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Vs. 1-8. The Lamb successively opens four seals, and there come out in order four horses and their riders; one horse white, one red, one black, and one pale. Here are the four horses of the Apocalypse, a phrase recently made popular.
The first rider had a bow and a crown and went forth conquering and to conquer. This was conquest by military power. We consider this figure entirely different from the rider in the nineteenth chapter who went forth with a sword in his mouth and who conquered by the power of the word.
The second, a red horse and rider, represented war. The third was famine. A measure of wheat, about a quart, for a penny, a days wages, indicates scarcity. So does the reference to the oil and wine. Scarcity is always the effect of war. The fourth horse and rider symbolized death. The text declares the identification.
These four are an inseparable quartette; conquest, war, famine, death. Where you find the first you will find the other three.
Now in interpreting these symbols the question naturally arises, do they refer to world history in general, or to some specific time? And, if to any specific time, what time is referred to? Well it is always true that where there is worldly conquest, there is war; and where there is war, there follow famine and death. There can be no doubt that this is a true description of conquest and war whenever and wherever observed. Yet no doubt this series of seals had some specific reference to times that concerned John and the churches addressed.
There has been wide diversity of opinion as to the specific times represented by these seals. Some have fixed the point of the first seal several centuries in advance of the time of the writing; and then assumed that the seals were successive, and made them cover each its period of centuries far down into history, and some to the end of the world.
Many commentators have been wont to find in the book of Revelation at this point and other points the history of their own times or recent times. Many have professed to find a considerable amount of European history in the book of Revelation, especially the persecutions of the Papal church directed against the Reformers, and particularly involving the Waldenses and the Albigenses. The Papacy has come in for a good deal of comment from this book of Revelation. We doubt if it is by any means legitimate as a matter of strict interpretation. Even though the Papacy may have enough sins to answer for, it is more than doubtful if they are in this book by way of definite mention.
Others put these events, represented by the seals, in a future time, not yet come to pass; assigning them to the end of the age or the last times. This would make them have no practical reference to the age in which they were written, and remove them far from the times and circumstances of John and his churches and the churches of his day. There are good reasons for thinking that they were addressed to the churches of that day, because they had direct reference to the times and circumstances in which they lived and suffered, and call up situations that existed then and never afterwards.
Moreover there is no reason for assuming that these four seals or four horses are successive events to the extent of representing successive ages. It is not true to fact that conquest comes in one age, war in another, famine in another, and death in another. They all belong to the same age; they are parts of the same affair; they all go together, conquest, war, famine, death. And if these symbols point to any specific time there is every reason to believe that they point to the very period in which John was writing and in which his churches were living; and that they had specific reference to the last days of the Jewish state, at the destruction of Jerusalem. They were just then facing the very things which these horses represented. This is evident because:
1st. The declaration had been repeatedly made that this revelation concerned things that must shortly come to pass.
2nd. Christ, in Mat_24:1-51 , Mar_13:1-37 , and Luk_21:1-38 , had described the wars and desolations, the pestilences, famines, and earthquakes that should precede the fall of Jerusalem; and John and Christ are evidently describing the same events, to happen at the same time, on the same city, and in nearly the same terms. And Christ had said that "this generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled." A recent writer has recognized that Christ and John are describing the same events but strangely assigns them to a future period called the Tribulation. Due heed to the wording of Luke's account would have saved him and others from making such a blunder.
3rd. These scenes lead up to and culminate in the eleventh chapter where we find the temple and altar measured and the holy city trodden under foot. That ends the seals and the trumpets that came out of the seventh seal, and marks a division of the book, at the end of the eleventh chapter. Now if this series of visions culminates in the fall of Jerusalem, then we think the time is thus definitely indicated.
4th. The calamities that came on the Jewish people, their city, and land, were awful and terrible enough to be described by these striking symbols and by the more glaring descriptions to be found at the end of the chapter.
There is no period of history that so literally fulfills these events, as the destruction of Jerusalem. When men put them away in the future they only assert something that is incapable either of proof or disproof. Josephus has written the history of those times, without knowing these prophecies, and he has written such a fulfillment of them as shows very clearly that the history was the fulfillment of the prophecy.
That Jewish war broke out in 66 A. D. It is doubtful if any thing before or since has equaled it for ruthless slaughter, and merciless destruction. From the locality of these churches in Asia Minor to the borders of Egypt the land was a slaughter house. City after city was wrecked, sacked, and burned; till it was recorded that cities were left without an inhabitant.
Christ had said: "There shall be great tribulation such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no nor ever shall be." Thirty five thousand Jews slaughtered on the streets of Caesarea. Besides the cities of Asia Minor and Judea, we are told that fifteen strong cities of Galilee were taken by storm and the masses of men, women, and children butchered.
When the Roman armies invested Jerusalem, three millions of Jews had crowded into the city to celebrate their annual Passover. Scarcely as many thousands escaped. We are strongly disposed to feel that the events justified this lurid prophecy.
We have run a little ahead of the exposition, for the strongest words are at the end of this chapter which we have not yet reached in our expository remarks.
Vs. 9-11. The fifth seal was opened and John saw the souls of those slain for the word of God, and the testimony which they held. Where were they? Under the altar in heaven, which doubtless means at the foot of the altar. Who were these martyrs? The saints that had recently fallen in the persecutions; very likely Antipas, from the church of Pergamos, being one of them. What were they doing? Praying and saying: "How long dost thou not avenge us and punish these murderers on earth?" which would indicate that these persecutors were still alive on earth. It would seem to them, and naturally, that truth was being destroyed; the church killed; and every thing that was just and right was being outraged, and the people of God suffering as if God had forgotten. So they pray: How long, O Lord, how long?
How was their prayer answered? White robes were given them showing that they had conquered and were approved; and perhaps this suggested that their cause on earth would likewise eventually triumph. But they were told that it would be a little while yet before judgment fell on their persecutors, and that a few more martyrs would fall and join them before the carnage would cease. This would be assurance both to those in heaven and on earth, that although the persecution was severe, it would be short and their triumph sure. Christ had already said: "For the elect's sake those days shall be shortened."
Vs. 12-14. The sixth seal was opened and there was an earthquake; the sun became black; the moon became like blood; the stars fell; the heavens departed as a scroll; and the mountains and islands were moved out of their places. All these signs had been used by the Old Testament prophets, and were not new as symbols of prophecy. And we may add that nearly all the visions of the Revelation borrow their imagery from the Old Testament, and this is some help to their meaning.
It may doubtless be taken for granted that these convulsions of nature were seen in vision and are not to be looked upon as actual occurrences. As no one would assume that the four horses actually rode over the earth, but were symbolical representations of things that were to happen, so these convulsions of nature were probably to be understood in the same way; that is, not a prophecy that the sun would literally grow black, and stars fall, and islands and mountains be moved. Yet even such things could be, and maybe some of them did happen in earthquakes and cosmical changes, in that time, and may happen again. Yet perhaps more probably, these convulsions of nature were projected in the vision, in order to portend convulsions of another kind among men. Striking and terrible things seen in the visions foretold striking and terrible judgments upon the wicked persecutors of the church. And I am not sure but that it is a feature of Biblical symbolism to make sun, moon, and stars, and such phenomena to represent the strong social and political powers, or men in high places like kings, princes, o r priests, or high officials of church and state. And in confirmation you will notice that the following verses refer to just such men, as if to be a sort of commentary on these symbols. And so these convulsions seen in the vision might reasonably refer to the breaking up of the strong political combinations of that day, and the fall of those who stood at their head.
Vs. 15-17. These verses close the chapter and complete the vision. John saw that the kings, great men, rich men, mighty men, bond and free, hid themselves in the dens and mountains, and cried to the rocks and mountains to fall on them and hide them from the face of him that sat on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the day of his wrath is come and who shall be able to stand?
The persecuted Christians had often been compelled to flee and hide, as many did, in dens, and mountains, and in the catacombs; but now the tables are turned and the persecutors are fleeing and hiding.
This may have been intended as an encouragement to the suffering saints of John's day, to show that their time of triumph was approaching. But if any one thinks that this description is too terrible to apply to the destruction of Jerusalem, and to those historical events, I will just remind him again that it was as terrible a thing as the world has known. And if any one thinks that this symbolism outstrips the event, and must apply to the final judgment at the end of the world, then I may further remark that it is also a feature of prophecy that it sometimes looks beyond the near judgment or event as if the near had suggested the remote. It may be so here. It is possible that the vision looks away off beyond the events at Jerusalem to the final judgment of the world. And yet it is quite probable that these startling symbols, and more startling descriptions, may all refer to the terrible events that were ready to break upon the heads of the people of John's day, and in the sight of the churches to which he wrote. But of this we may be sure that if God did not with-hold judgment then, he will not do so now or ever. All sin and sinners must face the wrath of the Lamb, and all combinations of wicked men shall go down as did those wicked persecutors of Christ's church in the days of John. The Lord reigneth and he must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet.
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the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29