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by David Scott Clark
It seems desirable to state in the beginning that this exposition of The Revelation seeks to present the obvious meaning of the Apocalypse as it appears in the text taken at its face value, including its many references to other parts of the Scriptures. We have not tried to force the book into the molds of any theory; but to ask, what does the book say and what does it evidently mean?
In the pursuit of this purpose we have been led to pass criticism upon the premillennial view of the Apocalypse. We trust such criticism has not been unduly pressed; but since the view in question is somewhat prevalent at the present time, and is backed with a considerable literature it has received more than a passing notice in the present volume. This statement is made because the writer desires to disclaim antagonism to the premillennialists for whom he entertains a very high regard and whom he counts as his friends. For while the writer dissents from that particular doctrine he stands firmly by and with the premillennialist in his defense of the integrity, authority and inspiration of the holy Scriptures; and would define himself as a postmillennial fundamentalist.
The writer acknowledges indebtedness to a variety of sources; among others to Archdeacon Farrar, in his various works on the New Testament.
Professor William Milligan, in the Expositor's Bible Series.
The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,
David Keppel, The Book of Revelation not a Mystery.
David Brown, The Structure of the Apocalypse; rather vague and sketchy.
C. I. Scofield, J. H. McConkey and others from the pre-millennial side. But chiefly to a scholar now unhappily too much forgotten, viz. Professor Henry Cowles whose commentary on the entire Bible evinces profound scholar ship, extensive information, penetrating insight, sound common sense, practical judgment, and better than all, entire loyalty to the authority of God's word.
That this little book may honor God, extend the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and clarify the thoughts of its readers on what is considered a difficult portion of the holy Scriptures, is the desire and prayer of the writer.
DAVID S. CLARK, 2438 North 19th Street, Philadelphia, Pa.
The present volume is the outgrowth of a series of sermons on the book of Revelation delivered by the writer to the church of which he is the pastor. The series was undertaken with no thought of publication, and while the subject matter has been somewhat modified and enlarged, some evidences of the original purpose may still be apprehensible in style and verbiage, at least in certain of its parts. The colloquialisms are thus explained.
It was part of the writer's early discipline to commit to memory and to recite the entire book of Revelation; and subsequent study has led him to a view of its purpose and meaning which, he is confident, will meet the approval of scholarly and discriminating interpreters.
The literature on The Revelation is voluminous, and the views so various, that the present volume cannot be burdened with a review of them. The critical discussions concern the difference between the Apocalypse and the gospel of John as to language and style, thus affecting the question of authorship; whether the Apocalypse is to be regarded as a part and piece of the older apocalyptic writings; whether it is a unity, or composite after the style of documentary hypotheses; whether its origin is to be found in Babylonian mythology; the limits of time embraced in Revelation; its application to Jew, Roman, Saracen, Turk, Papacy, French Revolution etc., and a score of such questions. For an outline of this literature and a discussion of these questions the reader is referred to a standard Introduction, or to a Religious Cyclopedia, such as the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
So much difference of opinion and confusion of thought exists in the interpretation of various sections of the book that these differences cannot all be traversed; and their omission is preferable to their inclusion. The purpose of this volume is to give a clear, sane, and sensible exposition without confusing the reader with unnecessary references. And we are hopeful that the interpretation given will commend itself.
Interpreters have been usually classified as
1. praeterist [preterist], regarding the prophecies as already fulfilled;
2. futurist , placing the whole book in the times of the millennium and the second advent;
3. historical , the fulfillment issuing in the continuous progress of the church and kingdom on to the end. This classification is not exact as no one can be altogether a praeterist or a futurist.
Even when one agrees with the general plan of some of these writers he must often differ largely in his conception of certain events and sections. This may be said of such praeterist writers e.g. as Moses Stuart, admirable in general, faulty in particulars. Some of the older praeterist interpreters found too much medieval history in the Apocalypse, and some modern writers ignore the historical features entirely. The former seek to interpret the book by coincidences of history, and the latter seek to impose upon the book a preconceived theory.
Prof. William Milligan of Aberdeen University has been read so widely that his work on the Revelation is perhaps the best known to modern readers. The church will ever be indebted to Prof. Milligan for his scholarly work, his pains-taking study,and his grasp of the subject in general and in detail. However it seems to the writer that Prof. Milligan has not done justice to the historical elements in the Apocalypse. He has leveled down the historical promontories till they are almost indistinguishable. The key to the book lies in just what Prof. Milligan has underestimated, admirable in other respects as his work is. When one gets clearly into his vision the outstanding land-marks of time with which John is dealing, much of the mystery and difficulty of the Revelation will disappear. To this end we hope this little volume will serve the discriminating reader.
A flood of literature on the Apocalypse is being presented to the public from Premillennial sources. All this literature absolutely ignores the historical situations, and presents a one-sided and inadequate treatment of the Apocalypse.
A very recent work is, The Revelation of John, by Prof. Arthur S. Peake, A.M. D.D. Professor of Biblical Exegesis in the University of Manchester, England. This work is scholarly, as we would expect from the pen of Prof. Peake, full of the literature on the subject, though not so much an interpretation of the book as a discussion of the outstanding problems of The Revelation. Prof. Peake is well informed on the questions raised, and familiar with past and current opinion, but perhaps too sparing of a definite conclusion. One feels that his work is punctuated with more interrogation points than periods, and turns away rather unsatisfied, with the wish that something more had been said. Prof. Peake holds to the Domitian date of the writing, or what is called the traditional date. In the latter half of last century the tide of scholarly opinion turned toward the Neronian date. At the present time there is some return to the traditional view of which Prof. Peake is an example. The present writer is convinced that the Neronian date is sustained by the internal evidence and that a later date increases the difficulties of interpretation if it does not render impossible a satisfactory explanation of large portions.
It is scarcely pertinent to present here the accepted rules of interpretation. However there is a view of prophetic interpretation, requiring some consideration in reference to passages in The Revelation, which may be appropriately mentioned. We refer to the day-for-a-year theory as applied to prophetic time. Dr. A. R. Fausset, joint author of a Critical and Practical Commentary, mentions it with approval and cites certain considerations to support the view; but admits that it cannot always be applied. We think it would be more correct if he had said that it can never be applied. The grounds for such a view will not bear examination.
1. Reference is made to Num_14:33-34 . "Your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years. After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years." There is no proof here that a day in prophecy means a year. God said that they should wander forty years and forty years they wandered. Had God said they should wander forty days and the time turned out to be forty years the theory might claim some support, but that is not the case. God said forty years, and the prophetic time and the actual time tally exactly. That they should wander one year for every day they searched the land was embraced in the prophecy itself. It is therefore no proof that a day in prophecy means a year in fulfillment.
2. Eze_4:4-6 . Ezekiel was told to lie on his left side 390 days and on his right side 40 days for a sign to Israel of their iniquity. "I have appointed thee each day for a year." It is outside of all reason that Ezekiel lay on his left side 390 years and 40 years longer on his right side. That would be incredible longevity for Ezekiel's day. Nor is there any known sense in which there was a subsequent fulfillment in periods of 390 and 40 years respectively. And if this refers, as it probably does, to years of antecedent transgression, it is not the lengthening of a day to a year, but the shortening of a year to a day; and is but a symbolism and not a method of interpreting prophecy.
3. Daniel's seventy weeks gives no justification of the theory in question; since the prophecy embraces seventy sevens or heptads which naturally and evidently refers to years, seventy sevens of years or 490 years till the Messiah.
4. The flood which was predicted for forty days did not last forty years.
5. The seven years of famine in Egypt were not 360 times 7 or the storehouses of Egypt would have been inadequate.
6. It was prophesied that Nebuchadnezzar should be driven out with the beasts of the field and eat grass as oxen till seven times should pass over him. If the seven years are taken literally it is quite feasible; but if 7 is to be multiplied by 360 making 2520 years, it is rather an extraordinary time for a limited diet.
7. "A thousand years is with the Lord as one day, and one day as a thousand years." If this proved anything in the matter it would prove too much or too little. It does not say that a day is a year or a thousand years, or vice versa; but as such to the Lord.
The theory of a day for a year is entirely without warrant in the Scriptures. Time in the Scriptures is usually to be taken literally, though certain periods are often used indefinitely, or given in round numbers, or used symbolically to explain some idea with which the number has been associated. There are frequent references in The Revelation to periods of time for the proper interpretation of which this discussion has been introduced.
THE BOOK OF REVELATION.
FORASMUCH as many have taken in hand to set forth, in recent days, a declaration of the things contained in this book, many of which are fanciful and fallacious, it seemed good to me also, having better understanding and insight into its meaning and mysteries, to write out in order the true interpretation thereof.
To the ordinary reader this is a very difficult book; it belongs to an apocalyptical literature to which the occidental mind is unaccustomed. It is far removed from our tastes and styles. The complexity of the visions becomes confusing and the meaning of its symbolism is not readily apprehended by those who have not gone deeply into the subject.
We hope to make it both clear and interesting, and practical as well; for there is no book of the Holy Scripture however abstruse in thought, or mystical in meaning, or symbolical in presentation that has not its practical and spiritual values for the present day Christian. This we will find to be true of Revelation. But what does it mean? Is it historical, prophetical, or both? Is it past or future? Has it been fulfilled, does it deal with the present day world events, or with things yet to come upon the stage of the world's affairs?
Is it all about the Premillennial doctrine of the Second Coming, or is that read into it by men of large imagination? How are these questions to be answered? Are they not interesting? The man on the street becomes enthusiastic over a game of checkers or chess, or the solution of a riddle, and although he may not have the genius of a Champollion who deciphered the hieroglyphics, the seeming riddles of The Revelation should at least challenge his interest and enthusiasm.
Before entering upon an exposition of the text, there are certain things to be considered essential to the proper understanding of the whole.
Who wrote The Revelation? When the text tells us it was John it adds no explanation to tell us definitely what John it was. It does not say, John, the son of Zebedee, or John, the brother of James, it does not say, the beloved disciple, or the disciple whom Jesus loved, or the disciple who leaned on Jesus' breast at supper. All this was unnecessary. To say John was sufficient. Any other John would need a descriptive epithet, but there was one John who needed none.
There can be no doubt what John is meant, and but few have ever risen to dispute it. It is as though we should say Roosevelt. Though there are many Roosevelts, all the world understands what Roosevelt is meant by the unqualified name. There has been but little doubt and can be but little, that John the Apostle wrote the Revelation. This conviction is strengthened by some positive evidence, in that he is called in Rev_1:1 the servant of Christ, and in Rev_1:9 calls himself your brother and companion in tribulation.
II. To whom was the book written.
It is formally addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Rev_1:4 "John to the seven churches which are in Asia." Just as Paul addressed his letters to Timothy or Titus or to the churches at Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Colosse, etc., so here John addresses this book to the seven churches of Asia. As John had supervision of these churches in Asia it was altogether to be expected that they would be the recipients of his communications.
The churches in question are those at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The order in which they are named is topographical, being the order in which the apostle would come in any itinerary; and it has nothing whatever to do with their degrees of loyalty to, or defection from, the faith, or any supposed typology of subsequent ages.
The book however, although addressed to the seven churches, has its lessons to all ages; just as the epistles of Paul addressed to the churches of Galatia, Thessalonica, etc. are authoritative to all other churches of the Christian faith. But when this is said, it must ever be remembered, as a sound principle of interpretation, that when a book or epistle is addressed to a particular church or people it has primary reference to their condition, needs, and times. It must be, for the most part, intelligible to those to whom it is addressed. If not intelligible it is therefore a dead letter to them, and to all who cannot apprehend its meaning; and all revelation is intended for apprehension and not for misapprehension.
We may admit that there are a few things in the prophetical books that are obscure; some few things which the prophets could scarcely understand, and must search diligently what the Spirit in them did signify; but on the whole, a book is expected to be intelligible to its first readers; and the principle of interpretation is incontrovertibly sound. Any interpretation therefore that makes the body of a book unintelligible to those addressed is to be rejected. This principle has its bearing upon the present discussion, and we may say in advance that the book of Revelation had more to do with the age in which it was written than some modern interpreters are willing to allow.
III. The purpose of the book.
The purpose is revealed by the situation. The people addressed were living in the midst of bloody persecution, or immediately facing it in those churches; and the same was true in all the world where the gospel had been preached. The battle for the faith was unto blood. The witness for Jesus was face to face with the executioner's sword. It was a day when confession of Christ spelled martyrdom. Faithful martyrs had already fallen, like Antipas of the church of Pergamos. John was writing them to comfort them in the martyrdoms already suffered, and to gird them for the more fiery trials yet to ensue. This he does in one instance, chapter seven, by showing the redeemed in white robes, with palms in their hands, who had come up out of great tribulation.
Again we hear the prayers of these martyrs in heaven, saying: "How long wilt thou not avenge our blood on those that dwell on the earth?" indicating that these murderers were still living and had not yet been punished.
Again a great dragon is shown persecuting the church, and also the harlot city drunk with the blood of the saints. Here is persecution, bloody and terrible, then being endured, and to be endured in subsequent years. And accompanying these scenes of persecution are striking visions of God's judgments upon the wicked persecutors, and the consequent glorious triumph of Christ's church in all its conflicts.
Thus the purpose grows out of the situation of the church in John's day, and John was writing to meet the situation. John was the general of an army, riding up and down before his massed troops, speaking a last word of encouragement, intended to keep them steady in their baptism of blood. And we will see how appropriate this is when we have settled the date of the writing.
Now the purpose of a book is the key to its interpretation. That is one great principle of correct exegesis. And when passages are otherwise obscure they are to be interpreted in harmony with the general design. This often throws light on an obscurity that is otherwise impenetrable.
Every sensible author writes for a purpose and makes his points bear toward the attainment of his purpose. God does not write enigmas that have no meaning until they are fulfilled. In that case they reveal nothing and are no prophecies at all. Only as they reveal are they prophecies. Revelation is not to make things obscure, but to make them plain. Even in a book so symbolical as The Revelation the object is to make truth known and not to obscure it.
Christ addresses these seven churches. He says, Rev_1:11 , "What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia." And again, Rev_22:16 , "I, Jesus have sent mine angel, or messenger, to testify these things in the churches." That is, the churches addressed. The whole book is therefore addressed to those churches.
Christ further declares in the prologue Rev_1:1 ; Rev_1:3 that the things revealed "must shortly come to pass," and that "the time is at hand." The book has to do, therefore, and is largely concerned, with things nigh at hand to the churches addressed. It is simply impossible to take these words in any other sense and not do violence to the plain sense of the passage.
That most of the book refers to events of a past age does not deprive us of its lessons, nor detract from its value. It still stands on a par with the rest of Scripture, and no higher valuation could it have. Some things do indeed refer to a remote future, as we shall see, but the phrases "shortly come to pass," and "the time is at hand" measure the particular and special preview of the book.
The purpose of the book is further shown in the way God is brought to our vision. He walks amid the seven golden candlesticks; the seven golden candlesticks are the seven churches, he walks in the midst of them; he is in these seven churches, their present living companion; he holds the seven stars in his right hand, and Rev_1:20 tells us that the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches. Each message to these churches closes with a promise "to him that overcometh." All these plain terms, all this careful setting, all this particularizing of the seven churches shows that they are being girded with might and panoplied with power for the baptism of blood that "must shortly come to pass."
The Premillennial interpreters teach that the book was written to show the Premillennial coming of the Lord, with a vista of the ages to the end; that the seven churches are foreviews of seven ages, that chapters four to nineteen describe the judgments upon the wicked world during a so-called period of Tribulation, while the church is in the air. Then follows the Second Coming, the resurrection of the righteous dead, the millennium, etc.
Such a scheme is not in the book of Revelation; it is grafted on from another stock; it is a reading into the book what is not there; we take this position in face of worthy and pious men whom we love and honor, not to antagonize them or their otherwise splendid work, but in the interest of correct interpretation and strict adherence to the text.
The book is a splendid encouragement to a suffering and militant church. One after another of the church's enemies go down in crashing and crushing judgment; God is always vindicated, and his cause triumphant.
Men may say in their pessimism:
"Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne; Evil stands upon the neck of good And rules the world alone."
But this book contradicts all that pessimistic philosophy. It shows the very opposite; that God is always on the throne; that the wicked are always overthrown, and the righteous crowned with triumph and blessed with a beatific destiny.
IV. The date.
The date of the writing is important, not merely as a matter of historical knowledge, but as shedding light on the meaning of the book. Two dates have been assigned; one in the reign of Nero about 65 A. D. and the other in the reign of Domitian about the year 95 A. D.
Some might suppose that because the book appears at the end of the canon, therefore its place is indicative of its late authorship. While some chronological order is observed in the arrangement of the books of the canon, especially in the Old Testament, yet it is no hard and fast rule. The place of the Revelation in the canon is doubtless due to its character as apocalyptical, rather than to any chronological consideration.
The external testimony as to its date is very conflicting. The famous passage in Ireneus may have been the cause of this confusion. Ireneus speaks of something being seen in the reign of Domitian and some think that he referred to John's being seen. The subject of a verb in the third person singular may be either he or it where the subject is unexpressed. Eusebius states that John was banished to Patmos and saw his visions there in the reign of Domitian; but gives as his authority the disputed passage of Ireneus. There are others of the early fathers to the same effect; while others still are indeterminate, and yet others favor the early date. However the superscription of the Syriac translation of the Apocalypse runs thus, "The Revelation which was made by God to John the Evangelist in the island of Patmos to which he was banished by Nero the emperor."
There has been therefore some difference of opinion as to the date. Such an accomplished scholar as Professor B. B. Warfield holds to the late date while Archdeacon Farrar asserts the early date and Professor Philip Schaff says, "The early date is now accepted by perhaps the majority of scholars."
The internal evidences are in our estimation overwhelmingly in favor of the Neronian date. A few of these it is well to call in mind.
(a) The messages to the seven churches disclose the fact that they were being subjected to the propaganda of Judaizing teachers. This indicates a date before Jerusalem had fallen. The Judaizing power had met its doom before the days of Domitian, but its efforts were rife in Nero's day.
(b) In chapter eleven the temple was measured which points to the fact that it was still standing. The holy city is consigned to be trodden under foot by the Gentiles for forty two months. It is a matter of history that the Roman army came and trod down Jerusalem. It may be remarked in passing that forty-two months and its equivalent expressions are not to be understood as 1260 years. There is no truth in the theory that a day in prophecy means a year. That was the view of Wm. Miller who fixed the date of Christ's coming as 1843. Further we are told in chapter eleven that an earthquake caused one tenth of the city to fall. The expression implies that the city was still standing when John wrote. The same chapter predicts the murder of two witnesses in the street of the city where our Lord was crucified. Who those witnesses were we will consider in the proper place but the reference to Jerusalem is unmistakable. These references to Jerusalem, to the temple, and to the altar are natural enough on the view that John was writing before the advent of the Roman armies; but sound very strange if Jerusalem had fallen and the temple and altar were no longer in existence.
(c) In chapter seventeen we have mention of Rome as a great city that ruleth over the kings of the earth and sat on her seven hills. This is just old Rome which by the way exonerates the narrative from being a description of some supposed future "Tribulation." In connection with this city the writer mentions its dynasty of kings: "And there are seven kings, five are fallen, and one is, and the other is yet to come; and when he cometh he must continue for a short space."
Will this fit Nero's age? There is nothing it fits so well as the Caesar dynasty. Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, the five that are fallen; Nero the one that is; and Galba the other that is yet to come and which must continue a short space; the short space being about seven months. How does this verse cited fit the age of Domitian? It finds no historical parallel in Domitian's day. Now if there are only two alternatives and the date must be one or the other, then we have no hesitancy in saying that this text takes definite stand on the side of the Neronian date.
(d) In XIII: 18, the number 666 is given as the number of the beast, which is also "the number of a man." This is easily derived from the familiar form, Neron Caesar, by adding the value of the letters composing the name. The person bearing the number is represented as a persecuting power making war upon the church and whose advances the church was being encouraged to resist.
(e) Furthermore other epistles of the New Testament seem clearly to refer to certain passages in The Revelation. If this is so, then Revelation antedated those epistles; and if their dates are approximately fixed then they limit the time in which Revelation could have been written.
1. Heb_12:22 speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Rev_21:2 shows the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven. The epistle to the Hebrews speaks of "the first born written in heaven." Revelation says, "Written in the book of life." There are several such references.
2. 2Pe_3:10 "The heavens shall pass away."
Did Peter get that from Rev_20:11 where it is said that the earth and the heavens fled away?
3. 2Pe_3:13 "We according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness."
Where did Peter find that promise of new heavens and a new earth? Evidently in Rev_21:1 "I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away."
Then to complete the reference we learn from Rev_21:27 and Rev_22:14 that only the righteous dwell there.
Here then Peter refers to The Revelation, and if, as is generally conceded, Peter perished in the persecution under Nero, the book of the Revelation must have been written prior to Peter's death.
These considerations make it sufficiently clear that the book was written in the Neronian era and that it had special reference to the events of that day. In fact the purpose of the book was primarily to meet the situation that then confronted the church. It would be intelligible to the first readers and they would understand and be prepared for what they were to face, and this we may remark is characteristic of prophecy in general. Prophecy is not all enigma; it is revelation. It is true this is apocalyptical prophecy which adds somewhat to the difficulty of interpretation; but if we observe the great landmarks that have been indicated in reference to Nero, the Roman Empire, Jerusalem and Rome, we will not get lost in the labyrinths of typology.
When one returns to visit the scenes of his childhood after long years of absence, he may be even confused temporarily by the changes. The roads have been altered, the paths obliterated, trees cut down, forests felled, fences removed, and buildings destroyed. He exclaims in bewilderment: Why if I had been dropped from an airplane I would not know where I had landed. But no; there are the hills, the eternal hills; no woodsman's axe has leveled them, no transfigurer of landscapes has changed their configuration; they stand as great landmarks to identify the scene.
So, many features familiar to the first century have vanished from human memory. Idioms have been forgotten; the meaning of peculiar terms; the local colorings that were provincialisms; metaphors that had meaning once but forgotten now; the whole style and form of apocalyptical delineation; is it strange that occidental minds used to such different terms and forms should become mystified and confused? But keeping in mind the great landmarks will enable us to identify the time and place and features of the great scene with its complex details.
The eleventh chapter reveals the city of Jerusalem and the temple still standing; the seventeenth chapter shows Rome in her malignity to the Christian church, while the sequence of both chapters shows the judgment and overthrow of these two great persecuting powers, the first and the second great persecutors of the Christian faith. He who keeps these two great landmarks in his eye will not lose his way in the maze.
Much of The Revelation was future to John and the churches to which he wrote; but much of it is past to us. We must recognize however that The Revelation has some scenes of a final consummation. Its interest is not all local and historical. The local interests are but a part of the universal kingdom.
The gospels were concerned with local events as they set forth the life of Christ in his few brief earthly years, but their significance transcends all such narrow limitations of time and place.
The Revelation deals with much that was local and temporary but its spiritual lessons are for all ages. God's laws are ever the same. He will judge sin, and no nation will escape; not even the United States of America. And no individual will escape. The great judgment is set at the last day when all must appear, small and great, and be judged by the things written in God's books.
The end is consistent with the scope of the whole; the age long conflict between God and Satan; good and evil; the righteous and the wicked; the certain doom of all that is evil; and the certain triumph of all that is holy and good.
the Second Week after Epiphany