundance. This is not far from the proportion which the price of this grain usually bears to that of wheat, and here, as in the case of the wheat, the thing which would be indicated would be scarcity. This proclamation of “a measure of wheat for a penny” was heard either as addressed to the horseman, as a rule of action for him, or as addressed by the horseman as he went forth. If the former is the meaning, it would be an appropriate address to one who was going forth to collect tribute - with reference to the exact manner in which this tribute was to be collected, implying some sort of severity of exaction; or to one who should distribute wheat and barley out of the public granaries at an advanced price, indicating scarcity. Thus, it would mean that a severe and heavy tax - represented by the scales and the scarcity - or a tax so severe as to make grain dear, was referred to. If the latter is the meaning, then the idea is that there would be a scarcity, and that grain would be dealt out by the government at a high and oppressive price. The latter idea would be as consonant with the symbol of the scales and the price mentioned as the other, if it were not for the additional injunction not to “hurt the oil and the wine” - which cannot be well applied to the idea of dealing out grain at a high price. It can, however, be connected, by a fair interpretation of that passage, with such a severity of taxation that there would be a propriety in such a command - for, as we shall see, under the explanation of that phrase, such a law was actually promulgated as resulting from severity of taxation. The idea, then, in the passage before us, would seem to be:
(a) that there would be a rigid administration of the law in regard to the matter under consideration-that pertaining to the productions of the earth - represented by the balances; and,
(b) that that would be connected with general scarcity, or such an exercise of this power as to determine the price of grain, so that the price would be some three times greater than ordinary.
And see thou hurt not the oil and the wine - There has been a great variety of interpretations proposed of this passage, and it is by no means easy to determine the true sense. The first inquiry in regard to it is, to whom is it addressed? Perhaps the most common impression on reading it would be, that it is addressed to the horseman with the balances, commanding him not to injure the oliveyards and the vineyards. But this is not probably the correct view. It does not appear that the horseman goes forth to destroy anything, or that the effect of his going forth is directly to injure anything. This, therefore, should not be understood as addressed to the horseman, but should be regarded as a general command to any and all not to injure the oliveyards and vineyards; that is, an order that nothing should be done essentially to injure them. If thus regarded as addressed to others, a fair and congruous meaning would be furnished by either of the following interpretations: either:
(a) considered as addressed to those who were disposed to be prodigal in their manner of living, or careless as to the destruction of the crop of the oil and wine, as they would now be needed; or.
(b) as addressed to those who raised such productions, on the supposition that they would be taxed heavily, or that large quantities of these productions would be extorted for revenue, that they. should not mutilate their fruit-trees in order to evade the taxes imposed by the government. In regard to the things specified here - oil and wine - it may be remarked, that they were hardly considered as articles of luxury in ancient times. They were almost as necessary articles as wheat and barley. They constituted a considerable part of the food and drink of the people, as well as furnished a large portion of the revenue, and it would seem to be with reference to that fact that the command here is given that they should not be injured; that is, that nothing should be done to diminish the quantity of oil and wine, or to impair the productive power of oliveyards and vineyards. The state of things thus described by this seal, as thus interpreted, would be:
(a)A rigid administration of the laws of the empire, particularly in reference to taxation, producing a scarcity among the necessary articles of living;
(b)A strong tendency, from the severity of the taxation, to mutilate such kinds of property, with a view either of concealing the real amount of property, or of diminishing the amount of taxes; and,
(c)A solemn command from some authoritative quarter not to do this.
A command from the ruling power not to do this would meet all that would be fairly demanded in the interpretation of the passage; and what is necessary in its application, is to find such a state of things as would correspond with these predictions; that is, such as a writer would have described by such symbols on the supposition that they were referred to.
Now it so happens that there were important events which occurred in the Roman empire, and connected with its decline and fall, of sufficient importance to be noticed in a series of calamitous events, which corresponded with the symbol here, as above explained. They were such as these:
(a) The general severity of taxation, or the oppressive burdens laid on the people by the emperors. In the account which Mr. Gibbon gives of the operation of the Indictions, and Superindictions, though the specific laws on this subject pertained to a subsequent period, the general nature of the taxation of the empire and its oppressive character may be seen (Decline and Fall, i. 357-359). A general estimate of the amount of revenue to be exacted was made out, and the collecting of this was committed to the pretorian prefects, and to a great number of subordinate officers. “The lands were measured by surveyors who were sent into the provinces; their nature, whether arable, or pasture, or woods, was distinctly reported; and an estimate made of their common value, from the average produce of five years. The number of slaves and of cattle constituted an essential part of the report; an oath was administered to the proprietors, which bound them to disclose the true state of their affairs; and their attempts to prevaricate or elude the intention of the legislature were severely watched, and punished as a capital crime, which included the double guilt of treason and of sacrilege. According to the different nature of lands, their real produce in the various articles of wine or oil, grain or barley, wood or iron, was transported by the labor or at the expense of the provincials to the imperial magazines, from whence they were occasionally distributed for the use of the court or of the army, and of the two capitals, Rome and Constantinople,” i. p. 358. Compare Lactant. de mort. Persecut., c. 23.
(b) The particular order, under this oppressive system of taxation, respecting the preservation of vineyards and oliveyards, may be referred to, also, as corresponding to the command sent forth under this rider, not to “hurt the oil and the wine.” That order was in the following words: “If anyone shall sacrilegiously cut a vine, or stint the fruit of prolific boughs, and craftily feign poverty in order to avoid a fair assessment, he shall, immediately on detection, suffer death, and his property be confiscated” (Cod. Theod. l. xiii. lib. xi. seq.; Gibbon, i. 358, note). Mr. Gibbon remarks: “Although this law is not without its studied obscurity, it is, however, clear enough to prove the minuteness of the inquisition, and the disproportion of the penalty.”
(c) Under this general subject of the severity of taxation - as a fact farspreading and oppressive, and as so important as to hasten the downfall of the empire, may be noticed a distinct edict of Caracalla as occurring more directly in the period in which the rider with the balances may be supposed to have gone forth. This is stated by Mr. Gibbon (i. 91) as one of the important causes which contributed to the downfall of the empire. “The personal characters of the emperors, their victories, laws, and fortunes,” says he, “can interest us no further than they are connected with the general history of the decline and fall of the monarchy. Our constant attention to that object will not suffer us to overlook a most important edict of Antoninus Caracalla, which communicated to all the free inhabitants of the empire the name and privileges of Roman citizens. His unbounded liberality, however, flowed not from the sentiments of a generous mind; it was the sordid result of avarice,” etc.
He then proceeds at length to state the nature and operations of that law, by which a heavy tax, under the pretence of liberality, was in fact imposed on all the citizens of the empire - a fact which, in its ultimate results, the historian of the Decline and Fall regards as so closely connected with the termination of the empire. See Gibbon, i. pp. 91-95. After noticing the laws of Augustus, Nero, and the Antonines, and the real privileges conferred by them on those who became entitled to the rank of Roman citizens - privileges which were a compensation in the honor, dignity, and offices of that rank for the measure of taxation which it involved - he proceeds to notice the fact that the title of “Roman citizen” was conferred by Caracalla on all the free citizens of the empire, involving the subjection to all the heavy taxes usually imposed on those who sustained the rank expressed by the title, but with nothing of the compensation connected with the title when it was confined to the inhabitants of Italy. “But the favor,” says he, “which implied a distinction, was lost in the prodigality of Caracalla, and the reluctant provincials were compelled to assume the vain title, and the real obligations, of Roman citizens. Nor was the rapacious son of Severus (Caracalla) contented with such a measure of taxation as had appeared sufficient to his moderate predecessors. Instead of a twentieth, he exacted a tenth of all legacies and inheritances; and during his reign he crushed alike every part of the empire under the weight of his iron scepter,” (i. 95).
So again (Ibid.), speaking of the taxes which had been lightened somewhat by Alexander, Mr. Gibbon remarks: “It is impossible to conjecture the motive that engaged him to spare so trifling a remnant of the evil; but the noxious weed, which had not been totally eradicated, again sprung up with the most luxuriant growth, and in the succeeding age darkened the Roman world with its deadly shade. In the course of this history we shall be too often summoned to explain the land-tax, the capitation, and the heavy contributions of grain, wine, oil, and meat, which were exacted from the provinces for the use of the court, the army, and the capital.” In reference to this whole matter of taxation as being one of the things which contributed to the downfall of the empire, and which spread woe through the falling empire - a woe worthy to be illustrated by one of the seals - a confirmation may be delayed from the reign of Galerius, who, as Caesar, acted under the authority of Diocletian; who excited Diocletian to the work of persecution (Decline and Fall, i. 317, 318); and who, on the abdication of Diocletian, assumed the title of Augustus (Decline and Fall, i. 222).
Of his administration in general Mr. Gibbon i. 226) remarks: “About that time the avarice of Galerius, or perhaps the exigencies of the state, had induced him to make a very strict and rigorous inquisition into the property of his subjects for the purpose of a general taxation, both on their lands and on their persons. A very minute survey appears to have been taken of their real estates; and wherever there was the slightest suspicion of concealment, torture was very freely employed to obtain a sincere declaration of their personal wealth.” Of the nature of this exaction under Galerius; of the cruelty with which the measure was prosecuted - particularly in its bearing on Christians, toward whom Galerius cherished a mortal enmity (Decline and Fall, i. 317); and of the extent and severity of the suffering among Christians and others, caused by it - the following account of Lactantius (De Mort. Persecut., c. 23) will furnish a painful but most appropriate illustration: “Swarms of exacters sent into the provinces and cities filled them with agitation and terror, as though a conquering enemy were leading them into captivity. The fields were separately measured, the trees and vines, the flocks and herds numbered, and an examination made of the people. In the cities the cultivated and rude were united as of the same rank. The streets were crowded with groups of families, and every one required to appear with his children and slaves. Tortures and lashes resounded on every side. Sons were gibbeted in the presence of their parents, and the most confidential servants harassed that they might make disclosures against their masters, and wives that they might testify unfavorably of their husbands. If there were a total destitution of property, they were still tortured to make acknowledgments against themselves, and, when overcome by pain, inscribed for what they did not possess.
Neither age nor ill-health was admitted as an excuse for not appearing. The sick and weak were borne to the place of inscription, a reckoning made of the age of each, and years added to the young and deducted from the old, in order to subject them to a higher taxation than the law imposed. The whole scene was filled with wailing and sadness. In the meantime individuals died, and the herds and the flocks diminished, yet tribute was none the less required to be paid for the dead, so that it was no longer allowed either to live or die without a tax. Mendicants alone escaped, where nothing could be wrenched, and whom misfortune and misery had made incapable of further oppression. These the impious wretch affecting to pity, that they might not suffer want, ordered to be assembled, borne off in vessels, and plunged into the sea.” See Lord on the Apoc., pp. 128, 129. These facts in regard to the severity of taxation, and the rigid nature of the law enforcing it; to the sources of the revenue exacted in the provinces, and to the care that none of those sources should be diminished; and to the actual and undoubted bearing of all this on the decline and fall of the empire, are so strikingly applicable to the symbol here employed, that if it be supposed that it was intended to refer to them, no more natural or expressive symbol could have been used; if it were supposed that the historian meant to make a record of the fulfillment, he could not well have made a search which would more strikingly accord with the symbol.
Were we now to represent these things by a symbol, we could scarcely find one that would be more expressive than that of a rider on a black horse with a pair of scales, sent forth under a proclamation which indicated that there would be a most rigid and exact administration of severe and oppressive laws, and with a special command, addressed to the people, not for the purposes of concealment, or from opposition to the government, to injure the sources of revenue. It may serve further to illustrate this, to copy one of the usual emblems of a Roman procurator or questor. It is taken from Spanheim, De Usu Num. Diss., vi. 545. See Elliott, i. 169. It has a balance as a symbol of exactness or justice, and an car of grain as a symbol employed with reference to procuring or exacting grain from the provinces.
And when he had opened the fourth seal - See the notes at Revelation 5:1.
I heard the voice of the fourth beast say - The flying eagle. See the notes at Revelation 15:7. As in the other cases, there does not appear to have been any particular reason why the fourth of the living creatures should have made this proclamation rather than either of the others. It was poetic and appropriate to represent each one in his turn as making proclamation.
Come and see - See the notes at Revelation 6:1.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse - - ἵππος χλωρὸς hippos chlōros. On the horse, as an emblem, see the notes on Revelation 6:2. The uniqueness of this emblem consists in the color of the horse, the rider, and the power that was given unto him. In these there is entire harmony, and there can be comparatively little difficulty in the explanation and application. The color of the horse was “pale” - χλωρὸς chlōros This word properly means “pale-green, yellowish-green,” like the color of the first shoots of grass and herbage; then green, verdant, like young herbage, Mark 6:39; Revelation 8:7; Revelation 9:4; and then pale yellowish (Robinson, Lexicon). The color here would be an appropriate one to denote the reign of death - as one of the most striking effects of death is paleness - and, of course, of death produced by any cause, famine, pestilence, or the sword. From this portion of the symbol, if it stood with nothing to limit and define it, we should naturally look for some condition of things in which death would prevail in a remarkable manner, or in which multitudes of human beings would be swept away. And yet, perhaps, from the very nature of this part of the symbol, we should look for the prevalence of death in some such peaceful manner as by famine or disease. The red color would more naturally denote the ravages of death in war; the black, the ravages of death by sudden calamity; the pale would more obviously suggest famine or wasting disease.
And his name that sat on him was Death - No description is given of his aspect; nor does he appear with any emblem - as sword, or spear, or bow. There is evident scope for the fancy to picture to itself the form of the destroyer; and there is just that kind of obscurity about it which contributes to sublimity. Accordingly, there has been ample room for the exercise of the imagination in the attempts to paint “Death on the pale horse,” and the opening of this seal has furnished occasion for some of the greatest triumphs of the pencil The simple idea in this portion of the symbol is, that death would reign or prevail under the opening of this seal - whether by sword, by famine, or by pestilence, is to be determined by other descriptions in the symbol.
And Hell followed with him - Attended him as he went forth. On the meaning of the word rendered here as “hell” - ᾍδης Hadēs, Hades - see the Luke 16:23 note, compare the Job 10:21-22 notes; Isaiah 14:9 note. It is used here to denote the abode of the dead, considered as a place where they dwell, and not in the more restricted sense in which the word is now commonly used as a place of punishment. The idea is, that the dead would be so numerous at the going forth of this horseman, that it would seem as if the pale nations of the dead had come again upon the earth. A vast retinue of the dead would accompany him; that is, it would be a time when death would prevail on the earth, or when multitudes would die.
And power was given unto them - Margin, to him. The common Greek text is αὐτοὶς autois - “to them.” There are many mss., however, which read αὐτῷ autō - “to him.” So Prof. Stuart reads it. The authority, however, is in favor of them as the reading; and according to this, death and his train are regarded as grouped together, and the power is considered as given to them collectively. The sense is not materially varied.
Over the fourth part of the earth - That is, of the Roman world. It is not absolutely necessary to understand this as extending over precisely a fourth part of the world. Compare Revelation 8:7-10, Revelation 8:12; Revelation 9:15, et al. Undoubtedly we are to look in the fulfillment of this to some far-spread calamity; to some severe visitations which would sweep off great multitudes of people. The nature of that visitation is designated in the following specifications.
To kill with sword - In war and discord - and we are, therefore, to look to a period of wax.
And with hunger - With famine - one of the accompaniments of war - where armies ravage a nation, trampling down the crops of grain; consuming the provisions laid up; employing in war, or cutting off, the people who would be occupied in cultivating the ground; making it necessary that they should take the field at a time when the grain should be sown or the harvest collected; and shutting up the people in besieged cities to perish by hunger. Famine has been not an infrequent accompaniment of war; and we are to look for the fulfillment of this in its extensive prevalence.
And with death - Each of the other forms - “with the sword and with hunger” - imply that death would reign; for it is said that “power was given to kill with sword and with hunger.” This word, then, must refer to death in some other form - to death that seemed to reign without any such visible cause as the “sword” and “hunger.” This would well denote the pestilence - not an infrequent accompaniment of war. For nothing is better suited to produce this than the unburied bodies of the slain; the filth of a camp; the want of food; and the crowding together of multitudes in a besieged city; and, accordingly, the pestilence, especially in Oriental countries, has been often closely connected with war. That the pestilence is referred to here is rendered more certain by the fact that the Hebrew word דבר deber, “pestilence,” which occurs about fifty times in the Old Testament, is rendered θάνατος thanatos, “death,” more than thirty times in the Septuagint.
And with the beasts of the earth - With wild beasts. This, too, would be one of the consequences of war, famine, and pestilence. Lands would be depopulated, and wild beasts would be multiplied. Nothing more is necessary to make them formidable than a prevalence of these things; and nothing, in the early stages of society, or in countries ravaged by war, famine, and the pestilence, is more formidable. Homer, at the very beginning of his Iliad, presents us with a representation similar to this. Compare Ezekiel 14:21; “I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence,” דבר deber - Septuagint, as here, θάνατον thanaton. See also 2 Kings 17:26.
In regard to the fulfillment of this there can be little difficulty, if the principles adopted in the interpretation of the first three seals are correct. We may turn to Gibbon, and, as in the other cases, we shall find that he has been an unconscious witness of the fidelity of the representation in this seal. Two general remarks may be made before there is an attempt to illustrate the particular things in the symbol:
(a) The first relates to the place in the order of time, or in history, which this seal occupies. If the three former seals have been located with any degree of accuracy, we should expect that this would follow, not very remotely, the severe laws pertaining to taxation, which, according to Mr. Gibbon, contributed so essentially to the downfall of the empire. And if it be admitted to be probable that the fifth seal refers to a time of persecution, it would be most natural to fix this period between those times and the times of Diocletian, when the persecution ceased. I may be permitted to say, that I was led to fix on this period without having any definite view beforehand of what occurred in it, and was surprised to find in Mr. Gibbon what seems to be so accurate a correspondence with the symbol.
(b) The second remark is, that the general characteristics of this period, as stated by Mr. Gibbon, agree remarkably with what we should expect of the period from the symbol. Thus, speaking of this whole period (248-268 a.d.), embracing the reigns of Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian, and Gallienus, he says, “From the great secular games celebrated by Philip to the death of the emperor Gallienus, there elapsed twenty years of shame and misfortune. During this calamitous period every instant of time was marked, every province of the Roman world was afflicted by barbarous invaders and military tyrants, and the ruined empire seemed to approach the last and fatal moment of its dissolution,” i. 135.
In regard to the particular things referred to in the symbol, the following specifications may furnish a sufficient confirmation and illustration:
(a) The killing with the sword. A fulfillment of this, so far as the words are concerned, might be found indeed in many portions of Roman history, but no one can doubt that it was eminently true of this period. It was the period of the first Gothic invasion of the Roman empire; the period when those vast hordes, having gradually come down from the regions of Scandinavia, and having moved along the Danube toward the Ukraine and the countries bordering on the Borysthenes, invaded the Roman territories from the East, passed over Greece, and made their appearance almost, as Mr. Gibbon says, within sight of Rome. Of this invasion Mr. Gibbon says, “This is the first considerable occasion (the fact that the emperor Decius was summoned to the banks of the Danube, 250 a.d., by the invasion of the Goths) in which history mentions that great people, who afterward broke the Roman power, sacked the Capitol, and reigned in Gaul, Spain, and Italy. So memorable was the part which they acted in the subversion of the Western empire, that the name of Goths is frequently, but improperly, used as a general appellation of rude and warlike barbarism,” i. p. 136.
As one of the illustrations that the “sword” would be used by “Death” in this period, we may refer to the siege and capture of Philippolis. “A hundred thousand persons are reported to have been massacred in the sack of that great city” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, i. 140). “The whole period,” says Mr. Gibbon, speaking of the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus, “was one uninterrupted series of confusion and calamity. The Roman empire was, at the same time, and on every side, attacked by the blind fury of foreign invaders, and the wild ambition of domestic usurpers,” i. 144. “Such were the barbarians,” says Mr. Gibbon in the close of his description of the Goths at this period, and of the tyrants that reigned, “and such the tyrants, who, under the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus, dismembered the provinces, and reduced the empire to the lowest pitch of disgrace and ruin, from whence it seemed impossible that it should ever emerge,” i. 158.
(b) Famine: “Shall kill with hunger.” This would naturally be the consequence of long-continued wars, and of such invasions as those of the Goths. Mr. Gibbon says of this period: “Our habits of thinking so fondly connect the order of the universe with the fate of man, that this gloomy period of history has been decorated with inundations, earthquakes, uncommon meteors, preternatural darkness, and a crowd of prodigies, fictitious or exaggerated. But a long and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the produce of the present, and the hope of future harvests,” i. p. 159. Prodigies, and preternatural darkness, and earthquakes, were not seen in the vision of the opening of the seal - but war and famine were; and the facts stated by Mr. Gibbon are such as would be now appropriately symbolized by Death on the pale horse.
(c) Pestilence: “And shall kill with death.” Of the pestilence which raged in this period Mr. Gibbon makes the following remarkable statement, in immediate connection with what he says of the famine: “Famine is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of scanty and unwholesome food. Other causes must, however, have contributed to the furious plague, which, from the year 250 to the year 265, raged without interruption in every province, every city, and almost every family of the Roman empire. During some time five thousand persons died daily at Rome; and many towns that had escaped the hands of the barbarians were entirely depopulated,” i. 159.
(d) Wild beasts: “And shall kill with the beasts of the earth.” As already remarked, these are formidable enemies in the early stages of society, and when a country becomes, from any cause, depopulated. They are not mentioned by Mr. Gibbon as contributing to the decline and fall of the empire, or as connected with the calamities that came upon the world at that period. But no one can doubt that in such circumstances they would be likely to abound, especially if the estimate of Mr. Gibbon be correct (i. 159), when speaking of these times, and making an estimate of the proportion of the inhabitants of Alexandria that had perished - which he says was more than one-half - he adds, “Could we venture to extend the analogy to the other provinces, we might suspect that war, pestilence, and famine had consumed in a few years the moiety of the human species.” Yet, though not adverted to by Mr. Gibbon, there is a record pertaining to this very period, which shows that this was one of the calamities with which the world was then afflicted.
It occurs in Arnobius, Adv. Gentes, lib. i. p. 5. Within a few years after the death of Gallienus (about 300 a.d.) he speaks of wild beasts in such a manner as to show that they were regarded as a sore calamity. The public peril and suffering on this account were so great, that in common with other evils this was charged on Christians as one of the judgments of heaven which they brought upon the world. In defending Christians against the general charge that these judgments were sent from heaven on their account, he adverts to the prevalence of wild beasts, and shows that they could not have been sent as a judgment on account of the existence of Christianity, by the fact that they had prevailed also in the times of paganism, long before Christianity was introduced into the empire. “Quando cum feris bella, et proelia cum leonibus gesta sunt? Non ante nos? Quando pernicies populis venenatis ab anguibus data est? Non ante nos?” “When were wars waged with wild beasts, and contests with lions? Was it not before our times? When did a plague come upon people poisoned by serpents? Was it not before our times?”
In regard to the extent of the destruction which these causes would bring upon the world, there is a remarkable confirmation in Gibbon. To say, as is said in the account of the seal, that “a fourth part of the earth” would be subjected to the reign of death by the sword, by famine, by pestilence, and by wild beasts, may seem to many to be an improbable statement - a statement for the fulfillment of which we should look in vain to any historical records. Yet Mr. Gibbon, without expressly mentioning the plague of wild beasts, but referring to the three others - “war, pestilence, and famine” - goes into a calculation, in a passage already referred to, by which he shows that it is probable that from these causes half the human race was destroyed. The following is his estimate: “We have the knowledge of a very curious circumstance, of some use perhaps in the melancholy calculation of human calamities. An exact register was kept at Alexandria of all the citizens entitled to receive the distribution of grain. It was found that the ancient number of those comprised between the ages of forty and seventy had been equal to the whole sum of claimants, from fourteen to fourscore years of age, who remained alive after the reign of Gallienus. Applying this authentic fact to the most correct tables of mortality, it evidently proves that above half the people of Alexandria had perished; and could we venture to extend the analogy to the other provinces, we might suspect that war, pestilence, and famine had consumed in a few years the moiety of the human species,” i. 159. The historian says that it might be “suspected” from these data that one-half of the human race had been cut off in a few years, from these causes; in the Apocalyptic vision it is said that power was given over one “fourth” of the earth. We may remark:
(a) that the description in the symbol is as likely to be correct as the “suspicion” of the historian; and,
(b) that his statement that in this period “a moiety of the race,” or one-half of the race, perished, takes away all improbability from the prediction, and gives a most graphic confirmation of the symbol of Death on the pale horse. If such a desolation in fact occurred, there is no improbability in the supposition that it might have been prefigured by the opening of a prophetic seal. Such a widespread desolation would be likely to be referred to in a series of symbols that were designed to represent the downfall of the Roman power, and the great changes in human affairs that would affect the welfare of the church.
And when he had opened the fifth seal - notes at Revelation 5:1; Revelation 6:1.
I saw under the altar - The four living creatures are no longer heard as in the opening of the first four seals. No reason is given for the change in the manner of the representation; and none can be assigned, unless it be, that having represented each one of the four living creatures in their turn as calling attention to the remarkable events about to occur, there seemed to be no necessity or propriety in introducing them again. In itself considered, it cannot be supposed that they would be any less interested in the events about to be disclosed than they were in those which preceded. This seal pertains to martyrs - at the former successively did to a time of prosperity and triumph; to discord and bloodshed; to oppressive taxation; to war, famine, and pestilence. In the series of woes, it was natural and proper that there should be a vision of martyrs, if it was intended that the successive seals should refer to coming and important periods of the world; and accordingly we have here a striking representation of the martyrs crying to God to interpose in their behalf and to avenge their blood. The points which require elucidation are:
(a)Their position - under the altar;
(b)Their invocation - or their prayer that they might be avenged;
(c)The clothing of them with robes; and,
(d)The command to wait patiently a little time.
(1) The position of the martyrs - “under the altar.” There were in the temple at Jerusalem two altars - the altar of burnt sacrifices, and the altar of incense. The altar here referred to was probably the former. This stood in front of the temple, and it was on this that the daily sacrifice was made. Compare the notes on Matthew 5:23-24. We are to remember, however, that the temple and the altar were both destroyed before the time when this book was written, and this should, therefore, be regarded merely as a vision. John saw these souls as if they were collected under the altar - the place where the sacrifice for sin was made - offering their supplications. Why they are represented as being there is not so apparent; but probably two suggestions will explain this:
- The altar was the place where sin was expiated, and it was natural to represent these redeemed martyrs as seeking refuge there; and
(b)It was usual to offer prayers and supplications at the altar, in connection with the sacrifice made for sin, and on the ground of that sacrifice.
The idea is, that they who were suffering persecution would naturally seek a refuge in the place where expiation was made for sin, and where prayer was appropriately offered. The language here is such as a Hebrew would naturally use; the idea is appropriate to anyone who believes in the atonement, and who supposes that that is the appropriate refuge for those who are in trouble. But while the language here is such as a Hebrew would use, and while the reference in the language is to the altar of Burnt sacrifice, the scene should be regarded as undoubtedly laid in heaven - the temple where God resides. The whole representation is that of fleeing to the atonement, and pleading with God in connection with the sacrifice for sin.
The souls of them that were slain - That had been put to death by persecution. This is one of the incidental proofs in the Bible that the soul does not cease to exist at death, and also that it does not cease to be conscious, or does not sleep until the resurrection. These souls of the martyrs are represented as still in existence; as remembering what had occurred on the earth; as interested in what was now taking place; as engaged in prayer; and as manifesting earnest desires for the divine interposition to avenge the wrongs which they had suffered.
For the word of God - On account of the word or truth of God. See the notes on Revelation 1:9.
And for the testimony which they held - On account of their testimony to the truth, or being faithful witnesses of the truth of Jesus Christ. See the notes on Revelation 1:9.
(2) The invocation of the martyrs, Revelation 6:10; And they cried with a loud voice. That is, they pleaded that their blood might be avenged.
Saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true - They did not doubt that God would avenge them, but they inquired how long the vengeance would be delayed. It seemed to them that God was slow to interpose, and to check the persecuting power. They appeal therefore to him as a God of holiness and truth; that is, as one who could not look with approval on sin, and in whose sight the wrongs inflicted by the persecuting power must be infinitely offensive; as one who was true to his promises, and faithful to his people. On the ground of his own hatred of wrong, and of his plighted faithfulness to his church, they pleaded that he would interpose.
Dost thou not judge and avenge our blood - That is, dost thou forbear to judge and avenge us; or dost thou delay to punish those who have persecuted and slain us. They do not speak as if they had any doubt that it would be done, nor as if they were actuated by a spirit of revenge; but as if it would be proper that there should be an expression of the divine sense of the wrongs that had been done them. It is not right to desire vengeance or revenge; it is to desire that justice should be done, and that the government of God should be vindicated. The word “judge” here may either mean “judge us,” in the sense of “vindicate us,” or it may refer to their persecutors, meaning “judge them.” The more probable sense is the latter: “How long dost thou forbear to execute judgment on our account on those that dwell on the earth?” The word “avenge” - ἐκδικεω ekdikeō - means to do justice; to execute punishment.
On them that dwell on the earth - Those who are still on the earth. This shows that the scene here is laid in heaven, and that the souls of the martyrs are represented as there. We are not to suppose that this literally occurred, and that John actually saw the souls of the martyrs beneath the altars - for the whole representation is symbolical; nor are we to suppose that the injured and the wronged in heaven actually pray for vengeance on those who wronged them, or that the redeemed in heaven will continue to pray with reference to things on the earth; but it may be fairly inferred from this that there will be as real a remembrance of the wrongs of the persecuted, the injured, and the oppressed, as if such prayer were offered there; and that the oppressor has as much to dread from the divine vengeance as if those whom he has injured should cry in heaven to the God who hears prayer, and who takes vengeance. The wrongs done to the children of God; to the orphan, the widow, the down-trodden; to the slave and the outcast, will be as certainly remembered in heaven as if they who are wronged should plead for vengeance there, for every act of injustice and oppression goes to heaven and pleads for vengeance. Every persecutor should dread the death of the persecuted as if he went to heaven to plead against him; every cruel master should dread the death of his slave that is crushed by wrongs; every seducer should dread the death and the cries of his victim; every one who does wrong in any way should remember that the sufferings of the injured cry to heaven with a martyr’s pleadings, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood?”
(3) The robes that were given to the martyrs: And white robes were given unto every one of them. Emblems of purity or innocence. See the notes on Revelation 3:5. Here the robes would be an emblem of their innocence as martyrs; of the divine approval of their testimony and lives, and a pledge of their future blessedness.
(4) The command to wait: And it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season. That is, that they must wait for a little season before they could be avenged as they desired, Revelation 6:10. They had pleaded that their cause might be at once vindicated, and had asked how long it would be before it should be done. The reply is, that the desired vindication would not at once occur, but that they must wait until other events were accomplished. Nothing definite is determined by the phrase “a little season,” or a short time. It is simply an intimation that this would not immediately occur, or was not soon to take place. Whether it refers to an existing persecution, and to the fact that they were to wait for the divine interposition until that was over, and those who were then suffering persecution should be put to death and join them; or whether to a series of persecutions stretching along in the history of the world, in such a sense that the promised vengeance would take place only when all those persecutions were passed, and the number of the martyrs completed, cannot be determined from the meaning of their words. Either of these suppositions would accord well with what the language naturally expresses.
Until their fellow-servants also - Those who were then suffering persecution, or those who should afterward suffer persecution, grouping all together.
And their brethren - Their brethren as Christians, and their brethren in trial: those then living, or those who would live afterward and pass through similar scenes.
Should be fulfilled - That is, until these persecutions were passed through, and the number of the martyrs was complete. The state of things represented here would seem to be, that there was then a persecution raging on the earth. Many had been put to death, and their souls had fled to heaven, where they pleaded that their cause might be vindicated, and that their oppressors and persecutors might be punished. To this the answer was, that they were now safe and happy - that God approved their course, and that in token of his approbation they should be clothed in white raiment; but that the invoked vindication could not at once occur. There were others who would yet be called to suffer as they had done, and they must wait until all that number was completed. Then, it is implied, God would interpose, and vindicate his name. The scene, therefore, is laid in a time of persecution, when many had already died, and when there were many more that were exposed to death; and a sufficient fulfillment of the passage, so far as the words are concerned, would be found in any persecution, where many might be represented as having already gone to heaven, and where there was a certainty that many more would follow.
We naturally, however, look for the fulfillment of it in some period succeeding those designated by the preceding symbols. There would be no difficulty, in the early history of the church, in finding events that would correspond with all that is represented by the symbol; but it is natural to look for it in a period succeeding that represented, under the fourth seal, by Death on the pale horse. If the previous seals have been correctly interpreted we shall not be much in danger of erring in supposing that this refers to the persecution under Diocletian; and perhaps we may find in one who never intended to write a word that could be construed as furnishing a proof of the fulfillment of the prophecies of the New Testament, what should be regarded as a complete verification of all that is represented here. The following particulars may justify this application:
(a) The place of that persecution in history, or the time when it occurred. As already remarked, if the previous seals have been rightly explained, and the fourth seal denotes the wars, the famine, and the pestilence, under the invasion of the Goths, and in the time of Valerian and Gallienus, then the last great persecution of the church under Diocletian would well accord with the period in history referred to. Valerian died in 260 a.d., being flayed alive by Sapor, king of Persia; Gallienus died in 268 a.d., being killed at Milan. Diocletian ascended the throne 284 a.d., and resigned the purple 304 a.d. It was during this period, and chiefly at the instigation of Galerius, that the tenth persecution of the Christians occurred - the last under the Roman power; for in 306 a.d. Constantine ascended the throne, and ultimately be, came the protector of the church.
(b) The magnitude of this persecution under Diocletian is as consonant to the representation here as its place in history. So important was it, that, in a general chapter on the persecutions of the Christians, Mr. Gibbon has seen fit, in his remarks on the nature, causes, extent, and character of the persecutions, to give a prominence to this which he has not assigned to any others, and to attach an importance to it which he has not to any other. See vol. i. pp. 317-322. The design of this persecution, as Mr. Gibbon expresses it (i. 318), was “to set bounds to the progress of Christianity”; or, as he elsewhere expresses it (on the same page), “the destruction of Christianity.” Diocletian, himself naturally averse from persecution, was excited to this by Galerius, who urged upon the emperor every argument by which he could persuade him to engage in it. Mr. Gibbon says in regard to this, “Galerius at length extorted from him (Diocletian) the permission of summoning a council, composed of a few persons, the most distinguished in the civil and military departments of the state. It may be presumed that they insisted on every topic which might interest the pride, the piety, the fears of their sovereign in the destruction of Christianity,” 1:318.
The purpose evidently in the persecution, was, to make a last and desperate effort, through the whole Roman empire, for the destruction of the Christian religion; for Mr. Gibbon (i. 320) says that “the edict against the Christians was designed for a general law of the whole empire.” Other efforts had failed. The religion still spread, notwithstanding the rage and fury of nine previous persecutions. It was resolved to make one more effort. This was designed by the persecutors to be the last, in the hope that then the Christian name would cease to be: in the providence of God it was the last - for then even these opposing powers became convinced that the religion could not be destroyed in this manner - and as this persecution was to establish this fact, it was an event of sufficient magnitude to be symbolized by the opening of one of the seals.
(c) The severity of this persecution accorded with the description here, and was such as to deserve a place in the series of important events which were to occur in the world. We have seen above, from the statement of Mr. Gibbon, that it was designed for the “whole empire,” and it in fact raged with fury throughout the empire. After detailing some of the events of local persecutions under Diocletian, Mr. Gibbon says, “The resentment or the fears of Diocletian at length transported him beyond the bounds of moderation, which he had hitherto preserved, and he declared, in a series of edicts, his intention of abolishing the Christian name. By the first of these edicts the governors of the provinces were directed to apprehend all persons of the ecclesiastical order; and the prisons destined for the vilest criminals were soon filled with a multitude of bishops, presbyters, deacons, and exorcists. By a second edict the magistrates were commanded to employ every method of severity which might reclaim them from their odious superstition, and oblige them to return to the established worship of the gods. This rigorous order was extended, by a subsequent edict, to the whole body of Christians, who were exposed to a violent and general persecution.
Instead of those salutary restraints which had required the direct and solemn testimony of an accuser, it became the duty as well as the interest of the imperial officers to discover, to pursue, and to torment the most obnoxious among the faithful. Heavy penalties were denounced against all who should presume to save a proscribed sectary from the just indignation of the gods, and of the emperors,” i. 322. The first decree against the Christians, at the instigation of Galerius, will show the general nature of this fiery trial of the church. That decree was to the following effect: “All assembling of the Christians for the purposes of religious worship was forbidden; the Christian churches were to be demolished to their foundations; all manuscripts of the Bible should be burned; those who held places of honor or rank must either renounce their faith or be degraded; in judicial proceedings the torture might be used against all Christians, of whatever rank; those belonging to the lower walks of private life were to be divested of their rights as citizens and as freemen; Christian slaves were to be incapable of receiving their freedom, so long as they remained Christians” (Neander, Hist. of the Church, Torrey’s Trans. i. 148).
This persecution was the last against the Christians by the Roman emperors; the last that was waged by that mighty pagan power. Diocletian soon resigned the purple, and after the persecution had continued to rage, with more or less severity, under his successors, for ten years, the peace of the church was established. “Diocletian,” says Mr. Gibbon (i. 322), “had no sooner published his edicts against the Christians, than, as if he had been committing to other hands his work of persecution, he divested himself of the imperial purple. The character and situation of his colleagues and successors sometimes urged them to enforce, and sometimes to suspend, the execution of these rigorous laws; nor can we acquire a just and distinct idea of this important period of ecclesiastical history, unless we separately consider the state of Christianity in the different parts of the empire, during the space of ten years which elapsed between the first edicts of Diocletian and the final peace of the church.”
For this detail consult Gibbon, i. 322-329, and the authorities there referred to; and Neander, History of the Church, i. 147-156. Respecting the details of the persecution, Mr. Gibbon remarks (i. 326), “It would have been an easy task, from the history of Eusebius, from the declamations of Lactantius, and from the most ancient acts, to collect a long series of horrid and disgustful pictures, and to fill many pages with racks and scourges, with iron-hooks, and red-hot beds, and with the variety of tortures which fire and steel, savage beasts, and more savage executioners, could inflict on the human body.” It is true that Mr. Gibbon professes to doubt the truth of these records, and attempts to show that the account of the number of the martyrs has been greatly exaggerated; yet no one, in reading his own account of this persecution, can doubt that it was the result of a determined effort to blot out the Christian religion, and that the whole of the imperial power was exerted to accomplish this end.
At length the last of the imperial persecutions ceased, and the great truth was demonstrated that Christianity could not be extinguished by power, and that “the gates of hell could not prevail against it.” “In the year 311,” says Neander (i. 156), “the remarkable edict appeared which put an end to the last sanguinary conflict of the Christian church and the Roman empire.” This decree was issued by the author and instigator of the persecution, Galerius, who, “softened by a severe and painful disease, the consequence of his excesses, had been led to think that the God of the Christians might, after all, be a powerful being, whose anger punished him, and whose favor he must endeavor to conciliate.” This man suspended the persecution, and gave the Christians permission “once more to hold their assemblies, provided they did nothing contrary to the good order of the Roman state.” “Ita ut ne quid contra disciplinam agant” (Neander, ibid.).
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal - See the notes at Revelation 5:1; Revelation 6:1.
And, lo, there was a great earthquake - Before endeavoring to ascertain to what the sixth seal was designed to refer, it is proper, as in the previous cases, to furnish a particular explanation of the meaning of the symbols. All the symbols represented in the opening of this seal denote consternation, commotion, changes; but still they are all significant, and we are to suppose that something would occur corresponding with each one of them. It cannot be supposed that the things here described were represented on the part of the roll or volume that was now unfolded in any other way than that they were pictures, or that the whole was a species of panoramic representation made to pass before the eyes. Thus understood, it would not be difficult to represent each one of these things in a painting: as the heaving ground - the agitated forests - the trembling hills - the falling cities and houses - the sun blackened, and the moon turned to blood:
(a) The earthquake, Revelation 6:12; “There was a great earthquake.” The word used here denotes a shaking or agitation of the earth. The effect, when violent, is to produce important changes - opening chasms in the earth; throwing down houses and temples; sinking hills, and elevating plains; causing ponds and lakes to dry up, or forming them where none existed; elevating the ocean from its bed, rending rocks, etc. As all that occurs in the opening of the other seals is symbolical, it is to be presumed that this is also, and that for the fulfillment of this we are not to look for a literal earthquake, but for such agitations and changes in the world as would be properly symbolized by this. The earthquake, as a symbol, would merely denote great agitations or overturnings on the earth. The particular character of those changes must be determined by other circumstances in the symbol that would limit and explain it.
There are, it is said, but three literal earthquakes referred to in the Scripture: that mentioned in 1 Kings 19:11; that in Uzziah’s time, Amos 1:1; Zechariah 14:5; and what took place at the Saviour’s death. All the rest are emblematical or symbolical-referring mostly to civil commotions and changes. Then in Haggai 2:6-7; “Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” That is, there would be great agitations in the world before he came. See the notes on Hebrews 12:26-28. So also great changes and commotions are referred to in Isaiah 24:19-20; “The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage.” An earthquake, if there were no other circumstances limiting and explaining the symbol, would merely denote great agitation and commotion - as if states and empires were tumbling to ruin. As this is here a mere symbol, it is not necessary to look for a literal fulfillment, or to expect to find in history actual earthquakes to which this had reference, anymore than when it is said that “the heavens departed as a scroll” we are to expect that they will be literally rolled up; but if, in the course of history, earthquakes preceded remarkable political convulsions and revolutions, it would be proper to represent such events in this way.
(b) The darkening of the sun: “And the sun became black as sackcloth of hair.” Sackcloth was a coarse black cloth, commonly, though not always, made of hair. It was used for sacks, for strainers, and for mourning garments; and as thus worn it was not an improper emblem of sadness and distress. The idea here is, that the sun put on a dark, dingy, doleful appearance, as if it were in mourning. The general image, then, in this emblem, is that of calamity - as if the very sun should put on the robes of mourning. We are by no means to suppose that this was literally to occur, but that some great calamity would happen, of which this would be an appropriate emblem. See the Isaiah 13:10 note; Matthew 24:29 note; Compare Isaiah 24:23; Isaiah 34:4; Isaiah 1:3; Isaiah 60:19-20; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10; Joel 3:15-16; Amos 8:9. What is the particular nature of the calamity is to be learned from other parts of the symbol.
(c) The discoloration of the moon: “And the moon became as blood.” Red like blood - either from the smoke and vapor that usually precedes an earthquake, or as a mere emblem. This also would betoken calamity, and perhaps the symbol may be so far limited and modified by this as to denote war, for that would be most naturally suggested by the color - red. Compare the notes on Revelation 6:4 of this chapter. But any great calamity would be appropriately represented by this - as the change of the moon to such a color would be a natural emblem of distress.
(d) The falling of the stars, Revelation 6:13; “And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth.” This language is derived from the poetic idea that the sky seems to be a solid concave, in which the stars are set, and that when any convulsion takes place, that concave will be shaken, and the stars will be loosened and fall from their places. See this language explained in the notes on Isaiah 34:4. Sometimes the expanse above us is spoken of as a curtain that is spread out, and that may be rolled up; sometimes as a solid crystalline expanse in which the stars are fixed. According to either representation the stars are described as falling to the earth. If the expanse is rolled up, the stars, having nothing to support them, fall if violent tempests or concussions shake the heavens, the stars, loosened from their fixtures, fall to the earth. Stars, in the Scriptures, are symbols of princes and rulers (see Daniel 8:10; Revelation 8:10-11; Revelation 9:1); and the natural meaning of this symbol is, that there would be commotions which would unsettle princes, and bring them down from their thrones - like stars falling from the sky.
Even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs - Mart., “green”; Greek, ὀλύνθους olunthous. This word properly denotes “winter-figs,” or such as grow under the leaves, and do not ripen at the proper season, but hang upon the trees during the winter (Robinson, Lexicon). This fruit seldom matures, and easily falls off in the spring of the year (Stuart, in loco). A violent wind shaking a plantation of fig-trees would of course cast many such figs to the ground. The point of the comparison is, the ease with which the stars would seem to be shaken from their places, and hence, the ease with which, in these commotions, princes would be dethroned.
(e) The departing of the heavens, Revelation 6:14; “And the heaven departed as a scroll.” That is, as a book or volume - βιβλίον biblion - rolled up. The heavens are here described as spread out, and their passing away is represented by the idea that they might be rolled up, and thus disappear. See the notes on Isaiah 34:4. This, too, is a symbol, and we are not to suppose that it will literally occur. Indeed it never can literally occur; and we are not, therefore, to look for the fulfillment of this in any physical fact that would correspond with what is here said. The plain meaning is, that there would be changes as if such an event would happen; that is, that revolutions would occur in the high places of the earth, and among those in power, as if the stars should fall, and the very heavens were swept away. This is the natural meaning of the symbol, and this accords with the usage of the language elsewhere.
(f) The removal of mountains and islands, Revelation 6:14; “And every mountain and island were moved out of their places.” This would denote convulsions in the political or moral world, as great as would occur in the physical world if the very mountains were removed and the islands should change their places. We are not to suppose that this would literally occur; but we should be authorized from this to expect that, in regard to those things which seemed to be permanent and fixed on an immov able basis, like mountains and islands, there would be violent and important changes. If thrones and dynasties long established were overthrown; if institutions that seemed to be fixed and per manent were abolished; if a new order of things should rise in the political world, the meaning of the symbol, so far as the language is concerned, would be fulfilled.
(g) The universal consternation, Revelation 6:15-17; “And the kings of the earth, etc.” The design of these verses Revelation 6:15-17, in the varied language used, is evidently to denote universal consternation and alarm - as if the earth should be convulsed, and the stars should fall, and the heavens should pass away. This consternation would extend to all classes of people, and fill the world with alarm, as if the end of all things were coming.
The kings of the earth - Rulers - all who occupied thrones.
The great men - High officers of state.
And the rich men - Their wealth would not secure them from destruction, and they would be alarmed like others.
And the chief captains - The commanders of armies, who tremble like other men when God appears judgment.
And the mighty men - Men of great prowess in battle, but who feel now that they have no power to withstand God.
And every bondman - Servant - δοῦλος doulos. This word does not necessarily denote a slave (compare the Ephesians 6:5 note; 1 Timothy 6:1 note; Philemon 1:16 note), but here the connection seems to demand it, for it stands in contrast with freeman. There were, in fact, slaves in the Roman empire, and there is no objection in supposing that they are here referred to. There is no reason why they should not be filled with consternation as well as others; and as this does not refer to the end of the world, or the day of judgment, the word here determines nothing as to the question whether slavery is to continue on the earth.
And every freeman - Whether the master of slaves or not. The idea is, that all classes of people, high and low, would be filled with alarm.
Hid themselves in the dens - Among the caves or caverns in the mountains. See the notes on Isaiah 2:19. These places were resorted to for safety in times of danger. Compare 1 Samuel 13:6; 1 Samuel 24:0; Judges 6:2; Jeremiah 41:9; Josephus, Antiq. book 14, chapter 15; Jewish Wars, book 1, chapter 16.
And in the rocks of the mountains - Among the crags or the fastnesses of the mountains - also natural places of refuge in times of hostile invasion or danger. See the notes on Isaiah 2:21.
And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, ... - Revelation 6:16. This language is found substantially in Hosea 10:8; “And they shall say to the mountains, Cover us; and to the hills, Fall on us.” It is also used by the Saviour as denoting the consternation which would occur at his coming: “Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us,” Luke 23:30. It is language denoting consternation, and an awful fear of impending wrath. The state of mind is that where there is an apprehension that God himself is coming forth with the direct instruments of his vengeance, and where there is a desire rather to be crushed by falling rocks and hills than by the vengeance of his uplifted arm.
From the face of him that sitteth on the throne - The face of God - for he seems to be coming forth with the displays of his vengeance. It is not said that God would actually come forth in a visible form, lint their consternation would be as great as if he were to do this; the state of mind indicated by this was an apprehension that it would be so.
And from the wrath of the Lamb - The Lamb of God; the Lord Jesus. See the notes on Revelation 5:6. There seems to be an incongruity between the words “wrath,” and “Lamb”; but the word “Lamb” here is so far a proper name as to be used only to designate the Redeemer. He comes forth to execute wrath, not as a Lamb, but as the Son of God, who bore that name. It would seem from this that they who thus dreaded the impending terrors were aware of their source, or had knowledge enough to understand by whom they were to be inflicted. They would see that these were divine judgments, and would apprehend that the end of the world drew near.
For the great day of his wrath is come - Revelation 6:17. The threatening judgments would be so severe and awful that they would suppose that the end of the world was coming.
And who shall be able to stand? - To stand before him, or to withstand his judgments.
It is unnecessary to say that there has been, in this case, as in reference to every other part of the Book of Revelation, a great diversity of opinion respecting the events symbolized by this seal. Grotius applied it to the wars between the Jews and Romans under Nero and Vespasian; Dr. Hammond supposed that the defeat of the Jewish leaders in those wars was particularly symbolized; Mr. Brightman referred these symbols to the persecution under Diocletian; Mr. Mede, Dr. Cressner, Dr. More, Mr. Whiston, Mr. Jurien, Mr. Daubuz, Mr. Lowman, Dr. Newton, Mr. Elliott, and others, refer it to the defeat of the pagan powers, and the final suppression of those powers as opposed to Christianity; Vitringa regarded it as foreshadowing the overthrow of the anti-Christian powers of the western Roman empire; Cocceius explains it of the wars of the Emperor Frederick against the German princes in the sixteenth century; Dr. Woodhouse, of the day of vengeance at the end of the world; Mr. Cunninghame, of the same period as the seventh trumpet, commencing with the French revolution, and to be consummated by the visible advent of the Son of God; Prof. Stuart, of the destruction of Jerusalem; and Mr. Lord, of a series of events, part of which are fulfilled, three of them corresponding with the first three vials - the first expressive of the revolution of France, the second of despotism extending through several rears, and the third of the overthrow of that violent dynasty, at the fall of Bonaparte, in 1815.
It is not my purpose to examine these views; but, amidst this great variety of opinion, it seems to me that the obvious and natural application of the opening of the seal has not been adverted to. I shall suggest it because it is the most natural and obvious, and seems to be demanded by the explanations given of the previous seals. It is, in one word, the impending judgments from the invasions of the northern hordes of Goths and Vandals, threatening the breaking up of the Roman empire - the gathering of the storm, and the hovering of those barbarians on the borders of the empire; the approaches which they made from time to time toward the capital, though restrained as yet from taking it; the tempest of wrath that was, as it were, suspended yet on the frontiers, until the events recorded in the next chapter should occur, then bursting forth in wrath in successive blasts, as denoted by the first four trumpets of the seventh seal Revelation 8:1-13, when the empire was entirely overthrown by the Goths and Vandals. The precise point of time which I suppose this seal occupies is that succeeding the last persecution.
It embraces the preparatory arrangements of these hordes of invaders - their gathering on the frontiers of the empire - their threatened approaches toward the capital - and the formation of such vast armies as would produce universal consternation. A brief notice of these preparatory scenes, as adapted to produce the alarm referred to in the opening of the sixth seal, is all that will be necessary here; the more complete detail must be reserved for the explanation of the four trumpets of the seventh seal, when the work of destruction was consummated. These preparations and threatened invasions were events sufficiently important in their relation to the church, to what preceded, and to the future history of the world, to be symbolized here; and they are events in which all the particulars of the symbol may find a fulfillment. Anyone has only to took on a chart of history to see how appropriately this application of the symbol follows, if the previous explanations have been correct. In the illustration of this, in order to show the probability that these events are referred to by the symbols of the sixth seal, I would submit the following remarks:
(1) The time is what would be naturally suggested by this seal in its relation to the others. If the fifth referred to the persecutions under Diocletian - the last great persecution of the pagan powers in attempting to extinguish the Christian name - then we should naturally look for the fulfillment of the opening of the next in some event, or series of events, which would succeed that at no very distant interval, and that pertained to the empire or power that had been the prominent subject of the predictions in the previous seals. It would also be natural to look for some events that might be regarded as conveying an expression of the divine feeling in regard to that power, or that would present it in such an aspect that it would be seen that its power to persecute was at an end. This natural expectation would be answered either by some symbol that would refer to the complete triumph of the Christian system, or by such a series of judgments as would break the persecuting power itself in pieces. Now the threatened irruption of the northern barbarians followed the series of events already described with sufficient nearness to make it proper to regard that series of events as referred to.
(2) The events were of sufficient importance in the history of the empire to deserve this notice in the foreshadowing of what would occur. They were connected with the breaking up of that mighty power, and the complete change of the aspect of the world, in a political and religious point of view. A new order of things arose in the world’s history. A new religion became established. New kingdoms from the fragments of the once-mighty Roman empire were founded, and the affairs of the world were put on a new footing. These mighty northern hordes not only spread consternation and alarm, as if the world were coming to an end, but they laid the foundations of kingdoms which continue to this day. In fact, few more important events have occurred in history.
(3) This series of events was introduced in the manner described in the opening of the sixth seal. I have already said that it is not necessary to suppose, in the fulfillment of the symbol, that there would be a literal earthquake; but nothing in the symbol forbids us to suppose that there might be, and if there were we could not but consider it as remarkable. Now it so happens that the series of events pertaining to the Gothic invasions is introduced by Mr. Gibbon in the following language: “365 a.d. In the second year of the reign of Valentinian and Valens, on the morning of the twenty-first day of July, the greatest part of the Roman world was shaken by a violent and destructive earthquake. The impression was communicated to the waters; the shores of the Mediterranean were left dry by the sudden retreat of the sea; great quantities of fish were caught with the hand; large vessels were stranded on the mud; and a curious spectator amused his eye, or rather his fancy, by contemplating the various appearances of valleys and mountains which had never before, since the formation of the globe, been exposed to the sun. But the tide soon returned, with the weight of an immense and irresistible deluge, which was severely felt on the coasts of Sicily, of Dalmatia, of Greece, and of Egypt; large boats were transported, and lodged on the roofs of houses, or at the distance of two miles from the shore; the people, with their habitations, were swept away by the waters; and the city of Alexandria annually commemorated the day on which fifty thousand persons had lost their lives in the inundation.
This calamity, the report of which was magnified from one province to another, astonished and terrified the subjects of Rome; and their affrighted imagination enlarged the real extent of the momentary evil. They recollected the preceding earthquakes which had subverted the cities of Palestine and Bithynia; they considered these alarming strokes as the prelude only of still more dreadful calamities, and their fearful vanity was disposed to confound the symptoms of a declining empire and a sinking world,” vol. ii. pp. 115, 116. Mr. Gibbon then proceeds to detail the evils of war, as greatly surpassing the calamities produced by any natural causes, and adds (p. 116), “In the disastrous period of the fall of the Roman empire, which may be justly dated from the reign of Valens, the happiness and security of each individual was personally attacked; and the arts and labors of ages were rudely defaced by the barbarians of Scythia and Germany.” He then proceeds with an exceedingly interesting description of the origin, the habits, and the movements of the Tartar nations, particularly the Huns, as they moved to the West, and precipitated the Gothic nations on the provinces of the Roman empire, until Rome itself was thrice besieged, was taken, and was sacked (ii. 116-266).
The earthquake referred to occurred in 365 a.d. The movements of the Huns from their territories in the neighborhood of China had commenced about 100 a.d., and in 375 a.d. they overcame the Goths lying along the Danube. The Goths, pressed and overcome by these savage invaders, asked permission of the Romans to cross the Danube, to find protection in the Roman empire, and to cultivate the waste lands of Thrace (Gibbon, ii. 129, 130). In the year 376 they were transported over the Danube, by the permission of the Roman emperor Valens; an event which, according to Mr. Gibbon, in its ultimate result, was the cause of the downfall of the empire; for they learned their own strength; they were attracted by the riches of the capital and the hope of reward, until they finally drew the Western emperor to Ravenna, sacked Rome, and took possession of Italy.
(4) A slight reference to the series of events in these periods of consternation and conquest may show more closely the nature of the alarms which would be caused by the prospect of these dreadful invasions, and may prepare us for a better understanding of the successive calamities which occurred under these invaders, when the empire fell, as described by the four first trumpets of the seventh seal. I shall copy from the tables of contents of Mr. Gibbon’s history, under the twenty-sixth, thirtieth, and thirty-first chapters:
|376||The Huns and Goths.|
|100||The emigration of the Huns.|
|375||Their victories over the Goths.|
|376||The Goths implore the protection of Valens.|
|376||They are transported over the Danube into the Roman Empire.|
|376||They penetrate into Thrace.|
|377||Union of the Goths with Huns, Alani, etc.|
|378||Battle of Hadrianople.|
|378||The defeat of the Romans.|
|383-395||The settlement of the Goths in Thrace and Asia.|
|395||Revolt of the Goths.|
|396||Alaric marches into Greece.|
|398||Is proclaimed king of the Visigoths.|
|400-403||He invades Italy.|
|406||Radagaisus invades Italy.|
|406||The remainder of the Germans invade Gaul.|
|407||Desolation of Gaul.|
|408||Alaric marches to Rome.|
|408||First siege of Rome by the Goths.|
|408||Famine, plague, superstition.|
|409||Alaric accepts a ransom and raises the siege.|
|409||Fruitless negotiations for peace.|
|409||Second siege of Rome by the Goths.|
|410||Third siege and sack of Rome by the Goths.|
|410||Respect of the Goths for the Christian religion.|
|410||Pillage and fire of Rome.|
|410||Captives and fugitives.|
|411-416||Fall of the usurpers Jovinus, Sebastian, and Attalus.|
|409||Invasion of Spain by the Suevi, Vandals, Alani, etc.|
|415-418||The Goths conquer and restore Spain.”|
(5) This would coincide, in the effects produced on the empire, with the consternation and alarm described in the passage before us. The symbols are such as would be employed on the supposition that these are the events referred to; they are such as the events are suited to suggest. The mighty preparations in the East and North - the report of which could not but spread through the empire - would be appropriately symbolized by the earthquake, the darkened sun, the moon becoming like blood, the stars falling, the departing heavens, and the kings and great men of the earth fleeing in alarm to find a place of safety, as if the end of the world were drawing near. Nothing could have been so well adapted to produce the consternation described in the opening of the sixth seal, as the dreaded approach of vast hosts of barbarians from the regions of the North. This alarm would be increased by the fact that their numbers were unknown; that their origin was hidden; and that the advancing multitudes would sweep everything before them.
As in other cases, also, rumour would increase their numbers and augment their ferocity. The sudden shock of an earthquake, the falling stars, the departing heavens, the removal of mountains and islands, and the consternation of kings and all classes of people, would be the appropriate emblems to represent these impending calamities. In confirmation of this, and as showing the effect produced by the approach of the Goths, and the dread of the Gothic arms, in causing universal consternation, the following extracts may be adduced from Mr. Gibbon, when describing the threatened invasion of Alaric, king of the Visigoths. He quotes from Claudian. “‘Fame,’ says the poet,’ encircling with terror her gloomy wings, proclaimed the march of the barbarian army, and filled Italy with consternation.’” Mr. Gibbon adds, “the apprehensions of each individual were increased in just proportion to the measure of his fortune; and the most timid, who had already embarked their valuable effects, meditated their escape to the island of Sicily, or to the African coast. The public distress was aggravated by the fears and reproaches of superstition. Every hour produced some horrid tale of strange and portentous accidents; the pagans deplored the neglect of omens and the interruption of sacrifices; but the Christians still derived some comfort from the powerful intercession of the saints and martyrs,” ii. 218, 219. See further illustrations in the notes on Revelation 8:7-13.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Revelation 6". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent