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This whole chapter seems to be an episode, thrown in between the opening of the sixth and the seventh seal.
Revelation 7:1 . And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth. East, west, north, and south of the whole Roman world. These angels are variously understood. Dr. Hammond confines the vision chiefly to the affairs of the jews, which does not apparently synchronize with the subsequent events on the church and the world. Storms of wind in prophetic language denote national calamities. When Jeremiah was thundering against the nations, the Lord said, “Upon Elam will I bring the four winds from the four quarters of heaven, and will scatter them.” Jeremiah 49:36. This suspension does not appear to be longer than to allow the sealing of the saints with the name of God in their foreheads.
The general opinion of enlightened men is, that those four angels are ministers of the divine visitations on the whole of the old Roman world, and that the holding back of their arm was a period of the longsuffering of God, to give men time for repentance. Then the Goths, the Vans, the Huns, the whole swarm of the northern hive, overran Italy, Gaul, and Spain, marking their career with destruction in every form.
Of this tremendous irruption on Italy and Rome our Saxon chronicle, of unimpeached accuracy, speaks thus. Anno 435. Her Gotan abroecon Rome burh, ande nefre syththan Romane ne ricsodan on Brytene: Thaet waes embe xi hund wintra ande x wintra thaet the heo getimbred was: Ealles, hi rixodon on Brytene feower hund wintra ande seouanti wintra, syththan Gaius Julius that lond aerost ge-sohte. “This year, 435, the Goths plundered the city of Rome, and never since have the Romans reigned in Britain. This was about eleven hundred winters, and ten winters after that she was ge-timbered: [our first towns and first churches were built of wood.] In all, they reigned in Britain four hundred winters, and seventy winters, since Julius Cæsar first sought this land.” The dark ages then followed on the church.
Revelation 7:2-3 . I saw another angel ascending from the east saying, hurt not the earth till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. Proofs indubitable that they were so sealed; for when the Goths stormed Rome, the christians fled to their churches, and awaited the events in prayer. Their lives were spared, and more than spared, for the christians presently found that one part of the invading army were brothers, whose fathers, about the year 350, had been converted to the christian faith by Ulphilas, missionary among the Goths, and translator of the four gospels, and the codex argenteus of the Swedes.
Revelation 7:4-8 . I heard the number of them that were sealed one hundred and forty four thousand. The number of the twelve tribes is assumed here to indicate perfection, and to do honour to the church of the firstborn, who had the promises in Abraham. But most assuredly the twelve tribes are names merely assumed, for Judah has but twelve thousand, from whom the great body of the jews now claim descent. The smaller tribes had no such numbers. Besides, as Manasseh and Joseph are named here, Dan is of necessity omitted, else the tribes had been thirteen. Dan was the first in idolatry, therefore his name is here blotted from the book of remembrance. In this catalogue, Judah stands first as the regal tribe; and Joseph is substituted for Ephraim. By consequence, this vision has nothing to do with the jews, beyond that of farther honouring the first that believed, as the mother church of the gentile hosts; the children of the promise being, according to Paul, accounted for the seed.
Revelation 7:9 . A great multitude, as St. Paul called the converted gentiles in his day; for the willing hosts of the nations are numerous as the drops of morning dew.
Revelation 7:10-12 . Cried with a loud voice, in a sevenfold song of glory to God, as illustrated on Revelation 5:12.
Revelation 7:14 . These are they which came out of great tribulation, and particularly during the ten years of sore persecution under Dioclesian, when they suffered death in every form of tortures, and exile.
Revelation 7:15 . He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them, as he once dwelt in the tabernacle, and dwelt in our flesh, John 1:14, for the Greek word in all those places is the same. The men expatriated and despised on earth, are gathered home to the temple of glory in heaven.
Revelation 7:17 . He shall lead them to living fountains of water. This figure is more expressive to those who live adjacent to sandy deserts, where fountains of water are rare.
Having followed the counsel of heaven in the six seals, we are now called to review the interior care of God over the church. This care is conspicuous in every age. Before he suffered the Chaldeans to take Jerusalem, he set a mark on those that sighed for the wickedness of the place. And now before he sent forth the long menaced vengeance on the nations of Europe, he gave the four ministers of his fury a divine charge to suspend their commission till he had sealed the servants of God in their forehead. The angel sent to destroy Sodom could do nothing till Lot had reached his Zoar.
The next grand scene is the gentile church, which far surpassed the converted circumcision in numbers. Of these the prophet had said, Sing, oh barren, that bearest not, for the desolate woman hath many more children than she which hath a husband. Isaiah 54:1. And all heaven, seeing prophecy accomplished, sing also, ascribing salvation to God and the Lamb, in coëqual praise. Let us trace the characters of the gentile church during the three first centuries.
They were pure and holy: they washed their robes from pagan idolatry, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. This is the blood of atonement and propitiation, which cleanseth from all sin. It can wash away the sins of the house of David, and of Jerusalem. It can wash the heart from wickedness. When we look on him who was humble, and meek, and forgiving; our pride and anger, and revenge all die away.
They were also a very pious people. Like Anna, they were daily in the house of God; and they sighed for religious worship when the houses of devotion could not be opened. Hence it is said, they shall serve God day and night in his temple. The rewards of glory shall correspond with the wishes of the heart.
They were a persecuted people. The philosophers laughed at their hope, and the priests hated them through interest and pride. The populace, till they knew better, were furious against them, because by their holy example they condemned the world. Yes, and if we are faithful as we ought to be, we shall disturb the carnal world, and excite its hatred, or effect its conversion.
They were poor and afflicted. Hunger, thirst, and heat imply their poverty, greatly augmented by persecution; and that they had to work in the middle of the day under a vertical sun, while the wicked could enjoy their sofa and the shade. No matter; they suffered less from hunger than the wicked from intemperance. They had a pure conscience, a grateful soul, and balmy sleep refreshed their weary limbs.
The gentile church was a weeping people. They bedewed with tears a country stained with crimes. They grieved to see grace despised, demons adored, and the name of God blasphemed. They often wept to see so many precious souls, and many of them their dearest relatives, lie secure, and wanton in the miseries of crime. But oh, what treasures of blessedness had heaven in store for the faithful seed!
Those sun-burnt faces, smiling with the graces of innocence, which the wicked strive in vain to affect, were shortly to shine as the angels of God. Those well clouted coats were about to give place to the priestly stole, and to the princely costume of heaven. Those tears, already crystalized with joy, were about to be wiped away with the sunshine of eternal day, and all this oppression to be superseded by the palm of triumph and joy in the presence of God and the Lamb.
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Revelation 7". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20