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Bible Commentaries

MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Revelation 15

Verses 2-3




The form of this vision is moulded partly by the circumstances of the Seer, and partly by reminiscences of Old Testament history. As to the former, it can scarcely be an accident that the Book of the Revelation abounds with allusions to the sea. We are never far from the music of its waves, which broke around the rocky Patmos where it was written. And the ‘sea of glass mingled with fire’ is but a photograph of what John must have seen on many a still morning, when the sunrise came blushing over the calm surface; or on many an evening when the wind dropped at sundown, and the sunset glow dyed the watery plain with a fading splendor. - Nor is the allusion to Old Testament history less obvious. We cannot but recognize the reproduction, with modifications, of that scene when Moses and his ransomed people looked upon the ocean beneath which their oppressors lay, and lifted up their glad thanksgivings. So here, by anticipation, in the solemn pause before the judgment goes forth, there are represented the spirits that have been made wise by conquest, as gathered on the bank of that steadfast ocean, lifting up as of old a hymn of triumphant thankfulness over destructive judgments, and blending the song of Moses and of the Lamb, in testimony of the unity of spirit which runs through all the manifestations of God’s character from the beginning to the end. Ever His judgments are right; ever the purpose of His most terrible things is that men may know Him, and may love Him; and ever they who see deepest into the mysteries, and understand most truly the realities of the universe will have praise springing to their lips for all that God hath done.

I. Notice the Triumphant Choir.

‘I saw them that had gotten the victory over the beast and over his image, and over the number of his name.’ Now I am not going to plunge into Apocalyptic discussions. It is no part of my business now either to ask or answer the question as to whether this Beast of the Revelation is a person or a tendency. I do not care, for my present purpose, whether, supposing it to be a person, an embodiment of certain tendencies, it is a person in the past or in the future; whether it was a veiled designation of the Emperor Nero, or whether it is a prophecy of some yet unborn human embodiment of transcendent wickedness. The question that I would ask is rather this, - Whoever the beast is, what makes him a beast? And if we will think about that, we may get some good out of it. What is the bestial element in him, whoever he be? And the answer is not far to find - Godless selfishness, that is ‘the mark of the beast.’ Wherever a human nature is self-centered, God-forgetting, and, therefore, God opposing for whoever forgets God defies Him, that nature has gone down below humanit3% and has touched the lower level of the brutes. Men are so made as that they must either rise to the level of God or certainly go down to that of the animal. And wherever you see men living by their own fancies, for their own pleasure, in forgetfulness and neglect of the sweet and mystic bonds that should knit them to God, there you see the image of the beast and the number of his name.’

But besides that godless selfishness, we may point to simple animalism as literally the mark of the beast. He who lives not by conscience and by faith, but by fleshly inclination and sense, lowers himself to the level of the instinctive brute-life, and beneath it, because he refuses to obey faculties which they do not possess, and what is nature in them is degradation in us. Look at the unblushing sensuality which marks many ‘respectable people’ nowadays. Look at the foul fleshliness of much of popular art and poetry. Look at the way in which pure animal passion, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the love of good things to eat, and plenty to drink, is swaying and destroying men and women by the thousand among us. Look at the temptations that lie along every street in our great cities, for every young man, after dusk. Look at the thin veneer of culture over the ugliest lust. Scratch the gentleman, and you find the satyr. Is it much of an exaggeration, in view of the facts of English life to-day, to say that all the world wonders after and worships this beast?

Further, notice that to escape from the power of the beast it is needful to fight one’s way out. The language of my text is remarkably significant. This Apocalyptic writer does not mind about grammar or smoothness so long as he can express his ideas; and he uses a form of speech here that makes the hair of grammatical purists stand on end, because it vigorously expresses his thought. He calls these triumphant choristers ‘conquerors out of the beast,’ which implies that victory over him is an escape from a dominion in which the conquerors, before their victory, were held. They have fought their way, as it were, out of the land of bondage, and, like revolted slaves, have won their liberty, and marched forth triumphant. The allusion to Israel’s exodus is probable. ‘Egypt was glad when they departed.’ So the bondsmen of this new Pharaoh recover freedom by conflict, and the fruit of their victory is entire escape from the tyrant.

That victory is possible. The Apocalypse shows us that there are two opposing Powers - this said ‘beast’ on the one side, and ‘the Lamb’ on the other. In the Seer’s vision these two divide the world between them. That is to say, Jesus Christ has conquered the bestial tendencies of our nature, the selfish godlessness which is apt to cast its spells and weave its chains over us all. The Warrior-Lamb, singular and incongruous as the combination sounds, is the Victor. He conquers because He is the Lamb of sacrifice; He conquers because He is the Lamb of innocence; He conquers because He is the Lamb of meekness, the gentle and, therefore, the all-victorious. By Christ we conquer. Through faith, which lays hold on His power and victory, we too may conquer. ‘This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith.’

Young men and women, may I make my appeal specially to you? Do not let yourselves be led away captives, like cattle to the shambles, by the fascinations and seductions of this poor, fleeting present. Keep your heel on the neck of the animal that is within you; take care of that selfish godlessness into which we all are tempted to fall. Listen to the trumpet-call that ought to stir your hearts, and summons you to freedom and to victory through the blood of the Lamb. And by humbly clasping Him as your Sacrifice, your Leader, and your Power, enroll yourselves amongst those who, in His own good time, shall come victorious out from the beast and from his image.

II. Still further, notice the position of this victorious chorus.

‘I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire; and they stand on the sea of glass.’ Of course the propriety of the image, as well as the force of the original language, suggests at once that by ‘on the sea of glass’ here, we must understand, on the firm bank by its side. As Moses and the ransomed hosts stood on the shore of the Red Sea, so these conquerors are represented as standing on the safe beach, and looking out upon this sea of glass mingled with fire, which, calm, crystal, clear, stable, and yet shot through and through with the red lines of retributive judgment, sleeps above the buried oppressors.

Observe that besides its picturesque appropriateness and its historical allusion, this sea of glass has a distinct symbolical meaning. "We find it appearing also in the great vision in the fourth chapter, where the Seer beholds the normal and ideal order of the universe, which is - the central throne, the ‘Lamb that was slain’ in the interspace between the Throne and the creatures as mediator; and round about, the four living beings, who represent the fullness of creation, and the four and-twenty elders, who represent the Church in the Old and the New Covenants as one whole. Then follows, ‘before the Throne was a sea of glass,’ which cannot be any part of the material creation, and seems to have but one explanation, and that is that it means the aggregate of the Divine dealings. ‘Thy judgments are a mighty deep.’ Oh! the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God; how unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out.’ Such a signification fits precisely our present passage, for the sea here represents that beneath which the tyrant lies buried for evermore.

That great ocean of the judgment of God is crystalline-clear though deep. Does it seem so to us? Ah I we stand before the mystery of God’s dealings, often bewildered, and not seldom reluctant to submit. The perplexity arising from their obscurity is often almost torture, and sometimes leads men into Atheism, or something like it. And yet here is the assurance that that sea is crystal clear, and that if we cannot look to its lowest depths, that is not because there is any mud or foulness there, but partly because the light from above fails before it reaches the abysses, and partly because our eyes are uneducated to search its depths. In itself it is transparent, and it rises and falls without mire or dirt,’ like the blue Mediterranean on the marble cliffs of the Italian coast. If it is clear as far as the eye can see, let us trust that beyond the reach of the eye the clearness is the same.

And it is a crystal ocean as being calm. They who stand there have gotten the victory and bear the image of the Master. By reason of their conquest and by reason of their sympathy with Him they see that what to us, tossing upon its surface, appears such a troubled and tempestuous ocean, as calm and still. As from some height, looked down upon, the ocean seems a watery plain, and all the agitation of the billows has subsided into a gentle ripple on the surface, so to them looking down upon the sea that brought them thither, it is quiet - and their vision, not ours, is the true one.

It is a ‘sea of glass mingled with fire.’ Divine acts of retribution as it were flash through it, if I may so say, like those streaks of red that are seen in Venice glass, or like some ocean smitten upon the one side of every wave by a fiery sunlight, while the other side of each is dark. So through that great depth of God’s dealings there flashes the fire of retribution. They who have conquered the animal, the godless self, see into the meaning and the mercifulness of God’s dealings with the world; and we here, in the measure in which we have become victors over the rude animalism and the more subtle selfishness that tend to rule us all, and in the measure in which we bear the image of Jesus Christ, and therefore have come into sympathy with Him, may come to discern with some clearer understanding, and to trust with more unfaltering faith, the righteousness and the mercy of all that God shall do.

III. Lastly, notice the occasion of the song, and the song itself.

‘They sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb.’ The Song of Moses was a song of triumph over destructive judgment; the Song of the Lamb, says the text, is set on the same key. The one broad, general lesson to be drawn from this, is one on which I have no time to touch, viz., the essential unity, in spite of all superficial diversities, of the revelation of God in the Old Covenant by law and miracle and retributive acts, and the revelation of God in the New Covenant by the Cross and Passion of Jesus Christ. Men pit the Old Testament against the New; the God of the Old Testament against the God of the New. They sometimes tell us that there is antagonism. Modern teachers are wanting us to deny that the Old is the foreshadowing of the New, and the New the fulfilment of the Old. My text asserts, in opposition to all such errors, the fruitful principle of the fundamental unity of the two; and bids us find in the one the blossom and in the other the fruit, and declares that the God who brought the waters of the ocean over the oppressors is the God that has mercy upon all, in Jesus Christ, His dying Son.

And there is another principle here, upon which I need not do more than touch, for I have already anticipated much that might have been said about it, and that is the perfect harmony of the retributive acts of God’s destructive dealings in this world, and the highest conception of His love and mercy which the gospel brings us. ‘When the wicked perish,’ says one of the old proverbs, ‘there is shouting.’ And so there ought to be. When some hoary oppression that has been deceiving mankind for centuries, with its instruments and accomplices, is swept off the face of the earth, the more men have entered into the meaning of Jesus Christ’s mission and work, and the more they feel the pitying indignation which they ought to feel at seeing men led away by evil, and made miserable by oppression, the more they will rejoice. God’s dealings are meant to manifest His character and that in order that all men may know and love Him. We may, therefore, be sure, and keep firm hold of the confidence, that whatever He doeth, however the methods may seem to vary, comes from one unalterable and fixed motive, and leads to one unalterable and certain end. The motive is His own love; the end the glory of His Name, in the love and knowledge of men whose life and blessedness depend on their knowing and loving Him.

So, dear friends, do not let us be too swift in saying that this, that, and the other thing are inconsistent with the highest conceptions of the Divine character. I believe, as heartily as any man can believe, that God has put His witness in our consciences and minds, and that all His dealings will comply with any test that man’s reason and man’s conscience and man’s heart can subject them to. Only we have not got all the materials; we look at half -finished work; our eyes are not quite so educated as that we can pronounce infallibly, on seeing a small segment of a circle, what are its diameter and its sweep.

I am always suspicious of that rough-and-ready way of settling questions about God’s revelation, when a man says: I cannot accept this or that because it contradicts my conception of the Divine nature.’ Unless you are quite sure that your conceptions are infallibly accurate, unless you deny the possibility of their being educated, you must admit that agreement with them is but a leaden rule. And it seems to me a good deal wiser, and more accordant with the modesty which becomes us, to be cautious in pronouncing what does or does not befit God to do, and, until we reach that loftier point of vision, where being higher up we can see deeper down, to say ‘the Judge of all the earth must do right. If He does this, then it is right.’ At any rate let us lay hold of the plain truth: ‘O Lord! Thou preservest man and beast,’ and then we may venture to say, ‘Thy judgments are a mighty deep,’ and beneath that deepest depth, as the roots of the hills beneath the ocean, is God’s righteousness, which is like the great mountains.

The last thought that I would suggest is that, according to the teaching of my text, we may take that old, old story of the ransomed slaves and the baffled oppressor and the Divine intervention and the overwhelming ocean, as prophecy full of radiant hope for the world. That is how it is used here. Pharaoh is the beast, the Red Sea is this ‘sea of glass mingled with fire,’ the ransomed Israelites are those who have conquered their way out of the dominion of the beast, and the song of Moses and of the Lamb is a song parallel to the cadences of the ancient triumphant chorus, and celebrating the annihilation of that power which drew the world away from God. So we may believe that as Israel stood on the sands, and saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore, humanity will one day, delivered from all its bestiality and its selfishness, lift up a song of thanksgiving to the conquering King who has drowned its enemies in the depths of His own righteous judgments.

And as for the world, so for individuals. If you take the Beast for your Pharaoh and your task-master, you will ‘sink’ with him ‘like lead in the mighty waters.’ If you take the Lamb for your sacrifice and your King, He will break the bonds from off your arms, and lift the yoke from your neck, and lead you all your lives long; and you will stand at last, when the eternal morning breaks, and see its dawn touch with golden light the calm ocean, beneath which your oppressors lie buried for ever, and will lift up glad thanksgivings to Him who has washed you from your sins in His own blood, and made you victors over ‘the beast, and his image, and the number of his name.’

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Bibliographical Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Revelation 15". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture.